Marketing attribution theory — what it is and how it works

A woman in an office uses her laptop to implement marketing attribution.

Perhaps you’ve heard about concepts like marketing attribution, marketing attribution models, or attribution marketing theory. But you may not be certain what they describe or how they can be used to improve your marketing efforts.

All of these terms focus on identifying which touchpoints in the customer journey your brand can attribute to a sale. While most marketers understand this premise, many are less familiar with the nuances of attribution theory in general.

Attribution theory looks at the events of a customer’s journey, assigns value to each touchpoint, and weighs which events influenced the customer to make a purchase. This article will explore attribution theory as it relates to psychology and marketing, helping you gain a better understanding of the idea so you can enhance your marketing strategy and more effectively track the customer journey.

In this post, you’ll learn:

What is attribution theory?

In general, attribution theory refers to the tendency to attribute a person’s actions to a specific cause. If someone is rude or nice to you, for example, you might chalk it up to the kind of day the person is having.

Marketing attribution theory applies this same basic concept to your marketing plan. Specifically, it involves the premise that an element (or multiple elements) of your marketing plan influenced a purchase. For instance, say a customer clicks on one of your social media ads, visits your site, and makes a purchase. You might reasonably attribute this purchase to your social media marketing efforts.

Attribution theory in psychology

In the field of psychology, attribution theory can be applied in multiple ways. Thinking about why a person behaves the way they do will help distinguish between the various theories of attribution.

Dispositional vs. situational

Dispositional versus situational attribution theory is based on the premise of nature versus nurture. Dispositional attribution assumes that a person’s internal characteristics cause — or at least heavily influence — their behavior. These characteristics might include their religious beliefs, personality traits, or motives.

Conversely, situational attribution assigns the cause of behavior to external forces, such as an event or situation a person is exposed to. External forces could be environmental features or situational factors. For example, a consumer who lives in an area with a particularly cold climate will likely purchase a heavy coat to keep warm. In other words, the situation is external and beyond their control but greatly influences their purchasing decision.

Correspondent inference theory

Correspondent inference theory is similar to dispositional attribution theory. The term refers to the tendency to observe a person’s behavior and infer that their behavior represents one of their core personality traits.

This inference is based on five different sources of information:

If someone acts friendly toward you and you assume they’re acting this way because they have a kind disposition, you’ve just used correspondent inference theory.

Attribution theory in marketing examines which touchpoints in the customer journey led to a conversion. With modern analytics tools, digital marketers can make data-driven decisions for greater ROI.

Marketing attribution theory

We’re still assessing why people behave the way they do when we view attribution theory through the lens of marketing — we’re just paying particular attention to how it relates to our business efforts.

Marketing attribution theory focuses on touchpoints, which are stops along a customer’s journey when they interact with a brand. Modern marketing attribution software analyzes these touchpoints to evaluate when a person transitions from prospect to customer.

Marketing teams can use these insights to understand which touchpoints are most valuable to their business. From there, they can reallocate resources to prioritize the most impactful points.

Examples of marketing attribution theory

In regard to attribution theory, marketing offers several models you can use to understand the customer’s decision-making process. Three of the most common are:

For more information on attribution models, check out this illustrative post on multitouch attribution.

Attribution theory in practice

Attribution theory is a powerful way to analyze and optimize your digital marketing efforts. It can help you narrow down which touchpoints have made the biggest impact on the customer journey and generated the most revenue for your business.

Now that you're familiar with attribution theory and its use in marketing, you’re ready to apply what you’ve learned. Start by assessing your current analytics tools and deciding whether they can support your implementation of attribution theory. Specifically, you should ask the following questions:

If you determine that your marketing tools can’t keep up with your needs, it’s time to upgrade.

Attribution with Adobe

Marketing attribution doesn’t have to be difficult and tedious. With Adobe Analytics, you can engage in true multitouch attribution theory marketing and pinpoint precisely which components of your marketing strategy led to or influenced a purchase.

Ready to optimize your attribution capabilities with Adobe Analytics? Request a demo today and discover how our solution can provide in-depth insights into the customer journey.

Watch the Adobe Analytics overview video to learn more.