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The Significance of Cookie Hierarchy

Posted on 7.31.2013


By Simon Hofmeister, Account Director & Client Strategist at Affiliate Window

There are two opposing attitudes that characterize advertisers’ current sentiments about the composition of their affiliate programs.

Historically, performance marketing had primarily focused on new customer acquisition, so it is refreshing to see the introduction of publishers who are mainly concerned with targeting customers who have already visited, but for one reason or another have “abandoned” an advertiser’s site.

However, while the performance channel has always encouraged new and innovative methods of promotion, two questions must be asked. First, how can these methods gain recognition as means to drive acquisitions; and second, what is the impact of these activities on the efforts of a program’s existing publishers?

It is here that we see the re-emergence of familiar issues that embodied the debate about whether full credit for the sale should be awarded to the last click or spread out further down the affiliate daisy chain. In the same way that the debate surrounding multi-attribution within the affiliate channel had the desire to attribute better at its core, the same questions have been raised regarding new types of publishers that have made an appearance within the channel over recent years. The emphasis this time, however, is on the click itself as opposed to its place within the chain.

Whereas the setting of differential commission rates used to be the traditional method that advertisers would use in order to attribute value to publishers’ activity, the ability to control the priority given to certain cookies was until recently an unexplored concept.

The vast majority of publisher sales will be credited using traditional post-click cookies or hard-click cookies as they are now sometimes referred to. Other hard-click cookies can only overwrite these hard-click cookies. Another type of post-click cookie has recently been developed called a soft-click cookie. By contrast, a soft-click cookie will not overwrite any existing hard post-click cookies. An advertiser may use this option if they are concerned that particular types of publisher activity will have an overly high chance of overwriting another publisher’s post-click cookie. Browser helper objects (BHOs), such as add-ons or plugins, are set up to remind the user that the particular product they are looking at can be bought cheaper elsewhere; toolbars encouraging users to collect cash back on a product; or remarketing emails generated by site abandonment are three examples of activity where “soft” cookies are set by advertisers.

The third cookie within the hierarchy is the post-view cookie. This is a cookie dropped by a publisher after an impression has been served. If an advertiser wishes to run some form of display activity and pay the publisher on a CPA rather than a CPM or CPC basis this type of cookie is a viable option. It is commonplace now for advertisers to work with behavioral retargeting providers or ad networks (offering premium display inventory) through the performance channel, while still only paying upon completion of a sale.

Advertisers should question their networks regarding other aspects of post-view display activity. For an advertiser who is particularly brand conscious, it is important to receive as much transparency on the sites where ads that drop post-view cookies appear. It is also important to understand the length of the post-view cookie, as well as what frequency caps are set up to protect against over-exposing the user to these ads. In addition, advertisers might wish to establish what checks their networks have in place to identify the type of activity that may require a different type of cookie, and how this activity is made transparent by their networks. 

There are two major benefits to this flexible way of setting preferences for how certain types of cookies overwrite one another. One is that the activity no longer has to be run on a hard post-click cookie. Advertisers are able to become more sensitive to the ways in which their publishers impact one another and make positive steps to protect the work of their existing publishers from negative impacts or false attributions. Second, it helps their affiliate programs to appear much more attractive to those that have worked outside performance marketing in the past, allowing advertisers to carry out more CPA activity through the performance channel with no upfront risks.

BONUS: Will There Ever Be Cookie-Less Tracking?

The threat to cookie-based tracking is nothing new. The “do not track” initiative is prevalent throughout the U.S. and has been a major risk to online advertisers and their publisher base. With cookie-based tracking the most widespread method of understanding user behavior, purchasing habits and preferences, this is something that needs to be taken seriously.

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