CDPs Then & Now – The Customer ID (Identification & Data) Problem

In November 2019 perhaps you caught this article: “To CDP or NOT – 3 tips – then you decide.”  The main takeaway – the CDP space is a quasi-market with a mixed bag of firms coming from different lineages and different levels of capability, maturity, and focus.  The conclusion: buyer beware and standby.

That was BC – Before COVID-19.  Since then, what hasn’t changed about the world?  And like everything in 2020, the CDP market was not immune to upheaval.  And although the basic premise for adding a CDP into the Martech stack is still the same:

  1. Help resolve customer identity
  2. Rationalize and manage customer data
  3. Make that data accessible to other systems

…what’s changed are the vendors involved, and their core and extended capabilities, which are substantially different nearly three years later.

Most markets appear as nebulous categories, and the CDP market was no exception.  But as buyers and vendors evolve, dust settles, and the picture becomes clearer.  Still, two important aspects of what a CDP should supply loom large and are worthy of close inspection.  Namely, providing customer recognition/identity management and distilling the right (and righteous) customer data into meaningful insights.

Considering those key features, let’s explore a few of the big changes since November 2019:

  • The huge marketing cloud players entered the market:  Adobe, Oracle, and Salesforce
  • More consolidation took place, with small CDPs swallowed up by an interesting mix of companies
  • Perilous new milestones reached for third-party cookies and stealth consumer tracking

Stick with me.   You’ll get insight into these three changes, three tips, and some final thoughts.

Marketing Cloud Titans Enter CDP Fray

Adobe Real-Time CDP

In early 2020, Adobe entered the CDP ring with Adobe Experience Platform’s Real-Time CDP, promising to “Combine all individual and company data — internal and external, known and unknown — into a standard taxonomy that can be activated in real-time.”[i]  A tall order indeed.

Although certainly set up to collect digital data by way of Adobe Launch & Analytics, Adobe’s aggressive mission to combine “all data” for B2C and B2B across known and unknown, lacks focus and gives reason for pause.

Adobe has fared well in providing digital marketing data & support for early-stage customer journey activity, with its first-generation web analytics and tag management (by way of its Omniture acquisition over 10 years ago), followed by its subsequent purchases of Demdex (third-party cookie data-management platform), and marketing automation firms like Neolane (B2C) and Marketo (B2B).  Yet with the third-party cookie tracking foundation crumbling as the final browsers outlaw it, they’ve had to look for another way.  So far, that appears to be using CNAME record cloaking, which in effect is just a clever DNS hack to circumvent gaining explicit permission to track. 

The ultimate jury and judge (the consumer) may not approve of this tactic (once they discover it).  Further, with a shortage of direct access to first-party behavior data, customer analytics depth, and channel breadth, Adobe still struggles to develop deep customer understanding and natively/performantly enrich its customer profile.  And other than collecting raw digital data in real-time, not much else about Adobe’s CDP is real-time and insightful.  Adobe nonetheless plows forward with bold statements of real-time and unity that potential CDP buyers should take with a grain of salt.

As a major marketing cloud player, Adobe will eventually amass more digital data, improve its signal detection, and get more apt at activating those signals and audiences in acceptable ways.   But for now, buyers should beware of completeness claims, tracking practices, data feeds and speeds, and external integration features.

Oracle’s CDP

Interestingly, googling with the term “Oracle CDP” yields a top result pointing to an Oracle whitepaper-like webpage espousing that a “customer data platform (CDP) is software that collects and unifies first-party customer data.” [ii]  So far so good.  

Reading on, the article mentions “first-party data” 11 times, never mentioning third-party data until the final punchline at the end, where the author claims that a Customer Intelligence Platform (CIP) is different from a CDP because it “incorporates anonymous, third-party data as well as first-party data.”    It’s here that Oracle tries to differentiate its CDP, Oracle Unity, from all others.  That differentiation attempt falls flat, and is oddly fascinating on three fronts:

  • Oracle has almost no choice but to take this approach, since it spent $400m on BlueKai in 2014, one of the world’s leading third-party data trackers.  As such, Oracle wants the buyer to believe they get a premium from contracting with a CDP that can merge third-party data.
  • Oracle claims it’s not really a CDP, but instead differentiates as a Customer Intelligence Platform (CIP), and not just for marketing.   Amusingly, in my June 2019 article I advocate for a CIP – The Final 4: MarTech Platforms and Ecosystems –  yet with the middle letter short for insights about individuals attainted from first-party data, not general intelligence.  Very different CIPs indeed.
  • The reason for the demise of the cookie-based cottage industry and third-party data is that it was built on a house of cookie cards, gathering and brokering consumers’ data without explicit permission, and inherently unreliable as a good proxy for consumer intent & behavior – one of the major tenants for a CDP.

Given this, be careful with Oracle’s CDP (or CIP) solution, with its bias toward third-party data, paid media channels, and early-stage acquisition use cases.  Purchasing one means buying into the value of third-party data and acquisition use cases, while not solving for data-driven, real-time 1-1 customer engagement use cases, deeper into the relationship, on owned channels.

Salesforce’s CDP

Late in 2019, as the virus was unknowingly spreading, Salesforce began spreading the news about its new Customer 360 Truth, claiming it had a product with “a new set of data and identity services that enable companies to build a single source of truth across all of their customer relationships.“ [iii]  And although at the time they didn’t call it a CDP, they were quacking as if it were one, and funny enough in April 2021 relaunched it as a CDP. [iv]

In 2019, in classic Salesforce fashion, they announced a not-ready-for-prime-time CDP-like product, C360, with pages of fine print.  Like a theater stage with a kitchen viewed from afar, it might have appeared fully equipped.  However, on closer inspection, some of the supposed appliances were but props with no cords to plug in, no motor to run them.

And even on re-launch in May 2021, they simply slapped existing separate products such as Tableau and Mulesoft onto the wrapping paper of the Salesforce CDP.  Further, like most CDPs (except ones that come from the web analytics space, such as Tealium and Celebrus) everything is based on creating customer segments and sharing those in less than real-time for activation instead of taking an individual personalization approach and sharing in real-time.

Thus, rip off the cartoon marketing wrappers, and look inside the box and inspect all the parts for function and fit before buying.

CDP Market Consolidation

In addition to the entrance of the above big three, Microsoft and SAP also announced CDP solutions.  Before November 2019, 18 acquisitions took place. Since November 2019, 8 more further transformed the CDP landscape:

  • IgnitionOne bought by Zeta Global – December 2019
  • AgilOne bought by Acquia – December 2019
  • Evergage bought by Salesforce – February 2020
  • Segment bought by Twilio – October 2020
  • Exponea bought by Bloomreach – January 2021
  • BlueVenn bought by Upland Software – March 2021
  • Boxever bought by Sitecore – March 2021
  • Zaius bought by Optimizely/Episerver – March 2021

What’s the takeaway?  Dust is still flying in this market.  And if you are betting on one of the 100+ vendors calling themselves a CDP to plug key gaps, especially in foundational areas such as identity & data management, consider whether their future is secure, and they’ll continue to go in the same direction, as it could impact yours.

The Calamitous Cookie Crisis – Customer Identification and Tracking

In January 2020, Google announced plans to end support for third-party cookies in Chrome in two years.  Late-breaking news is that in June 2021, Google said they will delay until the middle of 2023.  But cookiepocalypse is still coming.  With less than two years until that deadline, ad-tech companies, and ad agencies alike are scrambling to find workarounds for web behavior identification and tracking. 

Case in point – The Trade Desk and ad agency Publicis (who bought the database marketing firm Epsilon in 2019) are teaming on a digital advertising solution built around the new open-source identification scheme called Unified ID 2.0.  Initially developed by The Trade Desk, Unified ID 2.0 obfuscates a consumer’s email address, using a technical hashing technique to protect consumer privacy.[v]  

As of May 2021, The Trade Desk says it already has over 170 million profiles obtained with consent.  But long-term success depends on an even bigger pool of email addresses (e.g., more consumers opting in than opting out), and that means enough publishers adopting the standard, and obtaining consumer consent.  Since history has shown consumers will opt-in without reading terms and conditions, it may have hope, especially in places like the US and Asia, so stay tuned.  My advice – read before you click, as it’s essentially agreeing to be a target of every participating company. 

In addition, SAP and Akamai bought traditional sign-on companies Gigya and Janrain respectively, going the route of obtaining social sign-on solutions to gain access to customer identification and tracking capabilities.  And although Okta, who acquired rival Auth0 in May 2021, hasn’t called itself a CDP (yet), they are a force in the customer authentication and identity space.  

What does this have to do with CDPs?   Well many ad-tech companies, formerly calling themselves data-management platforms (DMPs) during the third-party cookie era, now claim to be CDPs.  Keep in mind, however, they built their solutions to manage third-party data and cookies and to target based on these spurious methods, and not on first-party data and known identities.  Ultimately, without a strong first-party data foundation, those DMP CDPs have a limited shelf-life and are poor investments.

CDP Selection Tips

Tip #1 – Study their specialty

Keep in mind that all vendors started with a core offering.  That tells a lot about what they’re probably good at.  When interviewing a job applicant, there’s a reason why we inspect someone’s background (work history, school they attended), as it gives insight into how they’ve honed their craft. 

No vendor (not even the big ones) will be able to supply best-of-breed capabilities to handle all stages of a journey, from the anonymous browsing steps to phases deeper in an authenticated relationship.  Nor will they be able to major in more than a handful of the dozen or so capabilities the collective CDP market covers:

  1. Data collection
  2. ETL – Extract, transform, load (including cleansing and householding)
  3. Identity stitching and management
  4. Real-time data insights
  5. Predictive analytics
  6. Recommendations and decisioning engines
  7. Journey (cross-channel) orchestration
  8. Owned channel marketing automation and e-message services
  9. Digital advertising
  10. General (business intelligence) customer data activation
  11. Internal query, reporting, dashboards, and attribution analysis

Most native CDPs came up focusing on one or more of the first 3.  And with no official CDP magic quadrants or waves by major analyst firms, many others have conveniently slapped the CDP label on themselves. So, decide where you have the biggest capability gaps and needs along the customer journey, where a data-driven solution will drive better outcomes and more value, find matches, and select accordingly.  Also, if gaps exist mainly in areas 4 – 10, look beyond the CDP market, as there are a multitude of vendors not calling themselves CDPs that major in these areas.

Tip #2 – Demand real-time response times

When considering the claim of “real-time,” (which is a critical capability to take CX to another level) look beyond single components, such as the speed of data collection, or placing data onto a customer profile record.  Instead, inspect the entire data/event -> insights -> decision journey and ask:

  • “Can that entire trip be accomplished in an SLA (Service Level Agreement) under 200 milliseconds?”
  • “Can the vendor do that at scale, for millions of customers and 1000’s of interactions per second?”

Why 200 milliseconds you ask?  Because as a consumer, do you want websites you use to be slower?   As a person responsible for the website, will you allow anything new to slow down page loads?   I bet the answer to both is no.   So if your new CDP is going to play a role in providing better real-time digital experiences, it better not take up much of the two-tenths of a second response time budget.

Tip #3 – Demand real-time insights

Look for a CDP that can supply real-time data insights, with a library of these for your industry.  This looms so largely in reaping unfair benefits from a CDP investment because not many CDPs do this, and it’s how you’ll move the needle on customer experience.  Can you do this today?  Can you find customer behavior diamonds in the deep mines of digital data, surface it, polish it, and immediately pass it to a customer decision hub?  Not many can.

For instance, detecting consumers’ heightened but fleeting interest in specific products, refining that raw data into curated signals, passing them to a decision engine in real-time, so it can trigger special and immediate actions.  Very few CDPs can do these things – in that order – fast enough.  An example: a consumer on a banking website, researching mortgages [again] in the final stage of selecting a mortgage provider. 

So, look for a CDP that can solve this problem. There aren’t many.  You’ll add something special and unique that few can do.  Celebrus is one solving this exact problem:  collecting the right behavior data, making sense of it in the form of a signal library, passing those signals to a decision authority in real-time, so it can act in the moment.

Conclusion

Big is not always better, but it’s always bigger.  And although selecting a large outfit as a CDP provider gives some assurance that the solution will be around in a few years, that doesn’t necessarily equate to the best CDP solution.  Doing business with a mega-CDP vendor rarely means faster, more seamless interfaces and deep expertise.  On the contrary, expect bigger integration costs, longer wait times, custom work, and more patience required.  And if selecting a big CDP is for “one throat to choke,” try finding that elusive throat inside a tech behemoth with 50,000 employees who have swallowed up 20 companies on the way to building their marketing stack and CDP.

Conversely, using a smaller player has its tradeoffs.  Besides the risk of being bought, or folding up, inevitably their capability focus will be esoteric.  So, carefully inspect core competencies. Look for a CDP that compliantly tracks customers, collects data in real-time, has a signal library fit for purpose, and can interoperate with a decision hub. That way, you’ll get differentiation leading to better customer experiences from your CDP investment.


[i] Adobe.com, https://business.adobe.com/products/real-time-customer-data-platform/RTCDP.html, June 2021

[ii] Oracle.com, https://www.oracle.com/cx/customer-data-platform/what-is-cdp/, June 2021

[iii] Salesforce.com, https://www.salesforce.com/news/press-releases/2019/11/19/salesforce-announces-customer-360-truth-a-single-source-of-truth-for-every-customer-across-the-worlds-1-crm-2/, November 2019

[iv] Salesforce.com, https://www.salesforce.com/news/stories/salesforce-cdp-innovations-make-customer-interactions-smarter*/, May 2021

[v] The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/publicis-groupe-signs-on-to-use-trade-desks-alternative-to-cookies-11617883217, April 2021

Are CX pros guilty of brain hacking?

Brain Hacking

If you have a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or all of the above, it’s no longer a question if you’re addicted to being online, it’s a question if you recognize the problem and are in control of it.  And if you don’t have any of these devices, I’d love to meet you and even shake your hand (since you’ll actually have one free) – before you become extinct that is, since your breed is already on the brink.

Why are we so addicted to technology?  Perhaps there isn’t one simple answer, but an emerging hypothesis mainstreamed recently when CBS ran a segment on 60 minutes titled “Brain Hacking.”  If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch.  Not surprisingly, yet ironically, to get to the replay, CBS forces you to watch ads.

In the segment, Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, refers to our digital devices as slot machines, and in a recent blog claims, “…technology hijacks people’s minds.”  Ramsey Brown, co-founder of Dopamine Labs, calls the developers responsible for making the apps we use everyday “brain hackers” – essentially meaning they employ techniques designed to get us hooked and to alter our behavior.  Arguably, these ubiquitous methods have already succeeded in causing habitual behavior.  And if you’re not convinced, unglue your eyes for a moment from your device du jour, peer up, and notice everyone else’s heads buried in digital appliances, and how antsy they’ll get when unplugged for only a few minutes.

Essentially in concept, it’s similar to a virus invading the body (hence the hacking metaphor), with its mission to reprogram us to crave constant online activity.  Behind each antigen are hackers, engaged in a form of biological warfare, engineering their payloads to infect our brains to crave more activity – on their sites and apps.  Though it’s debatable how much of the altered conduct can be directly attributed to just a few hackers, the pervasiveness of the behavior is indisputable.

Race to the bottom of the brain stem

Tristan refers to this battle as a “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” implying these cerebral hackers are sparring for our attention, and will do anything to get more of it by appealing to a range of our human needs, even the most primitive ones.

So, are all CX pros guilty of this practice, or just a select few in Silicon Valley?  In terms of marketing techniques, is this something new or merely old methods with new names?

Perhaps guilty isn’t the fairest word (with its implication of wrongdoing), but I’ll posit the first answer is yes, most professionals tasked with generating demand are trying to do this – with the huge caveat that some think (operative word “think”) they are close to solving an ageless puzzle of how each human mind operates and how to manipulate it.  Further, it’s not the impact of a few, but instead the collective efforts of many demand generators, as well as our growing dependence on technology, that’s contributing to our hyperactive online behavior.

Nevertheless, today only a few dominant firms enjoy the majority of the economic rewards, since users spend the majority of their online time in select applications such as Facebook and Google.  Call this the tech titan factor, a few gargantuan companies controlling the vast majority of user interactions that attract eyeballs to digital advertisements.

As for the novelty of this approach, the core practice is actually as old as direct marketing itself.  Like doctors, trained direct marketers learn early on that diagnosis, problem understanding, and treatments followed by continuous application of test & learn methodology, are time-honored principles proven to attract attention and optimize engagement.  What’s changed are the tools CX pros have to administer continuous and tailored therapies (see my article on the use of Prescriptive AI in CX), and as consumers how we’ve unknowingly given up more data about ourselves and increased the quantity of our online intake.  Further, this medication being administered to us comes with no warning labels or explicit documentation as to the harmful side effects.

In terms of affecting consumer consciousness and behavior, marketers have again followed long-standing hard and fast principles.  Take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Maslows Needs

The reward consumers get from checking their devices depends on the individual’s specific needs.  For instance, one person may be in the pursuit of self-actualization, and as such may be constantly using a gadget for educational discovery.  Another may be in search of esteem, and becomes hooked on social media in a constant quest for recognition.  No matter the reason for being online, advertisers track, analyze, and subsequently prescribe remedies squarely aimed at selling us goods and services they’ve ascertained we need.

Moreover, take the streaks tactic that Snapchat uses.  This is simply age-old marketing gamification at work.   It’s true today’s games are digital, more dynamic, mobile, and played by all ages, but S&H had consumers playing very similar marketing games in the 1930’s, with the goal of creating green stamp junkies.

Whether a modern game, or a game from the 1930’s, the basics of this approach are similar.  Entice someone to play but don’t let them win out (making the game incremental – in this case the increment is days), luring them back in, and make the game length seemingly infinite (e.g., collect stamps; cash them in; collect more).

The persuasive fight for our attention

Have newly minted CX pros devised new sinister methods of mind control?  Has a new economy suddenly emerged centered on getting attention at all costs, hooking people into using products? I don’t think so.

As far back as the 1950’s, fears about mind control perpetrated by marketers were already spreading, and various theories, many of them hoaxes, began to crop up.  And the commercialization of everything, from historical sites to holidays, can be traced back to right after the American Civil War.

In the late 1950’s, rumors abounded such as stories of theaters lacing film with stealthily implanted single frames of subliminal messages such as “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coke” supposedly engineered to stimulate instantaneous demand for these products.   In 1957, Vance Packard wrote a groundbreaking novel titled, “The Hidden Persuaders,” making an original argument that organizations are born to manipulate, and had moved from overt tactics to clandestine ones, with hired agencies as the evil genius behind it all.  Quite possibly the only difference today is that we carry around in our pockets millions of commercials, and check in constantly, making us continuous targets for impressions.  Unscrupulous marketers, as well as those with shreds of decency, have existed side by side since the dawn of time.  They simply have more access (by virtue of over 150 years of marketing, commercial, and technological evolution) to more minutes of our waking attention, and will always vie for a slice of that bandwidth with newfangled material engineered to break through the clutter.

When you reflect on it, marketers seek attention and puff their wares – it’s what they do.   How and where they’ve sought it and how much they’ve puffed has always defined the extent to which they further commercialize our environment and how far they push ethical and legal boundaries.

This fight to own a share of our precious attention itself contributes to a further lack of focus and increased distraction.  I wrote a related piece on this (Contextual Incremental Marketing), from the point of view of the marketer, at the time not fully grasping that my tips about the phenomena were in fact recursive, that is, further reinforcing and encouraging the behaviors that I suggested were simply a facet of the modern world.

In a sense, it’s a vicious circle, but not a new one:  CX pros stalking consumers, contending for their attention via an ever-exploding channel continuum, employing any means to engage their reptilian brain and interrupt them, persuade them, adding to attention deficit disorder.  For consumers, the antidote is the same as it ever was – common sense, education (with reliable and readily available sources of accurate information), balance and moderation, free will, and self-control.

The surveillance economy

Like crime scene investigators (for more on this, read my blog: The CSI Guy – Customer Success Investigator), CX pros seek clues to solve the mysteries of making best guesses about the likely behavior, needs, and actions of customers.

Those involved in pure acquisition have little to go by, and as such, stretch for data and surveillance methods, test data privacy, ethical, and permission boundaries, and often still miss the relevance mark.  In many respects, they are like matchmakers, casting a wide net, and hoping to bring in a few choice prospects.  Those tasked with building on relationships, often called relationship or loyalty marketers, have it easier, with a treasure trove of owned media behavior data at their fingertips collected by modern digital tracking sensors.  In either case, it should come as no surprise that gathering evidence is a top priority.

In 1992, Eric Lawson wrote a book called “The Naked Consumer.”  It was an excellent account of the growing problem at the time of personal data sold as a commodity on the open market, and its lessons and conclusions are as germane as ever.

 

So what should we do?

Like any history, there always seems to be the appearance of it repeating itself, but invariably with evolving twists.  In this case, some of the twists are:

  • We can take devices with games and reinforcements anywhere, and often do. Mobility means more chances to be online.  In contrast, when TVs first appeared, they were stationary.  And radios were too bulky to carry, until transistors transformed them into the iPod of the 50’s.

 

  • Because this digital drug is available constantly, and there are no official regulators, many of us are unconsciously overindulging. Like any addiction, step one is problem recognition, and for most of us, we haven’t admitted there’s a problem, let alone embarked on a recovery journey.

 

  • For digital natives (those who have grown up with smartphones and social media), there are new pressures and social dynamics many of us that are older can’t fully appreciate. This has resulted in massive numbers of teens afflicted with anxiety and depression (see this Time Magazine article for an in-depth look). That’s sad.  There’s no easy answers, as these issues are rooted not only in technological realities, but interwoven with deep seeded tribal sociological phenomena.

 

  • Impatience thresholds are down to seconds, partly due to the availability of technology itself and our dependence on it, and on industrial productivity pressures.

 

What should CX pros do?

There’s no disputing that businesses need customers and have to make money to survive.   How they play the game, the rules they follow, and the cultural approach they use defines both their character and destiny.  When plotting how to engage customers with artificial intelligence and automation technology, consider the following:

  • Those who play the long game win the long game. If the ultimate goal is improving customer experience, then factor customer quality of life into the long-term value equation.  Depending on the definition and time horizon for winning, chances are good consumers will recognize (and reward) you for considering their best interests.

 

  • Regulate, or be regulated. Incidentally, industry in general doesn’t have a great track record for self-regulation, so prepare eventually for some regulations in this area to emerge.

 

What should consumers do?

Throughout recorded history, hucksters have been selling unsuspecting consumers products they really didn’t need.  That doesn’t mean every modern day CX pro inherits the label of huckster.

Quite the contrary, those who exchange value with consumers, and provide them with solid recommendations of products well suited to their requirements are effectively service providers.  Those taking the easy path and simply pushing and deceiving others toward a clever sale, will rightfully earn the dubious timeworn label.

Consumers need to:

  • Shop around. Although it can be a hassle, weigh the pros & cons of moving to another provider, versus amassing more points or transactions with a single provider.   Be sure, nonetheless, to factor in all switching costs, including your time.

 

  • When you shop, think outside the box to get a list of alternatives. The path of least resistance these days is to search on Google, but that list of both the paid results as well as the first page of organic ones is a limited (and often highly biased) set.

 

  • Take occasional breaks from technology – Simply put, you don’t need to be online every minute. Don’t expect to completely kick the habit, same as you can’t stop eating food altogether. Research already shows, however, you should use technology in moderation or your long-term health may be at stake.  A recent survey of 3500 adults shows stress levels likely rise when alerts go off, such as new emails or text messages. Like getting adequate sleep is necessary for good health, you’ll probably be more productive (and live a longer, heathier life) if you’re offline periodically.

 

Customer Engagement – From BI Guesswork to Prescriptive AI

Customer Engagement approaches, and the technology used to enable them, have evolved immensely over the last 25 years.  Two distinct eras define this period, as well as a major technological shift to real-time systems with AI feedback loops.

Prescriptive AI

The BI Guesswork Era

During the advent of the Business Intelligence (BI), Marketing Technology and Campaign Management era (circa 1990), marketers had limited predictive powers.  In many cases, when it came to what individuals really needed, they resorted to guesswork.  They channeled their energy to perfect efficiencies in targeting and automation.  Their main emphasis was finding an approximate audience for products so they designed promotions for large segments of the population. They fixated on finding segments that fit into certain “likelihood to respond” buckets, and then repeatedly tested timing, messages, and creative content by peppering those segments with treatments.  In other words, they identified massive groups, matched offers to these groups, and then used technology to systematize their marketing.

Although some of those marketers drew on basic models (such as RFM – Recency, Frequency, Monetary), which provided rough guidance on how deep to mail into a file, most didn’t even do this.  Typical response rates were 0.5% at best.  During this period, the average adult was receiving about 50 pounds of junk mail a year – coined junk mail because the promotions were irrelevant 99.5% of the time.  Thus, the majority viewed this activity as frivolous, mocking it with nicknames and jokes.  Regardless, marketers were unrelenting as they continually carpet-bombed until consumers either responded or learned how to opt-out.

Their tools of choice were crude in nature.  They were slow, not fine-grained, and certainly not customer-centric.  Usually, the campaign flowcharts they devised utilized basic analytics where deterministic queries ran against databases returning huge customer lists called segments.  If there was any further segment refinement, they relied on business intelligence technologies like OLAP (Online Analytical Processing) and dashboards to support their intuition.  Even as some of the more sophisticated marketers attempted predictions, providing those models with feedback was nearly impossible due to the batch processing nature of the flows and platforms they employed.  As shown in Figure 1, although some crept up the analytics value chain toward being predictive and answering the question “What will happen?” most fell short.

Figure 1:

business intelligence

Source: http://www.bi-bestpractices.com/view-articles/5642

Using a backward approach, engineers pre-developed the product, and marketers wrangled the packaging, promotions, and messaging to the audience – again using more guesswork than analytics.  It was difficult to react contextually, at scale, to actual individual needs, so instead they focused on groups of customers.

And so they executed bulk outbound communications at scale. With promotional ammunition in hand, readily available data afforded them reasonable targeting coordinates, and computers and devices served as the delivery mechanisms. The marketplace and emerging technology supported a numbers game and rewarded short-term economic gains.  Longer-term loyalty and longitudinal effects took a back seat.

By the turn of the century, direct marketers were plodding ahead using ever-richer consumer profiles that enabled them to focus promotions on increasingly smaller segments.  And even though in 1995, Peppers & Rogers had coined the term “1:1 marketing,” enterprise marketers were no where near direct conversations with individual consumers.  Still constrained by scale, they were stuck communicating to segments, albeit smaller and smaller ones.  What they didn’t realize was they were about to hit a wall (Figure 2)

Figure 2:

Real-Time Evolution

By 2005, marketers had the tools to perform hyper-targeting.  They aggressively tested different incentives, creative elements, and fine tuned things based on response metrics.   Scoring models were refined, though the expense was large, and the iterations long.  The results didn’t so much alter someone’s behavior, but more provided alternatives to consider, often ones that still had borderline relevance to a current need.

Often the goal, instead of steadfast loyalty, was simply to increase immediate purchases with minimal marketing waste.  In theory, if targets responded and steadily purchased, no matter the purchase, more purchases should follow.  Supposedly then, over the long haul, the business accomplished its goal of capturing more share of wallet.

Around 2010, some leading edge marketers who realized the value of a real-time approach, began hitting that wall.  The foundation of the system they had spent 15 years building was the wrong foundation.  It was a platform built for segmentation, and it supported the wrong approach. They needed a “Real-time 1:1” platform, customer-centric prescriptions, and a more dynamic feedback loop.

Enter the Prescriptive AI Era

Good marketers have always been similar to psychologists in that they study consumer behavior. With today’s data and technology, it’s possible to take engagements one-step further – diagnosing, and treating those customers to alter their behavior methodically over time.  Stealing a page from the broadcast advertisers’ playbook – who use “subliminal seduction” – many marketers are marching toward implementing systems that use incremental and proactive drip therapy to persuade inner minds toward brand myopia.

The only piece missing from the puzzle is a real-time platform.  Traces of this began appearing in 2010, as big data systems, parallel computing, solid-state storage, and other technology advances drove computing costs radically down, and speeds up.

Today the pieces are in place, and more are climbing aboard, as real-time platforms have fully emerged and are cheaper and more reliable.  It’s now feasible to use customer-centric prescriptive tactics at scale and get huge lift over baseline approaches.  Models can predict behavior to an amazing degree of accuracy.  The artificial intelligence (AI) models both diagnose and – using Decision Management – proactively prescribe next-best-action engagement treatments.

Figure 3:

next-best-action

Everyone knows engagement professionals today have more channels.  They’re no longer constrained to broadcast media delivery systems (that lack dynamic feedback loops), and can now use digital response media and even physical surveillance.  And with this plethora of channels, they can administer and perfect personalized, contiguous, and hypersonic stimuli-response strategies.  Essentially, they can employ an always-on brain, powered by rich consumer data, advanced machine learning algorithms, and a 24 x 7 continuous learning loop.

What’s more, these machine learning technologies and embedded predictive algorithms can work in a very deliberate and intelligent way, dynamically creating conditional content and promotions, each time consumers reengage on a digital channel.  Incremental repeated responses (or lack thereof) allow these models to learn, tune themselves, and in essence direct and alter the future – programming individual behavior.  Customers are enticed to reveal ever-increasing amounts of personal information, in exchange for points or some privilege, trusting the exchange is amenable, and the information use one-dimensional.

All of this behavioral activity – social, purchase, demographic, and so forth – is recorded, with the aim of feeding it back into those same algorithms that iterate to find new patterns, refine predictions, and subsequently inform Decision Strategies that recommend the next series of treatments.  In some cases, these systems can even run autonomously, using advanced data science techniques such as genetic algorithms, game theory, and reinforcement learning.  System designers seed the rules of the game, configure the objective function and constraints, and then push “Go.”  The designers and their business counterparts peer in on occasion to monitor whether goals, such as higher loyalty and profit, are trending in the right direction.

Figure 4:

AI Learning Loop

Although this suggests overt manipulation, it’s not necessarily malevolent.  Provided customers have choice (and are well informed and discriminate), and businesses operate ethically (on a level playing field), the economic scales can still balance, and brands that provide products and experiences with the best value can still prevail, and consumers get a fair exchange of value.  You may have noticed, however, a few important “ifs” in this last statement.

Whether we like it or not, we now live in the Prescriptive Era, where the mission of brands is to get to know us, maybe even better than we actually know ourselves. That might sound crazy, but consider this statement from a recent article, “The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine” [i] where an analytics firm compiled data on Facebook likes and built millions of consumer behavior profiles, subsequently fed into an AI political campaigning machine:

“With 300 likes, Kosinski’s machine could predict a subject’s behavior better than their partner. With even more likes it could exceed what a person thinks they know about themselves.”

Whether you buy this or not, the fact remains that consumer profiles are becoming richer and consumer behavior predictions more accurate.  Data are exploding, as are the algorithms voraciously feeding on them.

Brands compiling this data and wielding their algorithms do it because they say they want to know us better.  Presumably, this enables them to continuously add value, deliver insights, help automate our lives, and make attractive recommendations.

Ostensibly then, for consumers, it comes down to a few simple questions:

  • How much is our data worth to us?
  • What’s the value of the insights that brands provide when they use our data?
  • Are we getting an equitable exchange?
  • Can we trust brands to honor their commitments regarding the use of our data?
  • Do we understand the fine print in those agreements?

Consider the mission statement for Datacoup, a data company based in New York, who have gone one step further and are trying to make a marketplace where consumer’s have a more direct exchange of value for their data:

“Our mission is to help people unlock the value of their personal data. Almost every link in the economic chain has their hand in our collective data pocket. Data brokers in the US alone account for a $15bn industry, yet they have zero relationship with the consumers whose data they harvest and sell. They offer no discernible benefit back to the producers of this great data asset – you.”[ii]

So are you getting value for the data you’re giving up?  Are the “Prescriptions” you get in return an equitable exchange?  Are you aware of what happens to your data after you release it?

A Day in the Life of Your Data

We all joke about the eye-glazing 56 page “Terms and Conditions” from Apple that we always accept and never read.  We want the free software, and don’t worry about the consequences. However, if you use that approach for everything you do online, that mindset is dangerous.

Consider this for a moment.  Most firms have language that allows them to send your data to affiliates, which is a fancy word for other companies. Once floating in the ecosystem, it’s grinded, distilled, and appended to other copies, until records of your preferences, habits, and behavioral are expressed in 5,000 or more different ways.  If it’s wrong, it doesn’t matter, because you don’t own it, don’t have access to it, and can’t change it.  In many ways, it’s another version of you, right or wrong.

Is Prescriptive AI Working?

So back to the question of whether it’s helping.   It’s fair to say there are cases where it adds value.  Here are some examples:

  • You decide you aren’t satisfied with your telecommunication services. You’ve made it obvious (with various signals) you’re considering other alternatives.  Your current provider prescribes an attractive bundle that satisfies your needs. You get a better bundle of services, and your provider retains you.  The bundle is custom tailored for you, using AI.
  • You have investments with a firm. You provide additional data on your financial goals, risk tolerance, and other investments, and they provide advice (prescriptions) on how to achieve your goals over time, within the parameters you set.  They provide various alternatives and education that prove useful to your financial planning.   Presumably, some of those alternatives include additional investments with them, and turn out to be good choices.
  • Your health plan suggests meaningful diet, exercise, and other tips that promote a healthy lifestyle. They are custom tailored to you, based on your family history, age, and other personal data you provide.   They reward you with lower premiums or credits.

These are just a few examples, and many more exist across industries such as travel and leisure, automotive, insurance, and retail.  And while good exchanges do exist, there are plenty of examples where the prescription doesn’t justify the information surrendered because the value exchange is unbalanced, or the prescriptions are ineffective.

Final Thoughts

In her book, “Weapons of Math Destruction[iii],” Cathy O’Neil writes:

“Many of these models, like some of the WMDs we’ve discussed, will arrive with the best intentions.  But they must also deliver transparency, disclosing the input data they’re using as well as the results of their targeting. And they must be open to audits. These are powerful engines, after all.  We must keep our eyes on them.”

She highlights important considerations we must heed.  I’m not convinced we’re spiraling toward a dystopian society regarding the use of prescriptive AI for customer engagement, but I do believe a balance is necessary between efficacy of these systems and fairness.  As responsible marketers, we should be mindful of the ramifications of the models we use for prescriptive purposes, and as consumers, it’s our job to demand transparency, choice, and a level playing field.

[i] Anderson And Horvath, https://scout.ai/story/the-rise-of-the-weaponized-ai-propaganda-machine, January 2017

[ii] Datacoup, https://datacoup.com/docs#faq, February 2017

[iii] Cathy O’Neil, 1st edition, Weapons of Math Destruction (New York: Crown), 2016.

Rise of Machine Marketers – Transforming CX

Machine marketers are smarter marketers, always using machines for advantage.  But this isn’t new.

Direct marketing was born out of the ability to exploit addressable media as the way to garner feedback on whether their enticements were working.  Catalogs and snail mail with reply forms, evolved to email, telemarketing, and other mechanisms – smarter marketers understood guesswork would never win over using data, technology, and the scientific method.

Machine Marketers

Database Marketing

In the 90’s, the ability to more massively codify and share customer data, and use it to steer marketing campaigns drove a revolution. It sparked a major shift of media spending away from general advertising using TV & Radio, to addressable programs.  Database Marketers, the offspring of Catalog Marketers and ancestors of Machine Marketers, scraped for individualized customer information to power personalized treatments – where direct response open rates, response rates, and conversion rates kept score.

They loved data because when they used it to drive targeting in their programs, the patient responded. Realizing their treatments were working, they wanted more data, wanted it fast, and wanted it in pure forms. Native sources worked well, but they sought alternate supplies in the forms of public, compiled, and modeled data – anything to test for a slight edge.

A new market formed with a vast array of players, arising to meet the growing demand for customer data.

The 2nd Coming of Big Data

Then, a number of things happened. Even more individualized data poured onto the market.  Consumers shopped and bought online.  Consumers went mobile.  Consumer devices of all kinds started streaming behavior data.  Consumers readily traded personal information for points and promises.

Hardware continued to plummet in price and better software meant cleaner and more accessible data.  Data compilers flourished, with data as their raw material, and database & data science technology their assembly line, and the internet their logistics network.

Database marketers had struck oil again, but this time it was BIG – and IoT data was the source of their new bubbling crude.  Data refineries appeared everywhere.

Internal IT had competition – their 90’s data warehouses rendered obsolete by a Big Data revival.  Open source databases like Hadoop, were faster and ran on commodity hardware. SaaS providers offered a variety of big data subscription services, and agencies used bigger and faster hosted databases.

There was but one small problem. Insights weren’t leaping out of these primordial big data reserves.

Data Science and Data Mining Come of Age

Meanwhile, mad “Data Scientist” marketers continued to manipulate and tune their statistical models to improve lift. Early on, they realized that algorithms devised hundreds of years prior could now be fine-tuned and fully unleashed to predict which customers were more likely to respond and buy their products.

Less sampling with faster machines and more data meant better results.  Suddenly, more people became interested in what they were doing.  People were peering over their shoulders. The press told stories of firms predicting a pregnancy before grandparents even knew.  Adding fuel, the biggest brands on the planet (Google, Facebook, Amazon, et al) got into the game, doing big reveals, seemingly weekly, on the methods to their data science madness.

It was time to give this a makeover, market it, and commercialize it.  “Geez,” said the creative marketer. “We can do that!”

AI and Machine Learning – The re-launch

Our story takes us to circa 2012.  The time was right.  Cars were beginning to drive themselves; IBM’s Watson had won Jeopardy; Google was predicting our search terms and winning at the game Go.  Our iPhone was conversing with us, and Amazon & Netflix were courting us with recommended products to buy and movies to watch.

Honestly, no new science unexpectedly sprang forth, but as happens old science around for decades (decision trees, neural nets, Bayesian learning), became an overnight – well let’s call it an over 5 year – sensation.

What happened was how technology revolutions occur.   Attention begot investment, huge investment bought more innovation, and marketable innovations caught more attention – and the virtuous loop was in motion – adequately fed by a rich venture capital environment.

Marketers assembled the pieces into cost effective working solutions. They collected and compiled consumer data sources, cleansed and filtered them, fed them into pattern recognition and self-learning systems, detected opportunities and alerted touchpoint systems, automated waved campaign schedules, and connected their outputs to fulfillment systems.  They did all this via an interconnected stack of private and public clouds, transferring data and insights in seconds.

Michelangelo meets Newton – When Content met Context

CX AI

By 2016, another phenomenon unfolded.  Creative & scientific minds more closely collaborated.

Deep Learning, the science of neural networks, commoditized language and image processing, changing how we interfaced and worked with machines. Clunky interface paradigms gave way to elegant ones that were responsive and rewarding.  Design thinkers (those artsy fartsy types) were no longer an afterthought. Au contraire, they were now a strategic advantage.  Consumers dictated the definition of great customer experience: Relevance, value, simplicity, and visual beauty.

Machine Marketers, ever the opportunistic breed, seized the moment, further refining their targeting and personalizing creative treatments across available channels. Machines further assisted their agency suppliers, assisting them in turning out better, faster, and cheaper creative.  Technology further assisted marketers, auto generating optimal SEO terms, email subject lines, and even catchy tweets.  Machines advised on the optimal time to execute campaigns.  Next best recommendation rankings used statistical probability to find relevant products & services for more refined targets.

Beautiful creative no longer took months to produce.  In many cases, consumers produced content for brands – and the content bottlenecks holding back visual personalization broke lose.

Science and technology glued yet another critical piece into place.  Touchpoint systems where customers interacted could now understand natural language, and instantly fed back contextual data (location, last behavior, weather conditions, intent, mood, and so forth) straight through to systems primed with algorithms that learned in real-time, recalculating next best actions in a conversational mode.

“Computer, find me the closest coffee shop.”…”Ok, I found one 2.5 miles away, do you want directions?”

“Computer, I need a highly rated case for my X phone for under $25.”…”Ok, I found four with 5 star reviews that fit your X phone for under $25, do you want to hear about them?”

Fronted by Natural Language Processing (NLP), personalization engines married conditional & appealing content with contextual recommendations – spawning audio & visual personal assistants.  The result: off the charts lift and conversions.

These were contextual, conversational, and relevant interactions.  This was transformational.

artificial intelligence evolution

Machine Marketers Rise Up

In the end, let’s face it.  Marketers want to do one thing more than anything – sell more stuff.  Yet the smart ones know that the best means to that end is relentless focus on the customer.  Ensure each is a happy camper via an individualized relationship, and satisfaction and profits increase.

Thus, today more than ever, ALL marketers had better face one important fact.  They can’t achieve customer centricity at scale using the tools, data, or organization of yesterday.

Like any profession, winners constantly seek a new competitive edge using the latest technological advances in equipment, repeatedly testing innovations, measuring for improvement, and fine-tuning.

Artificial intelligent interfaces are changing the ways consumers interact with their devices, provide data, and interact with brands.  Data is flowing freely, and although privacy laws seem to ebb and flow, the trend has been toward more data sharing and the ability for the crafty to gain a deeper understanding of consumer behavior.

Technology – cheaper, smarter, more portable, and easier to use, continues to translate into the potential to deliver more relevant and convenient customer experience.  Those that get this, and execute on it, will win.

Machine marketers are those who master using the latest data & technology to their advantage – rising to that challenge, they rise to the top of their craft.

Note:  These views are my own, and not that of my employer

Adtech Martech Convergence – Episode #7

In this 7th short video in my Machine Marketing Series, I give my views on the “Adtech Martech Convergence”  specifically as it relates to using machine learning.

 

I cover four main layers of technology to consider as this conversion takes place:

  • Customer Behavior Data – Why the Adtech Martech convergence may force a better coordination of this data as its compiled  along the customer decision life cycle.
  • Basic Analytics & Insights – I give some examples and why this area isn’t a huge concern or risk area.
  • Advanced Analytics (Machine Learning) – I explain why integration here is key, and give some marketing use case examples.
  • Programmatic Real-Time Automation – I outline key aspects of automation & workflow, and why these areas are essential to combine for a coherent Adtech Martech solution stack.

Machine Learning Ecosystem for Marketing – Episode #6

In this 6th short video in my Machine Marketing Series, I explain the Machine Learning Ecosystem for Marketing and review about 50 major players.

I cover the 6 categories of Machine Learning vendors in the landscape I created with Tier 1 & Tier 2 players:

  • Category 1 – Paid Media / Digital Recommendation Vendors
  • Category 2 – Big Data Cloud Platforms with Machine Learning Services
  • Category 3 – Open Source Machine Learning Tools
  • Category 4 – Business Intelligence Vendors with Predictive Analytics
  • Category 5 – B2B Marketing / Account-Based-Marketing (ABM) / Lead Management
  • Category 6 – Real-Time (Multi-Channel) Interaction Management (RTIM)

In each category I discuss the Tier 1 (largest players) and the Tier 2 (contenders / firms to watch).

Machine Learning Measurement: Episode #5

In this 5th short video in my Machine Marketing Series, I explain Machine Learning Measurement and monitoring techniques.

I cover the concept of a Model Factory and Dashboard where you can:

  • Measure Machine Learning Lift employed in Marketing and CRM programs
  • Monitor Model Features and Model Data use
  • Pit models built for Customer Experience (CX) against each other (Champion / Challenger)
  • View KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) on a business Dashboard

Use these tips & best practices to benchmark against your efforts, and compare how your platform stacks up in using machine learning in your marketing and Customer Experience programs.

 

Marketing Results: Machine Learning Episode #4

Getting positive marketing results for your customer engagement efforts is what it’s all about.

In this episode, I explore what to expect in terms of outcomes when you effectively employ machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) in your marketing efforts.

I cover performance ranges I’ve seen actual companies achieve including:

  • Churn & Attrition reduction
  • Response Rates for your marketing execution & tactics
  • Sales Lift increases which means revenue to the bottom line
  • ROMI – Return on Marketing Investment
  • NPS – Net Promoter Score improvements
  • AHT – Average Handle Time reduction

You can use these figures to benchmark against your efforts, or even help you build a business case for embarking on using machine learning in your marketing and Customer Experience programs.

Martech Ecosystem – Major Players

I created this graphic so you can map out your own partner & vendor Martech Ecosystem. The “Major Players” shown are examples and are not intended to be comprehensive.

Its a qualitative assessment anyway, but I have used my experience in dealing with some of the worlds largest companies and thus which vendors have emerged as the 800 lb gorillas in their respective categories.

martech ecosystem

If you are not already familiar with the extensive work done in this are by Scott Brinker, please check out his website http://chiefmartec.com.  Scott has done a fantastic job cataloging the thousands of MarTech companies in a variety of different areas of specialization.  His latest super graphic stuffs an amazing 3,874 companies onto one page.  You can view it here: http://chiefmartec.com/2016/03/marketing-technology-landscape-supergraphic-2016/

By contrast, my picture is intended to filter that list down to some of the major players in key areas, and is especially useful to larger corporations, or software vendors that seek to operate & partner for selling to enterprise class organizations.

If you would like a copy of this .ppt, click here.

Marketing Timing & Content: Machine Learning – Episode #3

Great timing & content lead to great marketing tactics and performance.

In this episode, I explore how you can use machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI)  to improve your message timing and the content you employ – further improving experiences for your customers.

I explore “2 Cool Areas” of Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence applications – to make your marketing smarter:

  • Timing Optimizing for your Marketing Execution & Tactics
  • Automated Content Generation and Predictive Content Recommendations

My tips are aimed at improving your marketing efficiency & effectiveness.