Analytics, Research

Mobile Attribution 101 + 4 Top Providers Compared + Free Tools

Mobile Attribution 101 - the complete guide. Header banner.

For a while now the business of advertising apps have zoned in to one standard business model – cost per install (or CPI). The CPI business model has pros and cons like any other business model but it proves less fraudulent than clicks, less risky for the advertiser than CPM and more uniform compared to more advanced CPA models. With that, measuring installs and deciding which sources they came from became a highly significant part of any marketing campaign. For the advertisers, it’s not only about fair business models but also about measuring marketing effectiveness. Attribution of installs to a sources, is a key ingredient in understanding which marketing activities and campaigns are the profitable ones. For the ad-networks, being able to receive the post-backs and post-install conversion data is an important feedback loop that allows them to optimize their campaigns and maximizing yield as well as returns for the advertisers.

3rd party attribution vs. in-house

There are a few companies that tried building attribution solutions in-house. Sure, the technology is quite complex but app companies are technologically capable. Especially the gaming companies tend to prefer in-house infrastructure when it comes to analytics. The ones that did figure out how to build their own attribution solution soon realized that there is not much use for it. The most prevalent business model between app advertisers and ad-networks is CPI. Since advertisers pay the ad-networks based on installs – both sides needs to agree about the number of installs so when the advertisers build their own attribution, they soon realize that many ad-networks are not willing to trust it’s measurements. Instead, they request that a 3rd party partner will be in charge of keeping the score.

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Facebook’s attempt to become a player

In 2015, in light of the growing market, mobile advertising giant, Facebook also made an attempt to become a player in this market and own a bigger piece of the end-to-end marketing solution. The market, however, rejected the move. Publisher demanded that a 3rd party will be in charge of the measurement.

The battle of the attribution providers panel at Casual connect where the only agreed upon topic was the lack of legitimacy of Facebook as an attribution provider

In the picture (credit: Venture Beat): the battle of the attribution providers panel at Casual Connect where the only agreed upon topic was the Facebook move legitimacy (or lack of).

How did this market get so big?

The 4 big attribution providers track about 18 billion dollars in ad spend worldwide. This is based on various points of information showing that Kochava measured 3 billion dollars in 2015 and Appsflyer measured 6 billion dollars in 2016. We can estimate based on the pricing of the providers that the attribution fees reached about 1% of that – 180 million dollars in 2016. The market is already big and is expected to double it’s size by 2020 reaching over $360M. Some of the driving forces behind this growth are the ad-networks themselves. Each attribution provider supports hundreds of networks and each ad-network has a lot of people in the field, meeting customers on a daily basis. Thousands of people going to every show, attending every conference and talking about CPI campaigns. Once ad-networks agreed that 3rd party attribution is a must-have, it was only a matter of time before the customer accepted that.

Attribution methods and approaches

Since the early days of attribution, there have been people saying that the models are not accurate. We live in a world where each user is being exposed to dozens of advertisements every day, often across different mediums. By the time a conversion, an app install, has occurred, the user is likely to have seen an ad for that app more than once and sometimes even as much as 10 times. Despite that, attribution models always give credit to a single source, single campaign and single ad-group. The credit is always given to the last click if such a click happened recently and if there is no click, it will be given to the last impression if it happened recently. It’s always the last one. Critics say rightfully that this is an inaccurate way to do it and there are better models. However, this is one of the areas where the delicate balance between ad-networks and advertisers mandates a simple model that is easily decide and so last-click attribution, while not perfect, is the best we have and will stay the attribution model going forward.
Last click, view thru, first click and other methods can compete but the winner is last click

The evolution of click fraud detection and IAP measurement

Being a key ingredient for measuring marketing returns or ROAS (return on ad spend). The attribution providers got pulled into providing more analytical services. The attribution dashboard became the go to screen for understanding install volumes from different sources. As the industry became more aware of the issues around traffic quality, attribution providers got pulled in to provide additional reports.
One direction in which attribution providers evolved is the area of post-install metrics such as retention tracking and conversion to payers via in-app purchases. Publishers also started using post install metrics reported by the attribution providers to set goals for user acquisition channels. It’s common these days to see an IO (Insertion Order) with traffic quality criteria. Beyond measuring the in-app purchases, attribution providers also developed the ability to distinguish real purchases from fake ones.
The other direction in which attribution developers were asked to evolve is install fraud detection and prevention. While generating fraudulent installs is much harder than clicks, publishers have a lot of motivation to do so and methods were developed to manufacture installs. All big 4 attribution providers today have developed mechanisms to detect such activity and remove it from the reports. By doing so, they are providing more value to the advertiser who only pays for real installs.

The top 4 mobile attribution providers

appsflyer logo - mobile attribution provider

Appsflyer is the most VC backed provider out of the bunch. They hold an impressive share of the top 200 companies and have the biggest penetration in far east countries. They are based in Hertzelia, Israel with offices all around the world. Their unique pricing model allows app companies to start for free which makes them highly attractive for smaller companies. Appsflyer started in the Microsoft Accelerator and is still rumored to be using Microsoft cloud infrastructure – Azure.

Name Appsflyer
Headquarters Hertzelia, Israel
Employees (by Linkedin) 208
Market Share (by Mightysignal) 12% of Top 200 Apps
Notable Customers Hulu, Cheetah Mobile, The Weather Channel
Funding raised $83M
Founded 2011
Supported ad-networks 2,148 (as of 1/1/2017)

logo image of adjust, the mobile measurement partner

The Berlin based provider has made itself a name in quite a short time. They are an official measurement provider for Facebook and pride themselves as being the leader among the top 200 apps. Adjust is leveraging their own private cloud infrastructure rather than a hosted one which also allows them to be the best at protecting user privacy.

Name Adjust
Headquarters Berlin, Germany
Employees (by Linkedin) 127
Market Share (by Mightusignal) 17% of Top 200 Apps
Notable Customers Spotify, Zynga, Rovio, Miniclip
Funding raised $29M
Founded 2012
Supported ad-networks 700+ (as of 1/1/2017)

Tune Logo - among other marketing and analytical services, tune also offers attribution solutionTune is a popular attribution choice. The company had two products going by separate brand: Has Offers and Mobile App Tracking. They are the only one of the four that is not focused completely on attribution and are also not an official Facebook measurement partner. To overcome this problem, Tune provides a solution for Facebook attribution leveraging deep linking.

Name TUNE
Headquarters Seattle, US
Employees (by Linkedin) 371
Market Share (by Mightysignal) 11% of Top 200 Apps
Notable Customers Uber, Lyft, Supercell
Funding raised $36M
Founded 2009
Supported ad-networks 1,062 (as of 1/1/2017)
 

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kochava logo - attribution company catering to big media companies and others

Kochava is the only bootstrapped provider out of the top 4. They made themselves a name by attracting top tier media companies such as ABC, CBS and Disney as well as the mobile gaming giant – MZ. The company recently launched a new product called Kochava Collective to help their customers reach relevant audiences and also started offering a free version of their platform under the name – Free App Analytics

Name Kochava
Headquarters Sandpoint, US
Employees (by Linkedin) 82
Market Share (by Mightysignal) 11% of Top 200 Apps
Notable Customers MZ, ABC, CBS, Bigfish
Funding raised  Bootstrapped
Founded 2011
Supported ad-networks 2,800 (as of 4/15/2017)

Mid market solutions with an attribution feature

The 4 top providers mentioned above are highly focused on attribution and cater to customers who often build their in-house analytics and use the API offered by these providers to pull the data into their own BI or data warehouse system. However, there is a group of companies below the top tier that are relying on 3rd party analytical tools rather than a tool that is built in-house. These companies are preferring a full-solution approach that includes both analytics as well as attribution. This opportunity is considered the mid market of the mobile attribution space and there are companies who are starting to cater for it. Here are 2 providers in this category:

  • Tenjin – provides analytics solution with built in attribution
  • Apsalar – provides analytics, attribution and audience building under the same roof

The ability of companies to simply add attribution as a feature on top of something else is a result of the maturity of the market. The connections with the ad-networks became standardized and there are now also tools to attribute Facebook traffic with no need to get their official blessing. This is the reason why we also see companies like Singular adding attribution into their marketing and cost aggregation platform.

It’s important to note however, that these solutions are often lacking in terms of how many ad-networks accept them as an authority to counting installs. One of the key features of the attribution providers is the ability to serve as an unbiased 3rd party that is accepted by both sides when it comes to discrepancies in install counts that impact how much is paid by the advertiser to the ad-network.

Free attribution – what are the options and what’s the catch

Publishers might be surprised sometimes by the fees for the attribution service. Take Appsflyer for example – they recently tripled their price from $0.01 per install to $0.03 per install. Furthermore, if a certain app has a low volume of installs, the price is even higher. Tracking 100,000 installs for example will cost $4,000 per month. Quite a high fee for apps that are just starting out. This is part of the reason why many publishers are looking for alternative free solutions.

Option 1 – Branch Metrics deep linking

Branch offers a free deep linking solution. This means that every time an ad is shown a savvy marketer can provide a dedicated click url with additional parameters and those parameters will magically find their way to the app. Unlike other deep linking solutions, Branch takes the extra step to report these parameters back to their own dashboard and present it for the marketer to monitor the performance of each channel.

What’s the catch:

  • Ad-networks that get paid based on CPI might not agree to trust this solution
  • Advanced features like: postbacks and fraud protection are not available
  • Not scalable – every new ad requires generating additional links and passing them through to ad-networks

Option 2 – Facebook and Google attribution

For apps that only buy media on Facebook and Google, this might be a good enough solution. Both companies have an SDK that allow the app to report post install events. The impressions, clicks, installs and post-install conversions will be shown in a dashboard along side the cost. This means that marketers can calculate ROI on each campaign very easily and take action right away without leaving the dashboard.

What’s the catch: Facebook and Google are not neutral. They actually have an interest to attribute installs to themselves and given Facebook’s history with reporting errors one might be worried about putting all his faith in them. In addition, installs might be reported twice as there is no 3rd party overseeing both platforms.

Option 3 – Free App Analytics by Kochava

This is an interesting option for app publishers. Free App Analytics offers the same features as the main Kochava solution and is using the same infrastructure and reporting interfaces with one major difference – it’s completely free.

What’s the catch: Publishers most provide Kochava with a license to use the data in Kochava Collective. This means that advertisers will be able to apply more advanced targeting for these users but the ads might not necessarily appear in the app that is using the Free App Analytics solution. Might be a small price to pay for saving a few thousands of dollars a month.

In addition to these 3 options, we have also heard the names – Attriboost and DCMN as potential free attribution vendors.

How to compare between different providers

With so many options to choose from, it’s easy that some companies are finding it hard to choose. The first question to ask yourself is – do I have an in-house analytics solution. The answer to that will tell you if you are looking for a point solution for attribution or a full solution that includes both attribution, analytics and flexible visualization system that allows you to create dashboards focused on different aspects of the data.

If you want to take the scorecard approach for comparing providers that’s a good approach according to Saikala of SpaceApe. Here is her free template for comparing attribution providers with a spreadsheet. She is also giving her opinion and tips how to use the spreadsheet in this article.

Where is the attribution market headed next

One of the areas that is still unresolved is the single ROAS view. Advertisers are surprised that even after years of evolution in marketing measurement tools, there is no single provider that allows them to see a per source/campaign/ad-group view with the following components:

  • Cost of the marketing activity
  • Returns on the marketing generated via in app purchases
  • Returns on the marketing generated via in app advertising

This is the very fundamental view that allows marketers to evaluate the business merit of each marketing activity. However, today it is still very hard for marketers to get this view generated. Attribution providers realized this problem is an opportunity for them to provide a more complete solution and are now looking into two areas of expansion:
Aggregating cost data from all the different ad-networks and bringing them to the same view that summarizes the install counts and in app purchase revenues. While Singular was the first company to offer this type of aggregation, attribution providers identified the value for the marketer is far greater if he can get both elements from them rather than using an additional provider.
Assigning ad revenue to users and attributing them back to marketing activities to complete the ROAS picture. This area is gaining a lot of momentum as apps are expected to increasingly rely on ad-revenue according to industry forecasts. The first company to provide a solution in this field is SOOMLA but attribution providers are now working to add these capabilities by partnering or building in-house.

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