Holistic Marketing and the Conversion Attribution Problem

By Daniel A, published on

Everyone I talk to in the digital marketing space has issues with conversion tracking.

Now, in principal conversion tracking is straightforward; a valuable exercise that helps agencies hone in on what’s working well and what isn’t in their marketing strategy.

In practice though, misattribution and other nuances can not only result in faulty conclusions, but can actually hold us back from engaging in effective marketing techniques simply because there’s no evident way to track the numbers – a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

But before I get into the specifics, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. So first off, we're gonna explore some of the basic concepts around conversion tracking, the problems it can pose for holistic marketing, and look at some real-world limitations to the practice.

Our path is going to look something like this:

- What is a “conversion”?

- What is “conversion tracking” and why does it matter?

- The attribution problem

- Why holistic marketing and conversion tracking don’t always get along

First off... What's a Conversion?

Ok, so don’t skip this part! For many marketers and businesses, a conversion is generally thought of as a sale. That's all well and good for most, but in reality it's a bit more nuanced.

At Drive Marketing, we like to explain “conversion” to our clients as the point at which the marketing funnel ends and the sales process begins.

Specifically, it’s when a visitor completes the action that our marketing efforts have been designed to achieve. This can be a sale (and usually it is), but the specifics of a conversion really depend on the needs of the client and the type of industry they operate in.


Let me give you an example to illustrate the point:


Many of our clients have complex sales cycles that require some form of intervention on the part of the business to close the deal. Things like talking to a sales associate, requesting a quote, or booking a product demo. For these businesses, the process isn’t as straightforward as adding an item to the cart and clicking on checkout.

Simply put, conversion for these businesses is the completion of a desired action that brings visitors into their sales funnel. In plain English; when a mere site visitor converts into a lead.

Fairly straightforward, but I want to make sure we’re clear on our terms.

What is ‘Conversion Tracking’ and Why Does it Matter?

At its simplest, “conversion tracking” means counting the number of conversions attributed to a particular touchpoint: a landing page, an advertisement, a social media post… you get the gist.

Why does it matter? That’s easy. We employ conversion tracking because we want to know whether our  marketing efforts are yielding meaningful results. Conversion tracking gives us insight into the when, where and how of our conversionsallowing us to make improvements to website structure, digital ads, marketing channels, messaging, and to lean into the factors that sustainably generate the most business.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to track everything, and there’d be a perfect 1:1 relationship between our marketing efforts and our client’s business results. Except that there's…

The Attribution Problem

The thing is, tracking can go wrong really easily when a conversion isn’t as straightforward as a purchase, or when the conversion takes place outside of a digital space.

When a “conversion” is a guy walking into the store because he liked the look of your Facebook page and thought you had a well-designed and authoritative website, how do you track that? And more importantly for our purposes, how can you attribute any of these things to a single piece of marketing media?

I usually introduce this subject by asking the following question: Why does McDonald’s have billboards?

Think about it for a moment. With all of the talk about digital marketing being better, faster, and cheaper than conventional advertising, why do some of the best minds in our field bother with such an old-school medium? You can’t track impressions. You can’t physically engage with it. You can kind of take a guess at “views” but not really. And in terms of ad-blindness, people have been talking about the ineffectiveness of billboards since the 60s.


The answer, (as you may have guessed from the title), is holistic marketing.

Billboards increase awareness, add consumer touchpoints, leverage the Familiarity Principle, and keep McDonald’s top-of-mind. By the time they spot the golden arches in the rest stop, hungry drivers are already dreaming about the Big-Mac they saw on an illuminated billboard five minutes ago.

So… what’s the problem?

Holistic Marketing messes up conversion tracking

Let’s loop back to the idea of conversion tracking. How the heck do you track the effectiveness of a billboard in terms of sales? How do you know which customers entered the restaurant because they saw the billboard, and which were dead-set on going to McDonalds anyway?

Well, for the most part you can’t. And that’s the problem with conversion tracking.

The network you’re tracking may have nothing to do with the final conversion point,
-- AND --
The conversion point you’re tracking may have nothing to do with the network that brought them there
-- YET --
Both elements are tightly related and intertwined.

The marketing executives at McDonald’s (and other big brands), know this to be the case. The result is that they aren’t tracking the effectiveness of any single piece marketing media.

Instead, they’re taking a broad-based approach, coming at the consumer with several different strategies and from several different angles, even if they know that some of this data can’t be tracked.

Sure, they will make sure that special campaigns are carefully tracked for effectiveness but their day-to-day marketing (ads, billboards, branded take-away containers) serves a different purpose.

They know that the billboards alone probably aren’t driving people to walk in and order a Happy Meal, but they also know that if they stop using the billboards, they’ll lose market share.

And that’s the difficulty of holistic marketing - the interdependence. We’ve had clients stop running Google ads when their sales funnels are working well because people just “search for us by keyword” or “send a messages on Facebook”, then wonder why their leads dry up a month later.

With holistic marketing, all parts of the funnel are important. They work in tandem to propagate your message, communicate your legitimacy, and streamline the conversion process - whether or not every touchpoint is tracked. People might be calling in through the phone number on your website but it’s the random Facebook post from last week that created enough familiarity for them to click on your ad on a food blog.

It’s all related, it all works together, and it’s impossible to trace the entire customer path back to us.

Addressing the problem

As with anything else in marketing, all you can do is stack the odds in your favor.

At Drive Marketing, we do this when it comes to our outreach strategy, our content strategy, and our tracking strategy. Proper conversion tracking is a tool to help us answer some questions about how we’re performing, if there’s a problem with our strategy or methodology, and whether or not we need to make changes to our campaigns.

Because we work in a digital space, we’re generally able to track online activity with a fair bit of accuracy. Clicks and phone calls can be tracked when we plan ahead and structure touch-points with the proper technical infrastructure.

When it comes to offline conversions, we make sure to establish a baseline with our clients before we start campaigns to make sure we can measure a difference in real-world traffic. If you had X level of conversions for the 6 months before we signed on, and X+Y level 6 months later, then it’s a fair bet that our marketing efforts are paying dividends.

When supplemented by the data we can track, these paint a pretty clear picture of what’s working and what isn’t – even if it doesn’t tell 100% of the whole story.

At the end of the day, conversion tracking is an important and effective practice. But you shouldn’t be so focused on tracking that you lose sight of the bigger picture.

Final thoughts

Holistic marketing employed across a wide range of platforms is extremely effective at creating a complete brand strategy, because it reiterates an effective and desirable message everywhere your audience encounters you. Not everything is tracked, and not everything is evident in the pure statistics. A random positive touchpoint or experience from months ago might only pay dividends later on.

Customer journeys are complex, constantly changing, and not always formulaic. They're organic in nature. This is what holistic marketing tries to address in its approach. It paints a clear picture of your brand and business, it shows your audience that you’re a legitimate and authoritative brand, and it establishes a clear and consistent digital presence across every platform where you can be found.

Unless you're ready to dedicate a princely sum towards the effort, you'll never get to the point where absolutely everything is tracked. But that’s ok. This is the uncertainty with marketing, and why it’s a fascinating intersection of science and art.

There will be always be a shifting pattern of technical limitations, regulatory restrictions, nuances in human psychology and digital mediums. It’s just the nature of the work.

At the end of the day, tracking is an important and powerful tool that should not be overlooked. but it shouldn’t dictate your entire marketing strategy either. It doesn’t tell the whole story. And that’s ok.

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