Publishers’ affiliate businesses are also at risk from browser changes to limit tracking

It’s not just publishers’ ad businesses that are under threat from the browsers’ privacy push. Now, there’s a growing sense of unease about how the cookie crackdown from Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox is going to affect publishers’ affiliate revenue.

Publishers with affiliate business models that plug into affiliate networks — which allow publishers to sell products from thousands of different retailers for a revenue cut — are starting to feel exposed, according to publisher sources.

Typically, all publishers that generate affiliate revenue do so by putting affiliate links on their sites to the advertiser, or retailer. These redirect to the affiliate networks’ ad servers, dropping third-party cookies along the way. The browsers blocking third-party cookies erodes this ability to track the user between the publisher and retailer, so the retailer can’t attribute the sale to the specific publisher. The result is the publisher can miss out on the commission they’re due. Another issue for affiliate publishers is Apple shortening the life cycle of the first-party cookie to just 24 hours. For some publishers, what they’re selling takes a longer consideration time, if the user can’t be tracked the publishers’ contribution to the sale can’t be either.

The direction of travel is clear, and publishers are bracing themselves for tighter regulation. But affiliate publishers are still early on in exploring alternative ways to identify users on their sites. Newspaper company ESI Media, magazine company TI Media and Shortlist — all of which have affiliate businesses — are all starting to explore new forms of identification that don’t rely on third-party cookies.

“Traffic and revenue are growing, but we don’t know if it’s growing at the right level because we don’t have the right tracking in place,” said Emily Ferguson, e-commerce director for Marie Claire Edit, the publisher’s affiliate platform launched November 2018. “We want to be on the front foot with this.”

According to Ferguson, Marie Claire Edit is seeing 675% average annual traffic growth. At such a high percentage, that’s likely to be from a small base, though she wouldn’t share traffic numbers. But half of its traffic is from Apple’s Safari browser, which earlier this year as part of its Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.2, restricted the window for first-party cookies down from seven days to one. For publishers like Marie Claire Edit, the purchase tends to happen after 24 hours once people have taken their time to research and read reviews, said Adam Ross, chief operating officer at Awin.

“A 24-hour window is not enough, and even if the user, inspired by the article or review, made the purchase on the advertiser site, our technology wouldn’t be able to track it,” he said. “The publisher wouldn’t receive the commission they deserve.”

As with the advertising landscape, where publishers are looking for ways to leverage their first-party cookies and exploring how to identify users outside of third-party cookies, there are solutions emerging.

In the last week, Marie Claire Edit started using Awin technology which allows tracking without using publisher cookies or redirects through a network’s ad server. Instead, links are sent directly from the publisher to the advertiser and the tracking part is handled at the advertiser side. This also extends the life cycle of the first-party cookie from 24 hours to 30 days. Both publisher and advertiser need to have Awin’s tag installed.

However, it’s hard to quantify the scale of the problem now for several reasons: Publisher affiliate revenue streams are usually smaller than advertising, making dramatic changes harder to spot. Only the updated versions of Apple Safari and Firefox browsers are taking a tough stance, so traffic from other browsers or older versions are not impacted. Marie Claire Edit will need to wait a few months before it has enough comparison data to assess the impact that limiting tracking has had on its traffic, conversion and revenue.

“The only conversations I’ve had about this in the affiliate space are ones I’ve started,” said Paul Cunliffe, gm at Shortlist, speaking at an event on affiliate revenue streams hosted by trade body the Association of Online Publishers, in London this week.

Publishers that have been hit hard by browser changes have prioritized tackling how to recoup the ad revenue or find other ways to identify their audiences. But the affiliate side has lagged because the change has been gradual and from a smaller base. But with looming privacy regulations and browsers continuing to tighten ways of tracking, that’s now set to change.

Another reason is that applying data for affiliate businesses is more fledgling compared with advertising. Common processes in digital advertising like segmenting audiences are less established in affiliate businesses. For instance, some affiliate publishers are now implementing sentiment tracking to understand how a happy or a sad article will interlink with purchase data.

“What we need to track that journey is significantly less data than other channels,” said Ross. “Affiliates is inherently data light and privacy-conscious so we can build solutions that don’t get trapped by browsers prevention.”

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