The Thorny Question of Marketing Attribution: Does It Apply to B-to-B?

Have you noticed how marketers are focusing on attribution these days? “Which media channel is really driving the sale?” they ask. “What touch sequence is most productive?” “Where should we assign credit?” There is much confusion and gnashing of teeth on this subject.
But I say that in B-to-B, these are the junior questions, and just building blocks to the bigger issues. Sure, we business marketers want to know where to invest our precious dollars. But what we really want to know is: 1) How do my prospects buy, and how can I make their journey easier, faster, and more likely to result in a sale for my company? 2) What’s the ROI on the sale, meaning how much sales and marketing investment do I need to close the piece of business?

I’ve been looking into this attribution discussion recently, and find it pretty frustrating. In the purely digital marketing world, marketing attribution analysis actually makes a lot of sense, and the various methods that are being talked about are worth looking at. To summarize, they boil down to 4 general techniques:

  1. First touch, last touch: This means all credit for the sale (or whatever is the desired outcome, like becoming a qualified lead) goes to the media channel that acquired the prospect (the first touch) OR the channel immediately before the outcome (the last touch). While many consumer marketers find last touch to make sense for attribution, in B-to-B it’s more likely that marketers will be keeping close track of the first touch, since that is so useful for analyzing cold prospecting investment decisions.
  2. Weighting: All recorded touches are given some credit and weighted equally, or according to some reasonable factor like where they lie in the path to the sale. In B-to-B this method becomes problematic very quickly, since the sales cycle is so complex, involving a long series of touches to multiple contacts in a target account through multiple channels—many of them offline and difficult to capture in a database.
  3. Modeling: Statistical analysis of purchase patterns against touch sequences provides insight into the relative impact of each media channel, which can then be used for more reliable weighting. According to a 2010 Lenskold Group study, only 3 percent of business marketers are modeling for attribution. Even if they do, models tend to provide guidance only at a fairly high level, which doesn’t much help with granular touch-sequence decision-making.
  4. Test and control: Hands down, the most reliable method of sorting out the impact of an isolated single variable. But it’s well nigh impossible to execute across a multichannel, multitouch relationship.

Some very good work is being done on this subject by thoughtful and experienced B-to-B marketers. Have a look at the Definitive Guide to Marketing Metrics and Analytics produced by Marketo’s VP of Marketing Jon Miller, where he shares the attribution methods Marketo uses for its own marketing efforts. And the slides from a recent talk at SES by Rob Cataford, a very smart analyst at the San Diego agency BusinessOnline. I also appreciate the 5-step “pipeline influence” process outlined by Michael Brenner in his B2B Marketing Insider blog. And Target Marketing wrapped up its virtual conference on Integrated Marketing with a lively discussion on attribution, where I was pleased to be a member of the panel.

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and teaches marketing at companies and business schools around the world. She is past chair of the DMA Business-to-Business Council, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain's BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She is the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, and Trade Show and Event Marketing. Ruth serves as a director of Edmund Optics, Inc. She has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM and holds an MBA from Columbia University.

Ruth is a guest blogger at Biznology, the digital marketing blog. Email Ruth at, follow her on Twitter at @RuthPStevens, or visit her website,

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  • presrep

    Well worth the read. Ruth brings us back to looking at the haystack, and then over at the hay bale, and then asks us to think backwards, even as far as the planting last Spring. This article nicely combines bigger picture with a discussion of all the nitty-gritty tools. I especially appreciate the reference to other authors and their work. Shows professional competence and confidence. Cause and effect in human actions are always complex things to figure out. This is a good discussion of that fundamental truth. It’s even more so because the complexity is multiplied in B-to-B where the "buyer" is a bunch of humans acting in a group and attempting to do so rationally.

  • Michael A Brown

    But wait … there’s more! (As they say on late night TV.) Not only is Ruth correct about the thorniness of BtoB marketing attribution, it turns out that channel partners and sales execs and managers usually want most of the credit and the kudos too.

    In 2013, I conducted assessments and training at seven worldwide lead gen/dev contact centers operated by third-party providers for a major US tech company. Couple the phone touches with other touches, both before and after, it’s clear that marketing plays a big role in earning the business. Yet when sales materialize, the sales folks say, “look at who asked for and got the money!” Proportional attribution? Naaah.

    So when calculating true cost-of-sales, how best to consider both marketing’s AND sales’ contributions? And how much difference would such a calculation make? Well, on the macro level, it makes a big difference, especially as a guide to the balance of marketing and sales investment. But on the micro level (“what do you mean I get only 22% credit? I did at least 30% of the work and touches”), it will make you crazy. Better to look at trends, touches-to-advance, touches v. cycle length, and so on.