Marketing Strategies and Lessons

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Last-Click vs. Cross-Channel Attribution (and Why Cross-Channel Is Far Superior)

March 27, 2017 Kathy Bryan

Last week, I attended the UPCEA Annual Convention in Chicago and found myself discussing attribution a number of times. I realized, after a couple of conversations, that there is confusion regarding the types of attribution available and the value of each. This post looks at last-click versus cross-channel attribution to explain the benefits of seeing the full picture.

What is last-click attribution?

There are endless methods for calculating attribution. Because it is the easiest, last-click attribution has been the most popular for quite some time. Last-click attribution gives 100% attribution credit to the very last touchpoint before a conversion. By doing so, it fails to give any credit to top-of-the-funnel efforts.

Last-click attribution does not show you the full picture of your marketing performance because it doesn’t consider the impact of or lift from branding efforts. In fact, optimizations based solely on last-click attribution can sometimes negatively affect performance. But we’ll get into that later.

What is cross-channel attribution?

Cross-channel attribution evaluates every touchpoint from impression to conversion to determine whether or not it supported the student journey. As a result of this data, which includes both branding and demand-generation efforts, the most popular paths to inquiry are identified.

Cross-channel attribution shows how significantly each component of a marketing campaign is contributing to the success of the global campaign. This information allows for effective optimization of marketing efforts leading to better results with less time and effort.

What can go wrong when you optimize solely with last-click data?

Because last-click attribution data hones in only on the final touch and does not look at the full consumer journey, optimizations based solely on this data can remove top-of-the-funnel branding initiatives that deliver an un-measured but impactful lift to bottom-of-the-funnel, inquiry generation efforts.

I talked with Ross Bucholc, director of search marketing at Sparkroom, to learn how last-click attribution optimizations can impact search campaigns.

  • Spend reduced for non-branded campaigns. Non-branded search campaigns are more expensive than branded campaigns because there is more competition, the inquiry volume is lower and the cost per inquiry is higher. But non-branded campaigns target prospective students early in the funnel when they are just starting to look at education options. Prospective students often click on a non-branded ad then days later (often as many as 30-60) click on a branded ad and convert. Last-click attribution tracking does not show this pattern. Therefore, optimizations based on last-click data might reduce the emphasis on and budget for non-branded campaigns.
  • Research days get cut. Saturdays and Sundays are considered the “research days” in search marketing, when prospective students search non-branded terms to learn more about their options but then wait until later to submit an inquiry. Optimization based solely on last-click attribution can result in research days being removed from a campaign. But if your campaigns are not live, someone else will get the research traffic. And that school might get the inquiry that follows as well.
  • Device attribution is not measured correctly. Mobile, tablet and desktop devices are used very differently. Tablets usually deliver the lowest inquiry volume and therefore the smallest budgets. Ross believes tablets are a research device, and he’s excited to have more cross-channel attribution data to see if he’s right. If so, tablet campaigns might be a new opportunity to drive low-cost brand awareness for higher education institutions.

How do you get cross-channel attribution data?

To get cross-channel attribution data, you need to connect pre-lead and post-lead data. In a very simplified manner, this takes three steps:

  1. Set up pre-lead tracking. All of the marketing touches from impressions to inquiry need to be tracked and tied together. Google Analytics does a great job of this.
  2. Set up post-lead tracking. Your CRM is probably already set up to track all of the touchpoints from inquiry to start.
  3. Connect pre-lead and post-lead tracking data. You can now do this within Sparkroom performance marketing technology. Our cross-channel, multi-touch attribution tracking solution (currently in beta) connects pre-lead and post-lead data so you can see the full enrollment journey, evaluate campaigns and make strong optimizations based on full-funnel performance.

From the first touch to the last click to post-inquiry performance, Sparkroom pulls it all together.

The cross-channel, multi-touch attribution dashboard within Sparkroom performance marketing technology provides industry-leading campaign tracking, analysis and optimization. It links third-party data sources with school data sources to combine pre-lead and post-lead data into a single view. Sophisticated visualizations allow users to analyze the impression-to-enrollment performance for enhanced campaign optimizations.

Cross-channel, multi-touch attribution tracking within Sparkroom performance marketing technology lets you:

  • Visualize the most common student journeys across digital channels
  • Understand which combination of marketing channels best leads prospects to inquire, enroll and start
  • Assess the holistic performance of digital marketing campaigns
  • Find out which channels are the openers, influencers and closers
  • Realize the value of branding and other top-of-the-funnel campaigns
  • Better optimize campaigns by maximizing ROI based on more than last-click data


Already a Sparkroom technology user? This new feature is available to you free of charge. Contact your account executive to get started.

Not yet a Sparkroom technology user? Go to to learn more.

About the Author

Kathy Bryan

Kathy Bryan is the Senior Vice President of Corporate Marketing and Communications at Digital Media Solutions (DMS), the fastest-growing independent digital performance marketing company. In this role, Kathy is responsible for all aspects of marketing and communications for DMS and its subsidiary brands. Since its inception, DMS has evolved into an award-winning, full-service performance marketing company demonstrating incredible year-over-year growth which has earned recognition on the Inc. 5000 list in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

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