With privacy and personal data protection concerns at an all-time high, and the poor user experience created by sites with too many ads, many consumers look to ad-blockers to improve and streamline their time online as well as protect their data from being tracked.
According to Statista, there were over 763 million adblocker tool users worldwide at the end of 2020, including users of desktop adblock plugins, desktop adblock browsers, and mobile ad block browsers.
While using adblock tools is beneficial to the end-user, these tools unfortunately can have a negative impact on a cashback rewards program.
To understand how, here’s a high-level technical overview of how cashback works and the role an adblocker might play in stopping cashback rewards from being earned.
Cashback rewards and affiliate networks
Today’s cashback rewards programs, such as those enabled by Wildfire’s rewards platform and other tools such as Honey and Capital One Shopping, are built upon the existing infrastructure of the affiliate industry.
In the traditional affiliate marketing model, online retailers pay a commission or percentage of a completed sale, back to the site, or “publisher,” that originally referred the customer.
The attribution of orders from the referring site to the actual completed sale is enabled by tracking from the affiliate networks, such as CJ, Impact, and Share A Sale. Their tracking systems ensure that purchases resulting from the referring publishers are correctly mapped back to each one, and in turn that the appropriate commission is paid out.
Rewards platforms now act as publishers that participate in affiliate programs, and as such, these platforms earn the commissions from the customers who participate in cashback programs.
But, unlike the traditional affiliate model in which referring sites keep their commissions, rewards and loyalty programs offer some or all of their commissions earned back to the participating consumers in the form of cashback rewards.
When adblockers might break this tracking system
The affiliate industry has a long history, going back to the 1990s. For a long time, affiliate networks relied on third-party, or 3P, cookies on merchant websites in order to capture transaction information.
Fast forward to the current day, when many web browsers (such as Safari, Firefox, and Brave, among others) block 3P cookies by default. And Chrome, the world’s most popular browser, is planning to do this starting in 2023.
The affiliate networks have responded by implementing new “cookieless” tracking solutions. This is great, but ultimately in order for cookieless tracking to work, the retailers themselves must make some code modifications on their e-commerce sites.
Most retailers have been able to make this change for their desktop and mobile sites, but there are some who have not, and are still relying on 3P cookie tracking. (And the networks, for the most part, do still support 3P tracking... for how much longer, who knows.)
Bringing it all back to adblockers, these tools typically work by blocking images & data from domains which are known to rely on 3P cookies to enable the serving of online ads.
Unfortunately, any merchant still relying on legacy 3P cookie tracking for their affiliate program will be bycatch in this blocking process (most of the networks’ domains are included in the blocklists).
Therefore, they will have any tracking information and affiliate order data blocked.
How big of a problem is this for cashback programs?
At Wildfire, out of all the orders our platform tracks in a given month, a shockingly tiny number of support requests come from users whose orders did not seem to be tracked for some reason, including the possible use of an ad blocker.
As the blocking of 3P cookies by the world’s biggest browser, Chrome, is due to be implemented in less than a year, the good news is that online retailers, especially the largest, most popular ones, have for the most part made the change. They have already upgraded their affiliate tracking solution to the cookieless method and should not be affected by ad blocker tools.
But outliers do remain. Exact numbers are hard to find, but it’s likely that a small percentage of all retailers who have an affiliate program might not have updated their sites yet.
These edge case retailers that still haven’t updated their tracking are the ones who will create problems for customers not getting cashback due to ad blockers.
Some ad blockers may also strip any tracking parameters that are generated by click and purchase activity from publisher sites, so in those cases, valuable order data is also blocked which also renders the customer’s purchase unattributable.
What can be done about adblockers affecting a cashback program?
With the average global adblocking rate at 42%, ad blockers are extremely popular and probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
So at this point, the best offense is a good defense.
We suggest educating your users in a very simple way that the use of ad blockers might affect their ability to correctly earn expected cashback at the retailers they shop from.
You can remind them to simply “disable” their ad blocker temporarily when they are shopping online while participating in a cashback rewards program to ensure they get the cashback they expect.
Simple messages like the following, as part of an educational email after a user has installed and connected a cashback browser extension to their account, for example, can help set users’ expectations:
“Do you use adblocking software or tools? We recommend disabling your ad blocker each time you shop online, because these tools may affect the ability for orders to be correctly tracked and attributed so that you earn the cash back that you activate. You can re-enable the ad blocker when you are done with your shopping session.”
They get such a prompt from many sites anyways (typically from ad-supported sites such as news outlets), so it should not be shocking or unusual to ask.
Customers can simply “disable” an ad blocking extension for the period while they are shopping to ensure they get the correct credit, and later the cashback, for their purchases.
Until all of the retailers who participate in affiliate programs are up-to-date with the new tracking methods that don’t use 3P cookies, this will continue to be an issue for e-commerce merchants who haven’t upgraded their sites.