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Who overwrites who in the affiliate channel? This question has been at the heart of some hotly-debated issues in affiliate marketing over the last few years, but little research has been done to answer the question directly.

When we scrutinise the value of incentivised traffic, question whether or not voucher code sites are ‘stealing’ sales that would otherwise have been credited to content sites, or wonder how different models of multi-attribution might work, the ability to inform these debates with insights in to what extent cookie writing is occurring, and amongst which affiliates, is surely vital.

We recently conducted new research on this question and the results were presented at the A4U Expo in London earlier this month, looking at ‘daisy chain’ data and revealing the path to purchase a customer takes from click to sale through the affiliate channel.

We looked at five brand advertisers in different sectors to see how many affiliates are typically involved in a sale, and the extent to which their cookies overwrite each other, and focused on the impact of promotions these advertisers ran to get a sense of how the picture changed during the promotion compared to before it.

There were three headline findings that we highlighted, and which we found to be the case for each of these five advertisers.

The vast majority of transactions have only one referrer. In most cases there is simply no other affiliate’s cookie being overwritten. Secondly, almost all transactions take place within 24 hours of the click, and of those the vast majority take place within the hour.

Thirdly, where an affiliate does overwrite another affiliate’s cookie to claim the sale, they are more likely to overwrite affiliates that use the same primary method of promotion. Voucher code sites were more likely to overwrite other voucher code sites’ cookies than they were to overwrite true content sites’ cookies, for example.

What was perhaps most surprising was that these conclusions were applicable despite the different sectors that our advertisers operated in.

Our sample comprised retailers from the fashion, mobile, and health & beauty sectors, and two from the electronics sector. Each advertiser was a household name, had a high street presence and ran large affiliate programmes exclusively with Affiliate Window, giving us a large enough dataset to justify our conclusions.

Our three main findings also held even where average order values were high: even in the cases of our electronics retailers, where average order values of £200-£300 would suggest more ‘considered’ purchases, the vast majority of transactions were still made within an hour of the click and involved predominantly only a single referring affiliate.

Furthermore, we found that these conclusions held true both for the period before the promotion as well as during it, and on both the programme as a whole and for just those transactions referred by the affiliate running the promotion. In other words, these three conclusions seemed to be relatively unaffected by the various exclusive offers that were running at the time: we can say they represent the norm for these advertisers.

One of the most intriguing findings was evidence to suggest that where an exclusive code had been offered customers spent more anyway. In two cases where the advertiser offered an affiliate an exclusive voucher code the average order value from those advertisers actually rose during the time of the promotion compared to before it.

What then can we extrapolate about the performance of the affiliate channel as a whole on the basis of this research?

The statistics on the high number of single referrer sales and fast transaction times demonstrate the success of affiliates in engaging and converting their audiences on behalf of the advertisers they partner with.

It paints a picture of affiliates winning the click-through and converting that user into a customer speedily and as a result of their own efforts. Although it could be argued that another affiliate, or another channel, would have made the sale sooner or later anyway, it is equally true that in that time the customer might have bought from a competitor.

This research shows affiliate activity in a positive light. Affiliates are revealed as click winners, not ‘click stealers’. By and large, advertisers do not need to worry that their affiliates are cannibalising each other’s traffic, and there is no evidence to demonstrate that incentive sites are overwriting the cookies of true content affiliates in any significant numbers, even if this assumption has been adopted by many in the industry.

There are also implications for the ongoing debate on multi-attribution. If the vast majority of transactions from the affiliate channel are sole referrer, surely the debate about how to apportion commissions across a number of affiliates involved in the path to sale is foreclosed? Multi-attribution models are premised on a longer daisy chain than exists in the vast majority of cases.

Ultimately, this research only looked at transactions coming through the affiliate channel. Further, similar research within the channel would be welcome, but outside it advertisers might wish to compare these findings to their own analysis of other channels and use affiliates as a benchmark to measure the effectiveness of their online marketing efforts as a whole.

The truth about Cookie Overwriting
Owen Hewitson

Published 25 October, 2010 by Owen Hewitson

Owen Hewitson is Client Strategist at Affiliate Window and a contributor to Econsultancy.

8 more posts from this author

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Jason Dale

"The vast majority of transactions have only one referrer. In most cases there is simply no other affiliate’s cookie being overwritten" MSE for example, and I think many cashback sites as well, advise users to delete cookies before cashback transactions - what data/information is available to determine the pathway of a consumer before they delete... i.e. how many of these "one cookie" transactions are genuine one click, one buy and not delete, one click one buy. That surely needs to be accounted for?

almost 6 years ago

Owen Hewitson

Owen Hewitson, Associate Director at Starcom MediaVest

Hi Jason, that’s a good point, and we did consider what impact this might have had on the results as we were analysing them. To answer your question: the data we used would not have shown whether the customer had previously deleted other cookies before making the purchase with the last referrer, but there are a couple of reasons why, in my view, the potential impact would have been minimal. Whilst some such sites provide instruction on how to make sure your cashback/reward tracks correctly, after taking a quick look around a few of them this morning as far as I can see most of the big cashback sites do not explicitly implore their members to go through the process of deleting other cookies before each purchase. If you are new to the cashback concept you might be more wary to make sure everything works as it should, but if you are used to the process and have not had any problems in the past I would guess that you wouldn't bother. Aside from cashback specifically, I'm not aware of any big loyalty sites (Nectar, etc) that give advice on cookie deletion before purchasing, and this is quite understandable – they probably reason that their members would not use these sites so much if they felt the whole process was inconvenient or too technical. I would even take a guess and say that most users, even of these kinds of sites, are only dimly aware of how their purchases are tracked. Without specific instruction from the cashback site at the time of transaction I would doubt that a large proportion knew where to look if they wanted to find and delete a cookie! Having said that, you make a fair point. I am sure that cookie deletion on the part of the user affects our results in some way, but I would expect the extent to which this was the case would be minimal. I do not believe it’s great enough, given the sample size, to challenge our overall conclusions. I would expect the volume of affected transactions to be roughly proportionate to the number of disputed or queried transactions we get passed from these sites, and refer on to our advertisers to check. This is an extremely small percentage of the overall number of sales, after all.

almost 6 years ago

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ken

nice headline grabbing title there! and i concur with your finding we've seen the same/similar results overall, though it differs depending on industry and client. however, this article is very insular, its an industry article aimed at reassuring the fears that some affiliates have (not that there's anything wrong with that), what it doesn't do is take into account the influence and relationship of other marketing channels. i'm not so concerned about affiliate cookies overwriting other affiliates cookies, i'm far more concerned about the relationship between the affiliate channel against display, or PPC. as an industry affiliate has always been the underdog, and its mainly because people don't understand how it works in conjunction with other marketing channels, were this analysis done on that level the affiliate industry might sooner grow. so yes the finding are all nice, but they don't affect client side marketers as they will be looking at affiliates vs. PPC (etc.) NOT affiliates vs. affiliates, so this is relatively useless in that sense for client side marketers.

almost 6 years ago

Owen Hewitson

Owen Hewitson, Associate Director at Starcom MediaVest

Hi Ken – that the data only refers to the affiliate channel is indeed an important caveat, and one that I have taken care to note in the article and presentation itself. I am pleased to hear that your own research confirms our general findings. I’m sure you would agree that some of the assumptions that have gained credence over recent years about what is going on within the affiliate channel in terms of cookie overwriting do require challenging. From the perspective of an affiliate network, we find that our clients are actually very interested in profiling the customer journey within the affiliate channel – this is an important part of ascertaining the worth of customers driven through the channel. We would certainly welcome further research undertaking multi-channel analysis and would strongly encourage any agencies or advertisers to share data they have gathered on this so we can get a better overall picture.

almost 6 years ago

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Affiliate Manager

Wow, I would have to disagree with the findings of this study, anyone heard of retailmenot.com? CJ named them publisher of the year either last year or the year before and they participated in our program. What we have found is that close to 90% of their commissions have an initial click from another site besides retailmenot.com.

At any rate, thanks for the research, I wouldhave to agree that the article is a bit insular.

almost 6 years ago

Owen Hewitson

Owen Hewitson, Associate Director at Starcom MediaVest

As it happens, Retailmenot.com was not one of the affiliates used in this study. As far as I know they do not work on Affiliate Window. They are in some ways a special case - you might already be aware of some issues surrounding their compliance with the IAB’s voucher codes code of conduct that were raised a year or so ago. More generally, I think what your point demonstrates is the importance for advertisers in knowing who their affiliates are and how they are promoting. There is every chance that advertisers will find big anomalies between affiliates with the same primary method of promotion, and this will be true of voucher code and non-voucher code sites.

almost 6 years ago

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Richard Aris

Just came across this artical via my Avangate news letter

Very interesing I am still working on my site and have agreed Affiliate links to go on it.

I was not even aware of this issue - so thanks

Hope to be live in the next 2 weeks

Richard

almost 6 years ago

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Emily

The data collected is from when? This year?

I think you'd need to compare to a time when the big voucher sites were brand new to get a real idea of what used to happen to what happens now. The big voucher sites have got voucher codes in to the public search list these days - so people go looking for a voucher code.
The sites at the top of the search engines do well ...

Cookies did used to be overwritten. Now I suspect smaller sites get so little traffic that they are not big players anymore.

over 5 years ago

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Don

How about this? Merchant you have signed up to promote overwrites your affiliate ID if a customer returns for a second visit via search engine organic serps? I.e the customer visits the affiliate site a clicks to the merchant, they postpone their purchase and revisit a little later using an organic Google search. I know of one that detect this and overwrites the original affiliate cookie with the merchants own affiliate ID. The 'reasoning' being that their SEO generated the return visit. They will only allow a direct url request back to them, any other route and your cookie gets wiped. You should all be checking for this.

over 5 years ago

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