Cookies, Cookies, Everywhere…

Cookies, cookies everywhere, but not a crumb to eat.

I received quite a few responses (including a counterpoint article by another ClickZ writer) over the last two weeks that suggest that merchants using cookies will solve the problem of affiliates losing commissions when users return to sites after the initial visit. This article, whose title plays off the classic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” suggests that the abundance of cookies doesn’t necessarily equal an abundance of commissions.

In my previous piece, I suggested that affiliates might be getting cheated out of hard-earned commissions. In response, ClickZ received a truckload of comments from readers across the country. The consensus seems to be that though affiliates for the most part do earn the majority of their commissions, affiliates still are probably being cheated (intentionally or not) under a range of very fixable circumstances. Allow me to quote one reader: “As an affiliate, you need to be on the ball or you are giving away the sale.”

Affiliates, Have No Fear

Now, don’t start running away from your affiliate programs yet. It isn’t quite as bad as it sounds, and all is not terribly ugly in the affiliate-commission-tracking jungle. The problems can be remedied.

As one reader said last week: “I agree that merchants are not out to cheat affiliates or more broadly publishers in general. There are simply too many ways that a sale can come ‘unhooked’ from its original source.”

In fact, the majority of people I heard from agreed that most online sales that derived from affiliate-based Web site links did, in fact, reward affiliates properly, when they occur under one of the following circumstances:

  • The sale took place immediately on that visit.
  • If the sale took place when the user later returned to that site, then:
    • The user accepts cookies on his machine.
    • The user did not erase his cookie before revisiting the site.
    • The cookie was still live when the user returned to the site (i.e., it had not yet expired).
    • The user bookmarked the site on his original visit, and the bookmark used to return to the site contained the affiliate tracking code.

Can Affiliates Lose Commissions Even When Cookies Are in Place?

Almost every single respondent replied that if merchants would use cookies to track sales, that would solve the majority of the lost-commission problem. I’m sorry to say that this is not a totally correct assessment of the situation.

Sure, with long-lasting (why not lifetime?) cookies and returning customers who use the same computer and visit the exact Web site (as opposed to mirror sites), the affiliates who sent users to merchant Web sites will likely get their commissions.

But that still doesn’t address the issue I raised in the last article — follow-up communications with existing users or customers in these situations:

  • When an affiliate ID is not embedded in the communication
  • When for some reason the cookie fix won’t work
  • With phone orders that aren’t attributed to affiliates

Who Knows What a “Cozillion” Is?

I don’t really like quoting exact statistics because they are usually based on samples rather than totalities, so here is a nice generic one for you: One hundred cozillion people use AOL, Hotmail, and Yahoo email addresses to send and receive mail, and they quite often use different computers to read their email.

By the way, one cozillian equals a lot of people. So one hundred cozillian equals a whole lot of people. Let’s not forget to add another five cozillion students who account for a huge number of Internet users that are constantly logging on in their libraries in addition to their home computers. And there are a few more cozillion corporate users that play around online at work as well as at home.

Have You Been Doinked Out of a Commission Lately?

I visit Mr. Email Software Merchant via an affiliate link on Monday from home, and then Mr. Software Merchant sends an email offer to my Yahoo account. I then respond to the offer from the computer in my office. So where’s the cookie to reward Mr. Affiliate from Monday?

Uh oh! It’s at home.

What is the bottom line for Mr. Affiliate? Oh, he just got doinked out of his commission (that is some new affiliate parlance for not getting a commission).

Here are some recommended fixes that would reward affiliates with more sales:

  • Include the affiliate tracking ID on emails sent out. This way, regardless of where the user reads the email, the affiliate will certainly be rewarded for a sale that evolved directly from that email message.
  • Add an affiliate tracking number anywhere the phone number appears, so people who phone a call center can cite the number. (This won’t guarantee the sale, but at least it is a step in the right direction.)
  • Outlaw the rip-off software technologies that allow unrelated ads or links to appear on merchant sites (or anyone’s sites, for that matter) without their permission. I saw this happening on MagMall’s own site over a year ago when one of these programs was stealing our traffic and redirecting it to another magazine subscription company. This is worse than highway robbery because the robbers don’t even wear masks to hide their identity — and they are getting away with it. Doom, I say. Doom.
  • Embed affiliate links into welcome pop-up offers that capture email addresses. That way, the email address will be associated with the affiliate tracking ID.

I leave you with this final thought: If cookies haven’t alleviated the problem of online advertisers (a vastly larger market) tracking users accurately, why should we believe the cookies will solve the affiliate problem?

As always, pax vobiscum.

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