First or Last Touch Attribution: Which Matters Most in Measuring Conversion?

If you have spent much of your time digging into analytics for your marketing campaigns, you probably are aware of the debate on whether first touch or last touch attribution is the most effective model in measuring conversion results.

If you’re not familiar with the argument that rages on, this article will familiarize you with both sides of the debate and help you understand how both first touch attribution and last touch attribution matter to your marketing campaigns.

First, understand what we mean by the term “attribution.” This simply attributes, or denotes, which marketing campaigns, tools, or channels transformed a visitor into a customer. The key is in when and how that attribution occurred.

Start at the Beginning with First Touch Attribution

Marketers understandably spend a lot of time and energy in finding the best channels to first connect with a lead. The wider the brand’s online footprint, the larger the opportunity there is to introduce your company to potential customers.

That first point of contact is the focal point in “first touch attribution.” We attribute that channel — a Facebook ad, for example — as being the one that first puts a given number of leads in touch with our brand.

When you look at your website analytics, you typically find those first touch results under “Acquisition”. These are the sites or channels that have sent traffic to your site.

Why It’s Useful: It’s tremendously valuable to understand which, of all the channels you’re using to reach potential customers, are actually sending people down your sales funnel and to your website. Knowing which channels are the most successful at doing so, can help you shape future campaigns based on the best return on your efforts.

For example, if your $1,000 a month Facebook ad campaign is sending a ton of traffic to your site, that might indicate that you should experiment with increasing that budget and seeing if you can also increase results.

Why You Shouldn’t Rely Solely On It: The problem with only measuring success based on first touch attributions is that they don’t tell the whole story. Sure, that Facebook ad is sending you a lot of traffic, but how much of it actually converts to a purchase?

And what about where people might have been exposed to your brand before seeing that ad? Maybe some people follow you on Twitter but don’t click your links or have been seeing your ads elsewhere, and that Facebook ad was impetus to finally check you out. You can’t know the exact path of a multi-channel marketing lead, which can be frustrating.

Last Touch Attribution: Far From The End

On the other end of the spectrum, we have last touch attribution. By now you can probably figure out what that means: it’s the channel that a lead went through just before converting. It’s the Tweet that linked to your landing page, where someone made a purchase. It’s that email that offered a coupon code someone used.

You could argue that everything that came before that last touch is irrelevant, that this is what matters because it’s what resulted in the actual conversion. More on that in a moment.

Why It’s Useful: Whatever came before, this final touch is the nudge that pushed your lead over the edge and into becoming a customer. It works. It got results, so you should replicate it. That last touch attribution is your validation that all the branding and marketing that happened before a lead landed on that channel is working. Your game is sharp. Keep doing what you’re doing.

Why You Shouldn’t Rely Solely On It: It seems a little unfair to ignore all the efforts that led to that final touch, doesn’t it? Again, the water is often murky with regards to where a lead was before she finally took action and bought something from you. So giving all the credit to that last touch may skew your view of that buyer journey, and that doesn’t do you any good.

Last touch attribution tends to be more conservative. We connect the dots between what we’ve spent on that single channel and the conversion we receive. But completely wiping out the time and money spent on branding in between first and last touch makes this a false computation. So how do you rectify the two?

Finding Balance Between First and Last Touch Attribution

A lot of activity happens between the first and last touch points for marketers. Consumers are exposed to branding campaigns, read product reviews, share content, and eventually engage with direct response campaigns. While it’s pretty challenging to measure the effectiveness of branding and direct response efforts across this journey, it is possible. By paying attention to consumer behaviors connected to the first and last touch points, you can find more data that helps you make smarter marketing decisions.

Called Multi-Touch Attribution, this balance between that first and last touch is finding popularity among marketers today. The way it works is by assigning value to each touchpoint, you get a better sense of how that marketing effort is working in-between a lead’s first connection to your brand and then actually converting into a customer.

In addition to looking at what happens before those initial and final touch points, it can also be valuable to look at results from first and last touch together. For example (still using the Facebook ad example), if your first touch analytics tell you that a ton of traffic is coming to your website from a Facebook ad, then look at conversion and see how well your last touch attribution is faring from that particular channel. You may see that lots of people are visiting your site but not actually converting, which could tell you that the ad might not be tightly written enough to send the right people — the ones that would buy from you — to your site.

You still need to allow room for branding and direct response efforts, even if they are nebulous and difficult to measure. It’s the meat in the middle of your attribution sandwich, and ultimately what gets your brand name out there.

To really get the 360 view of your consumer, you need to understand all consumer touch points, from the first to the ones in the middle to the last. By encompassing all, you can better understand the consumer journey and match your strategy to it.