Marketing Attribution Models for Higher Ed

By: Eric McGee Dec 03, 2020

Marketing Attribution Models for Higher Ed

There are so many ways to market. You have paid channels like search engine advertising and organic channels like blogs and email. Plus the half-dozen leading social media channels and emerging new platforms. With so many ways to connect with potential students, how do you know which ones are working? How do you decide where to increase your investment and which channels might not be right for you? Marketing attribution modeling can help. It shows which marketing activities lead to conversions.

What is Marketing Attribution

Marketing attribution is a way of organizing data to measure the effect of specific marketing efforts on end-goal results. For higher education, marketing attribution helps you understand which marketing channels are leading to enrollments and, ideally, which are contributing most to the student journey. Marketing attribution modeling assigns credit for each lead or enrollment to a specific marketing touchpoint. 

Understanding the student journey is not as easy as it first appears. You can’t simply say, “Students, click on this search ad and then enroll, so we should spend all of our money on search ads.” Well, you can, but you’ll miss out on a wealth of valuable information.

The reality is that most potential students don’t enroll the very first time they hear about your school or program. They may interact with your marketing message several times before reaching out to your enrollment team. Capturing the full student journey can be complex. Do you attribute this lead to the first marketing message the potential student saw or the last one? Can you somehow distribute attribution among the several marketing messages with which the student interacted? 

Yes. All of those ways of attributing credit are valid. Each one tells you something different about the user journey. 

Marketing attribution models

First touch, last touch, and multi-channel are the three main marketing attribution models. Each has its benefits and its drawbacks. Deciding which model to use depends on the robustness of your lead tracking and reporting, your resources, and your goals. 

Let’s take a sample potential student journey and apply each model to see how the credit shifts. 

Student A searches for schools like yours and sees your search ad. They click through to your website. Then they leave. Later on they see a retargeting ad on social media. They click through to a blog post. From there, a sidebar advertising a related podcast catches their eye. After listening to the podcast, they fill out a contact form to get more information on your program. 

Customer journeys may be more or less complicated. This one is just an example to illustrate the different attribution model options.

1. First-touch marketing attribution

This marketing attribution model may be called first-touch or first interaction. Whatever name you use, the first-touch model assigns all credit for the lead to the first marketing interaction. In our example above, first-touch would attribute 100% of the credit for that lead to the search ad.

Notice the potential weakness here. The search ad enticed a click, but would the potential student have become a lead without the retargeting ad, blog post, and podcast to deepen their interest? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. The first-touch model only captures one dimension of the user journey. 

The benefit of a first-touch marketing attribution model is the ease of tracking. You can clearly tell where the first interaction occurred. Plus, you can make the argument that none of the subsequent actions would have taken place if the student hadn’t been moved to action by that first marketing message. 

This attribution model is particularly useful if you want to understand how potential students are becoming aware of your institution or program. If your goal is to increase awareness or improve visibility, first-touch attribution can help you track progress. It gives you insight into top-of-funnel activities. 

2. Last-touch marketing attribution

This model is the opposite of first-touch. It assigns all credit for a lead or conversion to the last interaction the potential student had with your content. In our example above, last-touch would assign all credit to either the podcast or the lead form on the podcast page. 

Last-touch attribution may also extend beyond the lead stage. This model may follow the customer journey from the learn-more form, through the first contact with admissions advisors, to enrollment. In this case, the initial phone call with admission might be considered the last touch. 

The weaknesses here are similar to the first-attribution model. It shows you just a moment in time, the decision point. It gives no credit to the messages and formats that might have contributed to that decision. 

Like first-touch attribution, last-touch is easy to track because a single data point is easy to gather. Tracking the last touch makes sense since this is the interaction that achieved the result you were hoping for.

Last-touch is most useful to understand what triggers conversion. It focuses on the bottom of the funnel. If your goal is to convert more contacts, last-touch is a valuable model.

3. Multi-channel marketing attribution models

This model is exactly what it sounds like, instead of giving all credit to the first or last interaction, it distributes credit across multiple channels. This style of attribution may be most valuable because it is most granular. However, that level of detail also makes multi-channel attribution the most challenging to implement. 

Here are several multi-channel marketing attribution models with varying levels of complexity. 

  • Linear gives equal weight to all touchpoints. In our sample journey the search ad, retargeting ad, blog post, and podcast would all get equal credit.
  • Weighted gives extra credit to those touchpoints that did the most work. This can be difficult to assess. If the student read several blog posts or clicked several ads, you might give more credit to these channels than the others. But you can’t be certain that your numbers reflect the reality of the student experience. 
  • Time-decay gives the most credit to the more recent interactions and the least credit to the earliest touchpoints. So the podcast contact form would get the most credit, then the blog, and so on.  Longer customer journeys will result in significantly less credit given to the earliest interactions. 

Each of these models requires tools that can reliably track the student journey from first touch to last. 

Choosing a marketing attribution model

Again, no attribution model is perfect for all occasions. Instead, savvy higher education marketers select the marketing attribution model that best informs their goal tracking. That might be first-touch, last-touch, or multi-channel modeling. 

Before you can use any attribution model, you need data on how potential students are interacting with your marketing messages. For help collecting and analyzing marketing data, turn to the experts at EducationDynamics.