Volume 2, Issue 9 - September, 2012
Phil Gross, Assoc. Director, Product Management, Visual IQ
This article was updated on February 6, 2017. Click here to read the most up-to-date version on Visual IQ’s marketing intelligence blog.
One of the frequently asked questions about the “plumbing” that enables the marketing attribution process to function is how individual users can be tracked. How does attribution management software recognize that the same person who saw a Wall Street Journal display ad yesterday also arrived on a website by way of a search click today, and then subsequently purchased?
This is accomplished by stringing together all of the marketing touchpoints to which a user was exposed to create an engagement stack – a chronologically ordered list of all the marketing touchpoints experienced by an individual user. In the previous example, this was a three-touch engagement stack (Wall Street Journal ad yesterday, search click today, conversion today). You can imagine that in many companies’ marketing ecosystems there can be millions of users and their individual engagement stacks.
Tracking users and their engagement stacks is at the core of a modern, algorithmic-fractional attribution methodology. There are several tracking technologies that make this possible. The most common types of tracking technologies are cookies, click redirects, image tags, and tag containers.
Cookies are a simple technology that have been around since the early days of the web. They are pieces of code that web servers use to put information on a user’s browser, and then retrieve that information at a later time for various uses. For example, YouTube sets a cookie on your browser to remember your user name and volume settings so you don’t have to input those every time. Cookies are privacy conscious by design, so that only the server domain that sets a cookie is able to retrieve it.
For media running outside of the ad server, such as paid search, one approach is to apply click redirects within the URL. These briefly send the user through the ad server to be cookied and then shoot them back out to their desired landing page. This happens in a fraction of a second and is barely perceptible by the user. Because that intermediate hop is on the ad server domain, it can log the data needed to record and read the cookie for the unique ID.
For media without a click event (such as navigating to a site directly), click redirects cannot be used. In those cases, the solution is to use pixel tags (also known as tags, 1x1 pixels, or web bugs). Pixel tags are typically single pixel, transparent GIF images that are added to a web page. Even though the pixel tag is virtually invisible, it is still served just like any other image you may see online. The trick is that the web page is served from the site’s domain while the image is served from the ad server’s domain. This allows the ad server to read and record the cookie with the unique ID and the extended information it needs to record.
As you can see, there are a host of technologies used to track user engagement stacks for attribution measurement. Once all the touchpoints for a user are recorded by an ad server, attribution software can consume the log files that ad servers provide to do the work necessary to appropriately assign fractional credit to each touchpoint that contributed to a desired outcome.
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