Marketing success has historically been measured using attribution modeling to track how customers move through the sales funnel and definitively tie marketing activities to revenue. However, changes in privacy regulations, platform policies, and technology have made attribution increasingly difficult. This article, based in large part on my podcast episode with Rand Fishkin, will examine the challenges of proving marketing ROI, explore ways to demonstrate effectiveness through measurement, and provide tips for justifying budgets without clear attribution.
In this article, I discuss:
- The challenge of proving marketing ROI
- Holistic measurement when measuring marketing success
- Specific campaign measurements
- Justifying marketing budgets
- Adapting to changes
The Challenge of Proving Marketing ROI
In the past, marketers could dig into digital customer journey data and see exactly how much revenue came from each marketing channel. Platforms like Google and Facebook readily provided attribution reporting showing conversions driven by paid ads. Third-party cookies enabled tracking users across devices and channels. Referral data was passed so you knew when a visitor came from Twitter or an email link.
But all of that has changed. Privacy legislation like GDPR and CCPA means third-party cookies are dying. Browsers are clamping down on tracking. Platforms are limiting or removing referral data, obscuring the true source of traffic. Paid advertising platforms still promise full attribution, but largely for ads run on their own sites. Essentially the walled gardens are getting higher.
This lack of transparency creates huge challenges for proving ROI. Marketers can spend aggressively on Facebook ads or Google PPC campaigns while seeing diminishing returns. But the platforms will keep attributing sales to justify those budgets. Without cross-channel visibility, marketers are left guessing at the influence of brand, organic, and referral traffic.
So what can marketers do in this new environment where clear attribution is fading away?
Focus on Holistic Measurement
While definitive attribution is difficult, marketers can still demonstrate marketing success through measurement. This requires assessing metrics beyond the last touch or conversion action. A more holistic approach evaluates metrics across the entirety of the customer journey:
How is your content performing in terms of reach, engagement, and search visibility? Are you attracting more of your target audience?
Is site traffic increasing, especially for key landing pages? Are more people moving through your conversion funnel?
Are overall sales or sign-ups trending upward week-over-week and month-over-month?
No single metric tells the whole story. But together they can demonstrate whether marketing efforts are having the desired business impact. The key is understanding baseline trends and watching for positive changes.
Proving the Impact of Specific Campaigns
While broad measurement provides an overall picture, marketers may also want to demonstrate the impact of specific campaigns. Some techniques include:
Site Traffic Analysis
Look for rises in direct traffic or landing page visits during or after campaign launch.
Create UTM tags or promo codes to identify visitors/sales from campaign outreach. One thing to note here is that some platforms block or remove UTMs from links, and iOS 17 now offers “Link Tracking Protection”, which automatically removes tracking parameters from links that are clicked on in Mail and Messages. These changes make UTMs a less and less reliable source for tracking than it previously was.
But don’t stop using them just yet!
Ask visitors, leads, or new customers how they heard about you.
Competitive Spend Analysis
Assess whether pausing/increasing budgets impacts key metrics vs. competitors.
These methods allow you to connect observed results back to marketing activities even without clear attribution data.
Justifying Marketing Budgets
The inability to definitively calculate ROI creates an obstacle when justifying budgets. How can marketers persuade executives to maintain or increase funds without proving positive return?
Here are some tips for making the case:
Connect marketing to broader business goals like brand awareness, customer retention, competitive differentiation, and long-term growth. Don’t make it just about direct sales.
Position marketing as an investment, not a cost center. Improving brand visibility and affinity has monetary value beyond immediate revenue.
Benchmark competitors’ spend in both traditional and digital channels as a rationale for needed budget.
Highlight positive lift in website traffic, social following, newsletter subscribers, and other engagement metrics. These demonstrate marketing traction even if conversion is lagging.
Educate stakeholders on the attribution challenges and need for cross-channel measurement focused on trends, not singular events.
With some finesse, marketers can make a compelling case for budgets by tying activities back to strategic goals, benchmarking against competitors, and highlighting marketing momentum.
Adapting to Changes When Measuring Marketing Success
The days of simple attribution are gone. However with adjustments to measurement strategies, marketers can still demonstrate value and justify resources.
Take a big-picture view looking at metrics across the entire customer journey. Improvements in engagement, retention, and lifetime value matter.
Get creative in connecting campaign activities to observed results. Surveys, promo codes, and targeted efforts can provide some visibility.
Make the case for marketing as an investment that compounds over time, not a cost center.
With privacy regulations expanding and walled gardens locking down data, attribution will only get harder. But marketers who adapt how they measure and prove success will thrive even in a post-cookie tracking world. The key is a holistic assessment of marketing’s impact on the full customer experience.
Our answer: Marketers need to think outside of the box in how they measure their digital campaigns.
It’s possible AND necessary to show what’s working and what’s not in the future.
We are currently deploying implied organic attribution models and account-based marketing to help our partners future-proof their marketing.