What’s last may not be first

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Diamond ring

What’s last may not be first

By Rebecca Visconti

Are diamonds the reason people get married?

Stay with me here a minute. Men often present women with a diamond ring when they “pop the question.” Should the diamond industry be taking credit for all those marriages? “Diamonds: The real reason people get married.” I mean, after all, it’s the last thing that happens before “yes,” right? So it must be the reason she said yes.

Um, of course not. People say “yes” and get married because they’ve built up a relationship of love and trust over time and want to create a future together and file joint tax returns and argue over who cleaned up the kitchen last. Not because they exchange a shiny, overpriced chunk of carbon that somebody dug up. The diamond might end up being the last step before “yes,” but that doesn’t mean it caused yes. 

Seems self-evident, right? Well, it isn’t, at least not in our business. Because even in this age of ubiquitous tracking, data, and technology, we in pharma are still for the most part giving credit for our audiences’ actions along the brand journey to the last communication they saw. 

Let me give you an example. Let’s say Bob Jones, he’s on Facebook, and he sees a paid Facebook ad for this brand that he’s never heard of before. He sees this ad, he clicks on it, he goes to the site and reads a little bit and then leaves. He’s not ready to convert. Then maybe a bit later he starts thinking about it again and does a Google search. He searches for a term that turns out to be a paid search keyword, which brings him back to that same site, where he explores a bit more, but for whatever reason he still doesn’t convert. While he’s there, though, he signs up for an email newsletter. The following week he gets an email in his box from the brand, and he clicks through that email, and now he’s finally ready to ask his doctor about the brand. He finally converts. 

Historically, and for the most part still to this day, most brands attribute the full credit for that conversion to the email, the last touch. They’re saying, “He converted because he got the email.”

This matters a very great deal. Because the communication that gets the credit for conversions gets the love and the greater investment from the powers that be. And the communications that don’t, don’t. 

The reality of the situation on the ground, of course, is quite different. The original Facebook ad and the paid search keyword clearly played a role in Bob Jones’ path to conversion. And that is in fact the case with many interactions between pharma brands and their audiences. Patients’ paths to conversion don’t usually consist of just one marketing touch. They arise from a series of exposures, impression after impression that slowly build an awareness and gradually nudge towards a decision to convert. 

Yet that email, or its equivalent, frequently gets all the love. If one thinks of all brand communications in terms of a funnel towards conversion, certain channels or communications tend to be at the top of the funnel – in this case, the banner ad or the paid search keyword – and others tend to be at the bottom of the funnel – in this case, the email. And if one is attributing all the conversions to the tools at the bottom of the funnel, it would objectively make sense to move one’s resources away from the tools at the top to the tools at the bottom. Which is in fact what many brands do. And is exactly backwards. If one does that, one is pulling the first dominos out of the chain, removing the first steps towards acquisition and the chance for patients to build confidence in the brand before seeing that last communication and deciding to convert. Without the banner ad and the paid keyword, the email is never received, and if it was would have no meaning. 

Which means that we all have to start taking a much more sophisticated approach to marketing attribution if we really want to know what is and isn’t working. We need to find ways to include the impact of the banner ad and the paid keyword into our calculations. If marketing communications to patients in 2022 have become a multistep, multi-touch process – and I doubt anyone will argue that they haven’t – then the valuation of and subsequent investment in each of those steps needs to be just as robust as the steps themselves. 

Doing so, of course, is going to be a challenge. Social media sites like Facebook are generally not in the habit of providing that level of individualized information to advertisers; you probably aren’t going to know if someone saw your Facebook ad unless they actually click on it. But as the data environment in which we are all playing grows more robust and the available tools get more advanced, the possibility of real, substantive marketing attribution is coming into view. There are vendors out there who can help brands identify who is looking at their banner ads. There are vendors who can help track HCP impressions via medical websites like Sermo. There are vendors who can develop platforms that support advanced marketing attribution logic. The data sets, to paraphrase Agent Mulder, are out there, especially on the HCP side where physicians are constantly logging into all manner of sites designed solely for their use. 

Achieving real, usable multi-touchpoint marketing attribution, though, will require a new way of thinking and doing. First, the brand needs to make the infrastructure investment and be committed to building this sort of advanced data ecosystem. This involves setting up the capacity to resolve identity at as many marketing touch points as possible and being able to merge that capability with conversion data as well. Tools,  platforms, and partners exist to be able to do it, and brands need to embrace and commit to using these systems to evolve their marketing model. As attribution insights prove their ROI by informing and optimizing marketing efforts, every time the brand begins to explore a new communications channel, part of the conversation must be, “What does the attribution data say?” This means a substantial change to the way we think about channels on an ongoing basis.

Think of the upside. We all know the old saw in marketing, “I know I’m wasting half of my budget, but which half is it?” Genuine marketing attribution has the potential to give us an answer to that question. We’ll actually be able to make legitimate data-driven decisions about specific communications and channels. And we’ll be able to go to bed at night knowing that every dollar spent has a solid basis.

The second step towards advanced marketing attribution is a bit more philosophical. We have to be prepared to trust the answers we find, irrespective of any sacred cows they might toss on the grill. I once participated in the implementation of a powerful marketing attribution platform that made it very clear very quickly that one of the client company’s best-loved marketing tools, its outbound telemarketing channel (this was not a pharma brand!), was operating at a net loss. When the company had been attributing all conversions to the last touch, outbound telemarketing seemed to make sense. But when you took that 100 percent credit away and started moving pieces of it to some of the other touches that occurred earlier in the journey, that big, expensive call center began to look like, well, a big, expensive call center that wasn’t earning its keep. Even so, the big, expensive call center stayed, because some of the company’s traditional, old-school marketing stakeholders just couldn’t accept the idea of eliminating it. If real, live marketing attribution is to become a part of our decision making processes, we need to be prepared to accept, or at least seriously consider, the conclusions it brings us. 

Are you ready to take the first steps towards advanced marketing attribution? Or perhaps it’d be better if I put the question another way. Do you really believe that diamonds are the only reason people get married? 

Rebecca Visconti, AbelsonTaylor Rebecca Visconti is VP, marketing intelligence for AbelsonTaylor.