The 3 Big Problems with Asking “How Did You Hear About Us?” | 5-Minute Whiteboard

Marketing attribution is dying. Ad blockers. Privacy laws. The death of third-party cookies. Keyword (not provided). Dark social. It’s an attribution-trained marketer’s nightmare. Knowing which channels and tactics truly had an influence on every sale is next to impossible. Unfortunately, many folks think the remedy lies in a simple survey question at the end of a signup or checkout process.

“How did you hear about us?”

Supposedly, by aggregating these, we can assign attribution to the channels, tactics, and marketing investments that worked, which will allow us to budget intelligently in the future. In this week’s 5-Minute Whiteboard, Rand debunks this concept, and explains the fatal flaws in this simple plan.

Transcript (edited for clarity):

Howdy SparkToro fans, and welcome to another edition of 5-minute whiteboard. This week, we’re talking about three big problems with the, “how did you hear about us” question? Many times when I talk, passionately, about the problems of marketing attribution and how it’s so difficult to figure out especially which organic channels contribute to and are a big part of how people discover your brand or could discover your brand, how to do audience research to figure out sources of influence, etc.

I always see this comment, especially on LinkedIn. There’s always someone in the comments who says, “that’s why Rand, we use ‘how did you hear about us?’ at the end of all of our checkout processes so that we can find out how people really learned about our brand. And then we use that data to inform our marketing efforts.”


I understand. I understand. It is very compelling to think that human beings when they go through a process like like like this one (this is an example of a customer journey).

Right? So, you found ABC brand and you bought some new shoes from them, let’s say. Okay. You started by hearing about it, perhaps, on a YouTube channel.

You were watching a YouTube video about your favorite sneakers and da da da da da, someone mentioned ABC brand. That was the first time you heard about, and you filed it away in your echoic memory. Maybe you didn’t even think about it. And then someone forwarded you an email saying:

“Hey, You like sneakers. Right? ABC brand has got these cool sneakers.”

And you’re like, “oh, yeah. Really interesting. That is quite cool.”

And so later, you Googled the kind of sneakers that you’re interested in and ranking somewhere in the top twenty, maybe on page two even because you didn’t like the results one or in the image search results, you saw ABC brand and you were like, yeah, yeah, ABC brand. I’ve heard of them. I have some positive association with them. And so you went to their website and you checked out and you bought, and then they asked you, how did you hear about us?

And what did you say?

I bet you said “Google.”

Right? Because the person on YouTube who who talked about it and that person who sent the forward and maybe all the other content you consumed—That isn’t what you remember.

The three problems with how do you hear about us are:

#1: Human memory is fallible. It’s incomplete and inaccurate. This is why in so many trials when they analyze people who’ve taken the stand witnesses who’ve taken the stand in serious cases, they find that their memories are not reliable with right? They don’t work.

#2: The second one is: which time when I heard about you? Do you mean when I first heard about you? Do you mean the thing that convinced me to buy from you? Do you mean how did I hear about you on this particular journey?

And folks who answer those surveys are not gonna know which one you want and which one you mean, and you might not even know which one you want mean. You probably want all of them. And yet when you ask, how did you hear about us, there’s no way you’re gonna get that complete journey.

#3: And the third one, this one’s critical. Even if you don’t believe these first two, even if you think people are perfect in enough groups, we’re gonna get enough data (and maybe you will; maybe the humans who buy from you are gonna perfectly remember). But even then even then it’s bias in, bias out.

Because the people who didn’t reach you, the people who never heard about your company can’t possibly tell you what they pay attention to that you’re missing out on. And so if you use “how did you hear about us?” to inform your marketing efforts, what’s gonna happen?

You will only ever invest in the kinds of marketing that have already been successful for you in the past. And you won’t find new channels and sources.

Maybe you’ll hope that word-of-mouth spreads to the right places, but probably you’ll miss huge customer segments that don’t pay attention to the same place your customers are already talking about you in. So what’s the solution? What’s the solution here?

It’s gotta be the same core three pillars of audience research that it’s always been. Surveys like these can be useful. I’m not saying this is useless or to take it off your site.

But, they have to be combined with interviews and passively collected data at scale. Otherwise, you are getting an incomplete picture. Go ahead and try and recall who are the people you follow on LinkedIn? What are the accounts that you follow on Twitter?

I want a list of all of them. Because that’s what you’re asking for here. đŸ˜‰

Alright, friends. Hopefully, this will help inform your marketing efforts better in the future, and you can add questions like these to other smart sources of data to figure out what your audience is actually paying attention to and where you can do some great marketing.