Does self-reported attribution work? Here’s what you need to know.

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Attribution in marketing is an endless chase. 

Of the dozens of companies I’ve had the pleasure of working with 1:1 – and others I’ve met along the way – every single one has struggled with attributing specific growth initiatives to the results that they’re getting.

This leads them to: 

  1. Waste countless hours chasing attribution: picture that person in leadership asking others in the product & growth team to dig through data in analytics tools and CRMs, hoping they’ll find something vaguely definitive.
  2. Lack the confidence to continue investing in the right channels: this leads to them cutting existing focus and/or budget away from effective channels. 

The long-term outcome of this is that many of these companies are rarely able to commit to doing what works in growth, and give up on attribution altogether.

Why Giving Up On Attribution Altogether Isn’t The Right Answer Either

Every marketer I’ve met, no matter how late or early in their career, wants to avoid any role in attribution. 

Simply put, if they can find their way out of it, or land a role where it’s not their responsibility, they’ll do it. 

With the work that we do on our advisory & services side, as partners, we are still typically viewed as “outsiders” – at least at the start of engagements. So, for better or worse, (and I’d argue better, since we also run growth for products we own, either partially or entirely) we’ve never had this luxury.

Whether you’re relying on HubSpot reports, Google Analytics, and especially the increasingly popular privacy-centric analytics tracking tools (thanks to the EU & GDPR for that one) – you’ll almost always struggle to get a feel for what’s working at all, let alone “real ROI”. 

And no, I’m not talking about being able to answer questions like “how much traffic did this generate?” – you should find those easy to dig out of analytics. 

However, this isn’t the same as being able to report on how much real impact a specific piece of content had within a specific segment of your ICP in driving revenue.

So, let’s answer what I imagine you came to this post thinking: Is self-reported attribution the answer? Is it the holy grail of attribution? 

Self-Reported Attribution Doesn’t Work In Isolation

Despite it being far from perfect, self-reported attribution remains a great tool, and something I still very much encourage companies to pursue. 

The data you gather from self-reported attribution can still be valuable, as long as you’re aware of everything we’ll be covering in this section.

However, in isolation, self-reported attribution paints a wildly skewed picture of attribution: 

  • You’re assuming that customers are better at remembering how they were first marketed to than they ever truly will be: how are they going to remember if they first read a piece of content from you on LinkedIn 5 months ago, and then later converted because they saw something elsewhere?
  • Also, it doesn’t account for recency bias. It may well be that you saw an advert, converted, and subsequently shared that this is where you heard about the product. However, you might not have recalled that you had actually come across the product dozens of times over the previous year, which contributed bit by bit towards your eventual conversion into a customer.
  • Customer acquisition is a journey. Growth doesn’t involve a single channel – it’s not as if there is a single point of interaction that leads to a conversion. Every part of the journey, every channel, and every campaign should work together in unison (albeit some focusing on different segments of your ideal customer profile).

Your conversion path is more complex than you would like.

I get it – it’s not what you wanted to hear.

Because it means that blaming analytics tools and your growth team for not being able to prove their work is working isn’t the right answer. But it also means that you can accept it, and move on to do what you should be anyway: investing in a more healthy channel mix. 

Growth should be an offensive play, not a defensive one. 

Here’s a good way to visualize why you need a healthy channel mix:

Scenario #1 – you get the “sense” that your ICP is more commonly influenced by content and SEO. 

As a result, you stop investing in paid ads…

…which leads to impacting the ability to drive high-intent traffic on demand, leaving your competitors to instead. 

Scenario #2 – you get such great results from paid ads alone that you choose to wind down investments in SEO & content – because leadership has also been ranting on saying, “who reads a blog these days anyway?”

Which means you’ll find your acquisition costs rise significantly because people landing on your site from ads have never heard of you before, and your ads don’t get clicked as often anymore because you haven’t earned that click.

I could go on with a few more examples because it’s entertaining, but I know you’re busy, and I don’t want to keep you here longer than I need to. 😅

In short – the right marketing mix reduces the overall cost because it accounts for the fact that customer acquisition is a journey that should never hinge on a single channel alone. 

A side note on where to use self-reported attribution if you do want to see what type of data you do get. 

  1. Book a demo form
  2. Self-serve signup once registration is complete
  3. Contact us forms
  4. Make it required, not optional (if optional fewer than half will complete it, which will result in an even more skewed/partial dataset)

It’s important not to add an extra form field before registration is complete, as this will very likely have a negative impact on your conversion rate. 

Show me the results = show me revenue

With all of this in mind, you’ll be pleased to hear that there is a more natural and useful way to think about attributing the impact of your growth initiatives. 

Here are the three key areas to keep a pulse on:

  1. The customer narrative: self-reported attribution form fields, what you hear customers saying about you, your content, etc.
  2. The key data: conversion data from Google Analytics, ad platforms, traffic data (i.e., we are creating content, is it getting read to begin with), etc.
  3. The supporting data: engagements with social media content, etc.

To wrap this up, there’s no question that attribution remains one of the most complex, confusing, and unsatisfying parts of marketing.

But don’t let some guru who’s only ever got one channel to work tell you that you need to make decisions based on a specific piece of data in isolation.