Last week, voucher code extension company Pouch launched a controversial update, allowing partnered advertisers to target offers at consumers browsing their competitors’ sites.

Built on the principle of poaching sales at the point of purchase, the company’s co-founder and marketing manager, Ben Corrigan, brazenly referred to the development as “the most incremental sale in digital marketing”, a particular point of riling for members of the affiliate marketing Facebook group, Affiliate Cockpit.

But amid the back and forth which saw Corrigan bat between vitriol for lack of marketing ethics and praise for disruptive innovation in nearly equal measure, came a recurring question; whether the toolbar’s partnering affiliate networks would be using “soft cookies” to attribute the sales it drove.

To take the discussion further, and to find out why the use of something that in Google search returns little beyond baking recipes was causing such concern, PerformanceIN sought the authority of some of the industry’s leading networks to help put the matter to bed.

Never missing out

“Cookies are set at every stage in the affiliate journey, and normally a sale is allocated on a ‘last click’ basis so that the affiliate who delivered the last click wins the sale,” comments Helen Southgate, former MD at affilinet.

“Some affiliates can be set to ‘soft cookie’ which essentially is a rule that if there is another affiliate in the journey, the sale is not allocated on a last-click basis to the affiliate on ‘soft click’, but instead to the affiliate who drove the previous click.”

“Soft click”, therefore means any cookie coming from remarketing or retargeting activity cannot overwrite another publisher’s cookies if these already exist. Therefore, retargeting affiliate partners, check-out targeting, overlay targeting and toolbars such as Pouch, are usually placed on soft click. For other affiliates, this is beneficial as they don’t lose out on a sale.

Soft click is therefore essentially an attribution model, adds Southgate: “using a rule to apply an award in a different part of the chain.”

Low-hanging fruit

For Awin’s global client strategy director and active IAB UK member, Kevin Edwards, the term “soft cookie” can likely be traced back to emerging from a joint zanox, Awin, legacy, that “just seemed to stick”. Meanwhile, the model itself emerged from a bid to provide a fair model to affiliates being shouldered out by the technological developments already mentioned.

“[Soft click] rose to prominence about seven or eight years ago when the first wave of remarketing specialists started to push their products,” says Edwards.

“As often happens, the affiliate channel is the first port of call for many tech start-ups as it fast tracks their access to dozens of brands. The trade-off is having to work to a commercial model – last click or CPA [Cost per Action] – that some of these companies would not necessarily have opted for.”

The challenge for networks, therefore, was assimilating this technology within existing programmes, says Edwards.

“Any network will tell you they have to weigh multiple affiliate business models and ensure they all have a fair crack of the whip but with remarketing and retargeting it was felt the technology while serving a useful purpose, could offer low hanging fruit, impacting existing affiliate traffic.”

Introducing an alternative to last click ensured affiliate cookies could not be overwritten, and thus, Edwards adds, “sets an important standard”.

According to Awin’s own analysis, with 10% of affiliate sales being reapportioned because of the soft-click logic, the restrictions imposed by this model were “large enough” to justify its use, “but small enough” to make remarketing activity through affiliate networks viable. Generally speaking, Edwards claims, it’s a model most parties are “content” to adopt.

False idols

While in terms of protecting the role of affiliates further up the sales funnel the soft cookie represents a “lifeline”, says Rakuten Marketing’s director of tracking and tagging, Duncan Grant, from an attribution perspective, he suggests they are something of a “false idol”.

“Soft cookies simply offer a means to tweak the last-click-wins model based on publisher types, typically propagated to ensure against lower-funnel affiliates, from becoming the sole beneficiaries from sales that upper-funnel publishers are driving,” comments Grant.

The chief drawback, he adds, is that the soft-cookie model still exists within an ecosystem that attributes “100% of the sale” to a single touchpoint, rather than several.

Grant also argues that the soft cookie approach adopts a “narrow field of view”, looking solely among affiliate sites as adding influence to the final sale, rather than taking into account the role of the wider marketing mix.

“The point behind attribution is to take a wider strategic approach to finding the most efficient combination of influences to drive a sale. It’s time to move past the point of just deciding who to pay the commission out to.”

For Southgate as well, the model is not without its drawbacks.

“Not all technology platforms and networks may be able to implement soft-cookie tracking, so there may be an unfair playing field across the industry, although today I believe most of the largest networks and technology partners can.”

The other issue, says Southgate, is that it raises a debate over who should be the subject of the model, and this issue is still “rather subjective”.

“You could argue that other affiliate models should be on soft-click and opinions on this may vary from networks and advertisers so consistency across the industry is probably not quite there.”

Returning full circle to Pouch and concerns around whether it was operating on soft-click, Corrigan replied that while he believed it could justifiably operate without such a model, being built around generating sales from outside of an affiliate-driven pipeline, it currently is using this method, “at least in the medium term”.

If you think Pouch can’t justify operating on a last-click model for its cross-promotional recommendations product, or have any other thoughts on the issue, let us know below…