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Cracking the code: Understanding marketing attribution models for improved ROI

Last Updated 
Posted on
April 4, 2024
Tucker Delaney-Winn

Marketing is all about getting your product or service in front of your target audience to drive more sales and, ultimately, make more money. Unfortunately, marketing budgets are not unlimited, which means you have to make some tough choices about how to market your brand. 

That’s where marketing attribution comes in. Marketing attribution can help you better understand where your marketing is working (and where it’s not) by connecting the dots between a sale or conversion and all the marketing touch points that the buyer engaged with along the way. This enables you to optimize your spending and make your budget stretch even further. 

Ready? Let’s dive in. 

Digging deeper into marketing attribution

To understand marketing attribution, you first need to understand the idea behind data-driven marketing. Let’s start there.

What is data-driven marketing?

Data-driven marketing is exactly what it sounds like—using data and analytics to make marketing decisions. This takes the guesswork out of marketing. For example, instead of assuming that your audience is primarily women in their 30s, you can look at demographic data and verify that this is the case (or not). 

Data supercharges your marketing. It can save a significant amount of time and money because it enables you to craft better, more efficient marketing experiments, and it can drive ROI through the roof because you can target your marketing materials more effectively. 

Of course, nothing is perfect, and data-driven marketing has its challenges. The main issue for many is setting up the proper tools to collect the right data in the first place, followed closely by accurate interpretation. You also should be aware of data compliance laws and regulations, such as GDPR and CCPA, to protect your audience’s privacy and keep your data secure. 

Types of marketing attribution models

One way to make data-backed marketing decisions is to get started with marketing attribution. Several attribution models can be used depending on your specific needs and goals.

  • First-touch attribution modeling: This model gives all the credit to the first touchpoint that the customer interacted with. This is useful if you’re focusing on brand awareness or lead generation, since the emphasis is on the top of the funnel.
  • Last-touch attribution modeling: This model lives on the opposite end of the funnel from first-touch—it gives all the credit to the last touchpoint before conversion. This is a useful model if you find you have tons of traffic but poor conversion rates, since it emphasizes the final touchpoint prior to conversion. 
  • Multi-touch attribution modeling: Multi-touch attribution takes into account every single touchpoint a customer interacts with as they go through your funnel. It’s powerful because it can show which channels have the most influence on the buyer’s journey. The disadvantage is that it can be complex—you really want a good set of tools for this type of analysis.

Within multi-touch attribution, there are several different models:

  • Linear attribution modeling: This type of multi-touch modeling gives equal credit to all of the touchpoints along the customer’s journey.
  • Time-decay attribution modeling: This type of multi-touch modeling gives more weight to touchpoints closer to the time of conversion.
  • U-shaped attribution modeling: Otherwise known as position-based modeling, this model emphasizes the first and last touchpoints.
  • W-shaped attribution modeling: The W-shaped model emphasizes the first, middle, and last touchpoints, with equal credit given to the rest. 

Choosing one of these models comes down to your specific business needs. You’ll want to consider the typical journey that your customers take to arrive at a purchase decision. Consider the following questions:

  • How long is your typical sales cycle?
  • How do customers learn about your company? 
  • Where, and why, do customers tend to drop off? Is there a certain part of the funnel that seems to lose the most potential customers?
  • If any of these customers return, what’s the reason?
  • What tends to be the driving factor behind potential customers deciding to buy?

How to set up marketing attribution: Integrate all your marketing channels with your CRM

Once you’ve researched attribution models, the first and most important step to setting up marketing attribution is to integrate all your marketing channels with your CRM. Your CRM is your command center for constructing marketing attribution and for running data-driven marketing in general.

By integrating your CRM, you’ll be able to connect final sales data with earlier marketing engagements further up the funnel. That type of data is exactly what you need to identify what marketing efforts are making the most difference to your marketing and sales funnel.

Reminder: Your CRM is where you need to make sure you are integrating marketing and sales channels, especially if you use different platforms, like HubSpot for marketing and Salesforce for sales. Without that integration in place, you won’t be able to truly tell the story of how marketing is influencing sales and revenue.

Once you’re all set up, you can then focus on tactics for tracking marketing data and funneling the information into your new BFF, your CRM.

UTMs and social media attribution

UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module. UTMs are the long strings of text you often see at the end of URLs. They provide analytics tools like Google Analytics details about the link—where it was published, whether it came from an ad or an organic source, and sometimes even who posted it. UTMs are often used to add additional details to attribution data from sources like social media and referral links.

UTMs can be quite detailed, with several parameters available:

  • Source: This parameter indicates where traffic comes from. For social, this will usually be Facebook, Instagram, or another social network.
  • Medium: The medium tag indicates how traffic is getting to you. For example, “social,” “email,” or “blog.” Using “social” for all your social media UTMs lets you easily compare traffic from each platform while still seeing the big picture.
  • Campaign: This tag can indicate the marketing campaign your link is tied to. This could be a product launch, a promotion, a set of ads tied to a particular persona, or anything else that helps you analyze your data.
  • Content: The content tag tells you which image, link, or other piece of content is being used. This is especially necessary if you are running multiple ads and/or any A/B tests to help distinguish and understand which ad sets and creatives are driving conversions

UTM parameters are highly flexible — each can be defined however you like, so it’s easy to tailor your UTMs to fit your needs. However, it is critical to set up a UTM structure from the start so that you're consistent with the way your team sets up UTMs. Otherwise, you won't be able to track performance properly. Using UTMs wisely can give you an excellent breakdown of traffic and help you dial in which channels are funneling the most users to you. 

There are many UTM generators available, including Google’s URL builder. Additionally, many link shorteners (such as Bitly and Buffer) can automatically apply UTMs when creating your shortened links, which is extra convenient. 

Understanding the hidden goldmine of “dark social”

“Dark social” is a scary-sounding term, but it refers to shares and mentions of your brand or content on private channels. Examples of dark social sources include private messages in email and messaging apps and word-of-mouth referrals. They’re called “dark” because they can’t easily be tracked via typical means.

Dark social presents a bit of a conundrum for marketers. On the one hand, the personal nature of these sources means they’re powerful—referrals from trusted sources are considered quality leads that may be more likely to convert. On the other hand, the difficulty in tracking makes it harder to narrow down sources and ultimately optimize your marketing efforts.

It’s impossible to completely identify your dark social sources — there will always be some things that can’t be tracked, such as text messages and word-of-mouth referrals. However, there are some things you can do to alleviate the issue. 

Your main tools to combat dark social are UTMs, referral links, and link shorteners. These let you track data around links even if they’re posted in private. As we explored above, it’s a good idea to use these anyway, so you should be in a decent spot right out of the gate. 

Your other main weapon against dark social is a social listening strategy. Social listening tools like SparkToro or Hootsuite can monitor social platforms for brand mentions. These tools are especially great for monitoring exchanges on forum sites like Reddit. You'll never get a complete picture of all the traffic coming from dark social channels, but tools like these can get you incredible insights that would otherwise go unknown.

Lastly, don’t be scared to ask. On your forms, include a field option asking people how they heard about you. Sometimes they’ll point to more than one source, which gives you additional insight into your overall buyer journey.

How Aimtal provided a SaaS company with new pathways to marketing success

Recently, Aimtal helped a B2B SaaS company crack the code on identifying key touchpoints in their buyer journey by putting marketing attribution into action.

The first step was analyzing recent closed-won deals and identifying the primary marketing channels that key contacts in those deals engaged with. Through this analysis, we sought to answer questions such as, “Where did they engage?” and “What did their customer journey look like and what does it tell us?”

From there, Aimtal built out detailed marketing attribution reports showing how prospects engaged with marketing throughout the year. The purpose was to show what types of content and channels prospects engaged with most,  providing a broader context for how they were nurtured by marketing leading up to and during the sales process. These reports were then shared with the C-Suite to help explain how marketing was driving ROI and to help inform future marketing activities based on what was most effective.

Secondly, Aimtal built out a predictive analytics dashboard in HubSpot to help drive future sales. The dashboard used the data from the marketing attribution report to predict which contacts were most likely to convert.. 

With this information, we could identify the best contacts for marketing and sales to pursue. Sales development representatives (SDRs) at the company gained key information about the most engaged prospects, including what marketing messages and activities resonated the most. With that information, SDRs could reach out to engaged contacts and personalize their message. Because these contacts were already highly engaged, sales reps would have a better chance of connecting with them. Meanwhile, the marketing team could help sales and other parts of the business understand which activities were bringing in prospects, engaging them, and ultimately nurturing them down the funnel.

Building the marketing attribution report and dashboard gave visibility into what marketing efforts were working and key stages of the buyer journey — it was the power of marketing attribution at work.

Building your marketing attribution models: crafting a reporting dashboard

There are a number of tools you can use to build out your marketing attribution models and craft a reporting dashboard. The dashboard will give you a bird’s eye view of your data, including most engaged contacts and companies, enabling you to make quick decisions about your marketing. 

The next step in designing your dashboard is choosing the right tools that work for your needs.

Recommended marketing attribution tools

The right marketing attribution tools make all the difference. This can be a complex field, so you want something that will let you get started relatively simply, and then grow along with your business and needs. 


HubSpot is an extremely powerful marketing tool. It doesn’t just do attribution—it’ll also handle CRM duties, email marketing, customer service, content management, and more. If it’s involved in marketing at all, there’s a very good chance HubSpot can do it. That said, it's a fairly modular system, so you only need to pay for the services you’ll actually use.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics will analyze your web traffic and can handle attribution well. There’s a decent chance you’re already using Google Analytics to track website traffic. Now, take the next step and explore its attribution tools.

Adobe Analytics

Adobe Analytics comes from the makers of the famous creative software suite. This might not be the first name that comes to mind for marketing analytics, but it’s an award-winning platform. It offers powerful analytics and insights, including marketing attribution. The tool uses AI and machine learning algorithms to provide predictive analysis of your data and help you make better decisions.

These native tools are a great jumping-off point for building out attribution models and parsing out your data. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with how they work, you can uplevel your marketing data literacy by building a powerful, integrated dashboard with tools like Databox, Looker Studio, or Supermetrics. But that’s for our 102 lesson.

Regardless of which tool you choose, data-driven marketing is a powerful way to drive ROI for your marketing campaigns. By knowing where traffic is coming from and the major conversion points in your funnel, you can better understand your audience and focus your marketing efforts and budget—ultimately improving your bottom line.

And that’s the power of marketing attribution: It puts it all together, connecting the dots to understand the big picture of how prospects are engaging with your marketing along the buyer journey.

Of course, analyzing marketing attribution doesn’t do much good if you don’t have any traffic to analyze. We can help with that—check out our free B2B demand generation guide to learn how to drive leads and grow your business.

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