Over-attribution is when you log into Facebook and it tells you it earned you $100,000 in a period, then Google says it earned you $100,000 in that same period. But $100,000 x 2 = $200,000, and you only received $125,000 worth of orders during that same time period.”
This reporting scenario that Meaghan Connell, CEO and co-founder of Praxis Metrics, shared has the ability to send chills down most Facebook advertiser’s back.
It brings up the inevitable question, “Why does the attribution data in Facebook not match the data in Google Analytics?”
It’s not hard to explain the answer—it’s more that the answer isn’t black-and-white, and can often raise more questions for digital marketers and our clients.
Ultimately, Facebook and Google are two competing businesses with their own proprietary tracking and are diametrically opposed.
Meaghan puts it best:
“When it comes to Facebook versus Google tracking and reporting, there are a few things you have to understand:
Even though the two platforms integrate with each other, each is entirely separate. They have different goals, definitions, standards, and abilities for tracking.
Each platform only owns their own data. That means, when you go into the reporting aspects of Google Ads or Facebook, you will naturally have mathematically biased information. Each platform only sees one variable (their ads) as an impact on your sales. However, there are always multiple variables involved—multi-channel marketing, public relations, organic posts… even the weather and political climate might potentially impact your sales.
So, when you log in and see varying information, it's not that they are trying to be dishonest, it's that they are only presenting you their side of the story.
Anyone who's ever been in a relationship knows that there is your side of the story, their side of the story, and the truth, which is somewhere in the middle. So, when it comes to Facebook and Google reporting, neither is lying, it’s just that neither is showing you the entire picture because they both are inherently biased.”
I can’t tell you how many conversations and analytics sessions I’ve had with my cohort, Jason Linde, IMPACT’s resident Google Ads strategist, on this topic:
“Most of the time I see clients utilize Google Analytics unpacked ‘as-is,’ not fully understanding that it is up to them to feed Google Analytics data back that helps the platform to better understand their specific business model,” said Jason. “This means that both clients and agencies need to work together on setting goals, filtering out bad data and finding that attribution model that best fits their buyer’s journey. If you are not filtering your funnel to what matters most, then what are you optimizing for?”
They both have ad space to sell you and they both want you to think their platform delivers the most return.
Now, this isn’t the reason why the metrics are different, but it is the reason we will never see the platforms have cohesive reports.
One of my colleagues, Jason Portnoy (who has a fantastic podcast with a who’s who lineup of the digital marketing world), explained:
“You’ll never reconcile the two until both platforms merge reporting (which will never happen). You can get close, but [they’ll] never be 100% accurate and identical. I’ve gone through this way more times than needed. I’ve spoken to some of the top Facebook marketers and some of the top Google marketers, and both sides say the same.”
Both platforms want to paint themselves in the most positive light and with good reason.
Both have their benefits and can deliver results.
“If the client is running display [Google Ads] and Facebook [Ads], Google tracking becomes critical,” said Curt Maly, one of my mentors and co-founder of Black Box Social Media.
“If your objective is to bring in straight-up customers, top-of-funnel, with little to no retargeting... I would go off of Facebook stats. If there is a lot of traffic that is warm that I’m retargeting (including their email lists)... I’ll want to compare Facebook tracking and Google.”
Note, Curt said “compare”—not use one over the other.
In other words, we need to look at both to easily see what’s working, what’s not, and where to put more budget.
We’re All In This Together
Sometimes, there is so much data for you to sift through, you can feel paralyzed. Knowing what to monitor and where to get the details from is no easy task.
The entire digital marketing ecosystem needs to work together as a single buyer’s journey is rarely one-touch; it usually includes campaigns or content from a variety of sources. (More on that in a second.)
Trying to nail down the exact credit or attribution for a specific channel in an omni-channel marketing effort like this is not only very difficult, but can lead to some very bad decision-making.
In Google Analytics, you will always see substantially fewer purchases attributed to any channel that is not proprietary to Google.
But if you stop running your Facebook Ads, you'll see a drop in organic search and direct conversions.
Similarly, while you can't see purchases from other channels in Facebook Ads Manager, if you stop running your Google Ads you'll see your Facebook purchases go down.
“Ultimately if you are getting an acceptable cost per acquisition, I like to look at it as an integrated marketing effort leading to a desired outcome, not ‘Facebook gets this much credit and Google that much,’” said Alex Afterman, Facebook Ads coach and trainer for CatHowell.com, and owner of 11:11 Digital.
That makes sense--it all works together to lead to the sale.
This is actually illustrated with Top Conversion Paths in Google Analytics. Here’s an example that shows exactly what Alex means:
As you can see, there was no single factor that lead to the sale; it was a team effort.
Alex continues “...ROAS (Return on Ad Spend) looks at attribution for individual transactions and customer acquisition. So, if you consider the LTV (Lifetime Value) of your customers, Facebook and Google -- and any of your prospecting channels -- are getting significantly less revenue attributed to them than they are actually generating for your business.”
In other words, that conversion path example above is most likely ONLY going to attribute the actual sale to the last click, which is why it can be so detrimental to make budgeting decisions without the complete picture.
We mustnot take a singular metric from anywhere at face-value without thinking about the overall goals and health of business.
Isolated, one-sided information will be the death of growth, and possibly of businesses.
Let’s Talk About Last Click…
I want you to think about your own personal online buying habits.
When is the last time you discovered a brand and instantly purchased from it?
I’m guessing never.
I know I haven’t. And, apparently, I’m not alone.
A 2018 Inc. article highlighted that “a study from Episerver showed that most transactions don't happen during an initial visit to a website. According to their report, nine out of 10 (92%) consumers visit a brand's website for the first time to do something other than make a purchase.”
Let’s explore this a little more.
I am a self-confessed shopaholic and, I can tell you, I never purchase immediately. Here’s a quick example:
Me [scrolling through Instagram]: Oh, that shirt is so cute. It would look so good on my 10-year-old.
10-Year-Old: Mom, can you help me reach the cups?
Me: Yeah, one minute. Let me just add this yellow shirt to the cart.
Me: ...what was that?!
10-Year-Old: Oops! I was so thirsty, I may have accidentally, sort of, maybe knocked over every cup in the cabinet.
An hour later.
Me: I have to finish a report. Let me see if I got the details I needed.
Me: Oh, I need to donate to my friend’s cause on Facebook. I’m glad I got that reminder on Messenger just now. Oh wait, there’s that yellow shirt! I have to remember to get that! Let me create an account and make sure I put it in my cart again.
10-Year-Old: The dog got out!! Help me, mom!
Me to myself: $%^&*#)
Me outloud: Okay honey, coming!
The next day.
Me: Time to grab coffee, check email and get moving! Oh! There’s that yellow shirt again! And now it’s in my inbox! With a discount! Let me get that for my 10-year-old now.
FINALLY… I purchase the yellow shirt.
BUT WAIT -- Which platform gets credit for the sale?
In situations like this, most programs (i.e. Google Analytics) default to what’s called “last click.”
So, in this pretty normal purchasing scenario for my household, email gets the win.
“You're measuring off of ‘they clicked and they converted,’ which is not necessarily the right way to do it, in my opinion,” Andrew Foxwell, and co-founder of Foxwell Digital where he has worked with the likes of KIND Snacks, Hilton, The Grand Ole Opry, Blenders Eyewear, Pura Vida Bracelets, said during one of his podcasts.
“That can be difficult when you are looking at your budgeting. If you're looking purely at last click, you're going to be dedicating more resources to the places where there’s less friction towards the end of the funnel, but maybe not crediting enough of the top of the funnel, where you're actually opening up and bringing in new people.”
In other words, you’ll be making ad spend decisions based on data that doesn’t tell the whole story.
There has to be a better way to understand attribution, right?
Well, good news -- there is.
(Side note: Andrew Foxwell’s podcast is one of my go-to resources and I highly recommend you add it to your must-listen to list.)
Really Understanding Attribution Data
Meaghan Connell dug deeper into understanding attribution for me as well:
“There is a ton of data available to you. But data alone will not grow your business,” Meaghan began. “It’s the knowledge from the data that will inform your team on how to grow. Companies that focus on causation will scale. Those that don’t, will fail.”
In other words, Meaghan is saying that taking action from data is the new competitive advantage.
As she rolled up her sleeves (literally and figuratively), I knew I was about to get some juicy perspective):
“There are two steps to get accurate reporting on your marketing efforts in your systems.
Get as much information as possible. Information is simply multiple points of data brought together to allow you to see patterns and gain answers to questions, like:
How much overlap do we have in reporting?
Are there clients that have been exposed to multiple marketing efforts?
If so, are we tying together their customer journey with accurate tracking efforts?
What are all the possible impacts on our sales?
How have they impacted sales before?
Are there correlations?
How are you going to answer these questions to get the insights you desire? You must have the data in order to be able to analyze the data to get insight.
That means, tracking is the first and primary component of accuracy in your reporting:
Are you tracking your client's journey?
Do you have organized UTMs setup?
Are you using pixels?
Do you have unique identifiers for your clients that allow you to see their customer journey?
If not, that's your first goal.
Start organizing your tracking efforts so that you can start gathering the data you will need in the future.
Once you have tracking in place, you can typically manually create Excel reports that give you a much more accurate depiction of your marketing efforts (including lift effects and other variables). However, over time, that becomes tedious and time consuming and allows for too much human error.
The next logical step is to automate via ETL (extracting, transforming, and loading the information from these systems into a singular place) and then to visualize the combined, clean data with a dashboard.
This enables you to eliminate wasted time, effort, and give you insights in a quick and digestible manner.”
My brain hurts a little. And I love data. Luckily, she graciously shared an in-depth video about information optimization so she can explain it even more:
So, What Now?
I asked Meaghan if it’s hopeless. Will attribution ever really be clear?
“Everyone has different backgrounds and experience, so when they look at a metric they will see one thing and come up with an action item based off their experience; but if you bring in another set of eyes, that person may see something totally different and come to a different conclusion,” she replied.
It was a little alarming to hear it was so subjective, but then she gave me hope:
“Democratizing data and making it accessible to more people will lead to greater insights and more options for ways to proceed.”
Basically, don’t analyze in a vacuum. Recognize and respect the other perspectives so that you can have a collaborative approach.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of perspectives on attribution, and as Meaghan mentioned, data will always be biased within its own channel.
However, ultimately the goal is understanding the true customer’s purchase journey to determine the most effective marketing channels for investment...and, in turn, business growth.
Instead of trying to find a single, clear cut answer to the question of Facebook Ads Manager metrics or Google Analytics, you need to embrace a more holistic approach to attribution. Work with your team and set clear goals from the outset of your campaigns.
And, when it’s all over, never rely on a single channel to tell you the whole story.