As a pay-for-performance marketing discipline, how transactions are credited is normally the biggest determiner between success and failure. 

The problems of web-based tracking in the affiliate industry have been much debated:

  • Browser privacy settings like restrictions on third-party cookies – most notably Internet Tracking Prevention (ITP) on Safari 
  • Cookie notifications enforced as a response to GDPR
  • Mobile user journeys and lack of in-app conversion tracking
  • Walled-garden social networks that disallow third-party trackers
  • Advertiser de-duplication rules

These issues have gradually formed the nucleus of an issue that has undermined confidence in affiliate tracking. ITP mark 2 this autumn will exasperate an industry-wide problem of unstable tracking that conservatively causes a miss-rate of around 10% of affiliate channel transactions. 

Code-based attribution

While server-side tracking has been touted as an antidote to the fallibilities of web-based tracking, because it replaces the need to send a third-party HTTP/s request from an advertiser’s site, it is used on less than 5% of affiliate advertisers.

Could code-based attribution be the tonic affiliate marketing needs? The idea isn’t a new one. A voucher code assigned to a channel or publisher is used at checkout to identify the referring marketing channel, replacing the traditional partnership of cookie and conversion request 

However, in the face of wilting tracking accuracy networks are returning to the idea of voucher codes as a mechanism for crediting transactions to the affiliate channel. This seems like a no-brainer, in fact, it’s been championed by publishers working directly with advertisers for some years.

A voucher code attached to a piece of marketing activity is a very definitive way of ensuring that marketing has been impactful on the user, particularly for a CPA channel like affiliate. When a publisher’s contribution is hard to measure on a last-click CPA model, like comparison or social influencers, a voucher code specifically attached to that publisher is what the attribution-world calls ‘definitive interaction’.

And best of all, there is no need for those pesky, often unwanted and much-derided tracking cookies to ‘track’ that a user has interacted with a publisher. The presence of a code assigned to them is all the proof that’s needed.

This all sounds very straightforward. But while naturally attractive to an industry keen to track as voraciously as possible, uncontrolled code-based attribution administered by affiliate networks is little more than a license to track inaccurately in the affiliate channel. The key issue is that allowing an affiliate network to attribute by code will require them to track all transactions. Regardless of the user’s journey or where the code has been picked up if the code is where the network will claim credit for the sale. While this might be good news for publishers and networks it’s anything but for advertisers, who will be losing control over cross-channel deduplication rules, and run a serious risk of crediting affiliate marketing for sales it never interacted with.

The presence of a code that has been issued specifically to a publisher does not automatically mean that the publisher has been responsible for it being distributed. Code leakage across the internet is very common, particularly in the affiliate industry, and can happen as readily from a social influencer as it can from a voucher code site. If codes are to become the key to solving affiliate’s attribution challenges, then a unique, single-use code that ties a transaction to an affiliate but can never be reused is vital to establish advertiser trust in the technique. 

Done with the correct technology and implementation, codes can be a very valuable addition, or even a reliable replacement, for the web-based tracking so commonly associated with affiliate marketing. Given the affiliate industry is very discount-centric, it almost makes sense to utilise one of the most common discount triggers – a code – to make transaction tracking more accurate. But like any marketing channel, the affiliate is fighting to ensure appropriate recognition. Accuracy shouldn’t be sacrificed in the fight.