The Gaping Hole in your Attribution Model: Ad Block Users

Gary Portney

Attribution is broken by ad blockers. Only gaining consumer permission will stop you from flying blind.


Do you know if your advertising is working?  How?Attribution is a major factor in measuring the success of advertising campaigns. While there are several different attribution models and technologies, each of them demands the accurate capture and management of data from the countless touch points that come with each visitor across channel, device and platform. This in itself is a difficult and challenging proposition, but today, as a result of ad blocking and browser privacy initiatives to name but two, the data points that attribution relies on are themselves being blocked.

Adtoniq is taking this challenge head on by developing technology with consumer permission that can not be blocked and will allow for full cycle attribution. This article highlights the different ways attribution is being blocked today that most likely is affecting your current measurement approach and provides insights from around the web. So if you use tools like Adobe Analytics Attribution, Google Attribution 360, Nielsen Visual IQ, Bzible, Engagio, and Tealium to name but a few, this is what you need to know.When done correctly, attribution allows advertisers to figure out if their campaigns are worth the investment. At the most basic level, every marketing attribution system in the world performs three tasks:

  1. Capture interactions between the user and the brand
  2. Count conversions by the user
  3. Link those conversions back to any interactions that  drove them

When done correctly, this process allows advertisers to figure out if their campaigns are worth the cost. Now because of ad blockers there is a new task needing to be performed: 4) protect against broken user journeys as attribution is an exercise in futility. In essence if anything blocks attribution tracking technologies, accurate attribution itself is lost.

The Problem

There are many challenges advertisers face for properly giving credit to marketing efforts throughout the consumer journey including overstated reported reach, understated frequency and understated conversions. In a research study by Flashtalking, they state that “When a cookie associated with an ad impression is rejected, post-view conversions associated with that impression are ignored, because the impression and the conversion occur under different user IDs.They went on to quote that the “Results are disheartening—for the typical advertiser in our panel 64% of cookies were rejected, with 29% of users rejecting cookies. This translated to reported reach that was overstated by 89%, reported frequency that was understated by 47%, and reported conversions for display and video that were understated by 41%.”If you are investing in digital media to connect to your audience, then you will face challenges with measuring attribution properly.  Challenges in the impact of affiliate tracking, browser privacy initiatives, pixel tracking or lack of attribution discipline (aka flying blind) may be affecting your calculation of return on advertising spend (ROAS).  Understanding each challenge and having a plan to address it will ensure your media investments and your goal to connect to your audience is as successful as possible.

Impact of Affiliate Tracking  

In a May 2019 article “Why ad-blockers actually do affect affiliate tracking”, the author ran an A/B test where he completed 5 affiliate-linked transactions with content blocking disabled and all 5 transactions tracked without incident. Then two ad blockers were switched on for all websites (this is the default setting for a user that has an ad-blocker installed). Running the same 5 transactions for the same advertisers, two failed to track. While not a far-reaching test, it gives some indication that third-party ad-blockers are affecting affiliate tracking, and perhaps more than any native browser functionality. When content blocking through Ghostery Light was switched on. the difference in the amount of third-party cookies that are loaded on the page were as follows:

Impact of Browser Privacy InitiativesSmart cookie-blocking technology led by Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) and Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) now block third-party cookies by default, and even Google’s Chrome will soon get controls that let consumers block cookies. Browser-level blocking, third-party ad-blocking apps, and new regulations like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) are quickly relegating the old third-party cookie to the internet dustbin.This is widely regarded as a fundamental change in online advertising. Apple’ ITP breaks targeted advertising, which relies on 3rd-party cookies through what they call Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution. According to Apple, the feature is built into the browser itself and runs on-device, meaning that the browser vendor does not see any of the ad-related data.Like Apple, Mozilla’s goal is to eliminate the ability to perform covert or cross-site tracking. Mozilla’s solution is called Enhanced tracking prevention (ETP). ETP relies on blacklists of websites known to perform tracking. ETP standard mode automatically blocks 3rd-party cookies from any of these sites.When it comes to Google, targeted ads make up a majority of their revenues. So needless to say, privacy is not their favorite topic.That said, in August, Google blogged about their privacy proposals including a conversion measurement similar to Apple’s Privacy Preserving Ad Click Attribution, but with the ability to uniquely identify ads.Facebook too has highlighted conversion count discrepancies between their ads reporting system and third-party reporting tools. In an article on Facebook for Business, they state numerous reasons why these differences may occur.

Summing Up Browser-based Attribution Challenges

To best sum up the browser challenge, Amit Kotecha, marketing director for Permutive was quoted in an article on Exchangewire saying “Since Apple and Firefox made changes to their browsers, 40% of all third party cookies have been wiped out. In the programmatic ecosystem, this means publishers are unable to personalise content or serve targeted advertising – their most profitable revenue stream – for almost half their audience.

Pixel-based Tracking

Then when it comes to pixel-based tracking, an article in Four15 Digital highlights part of the disconnect: They cite a recent email from a Wicked Reports prospect:“We’re seeing revenue of $156K total in our profit and loss statement – that is without tax. Facebook PPC is reporting $94K rev and Google PPC is reporting $141K rev (total incl tax $235K) take the tax off and that leaves $188K. Analytics is reporting Total revenue of $227K (including tax). I’m getting insanely confused as no numbers stack up, I know you don’t know the business, but we’ve increased marketing spend, generated good ROAS from FB, but it doesn’t seem to show anywhere?”

Attribution is Difficult. You May Be Flying Blind.

While we have focused to this point on the impact ad technologies have on the accuracy of attribution, there are other key factors to consider. In a report in MartechAdvisor entitled “What We’ve Learned From Building Attribution Models for the Top Multichannel Retailers”, it describes several organizational reasons why companies are concerned about attribution and the complexity of measuring campaigns. The report also cites the results of the State of Marketing Attribution 2017 report by Ad Roll. According to this report, 72.4% of marketers don’t know why they chose their attribution model in the first place.The report concluded that most companies fly blind and don’t properly distribute credit to all touchpoints along the customer journey.

In Summary

At Adtoniq, we have found that there are ways to resolve these challenges. Firstly by using permission-based advertising, companies need to offer consumers choice within their digital experiences. Then taking the attribution challenge head on by developing technology that with consumer permission can not be blocked and will allow for full cycle attribution. And we are not alone. Looking to the future, Daniel Clayman, VP Northern Europe for Xandr said “Consumers need to be put first in the design of a common solution. As technology platform and facilitators of digital advertising transactions, we have a responsibility to contribute to a healthier ecosystem built on best practices and trusted, secure user experiences.”  This is also the goal of a new initiative from the IAB called, “Project Rearc”,  an initiative to get stakeholders across the digital advertising and media supply chain working together to make the internet a better place for consumers. Please feel free to contact me if you’d like more in depth information.

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What is

Permission-based Advertising?

Adtoniq technology allows for ads to be served to ad block audiences with their permission which results in higher engagement and more conversions.

We only serve ads to an ad blocker when they have given some form of consent to do so. We do not force ads on ad block users, nor do we ask them to white-list or turn off their ad blockers. Users can revoke their permission at any time and we strive to make their experience fully transparent.