Not all affiliate activity is the same.

Any single affiliate programme is as likely to include behavioural re-targeting, site abandonment-triggered emails or downloadable software as it is to number ‘traditional’ affiliate stalwarts such as blogs and incentive-based sites.

This is a good thing. Affiliate marketing should be as focused on targeting as any other online marketing channel and it is a sign of the health of the industry that new methods can find a place in an environment where the focus has always been on customer acquisition.

But while the affiliate channel has always been hospitable to new and innovative methods, two questions have to be asked.

Firstly, how can such methods get recognition for their respective activities in bringing about those acquisitions; and secondly, how do these activities impact the work of a programme’s existing affiliates?

In this context, we see the re-emergence of issues that characterised the debate about whether the last click should win full credit for the sale.

Just as the debate around multi-attribution within the affiliate channel had at its core the desire to attribute better, so the same questions are being raised concerning new types of affiliates that have arrived in the channel in the last couple of years.

This time however, the emphasis is on the click itself rather than its place in the chain.

Whereas setting differential commission rates was the traditional lever that advertisers would pull to attribute value to affiliates’ activity, being able to control the priority given to certain cookies has, until now, been underexplored.

What options are available to advertisers and where might they want to apply them?

Hard and soft cookies

Traditional post-click cookies are now sometimes referred to as ‘hard’ click cookies and can only be overwritten by another ‘hard’ post-click cookie.

They are by far the most common that affiliates will drop and currently the vast majority of sales will be accredited using these cookies.

By contrast, a ‘soft’ click cookie will not overwrite any existing ‘hard’ post-click cookies. If an advertiser is concerned that certain types of affiliate activity has an overly high chance of overwriting another affiliate’s post-click cookie they may wish to employ this option.

Browser Helper Objects (BHOs) such as add-ons or plugins triggered to remind the user that a product they are looking at is available cheaper elsewhere.

Toolbars urging a user to collect cashback on a product; or remarketing emails triggered by site abandonment are three examples of activity that some advertisers have so far chosen to set on a ‘soft’ cookie.

A post-view cookie is one that is dropped by an affiliate after an impression has been served. These are very helpful for advertisers wanting to run some form of display activity remunerable on a CPA rather than a CPM or CPC basis.

Nowadays advertisers can gain access through the affiliate channel to behavioural retargeting providers or ad networks, behind which sit premium display inventory, whilst still only paying when a sale is made.

When behavioural retargeting providers entered the channel 18 months ago, the eight member networks of the UK’s Affiliate Marketing Council of the IAB collectively agreed to implement a cookie hierarchy for this activity which privileges cookies dropped on a click above one dropped on an impression.

The click, it is argued, is a better measure of engagement on the part of the user than a view, and therefore should take credit for the sale where both post-click and post-view cookies are present.

Advertisers might want to check therefore that their affiliate network is compliant with this practice. They may also want to question their network about other aspects of post-view display activity.

Transparency on where ads which drop post-view cookies are appearing, the length of the post-view cookie, and what frequency caps are in place to guard against over-exposing the user to these ads are some examples.

Moreover, advertisers might wish to ask their network what checks they have in place to assess the type of activity that could warrant a different type of cookie, and how the network makes this transparent.

The flexibility in the conditions around which different types of cookies can overwrite each other has two major advantages for advertisers.

  • Firstly, it is no longer necessary to run all activity on a ‘hard’ post-click cookie. Advertisers can become more sensitive to how their different affiliates impact one another and take steps to safeguard or ring-fence the work of their existing affiliates from negative impacts or false attributions.
  • Secondly, it makes their affiliate programmes appear much more inviting to those that have previously worked outside affiliate marketing, allowing advertisers to run more activity on a CPA basis through the affiliate channel at zero upfront risk.
Owen Hewitson

Published 1 December, 2011 by Owen Hewitson

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

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Comments (3)


John Wood

How does this fit with the EU Directive on cookies? Explaining why you want to drop a cookie for an ad impression is going to be difficult! Are we approaching an era where this works for only a small (atypical) sample or do you think the EU will relent?

over 6 years ago

Owen Hewitson

Owen Hewitson, Associate Director at Starcom MediaVest

Hi John, post-view cookies are already widely used but I agree that all current debates around the use of cookies should be framed by the impact of the EU’s ePrivacy Directive.

My view is that what matters most to the user is not the type of advertising that the cookie is used for, but whether the user understands what the cookie does and has choice and control over it.

Currently, we do have control over what cookies are on our machines via the browser, but clearly the Directive makes it necessary to go further. One such step is to help inform people as to what cookies are and what they are used for, and give them the option to opt-out if they wish. The IAB’s site, is one example of how this is already being done, and I know that the Affiliate Marketing Council of the IAB is hard at work on providing publishers in the performance marketing space with an explanation to their users that refers in particular to affiliate activity.

My own view is that there is a certain level of understanding and acceptance amongst the general public that ads are necessary to keep the web free, and that if this is the case then targeted, relevant ads are better than indiscriminate, irrelevant ones. It is the understanding of precisely how these ads are served and by whom which needs to catch up.

over 6 years ago


Todd Crawford

This is an interesting article. I understand the need to manage various partner types and their referral methods but am concerned that using different types of cookies adds an additional layer of complexity that could cause more problems than it is designed to solve.

I think an alternative way to manage or understand the value of traffic from various partners is to use attribution reporting to determine which partners are sending "solo" traffic - visitors that haven't clicked on other partner sites versus "assisted" traffic. Attribution provides tremendous insight into the interaction of visitors and partner sites, giving advertisers and agencies more data on which sites drive the highest value customers.

If you find that a specific partner is driving traffic that could/should have been credited to another partner, an advertiser can either remove that partner from their programme or adjust their payout accordingly. Conversely, partners that drive a high volume of solo conversions stand out as more valuable and advertisers can reward them for their high value traffic.

over 6 years ago

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