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Changes in marketing analytics are hardly surprising, particularly as technology and user behaviours evolve. Not too long ago, school marketers had to switch from Google Analytics to GA4, adopting a more streamlined and accurate data platform. Now, school marketers must adapt to Google’s most recent update regarding its GA4 attribution model options.

Attribution is key to understanding how different channels and traffic sources contribute to your conversions. Understanding the various attribution models and how to apply them is essential for your school’s marketing success. With Google’s new updates, some schools may need to revisit their attribution settings. 

Read on to learn more about attribution, Google’s new changes, and how that can impact your school moving forward!

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A Refresher on GA4 Attribution Models for Schools

Before diving into Google’s big changes, it’s important to understand what an attribution model is and how it works for your school. Simply put, it can be understood as the rule determining how conversions are assigned to different touchpoints. They allow you to track which touchpoints provide the most value to your school as prospects navigate the enrollment journey.

Each attribution model tracks conversions differently, and you can use your discretion as a school marketer to assign which attribution model works best for your school. This ultimately depends on your marketing and advertising goals, channels, and existing data. When done right, you can see significant rewards and a boost in your investment return, as evident in the collaborative efforts between HEM and McGill’s SCS.

Previously, the attribution models were as listed below:

  • First-click attribution: All conversion credit is assigned to the first touchpoint
  • Last-click attribution: All conversion credit is assigned to the last touchpoint
  • Linear attribution: All conversion credits are divided equally among all touchpoints
  • Time decay attribution: Conversion credits are mainly assigned to touchpoints near the end of the conversion path (less value to those in the beginning) 
  • Position-based attribution: 40% of the conversion credit goes to the first and last touchpoints, while the remaining 20% goes to the touchpoints in the middle
  • Data-driven attribution: Uses Google’s Machine Learning (ML) algorithm to identify which touchpoints have the most significant impact on your strategy and assigns conversion credit accordingly

Here’s a graphic that outlines how these different Google multi-touch attribution models work on a sample campaign:

OG Attribution

A Breakdown of the GA4 Attribution Model Updates

With an understanding of how attribution models work, you can better understand the magnitude of Google’s recent changes. 

In July 2023, Google retired four attribution models in Google Ads in favour of its AI data-driven attribution model. These models were discontinued mid-July, leaving only last-click and data-driven attribution.

Google is removing four rules-based attribution models but is keeping two: last-click and data-driven attribution models. Data involving either of them will still be retained and nothing in them should break. Those are: 

  • First-click attribution
  • Linear attribution
  • Time decay attribution
  • Position-based attribution

This only leaves last-click and data-driven attribution models for school marketers to use instead. The other four were retired for bidding purposes and from reporting and comparison features. As such, school marketers won’t be able to analyze their prospects’ enrollment journeys in Google Ads and Google Analytics using these old attribution models.

You can change your attribution model in Google Analytics. Start by going to Attribution Settings and selecting your preference from the drop-down menu under “Reporting attribution model.”

If your school has Google Ads accounts using those models, you may have noticed that your data has been lost, and new conversions moving forward will no longer support using any of these retired attribution models. Anything using data-driven and last-click models will still be retained, and nothing in them should break.

The reason why this change occurred, according to Google, is because rules-based attribution models don’t provide users with enough flexibility to enable them to quickly adapt to changing consumer journeys. Data-driven attribution, which uses Google AI, analyzes the impact of each touchpoint on conversion and improves performance—especially when used with auto bidding in Google Ads. 

Google’s research shows that advertisers who switch from other attribution models to data-driven attribution typically see a 6% average increase in conversions. ML algorithms shaping data-driven attribution also assign “fractional credit to customer touch points which may have been previously undervalued,” says Google. This is when Smart Bidding can pick up on new opportunities and boost performance. 

Another reason for the GA4 attribution model update is that the retired attribution models weren’t used heavily enough. Google reports that “less than 3% of Google Ads web conversions are attributed using first-click, linear, time decay, or position-based models.” By making these changes, Google plans to stay on top of shifting marketing and advertising trends to serve its user base better. 

Data-Driven Models Become the Default Setting in GA4

Many rules-based attribution models are no longer supported, leaving the GA4 data-driven attribution model as the default setting. With it, Google uses your school’s conversion data to determine the exact contribution of every ad interaction throughout the conversion path. This makes each data-driven model unique to its advertiser.

According to Nichollas Saucedo, HEM’s Manager of Search and Analytics, “The data-driven model is great for data analytics since it will count every interaction the users had until they finally convert. In other words, advertisers can see the entire path the users take until the conversion is completed.” This is particularly key since school marketers need to understand how prospects move through the conversion journey and track their progress.

By navigating to the Conversion Paths tab under “Attribution” in GA4’s Advertising side menu, school marketers can gain a valuable overview of conversions throughout various touchpoints:

Conversion Paths

Despite this advantage, Nichollas warns against a few tricky consequences. He adds, “Google Analytics counts conversions on the day they happened while Google Ads counts the day the ad was clicked.” This means that if a user starts their journey towards the end of the month and converts in the next month, the results from the previous month will change—potentially causing some discrepancy in the data.

It should be noted that schools adopting a data-driven model may yield messy data as conversion values get attributed to different channels. Understanding how to navigate Google Analytics and Google Ads and setting up a proper infrastructure can help you avoid arising issues.

How can you improve your school’s Google Analytics setup and choose the suitable attribution model? Reach out to our team of education marketing experts to discover ways to enhance your Google Analytics strategy!

Strategies and Insights for Schools Using GA4 Attribution Moving Forward

Switching to a new attribution model may seem daunting, especially when dealing with new GA4 metrics. Understanding how the GA4 attribution model updates impact your campaign performance is a big first step for your school, especially if it’s running any top-of-the-funnel campaigns where first-click attribution is more dependable.

You can better understand how these models differ using the Model Comparison tool, determining key measurement changes that can positively shape your strategy. Here’s how the Model Comparison provides insights into both last-click and data-driven attribution models:

Model Comparison tool

According to Nichollas, one of the most important things you can do for your school moving forward is to ensure that “GA4 is connected to all possible platforms and properly tracking the site traffic.” Naturally, attribution models will keep evolving along with Google’s algorithms, but setting up your GA4 account properly can help you stay better prepared. As Nichollas puts it, “The analytics and ad campaigns will be more accurate and better optimized.”

Take Advantage of GA4’s Event-Based Tracking When Using Data-Driven Attribution

A significant benefit of using GA4 is that it allows school marketers to track the enrollment journey fully. They can create micro-conversions and monitor their performance by setting up event-based tracking—which replaces session-based tracking. This enables school marketers to view all the interactions prospects had on the website and how they engaged with each one.  

Below is an example of some of the events that you can track for your school using GA4:

event-based tracking

Integrate Your School’s CRM Data Into GA4

To get more out of your data-driven GA4 attribution model, you should also consider integrating your Customer Relationship Management software (CRM) with GA4. This gives you great insight into the performance and results from ad to enrolment. A good education-based CRM allows your school’s marketing team to efficiently streamline their workflow by providing easy integrations. 

When the CRM is not connected, we can only track users until they submit their lead information. By visualizing the entire process, we can actually know which keywords, audiences or ads that actually generated enrolments—not only leads,” says Nichollas. This can be a big game changer for schools, particularly those looking to improve student enrollment. 

Here, the CRM becomes essential to how school marketers and advertisers understand the enrollment journey, potentially shaping your school’s strategy and influencing how your team sets up your school’s media mix. If you note any performance changes, that may also help you adjust your bids differently and optimize your results.

Using the Right GA4 Attribution Model for Your School’s Campaigns

GA4’s last-click attribution model has been a long-standing favourite at HEM, especially regarding lead generation campaign performance. In these campaigns, the last-click attribution model allows school marketers to make more direct connections between campaign performance and conversion data. Last-click is also perceived as a more strict and conservative way of measuring results since it focuses on clicks instead of views. 

That’s not to say that a data-driven model is not helpful for school marketers. It can be useful for broader awareness campaigns, where school marketers need to identify the impact of various channels in producing the final conversion. 

In HEM’s digital strategy for schools, this decision is made on a case-by-case basis. “Changing from last-click to data-driven won’t have a major impact on the analytics of every client,” says Nichollas.We often check the Model Comparison [tool] to see how users are interacting with our ads during the conversion funnel.”  Interestingly, data from several accounts show that most users will complete the conversion on the first interaction:

path analysis

Access to GA4 tools and knowing how to use them is essential for determining the right attribution model for your school. Ultimately, it depends on the context and your specific marketing or advertising goals. 

Conclusion: What These GA4 Changes Mean for Your School

GA4 is an evolving platform, which means your school must stay on top of new updates as well as emerging marketing and advertising trends. Schools looking to stay ahead of their competition constantly will do well to regularly review their analytics and search for opportunities to improve their performance. Using GA4 reports and tools, your team can gain deeper insights that can inform and guide their future efforts.

The same applies to adopting the perfect GA4 attribution model for your school. Campaigns can have various SMART goals that may impact your attribution. Analyzing your efforts on a case-by-case basis and making the appropriate changes following industry best standards and practices is ultimately the best course for schools.

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