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The importance of using first-party cookies for affiliate marketing activities

By Riccardo Favara

Your familiarisation with internet cookies is likely to stretch as far as the ‘accept’ button, which you click unconditionally whenever you visit a new site and never think about again. You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that there’s a little more to them than that.

Cookies have been tracking customer journeys ever since their inception and have allowed a multitude of retailers to personalise their customer outreach. However, at the end of this year, there is going to be an overhaul on how they can be used.

Fortunately, we have identified the best ways to circumvent this upcoming challenge. Read on to find out why First-Party cookies are on the cusp of being a vital aspect of affiliate marketing for retailers.

The way the cookie crumbles

For those who are not aware of what a first-party cookie is, it’s a small amount of text stored in the user's computer that is created on the domain visited by the end user. For example, if a user visits www.imrg.org, then any cookie set on imrg.org would be what we call a first-party cookie.

If, while on the same website, a plugin or analytics tag sets a cookie, under its own domain, then this is called a third-party cookie. For example, if a user visits www.imrg.org and a Facebook plugin sets a cookie, the domain will be facebook.com – a third party compared to imrg.org.

Affiliate marketing companies, since their inception, have always taken advantage of third-party cookies to track conversions for their advertisers, helping them to grow their revenues and remunerate the publishers who are helping to drive sales. Still today, such cookies are a key part in the process to identify and validate conversions.

Stack of cookies

The fly in the ointment

In Q4 2018, Apple is planning the release of an update to Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) across its Safari browser, which will affect both mobile and desktop devices (iOS 12 and macOS Mojave). ITP 2.0 will target technologies that rely on third-party tracking and profiling, blocking by default all third-party cookies that are used for marketing activities. The previous version (available since October 2017 on almost all Apple devices) was giving a 24-hour window where the third-party cookies were still valid before deleting them.

ITP is the last piece of the puzzle in the war that Apple is running against Facebook in the name of privacy. The main targets have been identified: ‘Like and share buttons and conversation windows — these can be used to track you whether you click on them or not. This year we are shutting that down.’ - Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of software engineering during the unveiling of ITP 2.0 at the 2018 Apple Keynote.

Lock on a gate

With ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ buttons, as well as third-party cookies, being the focus of ITP 2.0, there is another important tracking method that will be caught in the web of the renewed tracking prevention and is part of this latest update. This is the limitation on ‘fingerprinting’: the ability for a tracker to identify specific devices.

Device fingerprinting is a process by which data companies or advertisers can collect exclusive characteristics, like precise font types that have been installed, screen resolution, and plugins to triangulate at the second stage the identity of a user as they browse the web. ‘Your Mac will look more like everyone else’s Mac and it will be dramatically more difficult for data companies to uniquely identify your device and track you’ (Federighi, 2018).

Safari will standardise the visualisation of the page, using built-in fonts and removing the support of legacy plugins, giving a very tough time to all those companies which are using probabilistic validation methods based on fingerprint profiles.

Fingerprint on keyboard

A broad reach

It’s not only Facebook on Apple ITP’s radar: another big player has been heavily targeted by the upgraded version of the Tracking Prevention tool. Google’s DoubleClick is possibly one of the most used deduplication systems within the Affiliate Marketing ecosystem, and one of those that primarily uses third-party cookies to release the tags.

Long story short, having no third-party cookies is equal to having no conversions tracked on Apple Devices, if you are using DoubleClick without taking advantage of what Google calls ‘Conversion Linker’: that is, a feature that can be used only in conjunction with Google Tag Manager.

With an average of 14% of conversions finalised in Safari (Mobile + Desktop) and rising, the need for each tracking technology provider in the digital marketing landscape (and not only in the Affiliate Marketing channel) to have a reliable solution in place is more pressing than ever. The whole industry need to move towards a first-party solution as a default tracking method for their activities, as a key part of a more complex ecosystem that includes additional tracking methodologies.

Charts on a screen

But ITP is not the only predator when it comes to third-party cookies: there is an increasing number of technologies that are jeopardising the utilisation of these cookies, such as Ad Blockers and Private Browsing, and this is all due to a more privacy-oriented and tech-savvy user behaviour.

If we are adding to the picture an ecosystem where a single user is now converting using more than 2 devices (everyone nowadays uses a laptop and a smartphone, potentially starting the user journey on the latter and finalising on the former), the need to migrate far from a tracking experience based solely on cookies is prominent. Alongside the multi-attribution model, this is one of the hottest topics in the industry today.

Trees reflected in water

The workaround

First-party cookies are not the answer to the problem, but they are indeed an essential part of the puzzle, alongside deterministic Cross-Device Tracking and Cookieless Tracking solutions.

Advertisers that take advantage of the latest tracking technologies, such as First-Party Cookie Validation, Cross-Device Tracking, Cookieless Tracking, Device ID Tracking and Exclusive Voucher Tracking (that can also be used for in-store offline tracking), stand themselves in a strong stead to benefit from their affiliate activities: they will possess a countermeasure to ITP, and the potential to increase their tracking reliability across other devices, with the result being a higher conversion rate.

I am pretty sure that with the push from Internet Tracking Prevention, we will see a new generation of tracking solutions capable of integrating new identifiers for more exciting capabilities. The message is now clearer than before: data has acquired a new, higher, value. Tracking will help businesses understand the value of their data – and the more data, the more value. Digital Marketing is constantly evolving, and this an inevitable next step.

Riccardo Favara, Technical Client Director, Tradedoubler

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