July 16, 2017

What are soft click cookie affiliates?

In May 2017 controversy was abound in the Affiliate industry as a new player to the market ‘Pouch’ announced a voucher code extension tool that would allow brands to essentially bid to feature on the extension when the customer was browsing a rival site.

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The announcement caused quite a stir, with some calling it positively ‘a new wave in guerrilla marketing’ and others seeing it as another stake in the heart of the reputation of the affiliate industry. Yours truly has had a chance to catch up a couple of times at events since with people who work at Pouch and realistically there’s no right or wrong in this situation, with both sides having valid points. One interesting question that came out of it though was how were networks going to approach this, specifically will they treat it with a ‘soft cookie’ approach?What is a ‘soft cookie approach’ though? In my experience, it’s essentially a different way of expressing when the partner (in this case Pouch) is deserving of a commission, mostly still on a CPA basis. There’s nothing revolutionary, nor evolutionary about it all, but there is a key difference. Normal affiliate sales are done on what we’ll now call a ‘hard cookie’ which essentially acts as a last point before the required action occurs, but a soft click cookie will only overwrite any previous channel action in specific circumstances. Over time this has been most prevalent in 3 sectors; Display, Conversion optimisation and Toolbars.DisplayTaking the first of these in chronological order, Display campaigns through the affiliate channel were the first time that this writer heard of ‘soft cookie’ approaches. Essentially for the first iterations of Display campaigns tracking through an Affiliate basis to work, it was decided that there would need to be some sort of model of payment on ‘viewing’ an ad, as a typical display campaign would have. It needed to be different though in working back to a CPA, so how do we reconcile two very different payment models?The answer was to pay CPA on two different methods to the company that ran the Display campaign through the Affiliate channel. They would be rewarded a CPA based on a traditional Affiliate CPA sale (the ‘hard cookie’ approach) as any other partner would be, but they would also generate a commission for a sale that happened under certain display conditions. Usually this would be a sale that occurred within a 2 day ‘view’ window; so if a customer viewed the advertiser's ad and then transacted within 2 days without coming through any other source. The crucial part is that the view wouldn’t override any other Affiliate click, with the accepted argument being that a customer viewing an ad is showing less intent to purchase than somebody physically clicking through an ad.Conversion Optimisation/OverlaysNext in the big wave of Affiliate evolution were the conversion optimisation solutions, with the likes of VE Interactive (now Rowchester), Yieldify and latterly Smarter Click all emerging in the space with slightly different solutions. These technologies came under a number of different names, with ‘Overlays’, ‘Exit intent solutions’ and ‘Conversion Optimisation Solutions’ all being mooted at different times, but essentially the area we are looking at are the on-site elements.Essentially here the company would work with the brand’s site to serve an overlay on-site that would encourage the customer to complete their action/conversion with the brand there and then. There would be various rules implemented, such as moving to exit the site or actively switching windows, but what we want to focus on here is the soft click element of proceedings. As the overlay was working on the site, what would happen if the customer had arrived via another partner? The controversy was that maybe the customer had already been persuaded by the original affiliate/partner to convert on the site, so at this point the overlay had added no extra value and ‘stole’ the sale if it was clicked upon. Thus it was decided that these would be denoted soft-click cookie affiliates that wouldn’t overwrite previous ‘hard click’ options that came through.ToolbarsThe final sector to focus on is that which has inspired so much controversy with Pouch now also in the space: toolbar systems. These sit in the customer’s internet browser and can be activated under certain conditions set by the customer to ‘remind’ them of some sort of incentive they may be missing out on. The first of these to emerge were the cashback notifiers from Quidco, then Topcashback, that reminded a customer of cashback that a brand would pay them on purchase. Following on from this were the ‘donation notifiers’ from the likes of EasyFundraising, which reminded customers of possible donation amounts through them on a brand, essentially the same system as with cashback. Finally we’ve now seen Pouch in the voucher space.The debate here is on the passiveness of the toolbar’s role in the sale (we’ll avoid the arguments about bidding on competitor brands through Pouch for now). A customer could already be about to purchase, or show adequate intent to purchase, on a brand’s site, only for a toolbar extension to appear at the exact moment before purchase reminding them of cashback, donations or a voucher they are missing out on. The customer then will have to click off through this toolbar to get said incentive, before then completing the purchase. At best it’s a further indent on the brand’s sale, at worst it’s taken the customer away from focusing on the sale where they may then be lost completely.The soft cookie comes in here to protect previous attributors to the site. How though can it work with the likes of cashback and charity donations, where the customer actively sees what they would be getting/donating through the extension? The truth is that in these sectors it can’t really work; the cashback/charity affiliate has to be attributed 100% of the CPA, overwriting all pre-existing affiliate cookies. In Pouch’s case though, the customer doesn’t see the full transparency of the commission that Pouch receives, so the CPA % doesn’t need to be in full. Thus the soft cookie approach can be in place, where Pouch’s affiliate cookie doesn’t then overwrite any pre-existing partner cookie if it exists.The soft cookie debate is a solution of sorts to various intricacies of CPA affiliate activity, but it’s merely a band aid over a gaping wound. Further discussion and transparency needs to take place into that old adage of Attribution if we are to all work together cohesively.Alastair Kidner, Account Director

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