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Affiliate marketing, a cornerstone in the digital marketing landscape, offers a unique set of challenges and opportunities. In a recent illuminating conversation with Tom Rathbone, an affiliate marketing expert from PartnerCentric, we gained valuable insights into the intricacies of the industry, focusing on two critical aspects – incrementality and privacy challenges.

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What is Incrementality?

Understanding the concept of incrementality in marketing is akin to embarking on an exciting journey. According to Tom, incrementality is a complex concept, much like economics, where it's difficult to attribute value perfectly to every single aspect of marketing. However, the key lies in acknowledging this complexity and working towards understanding the nuances, instead of striving for absolute precision.

Incrementality, according to Tom Rathbone refers to the additional value generated by the affiliate marketing channel beyond the traditional last-click attribution model. Tom emphasizes the significance of measuring the true impact of the affiliate channel, taking into account factors such as first-click attribution and earlier funnel activities.

Incrementality is one of those things where we have this challenge in the industry where everyone feels like every single thing should be really measured and we should be able to attribute value perfectly to every single thing that goes on.

In essence, incrementality is about understanding the contribution of affiliates throughout the customer journey, not just attributing success to the final click before a conversion. This approach provides a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of the affiliate channel's effectiveness, allowing marketers to make informed decisions based on a deeper understanding of how various touchpoints contribute to overall success.

The conversation with Tom Rathbone delves into the complexities of attribution models and the economics of the affiliate channel. Let's break down the key points and discuss the labyrinth of attribution models and affiliate channel economics.

The challenges of attribution models.

Tom highlights the challenges in attribution, particularly the discrepancy between the total sales reported by various marketing platforms and the actual sales received by the brand. This issue becomes even more problematic if the data is not trusted.

To address attribution challenges, Tom discusses the importance of integrating with the brand's analytics and attribution platforms. This integration helps in deduplication and aligning strategically with different touchpoints. He emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all attribution model. The choice of the model depends on the client's goals and the alignment of the attribution model with their overall business strategy.

Tom suggests using end-to-end solutions like Buzzstream, a partner recruitment platform. These tools can assist in the attribution process by providing a comprehensive view of touchpoints and helping in strategic alignment.

What is Buzzstream and how can it assist in the attribution process across various touchpoints?

BuzzStream is a comprehensive outreach platform that serves multiple purposes, including partner recruitment. One of the key features of BuzzStream in this context is its ability to provide easy prospecting. This feature can be particularly useful for businesses looking to expand their network of partners or affiliates.

In terms of attribution, BuzzStream's capabilities to conduct outreach to bloggers and journalists with a full view of conversation history, notes, tweets, emails, recent posts, and social details could potentially assist businesses in tracking various touchpoints. This comprehensive view of interactions can help businesses understand how different touchpoints contribute to their partner recruitment efforts, which is a crucial aspect of the attribution process.

However, it's important to note that while BuzzStream appears to offer a range of features relevant to partner recruitment and attribution, the effectiveness of these features would ultimately depend on how they are utilized by the business.

How to overcome privacy obstacles and boost incrementality in affiliate marketing?


Method #1: Aligning economic incentives.

Tom emphasizes the need to align economic incentives with the desired behavior of brands in affiliate marketing. This involves addressing the challenges posed by the prevalent last-click attribution model and exploring alternative strategies that better reflect a brand's goals.

Method #2: Pragmatic approach to privacy.

In the face of evolving privacy regulations, Tom advocates for a pragmatic approach to data tracking. He suggests utilizing available data within the constraints of regulatory guidelines, acknowledging the complexities of cross-device attribution and the importance of staying informed about privacy regulations.

Method #3: Adapting to GA4 transition.

Tom discusses the challenges posed by the transition to GA4 and sees a positive shift as the industry adapts to the new Google Analytics framework. This involves utilizing available data productively amidst ongoing changes and being open to embracing new technologies and methodologies.

Method #4: Creative partner motivation strategies.

Motivating affiliate partners is a critical aspect, and Tom suggests a creative approach. This includes leveraging levers such as commission rate changes, bundling partnerships, guarantee payouts, or other inventive strategies to strike a balance between effective incentives and client budgets.

Method #5: Navigating cross-device attribution challenges.

Acknowledging the complexities of cross-device attribution, Tom suggests leveraging available tools within the regulatory framework to connect data points effectively. While privacy regulations pose challenges, staying within compliance guidelines and optimizing data accuracy ensures a more reliable understanding of cross-device attribution.

Method #6: Defining KPIs before attribution model changes.

Before making significant changes to attribution models, Tom emphasizes the importance of defining key performance indicators (KPIs). This ensures that any shifts in the attribution model align with a brand's specific goals, providing a clear roadmap for measuring success.

These proven methods, drawn from Tom Rathbone's insights, offer valuable guidance for navigating the complexities of affiliate marketing. They underscore the importance of strategic alignment, adaptability to industry changes, and a nuanced understanding of privacy considerations to unlock the full potential of affiliate marketing campaigns.


Wrap it up, Dustin.

The journey through affiliate marketing is a continuous learning process, filled with intriguing insights and valuable lessons.

Affiliate marketing is not just about navigating through its complexities, but also about understanding its potential to redefine marketing strategies. With experts like Tom shedding light on these complexities, the journey becomes a little less daunting and a lot more enlightening.

Affiliate manager consultant

Dustin Howes


Dustin Howes is a partnership nerd spreading the good word about performance marketing. He is the chief coach at and is dedicated to helping companies grow their performance marketing channels. He also provides affiliate manager training and private consultations, helping companies find the right solution for their budget.

Find out more about Dustin here.

Episode timestamp.

0:27Dustin introduces Affiliate Nerd Out with guest Tom Rathbone, VP of Product at PartnerCentric. The dialogue focuses on incrementality in affiliate marketing.
1:02Dustin poses the question of the day to Tom: “What is incrementality to you?” Tom emphasizes measuring directional indicators of incremental publishers for better decision-making.
3:51Tom shares PartnerCentric's name origin, spanning from Shoff Consulting to Shoff Partner Centric and eventually rebranding to PartnerCentric.
10:40Tom explains PartnerCentric's philosophy, aiming to broaden the view beyond nuts and bolts work, understanding how affiliate marketing interfaces with other channels.
14:58Dustin and Tom discuss the prevalence of last-click attribution in affiliate marketing and the challenges of shifting to a different model.
16:49Tom highlights the importance of defining KPIs with clients to determine the appropriate attribution model for their goals.
18:40Tom explains the complexity of choosing an attribution model, considering the client's existing practices and goals.
19:47Tom clarifies that incrementality and attribution are separate concepts in PartnerCentric's approach, with incrementality focused on examining touchpoints associated with sales.
21:16Dustin introduces Buzzstream, the sponsor of the day, as a tool for effective partner recruitment in affiliate marketing.
22:14Tom delves into the economics of affiliate marketing, discussing the challenge of aligning channel rewards with desired behaviors, especially for early-funnel activities.
23:16Tom emphasizes the need for the affiliate marketing industry to align rewards with desired behaviors for meaningful change to occur.
24:03A question from the audience prompts Tom to discuss navigating attribution in a multi-channel and multi-device environment, referencing cross-server tracking challenges and solutions.
24:50Tom Rathbone discusses challenges in tracking due to privacy regulations and emphasizes the need for pragmatism in achieving incrementality in marketing data accuracy.
26:34Tom discusses cross-device attribution challenges and emphasizes using tools within regulations to connect data dots for achieving incrementality in tracking.
28:14Tom emphasizes that tracking platforms must align with privacy regulations, ensuring compliance while maintaining incrementality in effective data tracking.
29:38Tom emphasizes the importance of aligning with regulatory requirements, avoiding PII insertion, and maintaining compliance while achieving incrementality in tracking.
31:54Tom Rathbone discusses the challenges of motivating affiliate partners, highlighting various levers and creative approaches to achieve incrementality in performance.
34:26Tom Rathbone talks about trends in affiliate marketing, emphasizing the constant evolution and positive changes in the industry to achieve incrementality in measuring value.
36:18Tom discusses the transitory nature of attribution models, emphasizing the importance of aligning the model with current growth strategies to achieve incrementality in effectiveness.
38:30Tom Rathbone explains that PartnerCentric is fully remote because it works for them, not necessarily for a specific talent strategy, reflecting their commitment to a successful remote culture.