Optimal Cookie Duration for my Affiliate Program

Posted November 19, 2015 in
Last updated: September 14th, 2021

A cookie is just one or more pieces of information stored as text strings on your machine. When launching an affiliate program it’s important to get the fundamentals right. It’s also always a good idea to review the fundamentals every year or so. One of those items that you should pay close attention to is the duration of the cookie within your affiliate program.

First a definition: I think HowStuffWorks has a pretty good and simple explanation of a cookie: “A cookie is just one or more pieces of information stored as text strings on your machine. A Web server sends you a cookie and the browser stores it. The browser then returns the cookie to the server the next time the page is referenced.  The most common use of a cookie is to store a user ID.

In affiliate marketing, this cookie most commonly stores the date/time a user came through an affiliate’s site to an advertisers site in order to track how long it took the user from that initial visit to the purchase for the sake of commissioning or not commissioning that sale. In affiliate marketing, and most networks, if not all, you can set the amount of time that can transpire between initial click and purchase and only commission on that time frame. What you are looking for here is the average time your users are taking from their click to a purchase. For example, if you set your cookie duration, or on some networks it’s called return days, to 30 then the affiliate has 30 days for the consumer to purchase an advertiser’s product and receive a commission on it. If a purchase is made on day 15 it is commissionable, if made on day 31, it is not.

So how do you decide what to set your cookie days or return days to? That is a great question.

There are typically two responses we hear from advertisers – as short a time frame as possible, or (much less frequent) as much as possible. Neither is right all the time, and neither is wrong in each instance. But why guess when you have data?

And you should have the data. What you are looking for here is the average time your users are taking from their click to a purchase. Most often, an advertiser may not want to give more duration than 3 days, but when they see that 99% of their sales happen within an hour, why not provide 90 days to be more competitive? Costs are minimal and benefits could be significant. So work with your IT team to figure this out, if you don’t have access to that, our Analytics and Optimization team can help you determine how and where to get this data. An argument against extended return days may help you figure out where to pin your flag. The other bit of data that I like to gather is competitive. What are your main competitors offering? You may see that 3 days covers 99% of your sales, but your competitors are offering 365 days. That discrepancy, although not much in terms of real dollars, could be huge in getting affiliates to join your program. So you can’t discount it.

An argument against extended return days may help you figure out where to pin your flag. When a duration is longer than 30 days, the best argument for not extending it is the advertisers own marketing argument. You see, once a user visits a user’s site, there are multiple ways that they will find themselves inside of the advertiser’s own marketing machine. Channels such as email, retargeting, and others are then reaching out and engaging with the consumer on a regular basis. So there is a strong argument that after a certain number of days, when the user makes a purchase, it may be less to due with the affiliate and more because of  the advertiser’s marketing and engagement. How much is one or the other is a much longer blog post, but hopefully you get the picture.

So there you go. The correct number of cookie days is, well, up to you really. But we prefer to act upon data. I recommend gathering some of your own and finding a competitive and attractive number of days that both rewards and incentivizes your affiliate team.

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About the author

  • Jamie Birch

    Jamie Birch


Jamie is the owner and principal of JEBCommerce. His extensive Internet marketing experience includes all facets of online marketing: email, paid search campaigns, customer retention programs, and much more. This wide range of disciplines has enabled Jamie to excel as a business leader and JEBCommerce to realize a great level of success for its clients. Jamie cut his “affiliate marketing teeth” managing affiliate programs for many well known companies before spending several years at Coldwater Creek, a Top 5 nationwide women’s clothing retailer. While at Coldwater Creek, Jamie established and managed affiliate campaigns, email campaigns, and SEO campaigns – an opportunity that allowed him to develop many of the proven processes JEBCommerce successfully employs today. In recognition of his professional leadership, the affiliate marketing industry has consistently nominated him for Annual Pinnacle Awards over the years. In addition to individual accolades, JEBCommerce is gaining momentum within the Internet marketing industry and is experiencing positive, exciting growth. This is a direct result of Jamie’s positive leadership, integrity, and earned respect – from his clients and industry peers. Need a speaker for your next event? I can do that, too!