Why Apple’s ITP amplifies the fundamentals of affiliate marketing

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Apple's update to Safari was a wake-up call to the affiliate industry. Awin's Group Strategy Director Kevin Edwards shares his thoughts on the topic. 

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Much in affiliate marketing is built on good faith. Despite expert measurement, we still rely on advertisers doing the right thing by affiliates.

All parties have a part to play in ensuring the affiliate wheels keep turning. In fact, it’s a finely balanced triangulated relationship - network, publisher and advertiser - all (hopefully) working in partnership to deliver the same end goal. Sometimes that extends to a fourth actor if an agency is involved.

When something disrupts the equilibrium, what becomes clear is that everyone has a care of duty to remedy the situation. Without it, the delicate trust the channel is built on can evaporate.

It’s for this reason the recent changes in how Apple tracks through its Safari browser could have longer-term ramifications, crystalizing the importance of core, fundamental affiliate principles.

I won’t go into the details of the latest iteration of Safari and how it blocks third-party cookies (if you’re interested in reading in more depth, you can do so here), but in reality it caught the industry napping. Apple, being beholden to no one, made the announcement in June for a September launch. What it essentially meant is the first-party tracking solutions all networks and SaaS platforms offer became mission critical.

Awin was reasonably well insulated, the clear majority of our big clients had fit-for-purpose tracking. But some didn’t, including a handful of large clients integrated more than a decade ago. And manually checking the full list when you work with thousands of clients across the world (especially when many had specific and custom integrations) presented a headache. This was a deadline that would come regardless of how well prepared we were.

Therefore the stark truth was that we knew, as of mid-September, some programs would take a hit. What was pleasing was to see the various teams kick into action. This wasn’t just a technical issue. It also involved our marketing, client services, product and business intelligence teams - not to mention internal training.  From this full team collaboration, we are now proud to say the vast majority of our North American advertiser sales are safe from impact.

One of the most-obvious dilemmas had, which loops back to my intro, was what to do about the anticipated lost commission. Well, first we had to contextualize it. While we were asked what the likely impact was going to be across the network, if you’re an affiliate what you need to know is which programs run the risk of failing to track potentially significant revenues. If you’ve got a clean bill of health for your tracking, the problem vanishes. If not, it could be hugely damaging. The average is meaningless.

This isn’t globally universal. Brazil tracks the fewest number of sales on Apple devices, the UK and Sweden the most. That’s not to say all lost revenue isn’t important but it helps draft priorities.

We’re now currently in the process of building additional functionality into our user interface, as well as number crunching, communicating and building new reports that we will need to ensure we’re able to convince any advertisers who drag their heels on clawing back commissions for the past few months. We will pursue compensation in line with a couple of our competitors.

So far we’ve had little pushback, which is encouraging. The cynic in me assumed some may use this as an opportunity to save some money and that may still come to pass. It will be a while longer before we approach our brands with the numbers, and these have grown over the months since ITP2 launched. With around 85% of sales now tracking through Safari, and some affiliates tracking more than half of their sales through Apple devices, this can soon add up.

The point here is while the commission clawback is obviously important, it should be the prompt that brands need to upgrade their tracking. Because that switch won’t just mean they get their affiliate programs back on track, it also facilitates a much wider set of opportunities through deeper integrations. Selling into brands the successes others have had in this area will be important. Both affiliates and networks have a duty to create this vision.

Looking at this from a more elevated position brings into focus a few points:

  1. We all had the technical fixes we needed to address this problem. This should be seen as an endorsement of how the channel’s affiliate relationships can be premised on deeper integrations. But it also demonstrates how we should pursue tracking excellence as standard.
  2. When the chips are down, the fundamentals for any affiliate program have to be robustly applied. One of the risks of the affiliate channel, with its payment on performance model, is when that is disrupted revenue dries up. Networks need to ensure they invest in clawing it back swiftly and with minimal fuss.
  3. While we can’t anticipate change, we have to accept it will happen. Even though ITP was a standalone event, it’s indicative of a wider trend that challenges how we track online. This will not be the first time we’re thrown a curveball like this.

There are some wrinkles to be ironed out and details to be defined, but if anyone needs a wake-up call, both previous iterations of ITP were announced in the June, or more soberingly, just four months from now…

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