5 Dirty Display Media Attribution facts Marketers don't want to talk about


Last week, we discussed the different types of attributions for multi-channel marketing. We also talked about how statistical attribution trumps traditional models every single time. This week, I want to discuss a rather serious and mostly ignored issue of online display ad attribution. The issue is so frustrating as it skews the entire digital marketing model and requires a fix asap.

In the digital world, any image or video ads visible on most websites falls under the digital display advertising category. The normal process of conversion from display works as follows:


display attribution

A visitor on the Mashable.com website clicks the display ad, lands on the website or the landing page of the advertiser (in this case Rackspace) and then makes a purchase giving the display channel one credit for the direct sale. So far so good right? The fun begins with a new…well not so new form of tracking mechanism called as the viewthrough conversion.

viewthrough conversion

Viewthrough cookie is dropped on the user’s device/computer as soon as the user “views” the display ad. I have the word view in quotes, mainly because this is where it gets dirtier. Let’s discuss the issues the marketing director or leader will face when trying to figure out the ROI on digital channels with display attribution.

1. Ad view cookie – The biggest fallacy of the viewthrough cookie is the cookie gets dropped on the user’s device irrespective of whether they saw the ad or not. Just think about it for a second, you are on a popular website like Nytimes or CNN reading a news article. A third-party cookie from the ABC automobile dealer lands on your computer or mobile device without your permission and without you performing any action. Ten days later, you meet your friend who wants to buy a car and asks your help to review the autos listed on ABC dealer’s website. As soon as you visit the ABC dealer’s website, the web analytics tool or the ad server immediately marks you as a “known” user even though this is the first time you are interacting with ABC. In addition, if you submit a contact form on ABC website, the happy marketer on the other ends gives an immediate credit to display ad for this conversion and celebrates victory!

Google understands this issue, and they continue to improve the display attribution by adding new features to the Google Display Network (GDN). Above the fold advertising was added to GDN and it determines whether the user actually saw the ads. Even with this sophistication the display attribution is broken due to several other reasons.

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2. Attribution window – Cookie or attribution window is simply the life span of the marketing cookie. Studies have shown magazine ads enjoy the longest attribution window because of it’s accessibility until the magazines are discarded. Digital channels have a relatively smaller attribution window, and this data also ties with the attention span of an average Internet user. What it means is the duration between finding the website through the digital channels, and the conversion resulting from the visit is generally much shorter. Interestingly, almost all major display ad servers have a thirty day default cookie window. The thirty day cookie window allows the display ads to get credits for all the sale made within the thirty days irrespective of user’s remembrance of the ad.

I have discussed this issue with the Google, and their analytics team has recommended narrowing the display cookie window to seven days. Reducing the cookie window will clean some of the inflated viewthrough attribution issues.

3. Display retargeting – Email autoresponder is considered as one of the most powerful digital marketing tools. It allows marketers to automatically and strategically follow the prospects until the sale is made. Marketo, Exact target and Eloqua have built multi-million dollar businesses by using autoresponders. Display retargeting is a creepier version of an email autoresponder, and it furthers complicates the attribution issue.

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Retargeting cookie gets dropped on your computer as soon as you visit a website participating in the retargeting campaign. What follows after this is a month-long ordeal of constant spying across the Internet. The bigger the network the greater is the chase. Retargeting is useful if applied tactfully in areas such as shopping cart abandonment prevention or promoting a product upgrade. However, marketers have abused the retargeting technology to an extent it has garnered governmental attention across the globe leading to stringent regulations.

Retargeting is also a major culprit in skewing the attribution data big time. Let’s assume you visit abcwidgets.com using Google.com and purchase a blue widget. If the retargeting exclusion is not set the cookie will be dropped on your computer even after the order was placed. This will result in extreme inflation of display retargeting, and the online display channel will get credit for all the sales generated that month.

Here is a real-life example of the retargeting annoyance. I am already a Lifelock customer, but they keep harassing me with their display ads as soon as I login to my account. They can simply add the control panel pages as an exclusion and spare me from their advertisement network.

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I am still a big believer in retargeting campaigns as long as the duration of the cookie window is short. I certainly don’t want the display retargeting ads to follow me beyond the 24-48 hours of me visiting a website. Majority of users will not remember the display ad beyond 72 hours so it’s a waste of the impression.

4. Cookie pool – Cookie pool is the volume of the visitor data collected by ad networks for retargeting. It is made of all the visitors who have been cookied based on the retargeting cookie window. If the retargeting cookie window is longer the size of the cookie pool increases allowing marketers to target more visitors. Cookie pool has the same issue as the retargeting cookie window and marketers like to keep it big enough even though the attention span of the visitors is short.

Here are three best practices to avoid “overcooking” issues –

a. The cookie pool should be short enough to cover the average conversion cycle of your products.

b. Filter all the internal traffic using IP filtering so you are not skewing the data.

c. Add exclusions for visitors who have already made a purchase on your site.

5. Multiple ads – The last issue with display attribution is the presence of more than one ad on the same website. Having multiple ads on the same site or page makes it nearly impossible to identify the best performing ad. It gets even harder if the conversion is viewthrough because the tool cannot distinguish between which ads resulted in the conversion due to overlapping cookies. This is a known issue in case of retargeting where a website can have multiple 300×250 in addition to the 728×90 ads.

Here is the example of the same Lifelock ad on the Nytimes.com website. If I end up visiting Lifelock.com and make a purchase as a new customer their marketing department will have hard time figuring out the effectiveness of their 728×90 ad versus the 300×250.

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