Data-driven marketing has been a major boon for measurement and tracking possibilities with digital efforts, often outpacing traditional channels like TV and print. However, one area that's proved elusive — becoming a sort of "Holy Grail" for measurement — is offline attribution; specifically, being able to directly tie online marketing to offline actions such as in-store visits and sales.
Compounding the problem is a lack of confidence from industry professionals: The CMO Council released a report late last year that found nearly half of surveyed marketers said connecting digital and physical customer experiences is "selective at best."
However, the rise of mobile marketing is starting to bridge some of that gap, giving offline attribution more legs with mobile's growing focus on location-based tracking and devices and apps capable of pinpointing where someone might be at any given time, all the way down to individual storefronts.
"Most consumers today start their shopping journey online while most purchases still happen in-store. Mobile, in particular, has a big influence on in-store purchases," Marissa Tarleton, chief marketing officer, RetailMeNot, Inc., told Marketing Dive.
"It is the digital connector to in-store activity, and location is to mobile what the cookie is to desktop," she said. "It’s important for marketers to borrow the most relevant mobile moments to reach the right consumers at the right time."
A growing market
In turn, a number of solutions — from players big and small — have recently cropped up to try and help solve the offline attribution riddle.
Last October, Google introduced its Conversions API for DoubleClick, allowing marketers to better connect third-party offline actions like in-store purchases and phone bookings to their displays ads; Facebook has leaned into similar products. Smaller vendors, including RetailMeNot, seek to offer more specific, granular data solutions for activities like in-app interactions and the incrementality of brick-and-mortar sales.
"RetailMeNot measures digital and mobile campaign effectiveness with a combination of anonymized consumer information that includes first-party data, geo-fencing and latitude-longitude data, along with algorithm-based smart proximity detection," Tarleton explained.
Since the launch of its mobile attribution product, RetailMeNot has conducted 127 studies for 68 national retailers, Tarleton said. Findings included that mobile marketing campaigns' return on advertising spend (ROAS) equal approximately 12.6x the investment.
But while competition in the space is warming up, some see maturity as far away.
“How do you really tie into in-store attribution?” Neil Sweeney, CEO, Freckle IoT, asked. "What most are doing is using third-party bid-stream data to 'infer' that people have been seen in a store. This is generous at best."
Stepping into marketers' shoes
Another company with a different take on offline attribution is xAd, which sells online impressions based on in-store activity with a cost-per-visit metric. The idea behind the different way of charging for ad impressions came from what Matthew Schuster, head of national sales, xAd, described as a choice to "put ourselves in the shoes of the marketer."
For years, advertising companies — xAd included — strove to create tech to differentiate themselves by building the most precise audiences, most advanced targeting and most predictive algorithms.
The cost-per-visit metric aims to simplify that process because partners want to drive foot traffic into stores and the technology promises to only charge marketers when it achieves set goals in this regard.
"This concept is not completely new. Performance-based digital media such as cost-per-acquisition and cost-per-click also exist," Schuster said. "However, like these solutions, cost-per-visit shifts the accountability on the partner to execute the campaign to meet the client's goal and be able to do so effectively to run our business."
'Grading their own homework'
One standing challenge that few players in the offline attribution are willing to talk about is validating location, according to Sweeney.
"If you can't validate location from a third party in the same way you validate viewability or fraud from third parties you are guessing," he said. "The need for a third-party location validation tool is essential to ensuring that there is consistency around a location [but] there is zero today."
Third-party attribution tags might provide an answer, according to Sweeney, who said that they would force vendors to abide by true location because failing to do so would lead to a lower attribution rate. XAd, for its part, has taken care to try and account for this, working with location analytics firm Placed for third-party validation.
"With all the press around those 'grading their own homework,' we knew that, for this to be a viable solution for brands, an unbiased third party needed to be involved to authenticate a visit," Schuster said.
Beyond third-party validation, there is both a need and growing opportunity for better solutions around affinity targeting, contextual relevance and personalization efforts, per Tarleton.
It could be that the big digital ad platforms — and especially Facebook — have the furthest to travel when it comes to building offline attribution tools and APIs that meet marketers' needs and that they can trust. The current offerings from the big players leave a lot to be desired at the moment, according to Sweeney.
"It's typical [Facebook] and their walled garden approach," he said. "It's garbage [...] It’s a total black box. The extent of the API is they spit you out a singular number with no other detail."