The attribution revolution: A world where everyone is an affiliate

More than ever, it has become evident that accurate attribution is a crucial component of any marketing campaign. A lack of attribution leads to a lack of data.  A lack of data leads to poor decision making. Poor decision making leads to lower-performing campaigns, which leads to a further lack of attribution, and the loop continues.

From speaking amongst the many eCommerce brand owners in my network, it’s no secret that the recent iOS update has changed the overall effectiveness of digital marketing. With lack of attribution ultimately snowballing to poor performing campaigns, the resulting outcome is almost always a decrease in ad spend, and ultimately a decrease in customer acquisition. Since attribution is a key factor in nearly every KPI in every part of the funnel, there’s little that can be done to make up for its lack of accuracy.

Fortunately, attribution is a wider umbrella than what’s tracked and reported by our good friends at Facebook. In fact, that is only a small piece of the pie. Attribution is happening all around us, and with the help of the right tech, it can be tracked and measured in ways never before possible. And no, I’m not talking TikTok, Snapchat, or some plug-in SaaS that allows you to better track attribution in your Facebook campaigns. I’m talking about relationships.

Referrals, affiliates, word of mouth, advocates, ambassadors- whatever you want to call it- all stem from the same concept: Attribution at the personal level. The relationship level. The conversational level. This type of attribution is ever so quickly becoming the focal point of marketers. Ever go out to dinner and have such a good meal that you just had to tell your friend about it, and then they went to the same spot later that week? Attribution. Ever been visiting family and felt sick, so they take you to the local doctor they’ve been going to for years? Attribution. And of course, this is happening at a massive scale in the online world too.  You take a risk buying a new face scrub you saw on social media and end up falling in love with it. Then two weeks later, like clockwork, everyone in your family bought their own. That is some seriously important attribution data, and if marketers are able to consistently and accurately capture that, the power it gives them is enormous.

In order to fully grasp what this new world of attribution (or attribution revolution as I like to call it😊) looks like, there are two important concepts that you’ll need to agree with me on:

1. Everyone is an affiliate

The days of being selective over who can and can’t promote your brand are well behind us. Everyone is an affiliate, no matter how big or small their audience or network size. Everybody on this earth has the ability to influence conversion. And wherever a conversion was influenced, attribution is required. Choosing not to attribute conversions to someone based on any factor is choosing to have less accurate data and make less informed decisions.

In eCommerce terms: The days of clunky sign-up forms with a manual approval/disapproval process to join an affiliate program are the past. (This doesn’t mean that every affiliate should receive the same terms and rewards for referrals, however. Affiliate segmentation is also an important piece of the puzzle.)

2. The right incentives will supercharge the power of relationship-based marketing.

As you likely know, rewards play a big role in word of mouth marketing for two main reasons: It incentivizes affiliates to self attribute referrals they would already make without the reward in place, as well as motivates affiliates to further promote your product or service in ways they would not have without the reward in place. Since rewards play such a big role here, it’s crucial that affiliates are receiving these rewards in the most frictionless way possible. If they take too long or are difficult to receive,  your affiliates will lose motivation for both self attributing existing referrals and even more so for further incentive-based advocacy. This is a very important piece of the puzzle.

Agree with me on these? Cool, let’s move on👇

Now, obviously, measuring this type of attribution involves different technology than the type of attribution our good pal Zuckerburg utilizes. Cookies and the like don’t listen to your conversations (I hope), and the ‘7 day click 1 day view’ attribution window doesn’t do much for a marketing channel that involves neither clicks nor views. That being said, there are ways to accurately gather the vast majority of this attribution data. Does some still slip through the cracks? Yes. Will there be a time where the tech behind it is so good that it’s captured with 100% accuracy? My belief is yes.

You may be wondering why I am so bullish on this idea. For one, I’ve been spending the past two years building Social Snowball, an affiliate marketing platform for eCommerce that’s creating the tech necessary to make these concepts possible. Although we still have ways to go, we have already solved a handful of crucial problems that the outdated affiliate marketing platforms failed to, and the feedback has been incredible. But beyond that, as a digital marketer who was affected by the recent changes in Apple’s privacy compliance standards, I now more than ever have a clear vision of what the future of attribution looks like, and it’s fully democratized so that no outside factor can hinder its accuracy.  Because of this, I have laser focus and outrageous motivation to do my part in taking us towards this reality.

To give you an idea of what the current tech we’ve built looks like, we offer all of our merchants with:

  • Automated affiliate acquisition: When a new customer purchases from your store, an affiliate account is automatically created for them, and a tracking code/link is generated for them right from the thank you page (+ follow up emails/SMS etc.)
  • Frictionless sign up form: We’ve built a sign-up form you can embed on your website that creates as little friction as possible in converting your non-buying store traffic into affiliates. (We also have lots of new acquisition methods that will be available out of the box coming soon.)
  • Frictionless commission payouts: We integrate with a bank transfer API that allows you to send instant payouts directly to your affiliate with 2 clicks all from within the interface. We have some even better solutions in the works.

We pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge of the attribution revolution, but the truth is, we’ve only scraped the surface.

The long-term future of attribution is much more complex, and after a recent conversation I had with the amazing Grace Clarke, I realized a far deeper understanding of what it might just look like. The ultimate goal, from a marketing perspective at least, is to have attribution capturing tech be so seamlessly integrated into our lives that it involves no effort whatsoever from either the affiliate or customer end. If my mom and I are going on a hike and she asks me where I got the water bottle I brought for us, and then a week later she drives to Target and buys the same one, attribution would have to be measured here.

So what does that look like from a technology standpoint? As ‘Black Mirror’ as this may sound, it seems impossible to do without allowing tech to listen in on all of our conversations. Scary concept, sure, but is it really that different from what we currently live with? Let’s say I recently ordered new sunglasses, and then later that day went out to grab lunch with a few friends. My phone already knows my buying history and knows that I’m with friends based on the proximity of their phones to mine. Our phones know that the odds of me bringing up my recent purchase are high, and then after we all leave show an ad for those same sunglasses to all of the friends I was with. We’re all left with an eerie feeling that our conversations were being listened to, when in reality our current technology just considers a lot of data points when deciding the ever so important decision of where to distribute ad impressions.

So then the question becomes: Is there a point where technology is too invasive? Where is the line drawn? Can it scan our Facebook messages for attribution data but not our in-person conversations? Or are both of those crossing the line? Neither? There’s no right or wrong answer, but as companies continue to recognize the importance of this lost attribution data, it’s inevitable that more and more technology will be built towards making it accessible. The way I see it most likely happening is through incentive-based opt-ins for conversation monitoring, similar to how current affiliate programs reward affiliates for making sure referrals are tracked through custom links/coupon codes.

Although the long-term future of attribution remains uncertain, as a marketer it’s hard to not be excited for what’s to come. If there is a way to capture all of this lost attribution data with perfect accuracy, the result would be any marketer’s dream.

If any readers of this want to talk more about attribution and affiliate marketing, shoot me an email at and I’d love to chat it up with you. And if you have a Shopify store, check out Social Snowball’s Shopify app to start an affiliate program for your business and see for yourself what a modern affiliate program can do for your brand. Cheers!

Affiliate Marketing
Published on
August 28, 2021
Written by
Noah Tucker
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