Earlier this year Rakuten Marketing announced the purchase of attribution and tag management firm DC Storm for an undisclosed fee. The acquisition attracted a great deal of coverage across the global press, not only for Rakuten’s decision to plough investment into its marketing arm, but also for the motive that lied beneath its latest purchase.  

Housed in Brighton, DC Storm has long been capable of introducing marketers to a much wider view of their customer journey – a vision with few uses in the single-source attribution models that dictate payments across so many affiliate programmes. This ‘multi-channel’ analysis, as coined by its early adopters, has created a huge stir around affiliate marketing as a whole, forcing campaign managers to reassess how they split commission on sales.

A move across to multi-channel delivers rewards to publishers and contributors perhaps higher up the purchase funnel: in some cases the groups that may not have referred the user directly to a merchant, but whose raising of brand awareness proved imperative to the initial interest.

For many this approach represents the future of affiliate marketing. Every brand, agency and publisher should be craving a world where an all-encompassing view of a customer’s route from log-in to check-out can be obtained with the click of a button. A timescale for this reality is just a tad hard to come by.

Unfortunately one of the main downsides to a switch from single to multi-channel attribution is the time and money involved. Pay structures such as last-click and first-click attribution also remain highly basic yet effective ways of honouring assists, and brands have every right to stick with their successful attribution models. As it turns out, ushering out the old and embracing the new is not the simple practice it might seem.

Single source lives on

For global stationary giant Office Depot and its Viking brand, single-source attribution is currently the only way forward. Talking to PerformanceIN at Performance Marketing Insights: Europe, Sander Heussen, the company’s head of customer acquisition, insisted that a move across to multi-channel was not necessary due to 70% of Viking’s traffic coming via search queries.

Despite being a company of considerable size, Viking only generates a small amount of traffic and conversions via the affiliate channel. So called ‘outdated’ single-source, it seems, could not be more appropriate for the situation at hand.

“We don’t invest a lot in mobile marketing, and we don’t apply much attention to other online channels. So for us it is pretty straight forward – we now measure last-click for email campaigns, search and affiliates,” said Heussen.

Instead of pursuing interest in multi-click attribution, Viking’s acquisition specialists are focused on a more simple set of goals – encouraging more people to convert with relevant online content and continuing their investments in search.

A strong focus on single-source is not uncommon across the affiliate channel, regardless of the investment involved. PerformanceIN recently asked its readers whether last-click attribution had a future in affiliate marketing – a query which prompted 57% to answer yes.

And if that did not support last-click enough, even the pro multi-channel group are making it clear that a complete abolishment of single-source attribution is not within their remit for 2014 and beyond.

Giants combine

With DC Storm now forming part of the Rakuten family, Japan’s e-commerce force is now fully on board with the idea of complete transparency when it comes to the gathering of online data.

Its faith in the affiliate model showed signs of paying dividends in Q2 2014, the period in which DC Storm was acquired, as the company recorded a 17% lift in revenue via the UK affiliate channel compared to findings in 2013.  

Lewis Lenssen, commercial director at Rakuten DC Storm, believes that while Rakuten was attracted to DC Storm’s all-encompassing approach to performance measurement, the goal was never to dethrone the single-source model.

“There is an attractiveness to last-click wins. Historically, everyone understands it; they’re comfortable with it; it is easy to measure,” said DC Storm’s ex-marketing director.

“If last click is reflecting the [value of publisher] contributions well, there is a reason to stick with it… But there are other situations where there may be too big a gap between the value and the way the commercials work, in which case we want to help people make the transition [to a different commercial model] in a good way.”

Mark Haviland, managing director of Rakuten Marketing Europe, claims that it was DC Storm’s ability to measure success on multiple channels that presented something his company needed to understand. Since increasing its involvement in affiliate marketing, Rakuten has made a concerted effort to establish the demand for multi-click among advertisers and publishers, paying particular focus to the latter.   

“The small sites, the content sites, the cashback, the voucher; they all believe there is a value that is being delivered by publishers that is not being valued by the client.

“Sharing that information enables the publisher to evolve its model, to evolve its activity, evolve its traffic-generating to ensure it plays the most influential role possible no matter where in the journey.”

If publishers really are looking to establish their true value to sales and traffic, there may be considerable pressure on advertisers to lead the multi-click charge. After all, only they can decide where their spend will be put to the best use.

Advertisers strike a deal

Despite the popularity of single-source attribution, there is still no doubt that marketers are beginning to veer towards a slightly more sophisticated view of the customer journey.

Some companies have opted to keep both sides happy by maintaining the commission delivered to last-click publishers while paying out additional rewards to contributors at the top of the sales funnel. Rather than completely abandoning the old, there is a sense among these firms of attempting to compliment the ‘tried and tested’ approach with new ways of reflecting value – an act Lenssen has no issues with.

“So it could be that your cashback and voucher publishers still work on one model, but you also reward people that contribute in other ways on separate models. We are not wanting to implement another model, so I still think there will be a future for last-click.”

Single-source attribution may be under threat, but it will take considerable time and persuasion to encourage brands that ad impressions – regardless of how early they arrive – are crucial to driving sales. Education in the benefits of multi-click monitoring will also help things along. If there was an easy way of learning how customers find brands through search, social or any other channel then the same companies would duly inquire within.   

Unfortunately this all requires a great deal of work, and it would take an extremely bold advertiser to abandon their single-source attribution model in favour of a new, more sophisticated way of rewarding affiliates for their part in sales.

What advertisers cannot deny is that publishers are demanding to see their role beyond the last click, and rightly so. A highly influential blog site could triple their ad revenue if only they knew just how much traffic they were actually directing to a site. From the advertiser’s view, gaining a more detailed vision of the customer journey should go some way towards helping them to optimise their ad spend and identify the best affiliates to work with.

Bringing forward a more sophisticated set of attribution models appears logical for both brands and publishers. It will just require a degree of encouragement from each.