By Todd Crawford on April 22, 2016
What you don’t know could hurt you. Read on to find out more about the ins and outs of affiliate program tracking.
When speaking at industry events, I often poll affiliate managers asking how many understand how their affiliate program tracks affiliate conversions. There are usually very few hands that get raised. This is not a very comforting answer if your bonus or overall job performance is based on the data tracked and reported for your affiliate program. What if the tracking integration were undercounting your efforts? This would not only hurt your numbers, but would also mean that your affiliates are not getting paid what they are owed. If affiliates feel they are not getting credited fairly, or your program is underperforming compared to similar brands, affiliates could drop you from their websites. On the other hand, if you are over crediting affiliates, you are increasing the costs and reducing your return on advertising spend (ROAS).
Review your tracking methodology
The first question you should ask is how are we tracking and reporting data? Are you using a tracking pixel, are you sending the data via API or FTP, are you utilizing a hybrid of both? If you are using a pixel, is it hardcoded (fires every time the thank you page loads) or are there conditional firing rules affecting if/when it fires?
Consider a tag manager
If you are using an affiliate tracking pixel then you need to know whether your company is utilizing a tag management solution. If you are using a tag manager, the next important question to ask is, is the affiliate tracking pixel managed within the tag manager? Many companies had an affiliate program long before they implemented a tag management solution and during that implementation, they never included the affiliate pixel so it is not managed by the tag manager. This is important to know so you can figure out under what conditions your affiliate pixel will fire and credit an affiliate.
Most advertisers credit an affiliate if they are the last referrer before a conversion event occurs. If an affiliate is the second to the last referrer, they would not get credit for the conversion. In order for an advertiser to credit or not credit an affiliate, there needs to be logic applied to when/if the affiliate pixel fires (loads) on the thank you page. The easiest and most transparent way to do this is with a tag management solution. The benefit of using a tag manager is that the logic applied to the pixel firing rules is transparent and can be reviewed and tested to ensure it works as expected. If you are not using a tag manager and your developers have coded the pixel firing logic, it is very hard to review, test and troubleshoot their code (and they may be too busy to help you).
Some advertisers still have their tracking pixel hardcoded on their thank you page. This means the affiliate pixel will get fired for every conversion. This type of integration will over credit the affiliate channel. If an affiliate is involved in a conversion – regardless if they were last or thirtieth to the last referrer they will be paid a commission. Some advertisers that integrate this way will review the conversions and determine who really should get credit (ex. affiliate or adwords) and reverse out miscredited commissions later. Others intentionally want to credit affiliates that were involved in the customer journey, even if they weren’t last click.
Check your data
Once you sort out your tracking integration, you need to look at your internal data and determine if there is a breakage in the affiliate tracking. Breakage occurs when a conversion event isn’t credited to an affiliate when it should have been. The primary reasons this occurs is bad pixel firing logic or more commonly, due to ad blocking or privacy settings on the consumer’s computer that prevents your affiliate solution from tracking.
Hybrid (pixel + batch) can fill the gaps
This is where a hybrid – pixel plus batch – method is able to correct for missed conversions. An advertiser can utilize a tracking pixel for real-time tracking and reporting and then supplement the tracking with a daily batch via API or FTP with all conversions that should have been credited to affiliates. There is no need to only submit the missing conversions since most affiliate solutions will not process duplicate conversions (same order ID) – so if you send them all of the conversions for affiliate, they will only process the ones they did not already track via the pixel. Believe it or not, some advertiser intentionally do not submit the missing conversions and subsequently under pay their affiliates. This is a bad practice since you are intentionally defrauding affiliates based on the agreed upon terms and it opens your company up to legal actions that could cost you more than the 5%-25% more in commissions you should have paid.
Strong tracking allows you to focus on optimization
In the end, your job as an affiliate manager (or agency) is to understand how the affiliate tracking works and what potential issues could be affecting the accuracy of the data or the contract terms with your affiliates. Getting the tracking right gives you the most accurate data for your channel, helps you optimize the partnerships, and understand the true value that each affiliate is driving for your brand.