Get the Message: Distribution & Attribution (web)

As social platforms become walled gardens, can we trust the claims they make about results for both distribution and attribution?

Welcome to our new home on Beehiiv! If you’re getting this message, you’ve made the jump over from Substack and we’re glad to have you with us!

We started this Get The Message series to share our insights from SXSW, and we got a great response, so we’re going to continue the series to explore other issues around attention and B2B content marketing.

As you probably know by now, we love diving into the stories behind the stats at Storythings, and we use what we learn to develop more effective content strategies for our clients. If you’d like us to help with your content strategy or production, we’d love to talk.

The Message:

Big platforms are now ‘walled gardens’, and that gives them too much control over metrics for distribution and attribution.

I saw two interesting articles this week, one from Toolkits looking at how marketers are now in the ‘paid era’ for content distribution, and the other from AdExchanger questioning whether the big platforms are really delivering the sales they are claim through attribution. Together, these two articles question the big platforms’ claims for two critical parts of the content strategy journey - distribution and attribution.

The Quote:

“Search is about to get cut, heftily: One estimate, from Gartner, found that in the next two years, traditional search engine volume will drop 25%, with search marketing losing market share to AI chatbots and other virtual agents.

Meanwhile on social platforms, organic reach is decreasing or disappearing entirely. Link throttling and “heating” has become commonplace, as platforms prioritize paid ads and stop people from going off-feed.”

- Shareen Pathak, Toolkits

If you’ve been an Attention Matters subscriber for a while, you’ll know we agree with Pathak’s analysis - content discovery is broken, and social platforms are essentially paid media now. They are no longer ‘earned’ attention, you have to buy ads or boost posts to stand a chance of getting in front of your followers. So we are already, as Pathak’s article states, deep into the ‘paid era’ of content distribution - there’s no free traffic anymore. But let’s combine that with a quote from the AdExchanger article:

“For mobile performance marketers, such as app developers, the big three (Apple, Google and Meta) operate nontransparent systems. They reach billions of people and claim credit for conversions tied to ads even half-served for a few seconds in somebody’s potential sight, sometimes going back weeks.

Even app developers with declining sales or downloads might see platform attribution reports claiming ever-greater success, according to two mobile game developers bemoaning the state of their marketing.

Grocery brands fare even worse. They’re dealing with a proliferation of retailer-owned media networks that operate like walled gardens, all of which are hell-bent on nabbing credit for every sale they can.

This dynamic means marketing data can become totally untethered from reality.”

- James Hercher, AdExchanger

From the other end of the content marketing funnel, Hercher claims that the big platforms are marking their own homework, and claiming credit for sales attributions where they really didn’t add any value. So combining these two insights, we get a situation where platforms are asking marketers to pay to get any meaningful distribution, and then claiming credit for sales that are actually happening off their platforms. And because they are walled gardens, with little transparency of how they generate these attribution metrics, it’s hard for marketers to know if they’re getting any real value for their investments.

The big platforms are like a music venue that charges you to get in, then charges you again when you leave. And then gets to decide whether you enjoyed the gig or not.

The Insight

The reality of multichannel distribution and attribution was always a lot more complex than the platforms promised. Over the last decade or so, the social platforms created the illusion that we can organically reach our target audiences on their networks, and that we can accurately use last click attribution to measure ROAS (return on ad spend).

But this was never really true. The promise of accurately modelling users from distribution to attribution was very far from the reality of the messy world of proliferating 3rd party ad networks, made for advertising sites, and chumboxes. Research from MIT, GroupM and Melbourne Business School estimates that 80% of the digital marketing industry is built on top of bad data. 

The platforms’ solution to this was to ask them to trust them even more. Over the last few years, the messiest kind of data - 3rd party data that is bought, sold and exchanged between a dizzying network of thousands of platforms until it has little real connection to a user - has been deprecated by a combination of stronger user data regulations from governments and companies like Apple and Google stopping access to data at the device or app level. Although Google have just delayed switching off 3rd party cookie access in their browsers yet again.

This made first party data - data directly generated by a users’ interaction with a site - even more valuable. This is the kind of data captured after you mindlessly click ‘accept’ on the cookie or privacy pop up, and let the site capture your behaviour as you look around. But if users are spending more and more of their time locked into the walled garden of the big platforms, guess who gets to own, measure and sell most of this user activity data? Yep - the platforms themselves.

But now we’re potentially entering the post-cookie era, the marketing industry is abuzz with conversation about zero party data - this is user data voluntarily given by your audience in response to surveys, questions or other contributions. This encourages brands to built direct connections with the audience, ask them questions that create value for the user as well as the brand, and then use the results to convert sales that can be directly attributed to the content the user engages with.

If this is the future of digital marketing, it’s a remarkable about turn, in which the best strategy is to own as much of the user journey from distribution to attribution as possible. The problem is, that isn’t going to be easy to do at the kind of (illusory) scale the digital marketing industry has been used to over the last few decades. Because the vast majority of our audiences’ attention is still spent on the big platforms, and they are becoming more and more like walled gardens, letting very few users escape.

The Action

Build direct relationships with your audience. You might have to use the big social platforms to buy reach, but try and convert that reach into a direct relationship as soon as you can. To do this, you’ll need to build a value proposition for your content that is strong enough to get them over a subscription hurdle. This is the journey that a lot of the media industry has been on for the last few years, from subscription VOD services to newspaper paywalls. We’ve been analysing the lessons from these sectors and how they can apply to B2B content marketing at Storythings, so if you want our help, we’d love to talk.

Grow distribution through direct partnerships and networks. One of the most effective strategies for growth before the rise of social platforms was building networks and cross promoting. This is how a lot of the multi-channel networks drove growth on Youtube, and we’re seeing similar networks emerging now between newsletter creators and other content formats. At Storythings, we always say that building digital audiences is like making a patchwork quilt, where you stitch together lots of smaller audiences to make one big one. If you’re lucky enough to have multiple audiences around your formats, use cross promotion to grow audiences across them. Or if you’re trying to reach new audiences, find a content format that already has that relationship, and buy attention directly from them, rather than going through the intermediary of a social platform or ad network.

Don’t rely on last click attribution for ROAS metrics. User journeys are always far more complex than a linear sales funnel. Particularly for high value B2B sales that are likely to go through procurement processes, you can’t measure the value of brand building content campaigns through quantitive metrics. Instead, use surveys to see what kinds of content moved your audience over the subscription barrier to build that important direct relationship.

Reading list

The excellent Brian Morrissey at The Rebooting on ‘Google Zero’ - how publishers are preparing for life after Google search traffic, quoting BlueConic’s Cory Munchbach on the shift to focusing on depth, not breadth: "I'd rather have a deeper relationship with a smaller audience than a thinner relationship with a larger audience.”

Also talking about Google Zero is Ben Young in his highly-recommended Nudge Newsletter. It was Nudge that linked to the AdExchanger email that inspired this post, so go subscribe now! Ben is particularly smart about the shift to measuring complex attention metrics, not just simple reach metrics, which feels like a good shift for the ad industry.

If you’re (like me) still learning about attribution, here’s a great primer of the different models used in multi-touch attribution. I’m an absolute nerd for audience metrics, so I love this stuff, but even I get deeply confused by its complexity.

And if you want to go even deeper and nerdier, Avinash Kaushik has some older, but still great, detailed explainers of multi-touch attribution.