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The myth of the single customer record

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Prepare for CDP implementation using a template for use cases

Sellers of Customer Data Platforms (CDP) promise their software will gather data from various applications, and assemble it into a single-source-of-truth “golden record” for each customer. 

It’s a lovely vision, but rarely achieved. And that’s perfectly okay. Most companies won’t achieve the goal of one record for each customer, but will find ways to cope with the limitations that prevent the creation of golden records.

Let’s use this common CDP use case to illustrate the complexity: Identifying customers among the hoards of anonymous visitors to your website. 

It’s a challenge. Anonymity was central to the internet’s design. And while there are lots of ways to identify anonymous website visitors, they all have their limitations. 

Imagine Robert Williams, our leading man and swing dance aficionado, interacts with Ella, publisher of (the fictitious, I believe) Ella’s Swing Dance Magazine.

Robert meets Ella on his commute to work. She tells him he ought to read her magazine. On his lunch break, Robert searches for the magazine website on the desktop he uses at the office. When Robert’s web browser makes a request to Ella’s Swing Dance Magazine website, Ella’s CDP puts a cookie on that device and creates a user profile. The profile includes the following information: 

Profile 1

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IP address: 25.23.108.5
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Linux NT 10.0)
Referrer: https://www.google.com

The record might also include what pages were visited, and what type of content the visitor seems to prefer. The visitor is still anonymous to Ella’s CDP. The profile is one of the millions of unknown visitors.

When Robert gets home that evening, he types the URL of Ella’s website into his iPad. Her CDP dutifully puts a cookie on that device and creates a new profile. But on this visit, Robert decides to sign up for Ella’s free e-newsletter with one of his junk email addresses. The CDP captures the email address from the form submission and creates a second profile, which has more information than the first. 

Profile 2

IP address: 32.12.100.21
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_15_6)
Referrer: [blank]
Email: [email protected]
Name: Bob Williams

However, nothing in this second records enables Ella’s CDP to conclude the records are tied to the same individual. The records were created on different devices at different times, and share no information identifying Robert. 

Two weeks later, Robert and Ella are jitterbugging at Mobtown Ballroom. Ella has a few copies of her magazine, and Robert takes one home. He signs up for a print subscription using one of the blow-in cards. Ella’s fulfillment service dutifully records this new subscriber data, which is then imported into the CDP, creating Robert’s third profile with still more information:

Profile 3

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Name: Robert Williams
Address: 123 Main Street
City: Bowie
State: Maryland
Zip: 20715
Phone: (301) 555-1212
Email: [email protected]

This profile has valuable information, including a new email address. But this profile has no data from online activity, so it doesn’t help with online ad targeting or customer journey data.  

Robert now has three profiles in Ella’s CDP. There’s no way to merge any of them. We know they’re all Robert. The CDP doesn’t.

Fortunately, Ella’s magazine has the good sense to include some special online content for print subscribers as a way to link offline and online behavior. A QR code printed in the magazine allows Robert to view a video on the website about the Travelling Charleston. Robert scans the QR code with his iPad. That takes him to the website, where the CDP recognizes the cookie it put on that device earlier.

Bingo! Now Ella’s CDP can merge the iPad profile (#2) with the subscription information (#3). Several good things happen as a result: 

  1. Robert’s three profiles have been consolidated into two
  2. Robert has become a known user in Ella’s CDP
  3. Ella’s CDP knows that Robert uses two different email addresses
  4. Robert’s subscription information (offline behavior) and the profile created when he accessed Ella’s site from his iPad (online behavior) are now linked. 

The record created from Robert’s desktop remains anonymous.

Read next: 90% of marketers say their CDP doesn’t meet current business needs

Note that, in this scenario, Ella’s CDP has been configured to accept multiple emails in a customer’s profile. Some companies designate the email address as a unique field – allowing only one per profile. In that case, the records would not merge, and Robert’s subscription information would remain in its own profile, not connected to any online activity.

Will Ella’s CDP ever be able to attach Robert’s work computer to his online profile? Maybe. For example, if Robert opens one of Ella’s e-newsletters on his work computer, the CDP might (depending on how strict it is about such things) recognize that as Robert and merge the profiles. 

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Identifying individuals from their online and offline behaviors and creating single records may seem complicated, but it’s quite a bit less confusing than what happens in real life. Consider the complexity added when Robert’s smartphone and home desktop are added to the equation.

Merging records: deterministic vs. probabilistic method. Which is right for you? 

The “golden record” that the CDP salesman is waving in front of you assumes that all these different sources of information can be merged, but they need to have a field in the record to merge on. What’s that going to be?

Most companies opt for an email address as the best piece of personally identifiable information on which to merge records. But as we’ve seen, and as we all know, people have multiple email addresses. They also change over time. 

If you stick with a strictly deterministic matching method, you’ll need to match a unique field (like an email address or a social media account) across multiple profiles to create your “golden record,” and you’ll inevitably leave some information behind.

There are other options. Some CDPs use probabilistic methods to merge profiles. That method enables you to match records that might otherwise remain distinct. But you risk incorrectly merging profiles and creating a customer experience headache.

(Read this article for an in-depth comparison of deterministic and probabilistic matching.) 

You can’t create a single record for each customer that covers all the chaos and weird realities of how people behave. What you can do, and what you must do, is decide where that matters.

There are use cases where improperly merged profiles yield very bad customer experience outcomes. Stick with deterministic matching in those cases, even though you’re going to lose some of the data on interactions with that customer. You’ll have multiple profiles for some individuals, many of which will remain “unknown.”

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Other use cases are far more forgiving. If you want to create a segment of people who share a particular interest, you don’t need to get down to the individual. In these cases, probabilistic methods are sufficient. 

In any event, recognize that “golden records” are a nice idea, but you’ll never actually get there.


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

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About The Author

Greg’s decades-long career in B2B and B2C publishing has included lengthy gigs in editorial, marketing, product development, web development, management, and operations. He’s an expert at bridging the intellectual and cultural divide between technical and creative staff. Working as a consultant, Greg solves technology, strategy, operations, and process problems for publishers. His expertise includes Customer Data Platforms, acquisition and retention, e-commerce, RFPs, fulfillment, and project management. Learn more at krehbielgroup.com.

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MARKETING

6 martech contract gotchas you need to be aware of

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6 martech contract gotchas you need to be aware of

Having worked at several organizations and dealt with many more vendors, I’ve seen my share of client-vendor relationships and their associated “gotchas.” 

Contracts are complex for a reason. That’s why martech practitioners are wise to lean on lawyers and buyers during the procurement process. They typically notice terms that could undoubtedly catch business stakeholders off guard.

Remember, all relationships end. It is important to look for thorny issues that can wreak havoc on future plans.

I’ve seen and heard of my share of contract gotchas. Here are some generalizations to look out for.

1. Data

So, you have a great data vendor. You use them to buy contacts and information as well as to enrich what data you’ve already got. 

When you decide to churn from the vendor, does your contract allow you to keep and use the data you’ve pulled into your CRM or other systems after the relationship ends? 

You had better check.

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2. Funds

There are many reasons why you would want to give funds in advance to a vendor. Perhaps it pays for search ads or allows your representatives to send gifts to prospective and current customers. 

When you change vendors, will they return unused funds? That may not be a big deal for small sums of money. 

Further, while annoying, processing fees aren’t unheard of. But what happens when a lot of cash is left in the system? 

You had better make sure that you can get that back.

3. Service-level agreements (SLAs)

Your business is important, and your projects are a big deal. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get a prompt response to a question or action when something wrong happens. 

That’s where SLAs come in. 

It’s how your vendor tells you they will respond to questions and issues. A higher price point typically will get a client a better SLA that requires the vendor to respond and act more quickly — and more of the time to boot (i.e., 24/7 service vs. standard business hours). 

Make sure that an SLA meets your expectations. 

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Further, remember that most of the time, you get what you pay for. So, if you want a better SLA, you may have to pay for it.


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4. Poaching

Clients and vendors alike are always looking for quality people to employ. Sometimes they find them on the other side of the client-vendor relationship. 

Are you OK with them poaching one of your team members? 

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If not, this should be discussed and put into writing during the contract negotiation phase, a renewal, or at any time if it is that important.

 I have dealt with organizations that are against anti-poaching clauses to the point that a requirement to have one is a dealbreaker. Sometimes senior leadership or board members are adamant about an individual’s freedom to work where they please — even if one of their organization’s employees departs to work for a customer or vendor. 

5. Freebies

It is not unheard of for vendors to offer their customers freebies. Perhaps they offer a smaller line item to help justify a price increase during a renewal. 

Maybe the company is developing a new product and offers it in its nascent/immature/young stage to customers as a deal sweetener or a way to collect feedback and develop champions for it. 

Will that freemium offer carry over during the next renewal? Your account executive or customer success manager may say it will and even spell that out in an email. 

Then, time goes by. People on both sides of the relationship change or forget details. Company policies change. That said, the wording in a contract or master service agreement won’t change. 

Make sure the terms of freebies or other good deals are put into legally sound writing.

Read next: 24 questions to ask ABM vendors before signing the contract

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6. Pricing factors

There are many ways vendors can price out their offerings. For instance, a data broker could charge by the contact engaged by a customer. But what exactly does that mean? 

If a customer buys a contact’s information, that makes sense as counting as one contact. 

What happens if the customer, later on, wants to enrich that contact with updated information? Does that count as a second contact credit used? 

Reasonable minds could justify the affirmative and negative to this question. So, evaluating a pricing factor or how it is measured upfront is vital to determine if that makes sense to your organization. 

Don’t let contract gotchas catch you off-guard 

The above are just a few examples of martech contract gotchas martech practitioners encounter. There is no universal way to address them. Each organization will want to address them differently. The key is to watch for them and work with your colleagues to determine what’s best in that specific situation. Just don’t get caught off-guard.


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


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About The Author

Steve Petersen is a marketing technology manager at Zuora. He spent nearly 8.5 years at Western Governors University, holding many martech related roles with the last being marketing technology manager. Prior to WGU, he worked as a strategist at the Washington, DC digital shop The Brick Factory, where he worked closely with trade associations, non-profits, major brands, and advocacy campaigns. Petersen holds a Master of Information Management from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Brigham Young University. He’s also a Certified ScrumMaster. Petersen lives in the Salt Lake City, UT area.

Petersen represents his own views, not those of his current or former employers.

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