When Sales and Marketing Attribution Goes Wrong

Striving for greater efficiency with their sales and marketing dollars, organizations are always trying to draw a firm link between a dollar of spending and the corresponding dollar(s) of revenue. Thanks to technological developments, such as personalized links, A/B testing, and IP address tracing, organizations are finding that once immeasurable marketing campaigns or activities can now be optimized and compared against one another.

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As an overarching movement, the quest for accountability using sales and marketing attribution is a good thing… I think.

However, the expectation that every action can and must be quantified by the sales it generates can be unrealistic and detrimental.

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This is especially true in sales and marketing activities aimed upstream from the actual sale. One example is a brand awareness campaign, or its sales equivalent — a non-closing, lead qualification program. In either case, the revenues come so far downstream of the activity that attribution is practically unfeasible and rarely attempted.

Does the lack of a measurable ROI mean one isn’t there? Of course not. But in a misguided rush for accountability, organizations sometimes confuse the two.

This is a mistake. Early-pipeline sales and marketing activities should be evaluated critically, but if they’re fulfilling a business need, they shouldn’t be held to an impossible standard of revenue attribution.

In many ways, a sales and marketing organization is like a football team. A casual fan might attribute a team’s win to the player who scored the last-second touchdown. While it’s true that without that player, their team would not have won the game, a more nuanced understanding acknowledges a variety of factors and circumstances contributed to the team pulling out the win.

The player wouldn’t have scored without the linemen who blocked for him. Without a first quarter field goal, the team wouldn’t have even been in position to win on the last play of the game. And without practicing the play over and over again during the prior week of practice, it would never have been successful in the game.

Only one player will be attributed with the game-winning touchdown, but many other events were just as crucial in leading to the win. The trick is to strike a balance between accountability for performance when performance is directly measurable, and maintaining a healthy appreciation for the unsung heroes who indirectly contributed to the victory.

Football teams don’t ignore their supporting cast, and neither should your sales and marketing organization. Before you pull the plug on a marketing activity that isn’t leading directly to revenues, consider whether the ROI isn’t there, or whether you just can’t measure it. There’s a big difference.

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  Discuss This Article

Comments: 1

  • The article is not only true, it applies to more corporate activities than just sales.

    Many years ago I was on the committee running a major conference for the IEEE. One of my committee members was a Vice President of TRW. I asked him how TRW rewarded its researchers, and he said that it was difficult. He said the researchers were like a kick returner in football, who took the kickoff on their own goal line and ran it back to the opponent’s two-yard line before he was tackled. He said after the runback, the fullback who ran the ball over the goal line got all the acclaim and was carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders. He explained that the challenge for management was that the researcher was the kind of person who was happy to move the 98 yards but didn’t care about scoring the touchdown. He correctly said the researcher was the player who was happy to advance the ball 98 yards but didn’t care about running through the line for the touchdown. Instead, the focus in an organization was to reward the staff member who productized the research—in the analogy, the fullback who ran the ball over the goal line.

    The same phenomenon holds true for sales, where the person who closes the deal gets more acclaim than the staff who develop the relationship and prepare the customer to close the deal.

    It’s no surprise that when companies encounter temporary financial hardships the common, but counter-productive, behavior is to make first group to downsize the marketing organization (and in larger corporations, the research department).

    In a controversial new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that some redundancy is necessary to avoid excessive vulnerability. Only those who do not understand the entire process from customer development to closing sales fail to recognize the necessity of doing the groundwork that enable the team as a whole to cross the goal line to closing sales.

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