How marketing really works
And why most marketing attribution is nonsense
I have a folder on my desktop in which I save screengrabs and images related to work. Some of these are hacks, and some are how-to-do-x guides posted by other marketers on their social media. But the most important, and possibly the simplest, is this image, a 4 panel comic on how marketing works. It is from the comic artist and game developer Paul Crawford, better known as The Meatly.
We’ll return to this later.
A long time ago at Freshworks, Girish threw at me the famous John Wanamaker quote: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."
I agreed with him then, I agree with him now.
I also know what you are going to ask.
But that was a different world, wasn’t it? Attribution is available now, so granular you can assign dollar values to individual SEO pages. Now you can measure everything and do better marketing, can’t you?
No. My answer is no.
I would say that it doesn’t work most times, and even when it does, it’s a distraction from actually doing marketing.
Marketing attribution assumes causality, that people see x and then do y, leading to z. That’s not how software buying happens in the real world. A high-ticket B2B sales cycle can take months, involving a dozen stakeholders, multiple meetings, and factors way outside a marketer’s control.
Okay, so what about attribution in smaller-ticket products? Even there, the attribution just tells me how good my ads are doing. It has no way to factor in social media, perceptions being built through everyday interaction with the brand elsewhere, or how many times a friend in the space talks about it, all of which are critical factors in buying decisions.
Two years ago, I wrote about an incident that happened under my watch that still shapes my thinking in this regard. It is worth telling again.
I’ve edited it for length and effect.
This was in the mid 2010s. My team and I were in a great place. We’d grown revenues five-fold in a year and a half. We were confident that if we just kept doing the same things we were doing, we would grow more. A plateau would probably come soon, but for now, we were on track to grow our ARR into a few millions.
Except that didn’t happen. What follows is why.
75% of the leads we were bringing in were attributable to organic marketing efforts. These included but were not exclusive to SEO/Content, Social, and PR activities. About 25% were coming in through paid channels. And we controlled spending on paid channels tightly.
Being a fast-paced team focused on creating stuff rather than measuring, we didn’t have deep metrics on our organic marketing efforts.
For example, we didn’t know how much of the leads coming in through organic marketing could be attributed to content, and how much to PR or branding activities.
However, and this is important, we were measuring our direct marketing very well; we had clear budgets, and I made sure we didn’t overshoot them. This kept efficiency fairly high.
But a little less than a year later, I started getting asked for more numbers: How much was coming from which medium, how many leads were coming in via this piece of content, and so on.
Except that I didn’t have the numbers. We had focused on leading metrics, getting as much done as fast as possible, and within those constraints, with as much quality as possible.
We tried to get the numbers. We devoted resources, time, and effort to figure this out. We did make progress, though it never seemed to be enough.
But this had a side-effect that we didn’t anticipate.
My diverting of resources and effort meant that we slowed down on things we were doing. I mean, we didn’t know which of these activities were working, sure, but we knew that they were working. And in our effort to measure and optimise, we stopped some of these.
The result was that even though we had all the ingredients necessary to sustain and accelerate the growth we had, we slowed down, and never really recovered.
This takes us back to the question of how marketing really works. Isn’t that what we are trying to figure out with all the attempts to measure and attribute?
Go up to the comic again. To the speech balloon that says, "Hey, it’s that thing again."
Note the word 'again'. That’s how marketing works.
By getting in front of your target audience again and again and again. You can do that by content, on social, through ads, however. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that your audience sees you enough times to believe that the product deserves a spin.
Please make sure that is happening first. If you aren’t doing enough of that, attribution will not matter anyway.
1. If you want to go deeper into why I think our time is not well spent on attribution, this is a great place to start. It’s probably one of the best essays on this topic.
2. How to sabotage your own marketing and slow down growth. Goes deeper into the story I tell in this newsletter, and backs it up with more on the same from Seth Godin and Brian Balfour.
1. Wingify is looking for a content marketer. Easily one of the best work cultures in the country. I would know, I worked there.
2. Waterfield advisors is looking for a content marketing manager in Mumbai.
3. Chronicle is looking for a content manager. Can vouch for the team and product, they are building something really cool.
If you want me to feature your marketing opening here, please send me a link to the JD on LinkedIn.