What is affiliate tracking and how does it work? Affiliate publisher edition

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When you disregard affiliate tracking you won’t know what works the best, and you can end up doing all the hard work without getting paid. You won’t even know why.

By the end of this article, you’ll know the common affiliate tracking methods and how affiliate networks and programs attribute commissions.

Let’s get started.

Why should you care about affiliate tracking?

Functional affiliate tracking ensures you’re getting paid.

Your audience is your biggest asset, so knowing what content converts them the best will help you scale your business. And the conversion tracking starts with your affiliate links.

If your link tracking is set correctly you’ll find out which one of your pages has the highest conversion rate. You’ll also find which channel brings you quality traffic. All in pursuit of not overspending on traffic that doesn’t convert.

Thanks to tracking you’ll be able to build a data-based strategy and optimise when and where it makes sense.

What is affiliate tracking?

Affiliate tracking helps you earn more money by showing you what works, what doesn’t work and, if your conversions are coming through. It’s a way of tracking referrals online and the most important thing – the centre of your affiliate universe – tracking your affiliate links. 

Because if your affiliate links aren’t performing, you’re not getting paid. Simple as that. 

Through your affiliate link, you’re sending the traffic to the original merchant’s website. With that link, the merchant can attribute the commission earned through that conversion to you.

Affiliate marketing tracking methods

As a publisher, one of the most crucial things to nail down is tracking conversions that happen on websites other than your own. So how can an affiliate network or program find out if the user who purchased a product came from you?

It all starts with a click on your affiliate link. From there it depends on a specific tracking method:

Cookie tracking

Cookies are little pieces of data stored in your user’s browser after visiting your website. The user needs to give you their consent for tracking cookies.

When this user returns, your website recognizes them and to a certain degree tracks their online behaviour outside of your website. 

Cookies in affiliate link tracking store the information when the user clicks on your affiliate link. Cookies can store a range of data about your user, such as the time and date of the click, what website they visited, and so on.

Affiliate networks and programs often talk about cookie lifespan. Unlike an unopened bag of chocolate chip cookies that expire after 6 months, the affiliate tracking cookies usually expire in 30 days. Some programs, like Amazon Associates, can extend the cookie lifespan to 90 days and still attribute you the sale. So check the cookie lifespan before joining a network or program.

A few drawbacks with cookie tracking:

  • User needs to accept cookie tracking. 
  • Users can delete cookies. If the user deletes the cookies before purchasing, the tracking is lost and as an affiliate, you won’t get attributed any commission.
  • They don’t track across devices. Cookies are browser dependent so if your customer uses multiple browsers and devices throughout their buying journey you won’t be able to track them well.

Consent-less tracking

People are not too excited about being tracked so they have the option of not giving you the tracking consent.

In other words, the user can opt out of being tracked in their iOS or decline cookie tracking. But if they’re purchasing an affiliate offer they still agree to some tracking, even without realising it.

It’s still valuable information when a non-consented user makes a purchase. To checkout, they agree to the terms and conditions of the e-commerce store, which means they’re actively providing new consent.

Even without a rich event stream of previous user events, the data gathered at the checkout is valuable for attributing a conversion. This is especially true for conversions from sources that work with first-party data, such as encrypted/anonymised emails.

Pixel tracking

Pixel tracking helps you find out which channels get you the best quality traffic. This is especially valuable if you’re paying for your traffic sources (paid ads).

Pixel is a little code snippet that you need to embed into a specific page to track your affiliate links. A typical placement is to have a pixel on your conversion landing page – like a product review or comparison page.

Let’s say you’re advertising on Facebook. Your goal is to generate traffic to your comparison page, where you use affiliate links. You set up a pixel on your Facebook ads manager and place the pixel snippet on your comparison page. A user clicks on your Facebook ad and visits the comparison page.

Once the comparison page loads, the pixel snippet loads with it (or as affiliate veterans would say “it fires”). From that point, the pixel is assigned to the user’s session on your website. If they click your affiliate links, you’ll know that they came from Facebook and you can consider your ad a success.

Server to Server tracking (known as Postback URL tracking)

Ever wondered how affiliate networks and advertisers transfer data with each other? The type of data they use to attribute you a commission…

Unlike cookie tracking, Server to Server (S2S) doesn’t rely on the user’s willingness to store the cookie information in their browser. Instead, the data is stored on the network’s and advertiser’s tracking servers. When the user comes from your affiliate link and finishes the conversion they’ll be assigned a unique ID.

Once the network assigns the unique ID to the user it will send the data back to the advertiser. Then the advertiser’s tracking system needs to find the matching unique ID. After that, both the advertiser and network know your click made the sale and you’ll get the commission.

Affiliate conversion tracking and attribution

Now you know how advertisers and networks can track the conversion data.

Let’s tie the tracking to your commission.

If an affiliate program or network you’re part of can see your links bringing conversions, they’ll attribute commissions. But there is a catch. 

What happens if there are more affiliates (your competitors) in the sales funnel? 

How will the network and advertiser decide which one will get the commission?

The attribution model is about the links and clicks getting attributed (tagged) to a specific affiliate publisher. 

You need to find out what attribution model they’re using because that can determine whether you’ll get paid. The most common attribution models in affiliate marketing are “first click” and “last click.”

First-click attribution

The first time a visitor clicks on your link they’re tied to you forever. Or as long as you can keep tracking them. And the moment they purchase the product you’ll get the credit for the sale.

affiliate tracking attribution model first click

Your link initiated the whole customer journey and so you deserve full credit for that first click. As a publisher, you want to inspire people to click your affiliate link. And whatever happens between the first click and conversion is not your concern. As long as the purchase happens, you’ll get the commission. It’s the advertiser’s responsibility to have a functional sales funnel.

To promote your links, target the queries answering questions about the product so you can get the click earlier in the buying process. If you target queries right before the sales happen, you’re risking that the customer would have clicked a different affiliate link first. And then the other affiliate gets paid instead of you.

Last-click attribution

Last-click is the most used attribution model and networks and advertisers prefer it. It also comes as default by analytics platforms. That’s how commonly used this model is.

The credit goes to an affiliate publisher on whose link the customer clicked the latest before purchasing. The idea is to give the credit to an affiliate who was closest to the sales conversion, as they were the one who most likely influenced the customer to buy.

So as a publisher, if your affiliate link was the last one the customer clicked before they purchased the product, you’ll get the commission from the sale.

last click attribution in affiliate marketing

To promote the affiliate link, your content should ease the visitor into buying the affiliate offer. So instead of focusing on clicks, you want them to buy the product right after they click your link.

Make the tracking easier with affiliate tracking software

There is so much that goes into the technical setup for affiliate tracking. And there is only so much that Google Analytics and other native advertising platforms can help you measure.

Even when you have perfect technical skills in setting up your tracking parameters you won’t be able to capture everything. You might end up sending traffic to advertisers without getting paid, without knowing about it. You’d be surprised how often this happens.

That’s where affiliate tracking software can help.

(If you want to have an idea of how complex it can be to set up tracking manually, take a look at this blog post where we touch upon how to track your affiliate conversions)

What is affiliate tracking software

Affiliate tracking software is a tool that helps you keep track of your affiliate performance data. 

Tracking through affiliate software works in two parts. One part requires you to implement a script or API on your website so the software can track your clicks. Sort of like Google Analytics. The other is to connect the affiliate network you’re part of to the tracking software so it can show you the data from the network’s side.

Why should you use affiliate tracking software

It makes your life much easier.

Imagine a world where you can replace logging in to all your affiliate networks, Google Analytics, and other tools with just one login. All the good software will show you the data in visual graphs which makes spotting poorly performing pages much easier.
Some affiliates who work with direct partners can struggle to keep track of all the conversions. So by using affiliate tracking software you’ll get much more control over viewing the performance of your affiliate links.

Besides that, some affiliate tracking software (like Heylink *wink wink*) can also help you automate link management and offer you optimisation recommendations.