Connecting online ads to store sales (column)

AdGear's Lee Marshall on how to take attribution offline

Lee Marshall April 07, 2015

Retail marketers at many companies are missing out on a substantial payoff by not looking for the connection between the advertising they pay for online and the sales they make offline.

That said, it’s a difficult puzzle that can be frustrating to solve and it’s not surprising that many advertisers keep offline attribution at arms length.

How do you solve the puzzle? The first step is to focus on using a unique key to connect the online and offline worlds. Remember, offline still rules retail in Canada and offline attribution is often the only way to know if your online marketing is driving offline sales. In 2014, online sales made up only 6% of retail shopping in the country, according to market research company Forrester Research. Ecommerce is growing–Forrester estimates by 2019 online sales will account for 10% of the marketplace–but for now we can count on the vast majority of Canadians forgoing digital shopping carts in favour of the traditional kind.

Offline attribution ascribes offline purchases to online advertising. Namely, which ads did the consumer see on the computer, mobile phone or tablet before heading to the store or picking up a phone to make a purchase?

It works by tagging impressions and clicks with a transaction ID. This tag marks every time a consumer sees or interacts with a company advertisement, enabling the tracking of these events. Next, this consumer activity data is fed into an external tracking system. Finally, the customer’s trackable online activity can be compared with in-store purchases – but only if that company has a unique key for identifying their customers online and off.

The truth is that there is no unique key that will work for all companies. To figure out which key will work, think about how your company activity intersects the two worlds.

One example of a key is the coupon. Imagine that a sporting goods store offers online coupons, each one with a unique ID, for a discount on running shoes. A triathlete downloads the coupon: now his subsequent impressions and clicks will be trackable and tied to his coupon’s unique ID. If the triathlete comes to the store to buy a pair of shoes with the coupon, then the company will be able to close the loop and link the in-store purchase with the advertising he saw online.

Another example is loyalty programs. For example, a coffee lover who buys coffee everyday uses the points card on her mobile phone. In exchange for discounts on the drinks she buys, she shares valuable information with her favourite coffee chain. The chain can track impressions and clicks on her phone (and across other devices, with the right technology). They will also know all of her purchases, because she flashes her mobile app at the register. The loyalty app allows the company to link marketing exposure and purchase information. If they compare her shopping patterns with many other customers, the coffee company can determine which advertising had the most impact on sales.

Regardless of the key you use, cultivating a standard technique for offline attribution is vital to making the most of your ad spend. Without it, you are just throwing money into the internet vacuum and hoping for a return. Even if you’re lucky and sales improve, you won’t know for certain which advertising was responsible, or whether some non-advertising variable actually drove sales.

Attributing offline sales is important, but the methods aren’t perfect yet. Now that technology can track the same consumer as they move across devices, the next step is working to flawlessly integrate transaction IDs, cookies, IP addresses and external CRM data.

This column was submitted by Lee Marshall, who is a content marketing specialist at AdGear, a Montreal-based ad tech company.