The definition of "attribution" in the marketing industry is: assigning a source (eg. Facebook, Google etc) to a marketing activity (eg. install). Usually in mobile marketing this is done by mapping a click or impression's source to a user installing an app (more on how this is done later). By looking at post install events (eg. purchase) marketers can determine whether or not their marketing spend for that source was worthwhile.
Attribution is fairly simple when there is only one source, however once you have several advertising sources a user may see or click on ads from different sources and it becomes hard to determine which source should be given credit for the final install. An example would be if a user clicks on both Facebook and Pinterest ads and then downloads an app, who should be given credit?
Mobile marketers use a mobile measurement provider (MMP) to help determine which source should be attributed for downloading an app. They use last click or last impression (if there was no click) to determine which network made the user finally install the app. This allows marketers to understand the true value of each source and potentially turn off sources that are underperforming.
To do this mobile measurement providers typically use tracking links and SDKs to capture vital information at different points of a users journey. A typical process is - user clicks on an ad --> tracking link redirects through an MMP --> MMP captures information on the user --> user is redirected to the app store --> user downloads and opens the app --> MMPs SDK in the app initializes --> sends information on user the MMPs server --> MMP compares the user who opens the app to the user who clicked to make sure they match.
Usually the information that is captured to determine this is an advertising ID - IDFA (iOS) or GPS AID (Google), in cases where that is not available fingerprinting is used as a backup (finger printing is the process of using different data points eg. IP, OS version to match who a user is).
In an ideal world there would be no discrepancies, however attribution is rarely this easy and discrepancies are a normal part of mobile marketing. Examples of discrepancies are:
- Fraud (this is a whole other topic),
- Different definitions on what an install is (Apple / Google count it as download, everyone else a download and open),
- Limited Ad Tracking (allow users to opt out of ad tracking),
- Users have several devices (eg. iPad and iPhone Apple sees this as one user, an MMP as two different advertising IDs).
- Different geos (eg. if a person who uses the US Appstore downloads an app in Germany)
On top of this are discrepancies between MMPs and Self Attributing networks. eg. Facebook / Instagram, Google, Yahoo, Twitter and Snapchat. These will make what your MMP reports and what Facebook reports sometimes very different.
After saying this mobile measurement is one of the most accurate ways to measure marketing performance, if you are seeing a lot of discrepancies talk to you MMP or other mobile marketers!