Investigating the Impact of Intelligent Tracking Prevention

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The recent Mac OS and iOS 11 development, Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), has caused alarm and panic across the advertising industry with lots of questions and very few clear cut answers so far.

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With Awin running affiliate marketing activity for over 6,000 advertisers globally, we are well positioned to assess the impact of this change on the affiliate industry so we have analysed the numbers from an entire month’s worth of global trade (5.9million transactions).

First and foremost, the testing Awin has done demonstrates that ITP does not seem focussed on affiliate links. This statement comes with a disclaimer though, it is an “intelligent” system and just because it’s not impacting affiliate links now, it doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future. For this reason, Awin will be regularly testing links on all Apple devices.

It is however appropriate to explore the worst case scenario even though there is currently no effect on affiliate tracking. In essence, the potential impact is actually quite small with approximately three percent of all sales being made on Apple devices, using Safari browsers, with a latency period of more than 24hrs and with advertisers who rely entirely on third party cookies for their tracking:

The reason ITP has become such a talking point (it’s not often an operating system release generates 5,000+ comments on reddit) is that the release has the intentional aim of preventing tracking after an initial twenty four hour period. This is hugely at odds with affiliate marketing standards where sales are traditionally attributed on a thirty day look back period. The legitimacy of looking back that far is an entire discussion in its own right but it’s safe to say that a lot of purchases are considerably more complex than the twenty four hours preceding the final purchase decision.

It is no surprise that in the US, the Advertising Bureau, and the Association of National Advertisers as well as the UK’s IAB have written an open letter, published by AdWeek, stating their discontent at Apple’s choice to potentially limit tracking activity. You can read more about that letter, and Apple’s response, in the recent Guardian article covering the release.

These changes were anticipated by Awin and as the first affiliate network to develop both fingerprinting and cross device tracking, work has already been done to mitigate the impact of ITP on the affiliate community.

Anyone with a deep understanding of how tracking works will describe three critical factors when considering the impact of ITP:

  • The volume of sales occurring after the 24 hour cut off period
  • The usage of Safari enabled devices on this subset of transactions
  • The method of tracking an advertiser uses

Volume of sales occurring after the 24 hour cut off period:

Using the data at Awin’s disposal, we’ve decided to hone in on three of our fifteen territories as they represent three quite different affiliate markets and give a good feel of how the industry will be impacted. First and foremost, what % of sales in these three regions occur more than 24hrs after the last affiliate click?

The differences in sales occurring outside of the 24hr ITP cookie period does vary dependent on the type of publishers that are prevalent in that region. The more varied the publisher mix and, alarmingly, the lower the share of content publishers, the less impactful ITP would be if they started to block affiliate tracking.

How many of these sales come from Apple devices:

The next factor we need to consider is what operating systems are being used for transactions that occur outside of the initial 24 hour cookie window?

When we look specifically at the transactions that occur 24 hours after the initial click, the presence of Apple operating systems again varies quite noticeably between France and the U.K. /U.S. When you combine these two things together, you start to build a much better picture of how much risk the publishers in each territory face:

What types of tracking are used:

Most traditional networks use cookie based tracking (albeit with additions such as cross device tracking, fingerprinting, etc…) and for cookie tracked programs, the way they fire a network’s tracking pixel also impacts what effect ITP will have. Put simply, those advertisers who allow network tags on their website unconditionally (i.e. for all their traffic) will be less impacted since the network can serve 1st party cookies from the advertiser’s own domain – Awin’s Mastertag solution. It’s worth noting here, that advertisers who track using server to server are very likely to entirely avoid the impact of ITP since it’s a cookie-less tracking solution. So how do the region’s uptake of Awin’s Mastertag vary?

So with our three data sources explored, what is the worst case scenario for the final impact of ITP? Well in truth, it varies a lot by publisher type and by tracking method. Those most affected are Search publishers and Content publishers which aligns with where we expect to see those publishers in the overall purchase funnel:

Stats which group all publishers don’t always tell the whole story though. There are some publisher more affected than others and below we can see the distribution of how impactful the update could be across the publisher bases in each of these countries:

It’s sad to see that in the UK almost one in ten publishers could face a 25% loss of earnings from affiliate marketing if ITP decides that affiliate tracking is a cause for consumer concern. Thankfully that has not happened and our fundamental belief is that affiliate marketing is in a strong position as regulation changes and browsers start empowering consumers.  Our payment model and the fact our industry uses sales validation periods means our channel must deliver value to consumers or it fails. This shields the industry from the consumer ire often directed towards other, more intrusive advertising methods.    

What’s clear is that these changes have brought into focus the importance of continual investment in tracking, something we are passionate about at Awin and determined to improve over the coming months.

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