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Attribution: are you getting gamed?

Technology & Data

Attribution: are you getting gamed?


Andrew Double explains attribution gaming and how to avoid getting played.

Attribution models were designed with the best of intentions: to help advertisers understand which ads lead their users to convert and to inform which tactics effectively grow their business. While advertisers work hard to use attribution properly, they often unknowingly incentivise the wrong behaviour from vendors, leading to ineffective spending of their budgets.

It’s a dirty secret of today’s digital ecosystem. I call it ‘attribution gaming’.

The main reason gaming is so prevalent in display advertising today is the widespread use of last-touch attribution, a model in which 100% of the conversion credit goes to the last ad served before a conversion. With today’s cluttered ad ecosystem, the problem with the simplistic last-touch model is that it is easily gamed and lends itself to manipulation.

One of the most common ways to game last-touch attribution is to allocate the majority of an advertiser’s budget to retargeting consumers who are already close to a conversion.

Computer algorithms use predictive modelling on nuanced signals to know when someone is close to converting. These signals include visiting an advertiser’s site multiple times or placing items in a checkout cart. Here, attribution gaming isn’t about influencing a consumer further down the marketing funnel. It’s about capturing the last-touch credit for a conversion that is likely going to happen anyway.

Other dirty secrets about gaming: the ad on the bottom of a page, which is typically the cheapest, has the highest value from an attributional perspective. That’s because the last ad on the page is the last to load and will get the last view credit.

Related: Attribution and ROI measurement remain a challenge for marketers globally »

An ad also doesn’t have to be seen to count. An ad can be served in a hidden iframe, in an interstitial or hidden below the fold, 15 ads deep. Quality isn’t nearly as important as quantity when it comes to attribution gaming.

Finally, when a consumer is in the checkout process and searches for a promotional offer or coupon, or checks social media before clicking ‘purchase,’ the ad served at that moment gets all the credit for the conversion.


Persistent tactics

Even with the addition of more sophisticated multitouch attribution models, many of the same gaming tactics still work. Since most solutions today still do not distinguish between a retargeted impression and a prospected impression, it continues to be all about serving more retargeting ads than the competition.

In this way, multitouch attribution models heavily incentivise retargeting, since those impressions continue to make up the majority of ads served.

You might think that a first touch is an upper-funnel prospected ad, but what if the first touch is after a consumer has already been to your website? By definition, this is a retargeting impression, so even a first touch can be gamed. Unique reach is another easily gamed metric. Gamers just target specific browser configurations or cookies with no data on them, giving the appearance of a large unique reach while keeping costs low.


Gaming 101

Here’s how a simple gaming strategy might work: buy a small amount of cheap ads for new cookies across exchanges to capture new and unique reach rates. Then don’t do any further prospecting. Buy as much retargeting as possible to maximise conversion credit.

Next, buy the first ad immediately after a user visits the advertiser’s site for the first time to capture more of the first-touch credit.

Also buy lots of cheap retargeting ads – even below-the- fold or out-of-view ads are fine – but bid more and increase frequency as consumers revisit the site and move closer to a conversion.

Once users start the conversion process, capture the last-touch credit by aggressively targeting them on every inventory source, figuring that many will check email, search for a coupon or check social media right before clicking ‘purchase’.

Now relax and wait for your client to give you more budget.


Try it yourself

If your attribution solution only cares about last touch and the lower funnel, then that is where your targeting will be focused.

To see an example of unsophisticated retargeting, open a new browser session in privacy or incognito mode. Then visit an advertiser’s site. Take a step toward a conversion, but don’t convert. Then go to an exchange-traded site with multiple ad slots per page and see how many retargeting ads appear. Click the ‘ad choices’ button on each to uncover who is serving them.


Stop getting gamed

While we may never be able to fully eliminate gaming tactics, we can try to expose cheaters and increase transparency for everyone. You can start by splitting marketing funnels into two separate phases – prospecting and retargeting – by adding the ‘first site visit’ as an additional point of measurement. This simple action cannot be gamed and is a major step toward preventing unwanted behaviour.

Use MRC-accredited viewability standards to significantly reduce the false signalling noise in all attribution models. And get a second opinion by bringing in another solution or implementing an A/B test to look at the marketing funnel from more than one perspective to help eliminate hidden gaming.

Not everyone games attribution, but, unfortunately, many do. Through increased communication and transparency, we can help eliminate this shady underbelly of online advertising and improve advertising efficiencies in measurement and performance for everyone.



Andrew Double is managing director at Quantcast.


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