When chatting with marketers, one of the most common questions we hear at HubSpot is regarding "first touch" versus "last touch" attribution in marketing analytics . First touch, last touch, and assist reports are all different ways to attribute conversions on your website, and each of these attribution methods will tell you something different and important about the effectiveness of your marketing and the behavior of your visitors.

The following guide will help you understand the difference between "last touch," "first touch," and "assists" attribution, as well as give you a sense of the primary use-cases for each approach. As a wise man once said, you should always give credit where credit is due!

What Are 'Attributions' in Marketing Analytics?

Before we begin, first a definition ...

'Attribution' is a way of understanding which marketing channels or campaigns contributed to a conversion on your website. In HubSpot software , for example, you'll notice that our Marketing Analytics tools report on the number of leads and customers generated through various marketing efforts -- that information is what you'd call an attribution. But because a lead's or customer's lifecycle with your company is made up of a number of different interactions, there are multiple ways to report on attribution. Understanding how attribution works will help you understand which of your marketing efforts are actually generating results.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's discuss the different attribution methods that can be used in your marketing analytics.

Last Touch Attribution

Most analytics packages, including Google Analytics, use  last touch attribution as their main method of reporting. Last touch data shows you the most recent interactions and conversions your leads had on your website before they converted.

When It's Useful

As its name suggests, last touch reporting is useful in determining what happened right before your leads converted. If we were presenting last touch data for a given soccer game, for example, it would attribute the winning goal to whoever kicked the ball into the net. Last touch analytics, therefore, is often a good measure of the effectiveness of different landing pages , email campaigns, or other efforts that tend to lead to a direct conversion. What it doesn't tell you, however, is anything else that led up to that conversion. So, if we were to extend that same soccer analogy, it wouldn't give credit to the defender who made that great forward pass that made the goal possible.  

HubSpot's Landing Page Analytics report (pictured below), for instance, uses last touch attribution to help marketers evaluate which landing pages were most effective at generating leads and customers. Looking at first touch attribution for the two customers who converted on the Introduction to Business Blogging ebook offer, however, would show marketers an entirely different view. 

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First Touch Attribution

First touch attribution answers the question, "How did this lead or customer originally find you?" What brought him or her across your digital doorstep for the very first time? In HubSpot software, for example, first touch attribution is used in the Sources report , which shows marketers a breakdown of which channels brought in leads and customers in a given time frame.

(Note: Google Analytics doesn't have a report for first touch attribution out-of-the-box, but if you are tech-savvy,  Will Critchlow of Distilled put together some helpful instructions on how to use a .js code to adapt Google Analytics to show first touch attribution.)

When It's Useful

First touch attribution is useful for evaluating the effectiveness of different channels at generating website visitors and leads. Often, first touch reveals valuable, closed-loop ROI information for channels that are traditionally difficult to measure, like social media or search. Below, you can see that organic search brought us at HubSpot more than 1,400 leads and one customer since the beginning of the month. That one customer may not have purchased our software the very first time he or she visited us through search, but it was search that brought the customer in originally, so through first touch attribution, search is credited with bringing in that customer. 

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Assists Attribution

If first touch attribution shows you how a lead originally came across your website, and last touch attribution shows you the final interaction that triggered a conversion, I bet you can guess what assists attribution reveals. Marketers use assists reporting to identify the pages that were viewed throughout the lifecycle of people who ended up converting.

( Note: Different analytics platforms handle assists reporting in different ways. Google's multi-channel funnels detail assisting interactions in the 30 days prior to a conversion. HubSpot's Conversion Assists version , pictured below, shows you the web pages, blog articles, and landing pages that were most commonly viewed by people who ended up converting as leads or customers.)

When It's Useful

Just because a page wasn't the first page people saw or the final page they viewed before converting or buying, doesn't mean it was insignificant in their decision-making process. Assists reports can help you identify and optimize influential pages on your site, and we've actually written an in-depth article about how assist reports can help marketers do this.

Ultimately, you'll want to use an assist report for insight into the middle of your marketing funnel. For example, Olympia Steel Buildings , a HubSpot customer, used assists data to find that a photo gallery of its pre-engineered steel buildings was influential to a sizeable number of people who ended up converting into leads. Armed with that information, Olympia Steel made that gallery easier to find by integrating it into their homepage navigation and including it in their lead nurturing emails. Below is another example of HubSpot's own Conversion Assists report and some valuable information our own marketing team could glean from assists data:

hubspot conversion assists resized 600

Which Attribution Method Does Your Marketing Analytics Software Use?

Because you can slice marketing data a number of different ways, it can sometimes be difficult to understand exactly what you're measuring. The best approach to marketing analytics is to start with a question. Determine what it is you want to know, and then find the attribution method and analytics report that will get you the closest to the answer.

If you're not sure how your marketing analytics service provider handles attribution, make it your prerogative to find out. As you witnessed in this post, HubSpot's analytics tools leverage different attribution reporting methods depending on the goals of its various reports. Your analytics package might do things differently. Either way, it behooves you to know how your analytics is reporting attribution so you can fully and completely understand the data you're gathering from your marketing efforts. 

Image Credit: A6U571N


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Originally published Apr 19, 2012 4:30:00 PM, updated July 28 2017


Marketing Analytics