Multi-touch attribution — what it is, and how to do it well

Multi-touch attribution hero image

It used to be easy to track your customer’s journey because they might have come to your store after seeing your ad on TV or in the newspaper. But all that’s changed. Now, customer journeys can last weeks or even months and happen over multiple channels and touchpoints. A customer may have seen an ad on social media, Googled the product a week later, clicked through a sponsored post on a third channel another day, and then searched your brand’s name when they were ready to buy.

It’s hard to say which touchpoint was most responsible for a conversion when there are so many. And if you’re in the dark about which channels are most influential, choosing marketing strategies to focus on and optimize can be difficult.

That’s where multi-touch attribution comes in. This definitive guide will explain:

What is multi-touch attribution?

Multi-touch attribution is a strategy for evaluating the effectiveness of your marketing touchpoints and giving credit to the most valuable in the buyer journey. You can figure out how influential each part of the customer journey is so you can focus on the most important ones.

Multi-touch attribution helps make sense of this data by demonstrating how much influence each touchpoint had on the final sale. Armed with this data, brands can get a clear picture of the entire customer journey — the effective and the less effective touchpoints. And they can use the data to make sure they’re providing the best customer experience at every step.
Multi-touch attribution ensures companies have the data they need to make decisions about where to focus their marketing. This means marketing budgets are spent on the most effective touchpoints, which helps to increase ROI.

Why is multi-touch attribution important?

Customers will often interact with brands on several channels before buying. To increase conversions, brands need to know what part (or parts) of the customer journey most influenced the decision to buy. Marketing platforms collect huge amounts of data from a range of touchpoints — but without a framework for analyzing that data, it can be difficult to get actionable insights.

This kind of detailed buyer journey data also means companies can develop big-picture strategies that target the right people with the right kind of content at every stage of the customer journey.

The difference between multi-touch attribution and single-touch attribution

Multi-touch attribution stitches together a full picture of the customer journey. By contrast, single-touch attribution models focus on one specific step of the journey and attribute each sale or deal to that one stage.

Single-touch attribution models don’t provide the kind of nuanced insights that multi-touch attribution models do, but they have their strengths. Single-touch models are often easier to implement, and they can be helpful for examining your top-of-funnel and bottom-of-funnel strategies.

The two most common types of single-touch attribution are first-touch and last-touch attribution.

First-touch attribution

First-touch attribution prioritizes the first touchpoint in the customer journey. This data is useful when evaluating top-of-the-funnel marketing. Companies can see which touchpoints are attracting new customers and design effective strategies to build awareness.

But there are some drawbacks to this approach compared to multi-touch attribution. Modern customer journeys are long and complex, spread over long periods and a lot of interactions. The data provided by first-touch attribution has limited uses because it is so focused on the start of the journey. It’s difficult to determine the value of a touchpoint so far away from the final sale.

There could be several further interactions between the start of the journey and the conversion.

For example, let’s say a customer is researching an overseas trip and they come across a blog post on your travel site. A couple of days after visiting your site, they see a targeted ad on Facebook and engage with the page. The following week, they visit your website again, look around at a few destinations, and follow on-page cues to make an account and shortlist some places to visit. Finally, they get an email offering a discount to one of their shortlisted destinations and book a trip.

First-touch attribution gives credit for the sale to the blog post at step one, even though it was the second site visit that engaged the customer and the email offer that closed the deal. Your marketing team gets the impression that blog content is what’s causing the conversions, so they pour more resources into it without having a full picture of what’s really happening.

Last-touch attribution

Last-touch attribution switches focus to the bottom of the funnel. Here, the end of the journey gets the credit for a conversion. This method makes tracking the journey easy because your only concern is the last touchpoint — not the entire customer journey.

Fans of last-touch attribution say it gives accurate information about what makes customers convert because it’s so close to the final sale. In theory, this makes sense. In practice, last-touch attribution can lead to some incorrect assumptions.

For example, there’s no way to prove that the final touchpoint is what caused the conversion. Maybe it was an ad or blog post a step or two before the last touch that was the most persuasive, and the last touchpoint was just a timely reminder for the customer to take action. Multi-touch attribution considers every step, but with last-touch attribution there’s the risk that brands will focus too much on the bottom of the funnel.

Let’s go back to the travel brand example. Last-touch attribution gives credit for the conversion to the promotional email. Your team then works from the assumption that email marketing is the most influential and may over-focus on email tactics.

First-touch and last-touch attribution data can be useful as single-touch models, even though they don’t give a full picture of the customer journey. But for brands who want to know what’s going on in more detail, multi-touch attribution is more effective.

Types of multi-touch attribution models

So far, we’ve talked about multi-touch attribution as one idea, but it isn’t so simple. There are several types of multi-touch attribution, and each one gives different proportions of credit to different parts of the journey. Here’s the breakdown.

Linear multi-touch attribution model

Linear multi-touch attribution gives equal credit to every step of the customer journey. This provides a broader picture of the customer experience and buying journey than the previous two methods, and it’s great for brands who are new to multi-touch attribution.

Linear multi-touch attribution model

Linear multi-touch attribution has a serious flaw, though. It doesn’t show which touchpoints were most influential in the conversion. That means brands can’t get the insights they need when deciding which marketing channels to focus on.

Let’s dive into our travel brand example again. From researching an overseas trip to booking tickets was a four-step journey — the blog post, Facebook ad, website visit, and email. With linear multi-touch attribution, each of these four steps gets 25% of the credit for the conversion. There’s no analysis or insights about which was the most valuable since they’re all equally weighted. No doubt this is great data for refining your customer journey model, but it doesn’t give any valuable insights to your marketing team like helping them identify areas to increase effort or spend.

Time decay multi-touch attribution model

Time decay multi-touch attribution gives the touchpoints closer to the final sale more credit. It’s a more comprehensive version of last-touch attribution. This model assumes interactions closer to the final sale have more influence on the customer. This makes sense to a lot of people who assume that if earlier journey stages were so effective, customers would’ve converted sooner.

Time decay multi-touch attribution model

In our example, the promotional email from your travel site would get the lion's share of the credit, while the blog post that made the customer aware of your brand would only get 5%. Similar to last-touch attribution, the marketing team would probably spend more resources on promotional emails because they have more direct influence on conversions. But without the awareness-raising first touchpoint or the on-page engagement of the second site visit, the customer would never have gotten to the conversion stage of the journey.

U-shaped multi-touch attribution model

U-shaped multi-touch attribution gives more credit to the first and last stages of the customer journey. This model is sometimes called the “bathtub model” because it is shaped like the cross-section of a bathtub — with steep sides and a flat bottom. Unlike the time decay model, U-shaped attribution understands the importance of the first touchpoint for bringing in customers. The U-shaped multi-touch model lets your team see how effective their top and bottom-of-funnel marketing is. In this model, the first and last steps are each given 40% weight.

U-shaped multi-touch attribution model

This model avoids the issue of using too many resources on the top or bottom of the funnel as both sides are equally valued. But there is no analysis of the middle touchpoints, so companies may be missing important insights.

Let’s go back to our travel site example once again. Here, we can see the model values the blog post that first attracted the customer and the promotional email that closed the sale equally. We’re starting to see more of a whole picture of the customer journey and the effectiveness of touchpoints. But there’s still a risk of undervaluing the middle — and the interactions that guide the customers to the final sale.

W-shaped multi-touch attribution model

W-shaped attribution creates a more complete picture of your touchpoints’ effectiveness. This model focuses on the first, middle, and last part of the customer journey. Or in more technical terms — first touch, lead creation, and final touch.

Lead creation is the point when someone becomes serious about buying your product. A good example of this is when someone signs up for a mailing list or makes an account on your website.

W-shaped attribution works well for companies that have a more complicated customer journey and clear and easily identified lead creation points. But this might not be the most suitable model for brands that find it hard to identify the middle of the journey.

Let’s check in with our travel brand example again. A W-shaped attribution model gives credit for the conversion to the blog post, the second site visit and the on-page features that drove the user to create an account, and the promotional email. Your marketing team now has the insights to focus on these three touchpoints to increase conversions — giving them a more well-rounded marketing strategy.

Full path multi-touch attribution model

Full path attribution is more complicated than the other models. It gives equal weight (22.5%) to four touchpoints — first touch, lead creation, opportunity creation, and customer close touch.

Full path multi-touch attribution model

Opportunity creation is when a customer becomes ready to buy. An example of this is when they visit a store. Customer close touch is the final conversion. This often involves a salesperson in-store or over the phone.

This complicated model is for customer journeys that involve a high amount of customer consideration or need a lot of work from the sales team.

For this model, we need to change our travel brand example a bit. Instead of an individual traveler, the customer is organizing a company trip. The buyer journey starts in the same way with the customer researching the trip online. They read a blog post on a travel site that specializes in group business trips — this is the first touch. During further online research, they see a targeted ad that they like. Later, they visit the website again and fill out a form to request more details — this is the lead creation. After receiving some promotional materials, they decide to call — this is the opportunity creation. During the call, a salesperson helps them plan a suitable trip — this is the customer close touch.

Custom multi-touch attribution model

Custom multi-touch attribution is a customizable model that you can design to fit your needs. It’s simply an attribution model that lists whichever touchpoints are important and assigns value to each one based on your insights. It’s best for companies who have complex buyer journeys and know which touchpoints are most important. If none of the other models fit your needs, you can use custom attribution to build your own.

Custom attribution models come with their own issues. They can take time because comprehensive experimentation is needed to figure out how to structure them.

Choosing the right attribution model for your company depends on your business philosophy and what insights you want from the data. After figuring this out, the next step is implementation.

How to implement multi-touch attribution

Choosing which model is best for your needs is only part of the puzzle. Implementation is next — and it can be a challenge because the modern customer journey is more complicated than ever before. According to Google, the days of a linear path from discovery to consideration to purchase are behind us. And it’s only going to get more complicated as buyer journeys keep evolving.

Here’s how to get started with multi-touch attribution so your company doesn't get left behind by these changes.

Set goals and identify touchpoints

Well-defined goals are one of the keys to successful implementation of multi-touch attribution. It sounds obvious, but if you don’t know what you need to track, you can’t choose the best model to implement.

There’s no single solution for this. The touchpoints you need to track depend on your marketing campaigns and your company’s needs. Some examples of common buyer journey points are paid and organic search, emails, and social media posts.

Collect data

When you’ve decided what to track, it’s time to start collecting data. There are two ways to do this.

Analytics software or integrations

For companies without internal technological expertise, analytics software or integrations are a better option. These are much simpler methods of collecting data. If you already use a customer relationship management tool, you can collect data about your customers with ease. Some marketing platforms have built-in attribution features.

JavaScript and on-page code

A JavaScript tracking code added to your website is one way to collect the data for multi-touch attribution. That code can track users’ movements on your site to help you understand this part of the customer journey. Applying JavaScript to a webpage can help you track which pages customers are viewing, what they’re clicking on, and where they’re coming from.

Most analytics software use a JavaScript snippet, but some companies opt to use custom coding without integrating other software. This method offers a lot of control but also requires coding expertise to set it up.

Analyze and apply insights

This is where we get to the main point of attribution — using your customer journey data to benefit your business. After collecting and analyzing the data, you’re ready to identify your most effective touchpoints. Now you know where your customer acquisition is working well and where to spend your marketing budget going forward.

Attribution isn’t a one-time exercise. Keep experimenting and refining your attribution model to understand your customer journey and gain accurate insights. Treat attribution like an ongoing process, and your company can optimize its marketing efforts to focus on the influential channels that lead conversions.

Challenges of multi-touch attribution

The data you collect through multi-touch attribution can improve marketing ROI for your business — but it’s not perfect. Multi-touch attribution has its limits, and those limits can become challenging for marketers heavily invested in multi-touch models.

Limited offline metrics

Multi-touch attribution is for digital marketing campaigns. It can’t track most offline touchpoints such as print ads, billboards, or TV commercials. Without the ability to capture and incorporate these offline interactions, the attribution model might not fully account for the impact of certain touchpoints on a customer’s decision-making process. This limitation can lead to skewed attribution results, potentially undervaluing or overlooking crucial touchpoints. As a result, marketers might not be able to optimize their campaigns as effectively, since they wouldn’t have complete visibility into the customer journey.

Limited visibility of external factors

Multi-touch attribution is great at analyzing the touchpoints you’re tracking, but there’s no way to know how influential external factors are. And the model can miss factors such as recent trends or reviews on third-party sites. There's no way to include these, even though they could have a big influence on conversions.

Despite the usefulness of multi-touch attribution, remember that it’s just one part of your marketing toolbox and shouldn’t be the only source of insights.

Getting started with multi-touch attribution

Companies can use multi-touch attribution to identify the most effective marketing channels and be confident they’re not wasting future marketing spend allocation.

Collecting customer journey data is the first step toward effective multi-touch attribution. Incorporating the customer journey, data collection, and attribution models into one tool means companies can accurately analyze their marketing efforts — without the need for designing and building their own models.

Learn more about multi-touch attribution in B2B Marketing Attribution.