Much Ado About Data Onboarding: A Key to Real-Time, People-Based Marketing

To get closer to real-time, people-based marketing, marketers need to embrace onboarding, says columnist Mike Sands. He delves into what it is and the key questions you should ask onboarding vendors.

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Much has been made about Google’s custom audiences solution, which was announced recently at Advertising Week. With this new solution, advertisers can upload their email lists to Google to target customers and lookalike prospects with ads across the company’s properties.

Reaction from the industry has ranged from believing this is Google’s late, me-too attempt to compete with similar solutions from Facebook and Twitter to predicting this is the next step in Google’s quest to own people-based marketing.

But what’s most important is that this announcement has made “data onboarding,” an arguably unsexy topic, fresh once again.

What Is Onboarding?

While the process known as onboarding is not a new tactic, it isn’t well understood by the majority of marketers. In short, onboarding helps bridge the gap between offline and online data, enabling marketers to leverage the rich troves of customer information stored in their data warehouses for more accurate media targeting.

Data onboarding has been available as a marketing service for several years and was first put on the map by LiveRamp in 2012. The company, and others like it, sold brands on the promise of bringing offline customer insights into the online world.

These solutions work through the following steps:

  1. A brand uploads its offline, first-party data from its CRM system to an onboarder’s platform. This CRM data includes identifiers like email addresses or postal addresses.
  2. The offline data is anonymized through a hashing process to remove personally identifiable information (PII) and then matched with online identifiers and device IDs available through publishers and other ad tech ecosystem partners.
  3. Once audiences are matched across channels, the brand can create addressable audience segments and target them with digital advertising and marketing messages relevant to their behaviors and attributes.

Onboarding Hurdles

This method does help brands get closer to bridging online and offline customer journeys, but it’s not without challenges. This onboarding approach takes five to seven days, so brands aren’t targeting customers with the most recent information possible.

Why does this matter? Have you ever purchased a product and then had an ad for that same product follow you around the Web for days?

Or have you ever had a customer service issue with a company and then been marketed to by that same business before the issue was resolved? Disconnected experiences like these can be the result of slow onboarding.

Seeing the opportunity to improve on this process, Facebook launched its own well-known onboarding solution: Custom Audiences.

With Custom Audiences, advertisers upload a list of known customer emails to Facebook, which are then anonymized and matched with Facebook’s ID pool of de-identified email addresses associated with Facebook accounts. Advertisers can then serve ads to target audiences within Facebook properties or on sites that offer a Facebook login.

Because Facebook has more than 1 billion active logged-in users, it offers advertisers the advantage of targeting those authenticated, known users across devices. Facebook’s solution also enables onboarding within a matter of hours rather than days.

Twitter, and now Google, have followed suit with their own custom audiences offerings. But there’s still one important drawback: These walled garden players trap brands’ data and don’t offer any customer insights back.

This means that brands can’t use the insights about customer interactions within Facebook properties to enrich their own customer identities or measure their marketing outcomes effectively.

This is why it’s important that onboarding is top of mind again — because it’s time for it to evolve to enable real-time, people-based marketing outside of walled gardens. The good news is that there are new technologies emerging to do just that.

Key Questions To Ask Onboarding Vendors

Here are some key questions that marketers should ask onboarding vendors when looking for an effective solution:

  • When you upload your data, what information and insights do you get back about the customer’s actions? If a brand owns their data and identities, they can call the shots about how, when and where that data is used and can leverage it across the organization.
  • How long does it take to import your data and act on it? Look for a solution that can offer onboarding in minutes, rather than days, and can activate advertising and marketing messages in real time.
  • Once you import offline data, are the matched customer profiles always available for a lifetime of targeting? For the most powerful, effective marketing and advertising possible, customer profiles created through onboarding should be durable for the long term and continuously enriched based on customer interactions across all touch points.

An onboarding solution that meets these three criteria offers immense value. Media activation will be more targeted and effective. Measurement will be more complete with closed-loop attribution across channels.

And most importantly, customer experiences will be seamless and relevant, no matter where the customer is in his or her journey.

Marrying online and offline data isn’t just an issue for those focused on CRM or media activation. Marketers must look at their data assets holistically to understand their customer journey and how they can leverage onboarding to truly bridge offline and online touch points.

In doing so, brands will be one step closer to real-time, people-based marketing.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Mike Sands
Mike Sands is CEO of Signal. Prior to joining the company, he was part of the original Orbitz management team and held the positions of CMO and COO. While at Orbitz, Mike helped take the business from start-up to IPO, then through two acquisitions (Cendant and Blackstone). After Orbitz, Mike joined The Pritzker Group as a partner on their private equity team. Mike also has held management roles at General Motors Corporation and Leo Burnett. His work at General Motors led him to be named a “Marketer of the Next Generation” by Brandweek magazine. Mike holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Communications from Northwestern University and a Masters in Management degree from the J.L. Kellogg School of Management.

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