Alex Steer

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Awkward questions for digital marketing companies

1164 words | ~6 min

Last week we launched BrandEdge, Infosys's digital marketing platform developed in partnership with WPP. With it, we introduced the industry to Fabric, my company, which is handling the WPP side of things. It's been a busy, exciting few days, and now lots more people know what marketing technology is, and what it is that I do for a living.

So this seems like a good time to talk about what's happening in digital marketing at the moment - specifically, the land-rush around 'big data' (high-volume data analysis used for targeting, behavioural analytics and real-time decision-making), and the appearance of digital marketing platforms - web-based management system designed to help large organisations run digital campaigns more simply and effectively.

Not surprisingly, there's been a big push by the large IT and digital media companies, who are used to helping businesses use technology more efficiently, and have spotted the opportunity in marketing. IBM has a 'suite' of digital marketing tools; so do Accenture and Adobe; and Google and Facebook have been strengthening their offers to advertisers for several years. Digital marketing platforms tend to consist of some combination of the following:

  • A data management platform that brings all your data together from different websites, devices, channels, markets, search, social media monitoring, etc.
  • Analytics tools that let you manipulate the data to find insights and opportunities
  • Workflow tools that let you share data, set alerts, etc.
  • Asset management tools that let you store and share creative so you're not re-making what's already been made
  • Delivery tools that help you create websites, campaigns, apps, etc.
  • Campaign and media management tools that let you launch and monitor online campaigns

In theory this is all good news for marketers who want to be able to act faster and measure better. But this is a classic market for lemons. Since the buyers often know less than the sellers about the technology and analytics they're buying, how do they know which providers are good and which ones are charlatans?

So in the interests of making marketing technology a bit less of a black-box mystery for marketing directors, here are my three top questions you should ask anyone who's trying to sell you their platform.

1. Who owns the data?

This is vital. Most digital analytics involves dropping a piece of code (known as a tag) onto your sites, social channels, digital media, etc. But a lot of the time, that tag is a third-party tag: it's owned and operated by the provider, and the data it gathers is collected by the provider and sold back to you. If you've ever used Google Analytics or Facebook Insights, you're accessing third-party data. (Google and Facebook gather the data, then give it back to you.) The problem is that you never truly control your data. There are often limits to how you can download it, cut it, and join it up to other data. So you end up with more data, but often unable to bring it all together to tailor exactly the view of behaviour that you need.  So you've still got lots of different blocks of data (media, social, web, etc.) that don't speak the same language and can't be used together. Along with all that, there's a lot of pressure from lawmakers in Europe and the US to crack down on third-party data gathering.

What to ask for: a first-party data management platform and tagging service - a secure data store owned and operated on your behalf. This is very different from just buying data from a third party.

2. Where is data stored?

Having full access to your data isn't the only reason to want a first-party data management platform. You also need confidence that your data isn't going places it shouldn't. If you're a consumer business, you have a duty of care over the data you gather about your online customers. Do you know where it's going? Just as importantly, are you sure that your data providers aren't aggregating and selling your data to your competitors? This happens a lot.

What to ask for: your data management platform to be provided on a software-as-a-service basis, kept separate from data from your provider's other clients. And a contractual guarantee that data won't be aggregated and re-sold.

3. Who are you hiring?

This is my favourite, and the one most likely to make a lot of providers sweat nervously. Most tech companies hire like tech companies: they've got database experts, product developers, maths guys, and salespeople. This is great, of course, but start grilling some of these companies on marketing, and they come up short.

For my money, I'd want to know that my digital marketing firm gets marketing. And I mean really gets it. I don't just want some software consultants who have read about the Four Ps. I want people who can work with me and my agencies to understand business problems, formulate marketing and communications strategy and get things done.

What to ask for: treat your marketing technology company like they're an agency. Okay, don't put them through a hoop-jumping pitch process for the sake of it. (The good ones definitely shouldn't want to steal work from your creative agencies.) But look for a place that hires people with a solid marketing and media background - including strategists, designers and creatives. These people should be building products that marketers want to use, that make life easier; and they should be helping clients use data to understand their customers better, and act on opportunities faster.

Why this matters right now

Digital marketing companies are promising the moon at the moment. A lot of them can't deliver, because they don't get marketing. That's going to have some terrible consequences over the next few years. We'll see businesses who have invested in locked-down third-party data that they can't do much with; clunky user-unfriendly data dashboards that nobody ever bothers logging into; and insecure systems that lead to a privacy backlash from their customers. It's going to be messy. So ask for lots of control over your data. And look for smart people that you actually want to work with, not just ones who blind you with science or talk a good game.

So in the end, the best question to ask is: Can I work with this?

# Alex Steer (29/04/2012)