The debate around multi-channel attribution is perhaps the essential marketing problem of this decade. Can you really optimize ad spend on a cross-channel basis, and at the impression level? Not yet. Will you be able to? A lot of smart money says yes, but it's going to be a long and bumpy ride.
The most prominent attribution platforms that use algorithms – not manual processes – to assign media value are Visual IQ, Adometry, Convertro, and Clearsaleing. All are hustling to beef up their data partnerships, sales/marketing headcount, and client consulting (i.e. "change management") operations. Even setting aside the business challenges, there remains the formidable problem of incorporating owned and earned impressions in a meaningful way. This is made more difficult by the reluctance of Facebook and other platform companies' to allow impression tracking on organically shared brand content.
One of the well rated platforms (See Forrester's 2012 Wave report), Austin-based Adometry, has raised $8 million led by Shasta Ventures – and only took two months to do it.
CEO Paul Pellman says, "Three months ago we had no compunction, no desire to raise money. We were exceeding our plan. Then we saw an opportunity to move faster."
Adometry committed to raise money in a late October board meeting, and completed the round by year's end. Why the sudden change of heart? Pellman didn't say, but that speed saved Pellman from having to dedicate the first half of 2013 to meeting with investors.
How will it spend the money? On the product front, Pellman says, "Channels are one dimension, features and depth are another."
Adometry's moves in 2012 offer a taste of what's to come. The company did an integration with Demand Side Platforms, allowing clients to more easily export data for execution through their RTB platforms of choice (AdExchanger story). It can plug in to search platforms too.
Also in 2012, Adometry did a deal with LiveRamp that lets it take a marketer's direct mail list and bring it across into an anonymous cookie pool, then marry that with Adometry's own cookies. It can then examine online and offline conversions on a user level. "Our ability to add more digital channels and some offline channels many times involves partnerships. We're not going to reinvent the wheel," says Pellman. Expect more offline data partnerships like this.
The promise of attribution solutions is far from the present reality, as McKinsey principal David Edelman articulated at the AdsCON conference on data science, hosted by Media6degrees and NYU last week.
"There's a lot of acknowledgement that the available tools now aren't cutting it," Edelman said. "One thing is, enhancing media mix models with more granular data from owned and earned media."
There's also the plain difficulty of tweaking complex media plans, and drawing viable conclusions. He said a common stop-gap approach for marketers is, "instead of looking at things in a micro, looking at groups of things" – for instance, TV, search, and display -- and using attribution technologies to broadly balance the spend going to each.
"It's hard to separate those three things so accept the fact that the journey you created had those three elements," Edelman said. "Focus on making it more efficient, if it worked."
In a later panel during the same conference, led by Forrester analyst Joanna O'Connell, a group of execs from agency trading desks, platform companies (including Pellman), and clients tackled the changing attribution landscape.
One of the speakers, Ming Wu, general manager US of Omnicom's Accuen trading desk, struck a competitive note. He suggested that marketers could work with agency trading desks directly – rather than specialist vendors like Convertro, Visual IQ, and Adometry.
"We're rolling out products that tell them what the attribution is," said Wu. "They don't have to go sign up for it. We're doing it. It tells the effectiveness objectively of each part [of the plan]."
Wu calls this the "Moneyball" approach to attributing media ROI.
After the panel, we asked Pellman to respond to the assertion that agency trading desks could effectively replace attribution vendors. Here's what he said,
"Trading desks provide a valuable service within the holding company. They are a transaction engine. Their reason for being is driving more volume. It's not that they're going to do anything contrary to what the client wants, [but their interests might not be aligned].
Some agencies feel they can do some of this attribution themselves. For rather simple attribution, or for the first iteration of attribution, that may be true. But the depth of what we can provide is much deeper than what a trading desk or an agency holding company can do. The entire focus of our 80 person team is on solving the problem of attribution."
Panelists at the AdsCON event ultimately agreed with Edelman that attribution is still in its "early adopter phase." Which means big clients require a lot of hand-holding, another area where Adometry plans to bulk up.
As Pellman said of Adometry's consulting business, "No one jumps into the deep end with attribution, they wade in with little floaties on their arms."
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