Destination Digital

Navigating the Shift to GA4: Understanding Data-Driven Attribution

In the ever-evolving landscape of digital marketing, staying ahead of the curve is crucial. Google’s latest move to GA4 (Google Analytics 4) is a significant shift, particularly in the way attribution is calculated. Moving away from the simplicity of ‘last click attribution,’ GA4 introduces the concept of ‘data-driven attribution,’ providing a more nuanced understanding of the customer journey.

It has to be said, the move from the well-loved and well-understood Universal Analytics to GA4 in July 2023 has been one of the most catastrophic things to have happened to the lives of digital marketers in a very long time.

We don’t mean to be dramatic, but GA4 really is a horrible interface, and conceptually it is such a different method of counting that it has upset the apple cart of so many businesses.

Whilst there are agencies out there professing the virtues of GA4 and the ‘power’ it can unlock (if you are well versed in creating custom reports with all the ‘dimensions’, ‘filters’ and ‘metrics’ options, or using Looker Studio that is), it’s a pain. But we are where we are, and so we need to adapt to it.

One of the questions we get asked the most is ‘why don’t my numbers match what we were tracking before?’. The switch in July to GA4 caused a seismic shift in KPIs across the board and one of the key reasons is the switch to ‘data-driven attribution’. So let’s discuss that.

From Last-Click to Data-Driven Attribution

In the traditional last-click attribution model, the channel responsible for the last interaction before a sale takes all the credit. If the final click was from an ad, Google Ads claimed the sale; if it was from an email, email marketing took the credit.

Enter GA4 with its data-driven attribution model, a game-changer in the way we analyse user journeys. This model recognises that a conversion is often the result of multiple touchpoints across various channels. Here’s a scenario to illustrate its complexity:

  • Day One: A potential customer clicks on a link from a social media post but doesn’t make a purchase.
  • Day Two: The same individual clicks on an email link but still doesn’t convert.
  • Day Three: The customer, now ready to make a purchase, searches on Google, finds and then clicks on an ad, and completes the transaction.

Under the old system, Google Ads would have claimed the entire sale. However, with data-driven attribution, each channel involved is credited based on its contribution. In this case, Google Ads, email, and social media would each receive a share of the credit – one third each to be precise or 0.33 in the GA4 reports.

Whilst this is a fairer representation of their role in the conversion, seeing numbers like ‘4.33’ conversions attributed to a certain channel is confusing for people who’ve long been used to seeing whole numbers with last-click attribution.

The Fairness of Data-Driven Attribution

The shift to data-driven attribution is indeed fairer, acknowledging the ‘assists’ that other channels provide throughout the customer journey. It paints a more accurate picture of the customer’s decision-making process, attributing value to each touchpoint, not just the last one.

While this fairness is commendable, it introduces a level of complexity to reporting. As illustrated in the example, attributions are divided among various channels, making it crucial for marketers to adapt their reporting strategies to this new reality.

Consider a scenario where a conversion is attributed as follows:

  • Organic Search: 0.43
  • Cross-Network (effectively Google Ads): 0.29
  • Paid Search (Google Ads): 0.28

Adding these up results in a whole, indicating that the conversion is a result of a combined effort from different channels. In this case, roughly half of the credit goes to Google Ads, with the other half attributed to organic search.

In this example, we would be able to break down that the singular sale was attributed to these three channels in this way, which is easy enough to understand. It gets more confusing when you login to GA4 and see numbers like 15.08 and 27.37 as more and more sales are tracked and they are proportionally split amongst the touch points the multiples of customers have made in their journeys to becoming a converted, paying customer.

As businesses have now transitioned to GA4, there’s an opportunity to gain deeper insights into customer behaviour. However, adapting to this new attribution model requires marketers to rethink their reporting strategies and leverage the enhanced data to optimise their campaigns effectively.

Embracing GA4’s data-driven attribution model is essential for any digital marketing consultancy looking to provide accurate and insightful reporting. While it may introduce reporting challenges, the fair distribution of credit among multiple touchpoints ultimately leads to a more comprehensive understanding of the customer journey and could help traditionally poor ‘last click’ conversion channels such as social media get a fair proportion of the attribution.

As the digital marketing landscape continues to evolve, staying agile and informed is the key to success.


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