Understanding Attribution

  • Last update: Updated

Getting credit for your work as a creator seems like it should be a simple concept–when someone clicks your link and buys, you get paid. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple and every creator has experiences on every single platform not getting consistently credited for their sales.

In the spirit of transparency, we want to demystify this as much as we can. The truth might be a little head-scratching and probably frustrating, but as an entrepreneur and business owner, we think you deserve access to as much of the messy truth as you can get.

Broadly in digital marketing, this whole space is called ‘attribution,’ and it’s deeply imperfect. That’s because there are a lot of unseen steps along the way and a lot that can go wrong and lead to a creator like you not getting the credit you deserve.

Before we get into each step behind the scenes, it’s important to understand where Howl fits in. Unfortunately, like you we typically have very little control over troubleshooting issues. That’s because brands typically handle their attribution through their primary Affiliate platform–these are companies like Rakuten, CJ, Impact, Partnerize, AWin, or Share-a-sale. Those technologies track who gets paid and then pass those earnings back to Howl.

In the most basic sense, Howl is in charge of telling a platform like Rakuten that your link is your link. Rakuten is then in charge of telling the website that it’s you, of remembering that it’s you over time, properly tracking when a sale happens and tying it back to you, and finally reporting those numbers back to other partners, which can often be delayed by 1-2 days.

Because Howl is separated from the conversion tracking, that means that we’re often as in the dark as you are when something goes wrong. And this hurts our income too–brands pay us when creators like you drive sales. So while we always want to help when we hear about a lost order, and sometimes those reports can help us work with our partners to identify a bug, a fix isn’t always in our hands.

Now that we understand where Howl sits, we can go into how attribution happens. In order for proper attribution to occur, fundamentally a website needs to track that you drove a click and track that the click you drove ultimately turned into a sale.


Tracking the Click

  • In order for a brand to know you drove a click, a ‘tag’ (a few lines of code) needs to load so it can tie your account to the customer landing on the website. This happens after the page has loaded in the background, and it needs to happen before they leave the page.
    • While yes, you have a custom URL with a code that ties back to you at the end of it, it doesn’t matter unless the person checks out right away.

Tracking the Conversion

  • First, a checkout needs to occur in the time period a brand allows (aka the ‘cookie window’)
  • The checkout needs to be in the same browser instance (e.g. you can't switch from Instagram to Safari, or switch devices)
  • The cookie placed by the tag needs to have persisted and not deleted (more on that in a bit…)
  • There can’t be any other clicks within the Affiliate platform after you, like another creator, a coupon site, a Rewards browser extension, etc.
  • And finally, a conversion tag needs to load on the checkout page so it can associate the sale back to you and connect the click to the conversion


Now that we know what needs to go right, here's an incomplete list of everything that could go wrong:

  • The user could navigate away from the Product page before the 'impression pixel' fires in the background to establish the cookie connection
  • The user could have privacy settings on in their browser that blocks the Affiliate platform’s tag from firing
  • The user could have an ad blocker on, which could block the Affiliate platform
  • The user could use a coupon site, click another creator’s link, or use a cashback tool
  • The user could switch browsers or devices
  • The user could close the confirmation page before the confirmation pixel fires in the background

The most important thing to remember about all of the bullets that have to do with a tag not loading is how much shopping happens on mobile devices. If someone is on their phone and not on WIFI, there’s a solid chance that the impression tag or the conversion tag might not load in time before someone closes a page. This is the secret culprit of a lot of lost orders.

This level of detail isn’t meant to be discouraging, but hopefully it sheds some light on how much is out of everyone’s control. In our experience, brand partners want to do right by you and compensate you for the work you’ve done. But they are also hamstrung by the tools they have. And because there are a lot of bad actors in the affiliate space, it’s understandable that they don’t just take someone’s word for it when they reach out.

That said, please tell us when things go wrong and when possible, share as much detail as you can about the device, the social platform–whatever you have. Your vigilance has helped us uncover meaningful bugs with our brand partners. At the same time, we hope you understand that as much as we’ll always advocate for you as creators, we unfortunately can’t control everything.

If there’s anything confusing about this article, or if you’re left with more questions about attribution, feel free to reach out to us at questions@planethowl.com