Everything comes down to CDP: The rapid rise of the customer data platform


(Attributed to Alex Dickerson, Head of Solution Architecture EMEA at Adobe)

Data is everywhere and anywhere. From our online behaviour to our spending habits, from the world’s biggest brands down to each individual, data powers both the world of business, and much of our daily lives.

To date, the way that brands collect, interpret, and act on this data has been scattered and haphazard. Hundreds of pieces of technology exist, each crafted for a particular use or task — from campaign management tools to analytics solutions, and data warehouses to commerce systems.

Over the past couple of years, the customer data platform (CDP) has emerged — with promises to unite all disparate technologies and systems in one centralised hub, capable not only of housing every piece of data you need, but also enabling every part of the business to understand and take action on it.

CDP: A magnificent, yet complex, beast

With so many different and disconnected systems constantly churning out vast swathes of data, the world of CDP can be intricate and complex. As a marketer or IT professional, the huge amount of CDP options out there can be overwhelming.

Several CDP variations exist, and it can be difficult to decide which one is right for a brand’s individual and unique needs. Broadly, however, CDPs can be broken down into four categories:

  • Campaign management
  • Analytics and tag management
  • Databases and data warehouses
  • Commerce platforms and Point of Sale (POS) systems

Although each variation is suited to different aspects of the business, the common characteristic is the ability to bring together almost unimaginable volumes of data, from a host of sources, to form beautifully crafted pictures of customers, down to the individual, and in real time.

  • Campaign management Campaign management technologies have developed exponentially over the past 10-15 years. Historically, email was the predominant player in campaign management, but the number of platforms and channels through which marketers can now deliver content has exploded — from social to web messaging, and in-app notifications to SMS. As these channels and platforms become more varied, the data being collected also becomes more granular. Where once marketers could work from a simple, list-led system to deliver predominately email content, they now needed to personalise content based on a number of variables, using data from one channel to inform their actions on another. Campaign management systems have now evolved to the point where there is an underlying data repository powering the whole operation — not just the channels within their system, but others such as onsite personalisation, commerce product recommendations, or in-store recommendations. As more connectors appear between these channels, the data flowing between them becomes more enhanced. Intent and web behavioural data — all create more accurate pictures of the customer, resulting in more personalised and real-time experiences that ultimately drive more successful campaigns.
  • Analytics and tag management– Inherently digital, analytics and tag management systems collect customer and prospect data by combing through a brand’s online properties, be that their website or any other IoT device that has data enabled. Collecting data natively to identify trends, while slicing and dicing it to create different views is where digital analytics takes center stage. But where these systems fall short is in creating an accurate profile that truly ‘knows’ what a customer needs or wants. Digital analytics has long relied on digital data that was almost exclusively collected from their websites — and that data that was only telling half the story. Encouragingly, the CDP aspect of digital analytics has evolved to the point where the technology can pull together data from dozens of different sources — offline activity, CRM data, or email communication history — to create extensive and well-rounded views of individual prospects and customers, not just their behavior on one specific website. And, the key benefit of analytics evolving into a CDP, is that brands can now act on the data being collected. The data stored there can be pushed into the campaign management system, personalisation engine, or POS system, which wasn’t possible when using traditional analytics tools.
  • Databases and data warehouses Data warehousing solutions bring data into a central repository, consolidate it, and store it safely and securely. These systems may include a limited aspect of analysis, but their focus is data storage, rather than creating actions based off in-depth marketing insight. Database providers have recently realised that, armed with all that customer data, they are already well on their way to being able to call themselves a CDP. They just need to merge data quicker and integrate it with activation applications, such as campaign management, personalisation, and digital analytics tools. With one caveat — their expertise lies in storing data, not activating it. This is where a CDP will come into its own. It will possess the data, but also boast the ability to transform that data into insights that can inform personalised, real-time experiences.
  • Commerce platforms and Point of Sale (POS) systemsCommerce platforms have come a long way in recent years. Most can track their beginnings to payment gateways, hailing from a transactional-led environment or PIM systems (Product Information Management). And when it comes to transactional data, they do it all — from storing product and customer information, managing stock and product eligibility, to selling the products themselves. But, these systems are very product-focused, rather than customer-centric. Encouragingly, commerce platforms have the right foundation in place — the product information, the customer data, and the activation channels — but they lack the ability to create single, unified views of their customers in order to achieve the high levels of content personalisation the modern customer demands. CDPs are helping to evolve and elevate commerce culture, away from product ‘tunnel vision’ and the ‘sell, sell, sell attitude’, towards the customer themselves: identifying the right customers, how to segment them accurately, how to develop their journey, and how to establish a long-lasting relationship built on trust. These considerations often have no link to an individual product — unfamiliar territory for an industry that is so product-centric — but this is how a CDP can change hearts and minds in commerce: customer first, product second.


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