Retailers don’t want affiliate marketing. What they want is to know how they can attract new customers, how they can increase customer loyalty, or how they can increase customer lifetime value.

These are the conversations that are happening in board rooms throughout the industry. But affiliate marketers themselves don’t necessarily have the strategic view that their seniors do to enable them to answer these questions.

By providing full transparency of the user journey, properly implemented multi-channel attribution will deliver the answer to these questions. It will help affiliate marketers push the conversation up the chain, demonstrate a rounded picture of the value of affiliate marketing, and get hold of the answers they need to determine the direction of their marketing strategy.

In other words, multi-channel attribution will help identify the mixture of marketing channels and tactics to meet actual business objectives, rather than channel-specific ends.

Undoubtedly, an affiliate marketing strategy will be part of that mix, but it won’t be because the retailer has specifically asked for it.

Is affiliate marketing dead?

The short answer is no. Just because retailers stop asking for affiliate marketing specifically, doesn’t mean it won’t be part of the solution they’re looking for.

The big change is that multi-channel attribution has allowed people to understand that affiliate marketing isn’t just about getting existing customers to come back, or about drawing in new customers. It’s not the case that affiliate marketing is the solution to a specific list of business problems. It’s not the case that any type of marketing is always the solution to a specific problem.

Affiliate marketing is capable of achieving a multitude of things – but the right publishers need to be used following the right strategy.

For example, say a retailer wants to attract more new customers. Thanks to data from our attribution and insights platform, Cadence, we know that working with content publishers is an effective way of doing just that: 87% of the attributed revenue brought in by content publishers is from new customers (US, Q4 2016).

So, an affiliate programme featuring these publishers will be part of the recommended strategy. Other channels – targeted Facebook ads, display retargeting, for example – will also likely be vital to achieving the objective.

The programme must be set up properly to meet the business objectives set out at the start. This is only possible if the user journey – and marketing performance – is measured with proper multi-channel attribution, regardless of the channels and devices customers use, and regardless of whether a transaction took place online or offline.

Uptake of attribution

Why hasn’t this change happened already? According to AdRoll and Econsultancy’s State of Marketing and Attribution report, four in five organisations use marketing attribution, but less than half (42%) carry out multi-channel attribution.

Some affiliate networks provide multi-touch payment systems where influencer publishers get a flat rate for clicks in conversion journeys, even if they weren’t the last click. Other systems don’t allow voucher code affiliates to override the clicks of influencer publishers from earlier in the journey.

These types of schemes represent steps in the right direction but fail to address attribution fully. True attribution must be about finding the value of touchpoints in a user journey across all channels, not just one. Advertisers using these partial methods will be stuck looking at channel-specific metrics like ROAS, rather than enabling their marketing teams to report directly against cross-channel business objectives.

Implementation blockers

It’s acknowledged that properly implementing and integrating multi-channel attribution is no easy task.

The State of Marketing Attribution report reveals that 57% of companies say they don’t action the insights they get from attributed reporting. The same report reveals that complexity of data, disparate tech platforms (and the problems they cause for consolidating data), and a business culture that doesn’t prioritise analytics, are major barriers to attribution success.

There are also political issues that must be overcome. A successful integration of attributed measurement and reporting means moving away from the traditional one-channel view of conversions, to a cross-channel, fairly weighted view based on the influence each touchpoint had in the user journey, regardless of channel, device, and whether that touchpoint was online or offline.

This disappearance of the channel-specific focus may mean that publishers used to being rewarded handsomely for their contribution on a last-click, single channel basis have their commission or investment reduced, which is bound to cause upset.

As well as this, marketers are having to adapt. Slowly, single-channel marketers are being phased out and having to get to grips with a wider range of marketing disciplines. For now, much of this is confined to the real innovators and to board room conversations. Internal teams are still structured by channel, but affiliate marketing managers are having to look beyond building partnerships. They now must look at performance in a multi-channel context to see what insights and strategies they can draw from broader, more complex data. The transparent view of the full user journey granted by multi-channel attribution gives marketers this understanding of performance.

The key to overcoming the blockers to implementation is to get buy-in from stakeholders at the right time. Rakuten Marketing has invested time and people to help make this happen for its clients, integrating attributed reporting with the execution of its media across our affiliate and display campaigns. Attribution comes as part of multi-channel launches for customers, giving them the opportunity to make better strategic decisions based on a fuller picture of their customers’ activity straight from the off.

As more companies look to attribution to understand business performance and how it can be improved, channel-specific performance will become an obsolete measurement. Those who champion the importance of the multi-channel view now and look beyond the silos will be those who thrive in the future.