Exploring the First-Touch Attribution Model: Pros, Cons, and Best Practices


Ashley Levesque


Exploring the First-Touch Attribution Model: Pros, Cons, and Best Practices

Various types of marketing attribution models exist to help businesses understand the impact of their marketing campaigns in relation to their marketing budget. One such model is first-touch attribution, which attributes the entire conversion credit to the first sales or marketing touchpoint a customer interacts with. In this blog post, we'll delve into first-touch attribution, exploring its pros, cons, and best practices. By understanding the intricacies of this model, you can make informed decisions about its application within your marketing strategy.

What is the First-Touch Attribution Model?

First-touch attribution is a marketing attribution model that gives full credit for a conversion or desired action to the initial touchpoint a customer engages with. It focuses on identifying the touchpoint responsible for initiating the customer's journey and attributes its impact as the sole driver of the conversion. Common first-touch attribution touchpoints include the first ad impression, initial website visit, or introduction through a referral source.

In the early stages of the customer journey, the first touchpoint plays a critical role in creating awareness, generating interest, and drawing the customer into further engagement. By assigning the entire conversion credit to this touchpoint, businesses gain insights into customer acquisition channels and the value of brand exposure as it relates to their marketing goals. For example, a marketing campaign within an account based marketing strategy could target a list of specific accounts with a personalized ad. If those accounts go on to become customers, this model gives all the credit to the ad (and marketing campaign behind it). This company would use this information to invest more in this strategy and campaign, given its success.

The Pros of First-Touch Attribution

The first-touch attribution model offers several benefits that can be advantageous for businesses:

  • Clear Understanding of Customer Acquisition: First-touch attribution provides businesses with a clear understanding of how they acquire customers. By attributing the entire conversion credit to the first touchpoint, companies can easily identify the marketing channels or campaigns that generate initial interest and attract potential customers to their brand. For example, if a customer discovers a brand through a social media ad and then proceeds to make a purchase, the social media ad would receive full credit for the acquisition. This knowledge allows businesses to optimize their marketing strategies and allocate resources effectively, ensuring they invest in the channels that drive the most valuable leads.
  • Awareness and Brand Exposure: First-touch attribution recognizes the significance of brand awareness and exposure in the customer journey. It highlights the impact of early touchpoints, such as advertisements or content that create awareness and initiate customer engagement. For instance, if a customer stumbles upon a brand's blog post through a search engine and later becomes a loyal customer, the search engine touchpoint would receive full credit for introducing the customer to the brand. By acknowledging these touchpoints, businesses can strengthen their brand presence and shape customer perceptions. They can invest in content marketing, social media campaigns, and other initiatives that generate initial awareness, helping them build a strong foundation for lasting customer relationships.
  • Simplicity and Ease of Implementation: First-touch attribution offers a straightforward and easily understandable model for businesses. Compared to more complex attribution models like multi-touch or position-based attribution, it requires minimal data collection and analysis. For example, a company can use web analytics to track the first interaction a customer has with their brand, such as clicking on a search ad or visiting their website directly. This simplicity makes first-touch attribution an accessible choice, especially for businesses with limited resources or those just beginning to implement attribution models. It enables swift adoption and integration into existing marketing strategies and tech stacks, allowing companies to quickly gain valuable insights into their customer acquisition process without overwhelming complexity.
  • Prove ROI on Top of Funnel Marketing: First-touch attribution plays a crucial role in proving the value of some of the lesser understood top-of-funnel marketing efforts, such as content marketing and brand awareness initiatives. By attributing conversion credit to the first touchpoint, businesses can track the initial interactions that led to customer acquisition. For instance, if a customer first discovers a brand through a captivating blog post or an engaging social media campaign, first-touch attribution would credit these top-of-funnel efforts for driving the customer's interest and eventual conversion. This data-driven approach provides marketers with concrete evidence of the impact of their content and brand initiatives on the customer journey. Armed with this information, marketing teams can make a compelling case for investing in top-of-funnel strategies that build brand recognition and engage potential customers, demonstrating their significant contribution to the overall marketing success and ROI.

The Cons of First-Touch Attribution

While first-touch attribution has its benefits, it also has limitations that businesses should be aware of:

  • Inability to account for repeat customers or multiple touchpoints: First-touch attribution assumes that every customer follows a linear path from initial contact to conversion. However, this is often not the case, especially for repeat customers or those who engage with multiple touchpoints before making a purchase. As a result, the true impact of these touchpoints may be overlooked.
*"Illustrative Customer Buying Journey" image from Gartner, 2023.

  • Difficulty in measuring the impact of offline touchpoints: First-touch attribution is primarily focused on digital touchpoints, making it challenging to account for the impact of offline touchpoints such as in-store visits, phone calls, or printed advertisements. This omission can result in an incomplete understanding of the customer journey and lead to inaccurate decision-making.

  • Limited Insight into the Full Customer Journey: Relying solely on the first touchpoint for attribution may result in a restricted view of the customer journey. In reality, customer interactions often involve multiple touchpoints across various channels. For example, a B2B customer might discover a brand through a search engine, engage with content on social media, and then sign up for a newsletter before making a purchase. First-touch attribution would credit the search engine alone, neglecting the impact of subsequent touchpoints that nurtured the customer's interest and contributed to the final conversion.
  • Neglecting Later Touchpoints and Influencers: First-touch attribution focuses solely on the initial touchpoint, potentially overlooking the contributions of later touchpoints and influencers. As customers progress through the buyer's journey, they may encounter various marketing and sales efforts that reinforce their decision to purchase. For instance, a well-timed email campaign or a personalized product demonstration might be the final push a customer needs to convert. Ignoring these critical touchpoints can lead to undervaluing the impact of revenue campaigns that play a pivotal role in driving conversions. To obtain a more accurate picture, businesses may want to consider the cumulative effect of all touchpoints, giving credit to the ones that played a part in closing the deal, such as a time decay attribution model.
  • Accurate Identification: One of the challenges of first-touch attribution is accurately identifying the actual first touchpoint, especially when it is not easily trackable. While this attribution model assumes that the first touchpoint holds sole responsibility for the conversion, it can be difficult to determine which specific touchpoint initiated the customer's journey, particularly those involving customer referrals, community recommendations, podcasts, and dark social. For this reason alone, many revenue teams agree to use the last-touch attribution model for their business, giving credit to the last, most easily tracked touchpoint.

Best Practices for Implementing First-Touch Attribution

To leverage the benefits of first-touch attribution effectively, consider the following best practices:

  • Combine with Other Attribution Models: To gain a more comprehensive understanding of the customer journey, consider combining first-touch attribution with other models like linear attribution or position-based attribution. This hybrid approach provides a more balanced view of touchpoint contributions throughout the entire customer lifecycle. By utilizing a more comprehensive model, you can capture the nuances of each touchpoint's impact and make data-informed decisions.
  • Analyze Cohorts and Segments: To uncover deeper insights, analyze first-touch attribution data within different customer cohorts or segments. This analysis can reveal variations in the effectiveness of specific touchpoints for different audience groups, enabling more targeted and personalized marketing strategies. By tailoring your approach to different segments, you can optimize your marketing efforts and drive better results.
  • Continuously Evaluate and Refine: Regularly review and refine your attribution model to adapt to changing customer behavior and evolving marketing strategies. As your business and marketing efforts evolve, adjust your attribution approach to ensure it aligns with your objectives and captures the most relevant touchpoints. A dynamic and iterative approach to attribution modeling allows you to stay responsive and maximize the accuracy of your insights.

First-touch attribution offers unique insights into customer acquisition and the impact of initial touchpoints. Understanding its pros, cons, and best practices allows businesses to make informed decisions about its application within their marketing strategies. By combining first-touch attribution with other models and continuously refining your approach, you can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the customer journey and optimize your marketing efforts accordingly.

*Gartner, Focus on Buying Jobs Rather Than the Chaos of Buying Journeys, By Hank Barnes, Dave Egloff, Maria Marino, Refreshed 30 March 2023, Published 6 December 2021
GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the
U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission. All rights reserved.

Isn't it time to level up your scrappy marketing team with a weekly dose of high-octane content?!? 💯
Available on iTunesAvailable on StitcherAvailable on Soundcloud

Show Notes