Consumers are using a growing array of devices to browse and buy, which means the challenge for advertisers lies in tracking people’s increasingly complex journeys from research to purchase across multiple screens.
It is a challenge that is arguably even more important for marketers that make substantial use of affiliate networks, where brands reward publisher partners such as blogs for directing traffic to their ecommerce sites. In 2014, consumers made 125 million purchases via affiliate websites, totalling £15.4bn, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). But tracking affiliates’ role in the path to purchase is growing more onerous.
YouGov data shows the average British household owns more than seven internet-connected devices, and each one plays its part in an online purchase. However, without tracking consumers’ interactions with brands across those devices, it is impossible to know which marketing channels are influencing their purchases. Many still reward partner websites based entirely on which one the consumer made the ‘last click’ on before making their purchase.
New approach to attribution
Jonathan Wall, group ecommerce director at Shop Direct, says: “Cross-device tracking has enabled us to work with a number of new publishers – those that would have previously gone unrewarded on a last-click cost-per-acquisition (CPA) model.”
Shop Direct, the UK’s second largest online-only retailer, uses a ‘deterministic’ approach to track and reward the work of its affiliate partners in driving traffic to its site. Deterministic means the retailer uses first-party data from websites consumers are signed into in order to create links between devices, enabling the user to be definitively identified as the same person (albeit anonymously) across different screens.
The alternative is the ‘probabilistic’ approach, which takes anonymous data points such as device type, location and operating system and uses algorithms to suggest matches between devices that are likely to be owned by the same person. Deterministic tracking may be more reliable than probabilistic, but it is also more difficult to implement.
“For a channel that pays on conversion, we need to be sure that a sale we’re tracking is a valid transaction, which is something that only a deterministic model can guarantee,” says Wall. “Although probabilistic models are becoming more reliable, we need to have the confidence that the sales we are paying for are genuine cross-device transactions, which is something that a probabilistic model is unable to guarantee.”
As Jonathan Rigby, director of marketing and fundraising at BBC Children in Need (and formerly responsible for affiliate marketing at NetplayTV) says, neither method is perfect. “Given the choice, I would probably prefer to work with a proven deterministic model but there’s a long way to go to make the model perfect and accurate. As an approach, deterministic needs time to scale up but of course technology and consumer cross-device behaviour is changing all the time, so it’s a moving target.”
As Shop Direct’s Wall acknowledges, a successful deterministic approach to tracking affiliate activity across devices relies on building up a sizeable volume of customer profiles, which requires patience. “As one of the first advertisers to offer this technology within the channel, it wasn’t immediately possible to see the benefits, as volumes need to build over time to the required level for transactions to start recording,” he says.
Online gift experience retailer Red Letter Days also uses a deterministic approach. Joshna Patel, head of online, says: “We want to reward affiliates where they make a contribution to a sale, even if it isn’t on the same device that the affiliate cookie is dropped.”
She says it has helped the company to improve its affiliate programme, as well as to target its marketing better. “It has allowed us to show the impact that mobile has on the customer journey and therefore increase our investment in mobile.”
Recognising shoppers’ mobile research
However, Patel says it is important to have distinct strategies for tracking affiliate activity across devices for both the research phase and the purchase phase. “The initial stage is important as we need to provide affiliates with all the correct information about our products to help inform the customer. At this stage, it is also important to make sure that we are rewarding the affiliate appropriately for providing awareness.”
At the moment, Red Letter Days does not attribute a sale to only one partner. As Patel says: “If, after the initial awareness stage, a customer comes back to the site to make a purchase via the pay-per-click channel, the affiliate will still be rewarded for the sale. From looking at our data and the customer journey, we tend to see that a lot of the research is done via a mobile or tablet device, so it is important to make sure that we have cross-device tracking enabled to ensure the sale is tracked correctly for affiliates.”
Shop Direct’s Wall says cross-device tracking has also enabled Shop Direct to consider the role of smartphones as an influencing device during the research process. “There has always been a disconnect between the share of traffic we see through smartphones compared to the share of sales. While poorer conversion rates through smartphones could be a reason for this, cross device tracking has enabled us to see the role they play within the research phase, before converting on another device at a later date.”
When it comes to the purchase itself, Patel says the CPA changes depending on customer behaviour, necessitating a concrete strategy. “As customers are becoming a lot more savvy, we are seeing an increase in consumers using discounts. This increases the overall cost-per customer and thus we have to be strategic about what activity we run with affiliates and when we run this.”
But many brands continue to grapple with the problem of tracking affiliate activity cross device. Erik Kubik, marketing executive at online food ordering platform Hungryhouse, says technology is the main barrier. “Most affiliate solutions for cross-device tracking are lacking or non-existent. That is why we have stuck with using our affiliate marketing to paint as broad a stroke as possible – it’s all about exposure to the largest audience.”
Children in Need’s Rigby takes a similar view, believing that it is incredibly difficult to establish a “clean, fair and clear model” for attribution in an increasingly multi-device world. “For some activity and in some sectors, the effort taken in establishing clearer attribution is not worth it and last-click or last-browser is about as far as it’s worth going,” he says.
However, cross-device tracking can also have important uses in the targeting of display advertising, not just evaluating affiliate marketing.
Hungryhouse uses device data to segment web users and push them to its app. Every app user is given a unique ID and this is attached to the mobile device. When customers place an order, Hungryhouse matches the email and mobile number with this ID. If a user orders via mobile web at lunchtime, for example, they will be sent an email to download the app. Conversely, if they place an order via the app, they will be targeted with personalised banner ads on web and app networks.
“In our [CRM system’s] back-end, we can export these users to be used in other channels,” says Kubik. “For example, we export the unique ID and match it with device ID, then send push [marketing] to them based on their in-app or web behaviour.”
For brands that have adopted a deterministic approach to cross-device tracking, results are encouraging. Wall says around 15% of Shop Direct’s affiliate sales can be attributed in this way. “These are sales that wouldn’t have previously been attributed to the channel and therefore the publishers driving them would not have been fairly rewarded for generating them. With the fundamentals in place, we expect to see cross-device tracking go from strength to strength over the coming year.”
With 50% of worldwide ecommerce sales already cross-device, according to Criteo’s State of Mobile Commerce report, the affiliate industry’s survival depends on more brands taking action.
Cross-device tracking in numbers
- 89% of agency employees agree that ‘Not being able to track cross-device campaigns is holding back the growth of mobile’ (Source: IAB Mobile Agency Snapshot Study, 2015)
- The average UK consumer shifts their attention between their smartphones, tablets and laptops 21 times in one hour (Source: OMD UK Future of Britain, 2014)
- 50% of ecommerce transactions worldwide involve a cross-device purchase journey
- 44% of US users who use multiple devices in the path to purchase convert via smartphone. This compares to 46% via desktop and 43% via tablet
- 46% of UK ecommerce transactions come from mobile (Source: Criteo Q3 2015 State of Mobile Commerce Report)
Sponsored viewpoint: Kevin Edwards, Affiliate Window
Online tracking for marketing purposes is overwhelmingly single-device. But all of our research indicates that the majority of sales occur across multiple screens. This means there is a huge hole in most marketers’ ability to track and digest how effective brands’ marketing efforts are.
The cross-device discussion broadly sits in two camps: those that have access to a wealth of data because users are logged into their offering – possibly across multiple devices and applications – and those without access to this data that are modelling it for display purposes. The lack of readily available first-party data means it is very much the exception to have concrete knowledge of how consumers are interacting with brands across platforms.
Due to their reach and the amount of data they are capturing, many companies will not be able to build comprehensive ‘deterministic’ solutions to cross-device tracking, in other words, using first-party data to link users between devices. ‘Probabilistic’ solutions – using data points to make a likely match between devices – appear to be becoming more reliable, but for a channel like affiliate marketing that is premised on measurable actions from users such as a click or a purchase, we need to know the sale we are tracking is a valid, actual transaction – something that only deterministic tracking can guarantee.
Critics will say deterministic can only track what happens within the ‘walled garden’ of that user being logged in to certain sites or apps, which is true, but the advantage of this is that advertisers can have confidence in what they are paying for. For companies capturing transactional data across thousands of advertiser sites, however, the scope can be huge.
The affiliate marketing channel is under threat as a result of poor cross-device tracking. It is not over-dramatic to say that. In fact, it should be a massive red flag for any marketer not doing cross-device tracking. The industry’s lifeblood – the content, both editorial and blogger sites – are increasingly seeing the majority of their traffic flowing through smartphones and tablets and typically these devices can act as the initial point of contact for consumers looking to make an online purchase.
Often these sales will complete at a later date on a different device, so it is clear this vital element of the affiliate community is being short-changed if brands do not track purchase journeys across users’ screens.
Kevin Edwards is the Global Client Strategy Director at Affiliate Window