Avoiding Activation Attribution Mistakes

In his December Media Post article, SLRG President Jon Last recalls how today’s media landscape has increased the likelihood of marketing ROO/ROI mis-attribution, how to avoid it and the implications for sports marketing.

A subtle underpinning of my piece last month was the assertion that with such a proliferation of sports-related media and exposure opportunities, brands must be more adept at diffusing their messages across channels to maximize their reach and engagement.

Multiple studies that we’ve worked on over the past several months have affirmed that, contrary to popular conjecture, new media has become additive rather than disruptive of legacy channels. Target consumers of sports have consciously or subconsciously carved out places in their consumption schedules that are unique to various mediums, while creating media specific hierarchies of content value that vary by sport. For example they may gravitate to print or online channels for service specific content, to mobile applications for quick hitting updates and peer opinions, to television for out of market entertainment and to the actual onsite game attendance for a more immersive communal experience.

These preferences may vary across different sports. So, what’s a brand to do? The default conclusion, is that it must adeptly utilize an optimal mix of each of these channels to maximize their impact. But how actionable is that conclusion? And more pragmatically, how practical is that, particularly for challenger brands that may lack the resources to be, in the words of one financial services challenger, “everywhere you want to be?”

Enter the Flawed Attribution Models

One generic response to this conundrum has been an influx of often poorly constructed or overly esoteric “black box” attribution models. And while my goal here is not to universally negate this approach or selectively promote one over the other, I’ve lived this challenge enough from both the provider and procurer side to understand the ways that marketers can veer away from the essence of what they are attempting to achieve with their sports marketing activation, and fall precipitously close to the proverbial cliffs of data inundation or misattribution.

In simple English, and at the risk of repeating points raised in some earlier postings, you can’t measure sports marketing impact by simply “asking your friends if your baby is good looking.” Yet, a number of techniques still rely upon convenience samples and poorly constructed direct questioning regarding the impact of sports marketing. When you ask someone if venue signage made them more likely to buy a Nissan, how can one truly and objectively answer that?

As Briggs and Stuart so articulately described in their book, What Sticks, the human brain is simply not wired that way. Absent well designed experimental design methodologies, it is often folly to attempt to measure the contribution of singular executions on consumer attitudes, let alone purchase behaviors. Our firm has long subscribed to this approach, and at a minimum, pre- and post-exposure measurement is essential.

But…It isn’t that Simple

Of course, even a well-executed experimental design doesn’t exempt brands from misattribution. Earlier in my career, I oversaw marketing for a leisure brand that in many ways was light years ahead of its industry in their database and measurement capabilities. We were a largely direct response-driven business model, which afforded us the opportunity to flag every marketing execution with a unique call to action. So, the magazine ad that ran in November had a different call-in telephone number than the sponsorship signage in a local arena, etc. Hence, we were able to capture and calculate cost per customer inquiry and cost per transaction associated with everything that we did.

But as we began to learn at that time, and I’ve subsequently seen through a variety of consumer purchase decision studies that my present firm has conducted in the sporting goods and travel space, even that type of direct attribution measurement ignores the complex web of brand exposures and media interactions that aggregate and lead to actual purchase behavior. Put another way, a customer may go online and book a hotel room off of a specific travel aggregator’s site, but a varied path of brand exposures, activations and conversations have led that customer to a place where he or she was comfortable enough with that brand to figuratively pull the trigger at a specific time.

A thorough research approach that measures retention and recall of marketing messages in an experimental frame work is really the only “fair” way to model and explore diffusion of brand messaging throughout a consumer’s purchase cycle. Unfortunately in practice, sports marketing initiatives too often get the short end of the attributional stick. In their haste, brands may take the short cut of more heavily or exclusively attributing purchases to the specific marketing mix element that immediately preceded a transaction.

Our work has consistently shown sports marketing’s pivotal role in building to the aforementioned comfort level. As I first concluded back in the day, if we only attribute sales to one specific direct marketing initiative, we forego the increasingly important role of building brand awareness and reinforcing credibility and positive association that sports marketing can so effectively satisfy.