Attribution & affiliate marketing: recognising upper funnel publishers is not enough

Rakuten Marketing’s SVP/Managing Director, Global Attribution, James Collins writes about attribution and affiliate marketing.

The affiliate channel, already a well-established part of the performance marketing mix, continues to grow in popularity: according to the IAB’s most recent Digital Adspend report, the affiliate market in the UK grew 10.9% 2015-2016. In the UK in 2016, 4,900 advertisers spent £1.578 billion on lead generation and affiliate marketing across 12,700 publishers. 

One of the reasons for the continued growth of affiliate marketing is likely to be that its performance and ROI is highly measurable. 

That said, as the modern consumer journey becomes increasingly complex, the demands on marketers to measure their affiliate activity in more sophisticated ways also increase. Rakuten Marketing data shows that, on average, UK consumers engage with 9 touch points before purchasing. That’s 9 interactions with a brand – across different channels and devices – before finally deciding to part with their cash. Stats such as this make it plain to see why the industry is in the process of slowly but steadily moving away from last-click measurement.

As more marketers look to measure performance across the whole consumer journey to better understand the value of their work, more affiliate networks are promoting their own attribution offerings. This is a good thing – the tide is turning and more and more people within the industry are acting rather than just talking about attribution. 

However, it’s important to understand that being able to see which publishers are influencing consumers beyond the last click is just the beginning. If you’re looking to get the most out of your data, it’s important to look beyond simply recognising the value of upper funnel publishers.

The basics of attribution are still important

That said, the basics remain important – particularly if you’re an advertiser working with influencers or content publishers, such as bloggers. Rakuten Marketing UK data shows that 55% of the revenue driven by content publishers is gained when that content publisher is the first touch point in the user journey.

If you’re measuring the value of your affiliate programmes on last click only, the contribution such publishers make to your revenue will be undervalued. You might then choose to pause activity with your content partners, potentially leading to a loss in revenue further down the line. 

To give this context, for one of our UK clients, data captured across the whole user journey revealed up to 5x more revenue attributable to content publishers than when looking at performance on a last-click basis. This simple insight gave the brand the data-driven confidence to invest more into its content publishers.

Cross-channel context: it’s about the consumer, not reports

Carrying out a cross-channel approach rather than a channel-specific siloed approach to marketing has been an issue for marketers in the past. However, at Rakuten Marketing, we’re seeing more brands and retailers take on this important cross-channel view. 

If you’re in a position where you are in control of multiple marketing channels, then a cross-channel view is clearly essential. However, even if you only have jurisdiction over the affiliate channel alone, this cross-channel view is still vitally important.

It allows you to analyse the performance of your affiliate activity in the context of other marketing channels and can show you which channels you should be using together to provide an effective and consistent message. This consistency, in turn, gives your customers a better cross-channel consumer experience, hopefully making them more likely to convert.

In a recent Marketing Land article, I gave an example of one of our clients that sees an increase in conversion rate when display is involved in the consumer journey. Display has the biggest impact on channels such as email, SEO and social media, but affiliates also see around a 25% increase in conversion rate when display is involved in the consumer journey.

Knowing which channels have the biggest impact on each other gives you the opportunity to test a campaign across those multiple channels – a campaign that provides consistent messaging and a better consumer experience, hopefully leading to more sales. 

Once you have access to this data, you’ll know which levers to pull on which channels to have the desired impact. If you’re only able to make decisions within the affiliate channel at the moment, then at least this view gives you a solid idea of the other channel teams you should be working closely with – and the data you need to make your arguments convincing.

Identifying publishers driving customer acquisition

Acquiring new customers is the lifeblood of many businesses. Therefore, the ability to differentiate between customers who have purchased from you before and those who haven’t is essential. Only then can you identify which affiliate publishers are most effective at driving new customers and therefore shape your customer acquisition strategies.

Aggregated data from our attribution and insights platform, Cadence, shows that 74% of orders that have involved a voucher site come from new customers. So, this shows that voucher sites are a likely partner (as part of a wider marketing mix) for brands looking to attract new buyers.

Understanding how different affiliates impact lifetime value

Understandably, affiliate advertisers want to work with publishers that are driving engaged users and customers that offer a high lifetime value. To identify those publishers, you need access to onsite performance data and data that gives you an accurate picture of repeat purchase behaviour.

For a range of UK high-end fashion clients, our data demonstrates that customers who purchase via shopping publishers become the most loyal customers: across Q3 and Q4 2016, 4 out of 5 customers acquired through shopping publishers in Q3 bought from the brand again in Q4. This insight gives those clients increased confidence in working with shopping publishers.

Insights that enable action

Attributed reporting needs to provide insights that lead to actions that meet your business objectives. That could be anything from improving confidence in certain publishers to fundamentally changing the way campaigns are run across multiple channels, rather than separately. 

Even this, however, is just the beginning. The goal for attribution has always been to unlock the power of the data that is collected across the user journey. And, more and more, this is happening. We’re already seeing more brands and retailers using that data and technology to implement customer journey optimisations in real time – this is where the exciting developments are.

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