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Why brands need to break free from data enslavement

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Digital marketers know data is the fuel of the marketing engine. Data is an absolute necessity, and if you put the wrong kind in, the whole machine can grind to a halt – even break. Many organisations base customer journey analytics and planning on someone else’s version of the truth, instead of the raw data itself.

Why are so many businesses content with this ‘filtered fuel’? The short answer is that it’s just the way of the marketing world, but this needs to change.

A lot of brands are enslaved to vendor tools and the agencies they have chosen to partner with. They are limited to the data that these vendors deem most relevant but this doesn’t always correlate with the priorities of the brand. In some cases this means marketers don’t have the essential information they need to do their job well.

Direct, unfiltered insight which is ready for brands to explore, examine, and act on is what the industry should be pushing for and that means first-party data. With it, businesses have the most immediate and reliable picture of customer behaviour which can then be used to model marketing activity. Without it, customer journey analytics can be skewed, incomplete, or inaccurate – meaning marketing spend could be wasted.

So, how have we reached this point, and what could we do to encourage change and use first-party data better?

Don’t accept the “status quo”

At the moment, vendors and platforms hold on tightly to first-party data. They prefer to deliver it second-hand or to share conclusions and packaged reports instead of the raw information. But that data should ultimately belong to the brand. It shows what customers are doing across various touchpoints and gives the most direct insight into their behaviours.

The problem is that brands are choosing enslavement unknowingly. And they aren't acting on the right kind of data to drive the optimisation they most desperately need to learn about their customers and improve user experience. Everyone is talking about media optimisation and data ownership but no one seems to be properly executing it.

Customer journey data is transactional and needs to be captured holistically. In the industry, I'd say approximately 80 per cent of a data professional's time is spent cleaning, massaging, and connecting data. Only by businesses owning every single possible digital offsite and onsite customer touchpoint, will they have the strongest data foundation possible to build upon towards targeting and creating a personalised website user experience.

Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) can help to gather this data, but they’re only part of the equation. There’s often confusion around what constitutes a CDP, or what it should do. In my mind, a CDP should be the single source of truth. It should contain and reveal omnichannel customer journeys, based on first-party datasets from as many brand touchpoints as possible so that effective action can be taken.

The duopoly of Facebook and Google have this kind of impression-level data within their Walled Gardens. Yet despite businesses continuing to spend within those gardens, there’s little incentive for the platforms to change.

I obviously don’t advise halting spend on these major platforms but by demanding access to this data, we may be able to encourage the big tech players to lower the cost of their ads at the very least – and lessen the cost of inefficiencies and inaccuracies.

Find your data lead

Many brands have some marketing people who ‘get’ data, however, if you want to nail first-party insights, it’s wise to get a true data specialist onboard. This may seem unnatural or unnecessary, as so many voices in our industry claim that outsourcing removes the headaches of dealing with data, but first-party data work should ideally be driven in-house.  

Many marketers have become used to inefficiencies and inaccuracies in data, seeing them as the cost of doing business. But a data-head won’t settle for these inconsistencies. They’ll demand good data, ensuring accurate tracking, and push for near perfection at a first-party level.

Check your data tripod

We all know that data is important but understanding what data is most valuable in order to build a picture is essential.

When capturing customer data, you need three elements: 1) the marketing & content dimension (i.e. campaign, content, location, age, device, etc.), 2) the channel the event takes place on and 3) the action, such as an email sign-up or click-through.

These three key elements make up your data tripod and combined are strong enough to support a multitude of marketing conclusions and actions. If you can tie the customer journey together across all your channels (including offline) with these 3 elements then you’ll be far ahead of anyone else.

Speak management’s language

As with any change in a business, buy-in across the top level is key. But talking about the need for first-party data won’t necessarily instil urgency or help you gain the support you need.

Senior management are not ignorant of the value of customer insight but they may not be aware of the importance of first-party data in building a complete picture. If you talk about your data needs in business terms then you may be able to leap that hurdle.

To do so, discuss ad spend and show how much 10 per cent wastage, for example, would actually mean in pounds and pence. Hit them with the fact you’re not getting raw insights, despite your spend. Then tie it all together by underlining that you cannot show true ROI and performance until you have that data.

By expressing your challenge in these terms, you should be able to bring senior management along for the ride and have them fighting your corner, if needed.

Smart CDP vendors and platforms are already looking at helping brands break free from their data restraints – helping marketers to get their hands on first-party data and insights. That’s where the most value lies, and I believe it could be the key to building lasting relationships and a more sustainable digital ecosystem.

Ultimately brands shouldn’t be locked into agreements with vendors who claim to own your data even after you’ve paid for their services. The data shackles need to be broken so that businesses have the autonomy and flexibility that they need to shape customer experiences going forward.

John Reilly, VP Data Strategy, Ensighten
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