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Tom Rathbone of PartnerCentric is Bullish on GA4, incremental growth

Nov 8, 2023 by Michael McNerney

Tom Rathbone, the Vice President of Product and Innovation at PartnerCentric, is “very bullish” on Google Analytics 4, or GA4. 


“There’s a lot of clamor about it,” Rathbone said.  CJ recently reported GA4’s potential impact on affiliate tracking, faulting gaps in data-driven attribution methods, and situations where Google channels are given preference. Rathbone pushes back on that take. PartnerCentric, he said, is not seeing the same issues CJ identified. The issues with GA4 come down to the fact that the shift was abrupt and “a lot of folks are having a hard time trying to figure out how they should be looking at this,” he said.


“I think there’s been a lot of assumptions that Google is just crediting themselves more highly, but I haven’t seen any data that backs that up on our side or elsewhere,” Rathbone said. 


Like economics, marketing data is both an art and a “dismal science,” he said, meaning it’s impossible to prove out perfectly. Still, he’s excited about the data and the inferences that it can reveal. “The nerd in me is having a blast with it,” he said. “I’m spending a lot of time with our clients talking through what they’re seeing, making sense of it, talking through what the different parameters mean, and helping them build reports.”


“Ultimately, people need to realize that GA4 is not UA and learn how to use it for their benefit. If people are seeing a stark decrease in their affiliate programs within GA4 compared to UA,” Rathbone said. “It could be simply a matter of not having it set up properly to track, not understanding the attribution, or their channels may simply not be as incremental as they initially thought.” 


PartnerCentric’s Incrementality Index – yields an incrementality score from 1 to 100 that is calculated after every sale. The scoring is designed to be easy to understand, yet also sophisticated in that it leverages multiple data points to calculate the score.  Rathbone has seen a strong correlation between clients with higher incrementality scores and higher performance in GA4’s Data Driven Attribution (DDA) measurement.  Still, incrementality is tricky because, as Rathbone points out, everyone thinks about it differently.“For a very long time, determining what is or what isn’t performing has always been debatable,” he said. “The overall question is: ‘Would I have gotten these sales if not for this?’ It’s a really hard thing to prove.” For PartnerCentric, that means getting access to the raw data from clients and building out models to show, by publisher or partner, what ROI the client is getting. 


“For us, that means we specifically look at all purchases that happen on the site – we don’t just look at affiliate, attribute it, and look at all the touch points as well,” Rathbone said. “We take a really broad, full-funnel view to say ‘What are these guys actually getting for you across the board? Are they leading to more sales sitewide or are they not?’” Rathbone said the more he’s learned about the affiliate industry, the more he’s seen opportunities to do things differently. The 15 years he’s spent in the industry have been “quick and long,” in his words. 


He got his start by answering an Ad on Craigslist for a data-entry role after moving to Los Angeles post-college. That gig was with Stephanie Harris, founder and CEO of PartnerCentric, and Rathbone has been working with her ever since.  “I’m definitely not where I started and this is not what I studied,” he said. 


In his 15 years, he’s observed one constant, though the way it shows up has changed: “Affiliate has always tended to have a bright light on it from critics,” he said. “I think we’re kind of used to being under that sun.”