Mobile’s post-attribution era

One of the biggest challenges emerging in mobile marketing is attribution: not in a technical sense but in a philosophical sense. With the mobile phone ensconced prominently at the center of most people’s lives as their conduit to everything — travel, food, friends, games, dating, news, music, etc. — it’s generally no longer necessary to reach someone with an ad on a smartphone before understanding whether they have one. Almost everyone whom a marketer of mobile consumer technology products would want to reach can be assumed to have a smartphone: mobile devices will account for 79% of internet usage in 2018, and in the US, 81% of people aged 13+ own a smartphone.

There’s an app for that” has become a gratuitous anachronism — a nostalgic jingle that beckons a bygone era of discovery. It’s not just that “there’s an app for that” is universally true — it’s that the that, in the developing world, is already being accommodated. Few people that ever will have never played a mobile game. Few people that ever will have never used a music or video streaming service. Few people that ever will have never used a ride sharing service. Few people that ever will have never used a mobile dating service. Yes, there’s an app for that — and most people already have it on their phones.

While tech pundits mourn the death of mobile apps and, more broadly and bizarrely, mobile, everyone that works in the myriad thriving businesses that exist exclusively on mobile prepares for life in a post-attribution world. App developers are no longer competing for the uninitiated: they’re no longer exclusively trying to reach first adopters in the developed world. Since everyone has a smartphone, everyone is a potential customer, and so marketing tactics have changed: hyper-targeted direct response ads have a place in every company’s strategic arsenal, but since users are everywhere, they need to be reached everywhere. Direct response, alone, simply isn’t broad enough to reach the total addressable market of a company operating in a big, expansive lifestyle space.

Which calls into question the efficacy and viability of attribution in this new world. Direct response advertising is the easiest, most cost effective, and the most audit-able way of onboarding mobile users. For that reason, direct response marketing is fairly straightforward, and direct response marketing teams are endlessly scaleable: subdivide the team into platforms, territories, channels until the Director of Android Marketing for Google Search, Western Europe has a corner office.

But when everyone is doing that — since smartphone sales growth is flat and everyone is competing for the same users — who really benefits from this approach besides Google and Facebook, who owned 99% of growth in the digital advertising industry in Q3 2016? Direct response marketing at scale becomes sumo wrestling with balance sheets.

One mistake I see companies make is to assume that the opposite of direct response marketing is brand marketing — in other words, that non-direct response marketing is by definition qualitative, subjective, and driven by some “creative person’s” whims rather than performance. But performance marketing is an organizational mentality, and it manifests in many forms. Just because a campaign isn’t direct response doesn’t mean it’s not a form of performance marketing.

And this is where the concept of attribution on mobile begins to whither as marketers diversify away from direct response. TV, influencer, out-of-home, etc. can all be integrated into performance marketing machinery with an eye toward profit at the unit level. But this is difficult; it requires building a top-down model of a company’s marketing schema that incorporates 1) uncertainty and 2) statistical robustness. And these channels aren’t attributable: the outcome of these campaigns, while capable of being evaluated broadly, can’t be specifically measured at the level of the individual user. Modeling this is no trivial task: it requires comfort with uncertainty and the ability to use variability as a source of improvement.

Direct response marketing is operational; performance marketing is strategic. A common refrain among user acquisition managers is that they “measure everything” and “test everything,” which is fine within the realm of direct response but unrealistic in non-direct response performance marketing. When nothing can be measured (attributed) but there’s lots of money to be made in a big market, how is a business built? That’s the next big question that mobile marketers need to be able to answer.