How to choose a data management platform

With all the buzz around DMPs where do you start a search for a data platform, especially when tools and providers are proliferating constantly? Marketing Week guides you onto the right path.

It may be an exaggeration to say that there are as many data platforms as there are grains of sand, but marketers often feel beached when working out which might be best for them.

As soon as a new marketing channel or way of exploiting an existing one emerges, a solution pops up to manage it. In some cases, it is the marketer that has generated it. Ed Armitage, ecommerce director at Waterstones, admits: “I might come up against a problem to solve and if my current tech doesn’t do it, I can talk to my vendor and they will build it for me. This adds value to their business because it’s going to benefit their other clients too.”

As a result, however, the options for marketers to sift through proliferate even further. For those mired in the tech maze, the current buzzword sitting beside the ubiquitous ‘big data’ is DMP (data management platform). Some hail it as the next big thing; others say it is just an evolution of multichannel campaign management that allows marketers to integrate more sources of data, create more market segments and deliver communications to a more targeted audience.

It does have the potential to change how brands approach their media buying but, like all tech solutions, companies need to find what’s right for them in a huge and complex marketplace.

Armitage claims he gets calls from vendors every day. However, the starting point should not be what is available, but what you need. Many companies can end up with the wrong technology because they fail to do their due diligence at the start. It is a process that David Paice, digital director at theme park owner Merlin Entertainments, says he is in the midst of at the moment. “We haven’t even got to the stage where we’re considering vendors. We are still trying to define our output. Once we know what this is we can determine our requirements and should our teams see that we can’t meet them, we will look at the vendor landscape. The trouble with vendors in this space is that they go into ‘solutioning’ and providing answers to specific problems. If the business only wants that specific problem answered, then brilliant.“

This leads to a second issue. Having defined the organisation’s problem, what vendor is going to be an exact match? As Paice says: “There isn’t one vendor which is going to do all of this for us.”

The marketer must therefore examine a suite of options – some, perhaps all, from the same vendor – others a pick and mix of different products from different companies that, combined together, might form some kind of hybrid solution. Either option can have its advantages – and pitfalls.

“Going with a large vendor can be tricky. There is the old adage that no one got fired for hiring IBM but people overlook the cultural fit between vendor and company. The trouble is that large companies can lack the flexibility or the attention a company needs to make the most of its solution,” says Waterstones’ Armitage. “On the other hand, you take a risk working with a small startup.”

Chemist Direct’s CMO Maya Moufarek agrees that how she gets on with a company is as important as the set of products it offers. “You can get lost as a customer in those big organisations. I’m invested in who the customer service representatives are, what the account team is like and what level of support we will receive. I always look for support in the contract and insist that I will need their expertise because, as a startup, we are a lean enterprise.”

Waterstones carries out due diligence before deciding on the technology it needs

Scale versus flexibility

Of course, the security of a big name with a great deal of development clout, economies of scale that filter down into price and a wide range of compatible products are attractions; but so too are flexibility, originality and innovation from the startup community.

For many marketers, the starting point for finding data technology solutions is to ask current providers. They themselves are evolving and, as with Waterstones, many may be in a position to redevelop or extend products to fill the marketer’s latest gap. Armitage adds: “A lot of people choose one vendor for each thing. I want a vendor who can do many things. If I can combine half my technology stack under a single vendor, at least I can be certain it will talk to itself.”

For others, the wisdom of crowds prevails. Chemist Direct’s Moufarek looks to her network of suppliers and peers to provide the answer. “Sometimes, the creative agencies will know about certain tech specialities that they will have used for other clients. Sometimes I will be meeting with companies about something completely different and they will demonstrate a tool that shows stuff I haven’t come across but could be really useful,” she explains.

Moufarek adds that this is another reason for having a close relationship with your technology account team because rather than leading you to solutions that you might already be seeking, they may introduce ones you did not know you needed. However, the issue remains that unless a company has a significant and advanced in-house technology resource that can build bespoke solutions, or a budget to achieve the same thing with vendors, there is a degree of compromise in which solution is chosen.

Merlin’s Paice says: “The business has to take a calculated risk based on its requirements. The opportunity is there to go with an IBM data warehouse or with a more simple solution that has clear capabilities that answer the majority of your needs. Essentially, an off-the-shelf solution with a degree of customisation is what we’re looking for.”

Although most marketers are able to negotiate a lower price on products where there is a degree of redundancy in some of the peripheral capabilities, compatibility remains a concern. While Paice states that he is happy with the level of plug-and-play built into current data architecture, Waterstones’ Armitage believes it will be some time before there is genuine compatibility between new solutions.

“Many vendors are growing outwards. There’s inevitably going to be overlap. It’s about working out which groups of products you need under a single vendor. Looking ahead, all of these things will need to talk to each other in the new world of data,” he says. “If I’m looking at web analytics, I want to be able to fold in social media or customer analytics; and for CRM data to be usable in product recommendations. There’s a long way to go with compatibility. These products tend to integrate with Google but for getting two vendors’ solutions to talk to each other, integrations are being done in-house.”

With any technology solution, I have to start with the customer – what are the personalisation needs, what are we trying to accomplish as a business – and then find those platforms. You don’t start with the platform first.

Initially, you have to decide what the elements are that you can’t live without. Our first question is ‘can we build it ourselves?’, then ‘does it need to be always on or is it a one-off manual project?’. When we changed our CRM provider, we were on a drive towards customer retention and it’s an activity we need to perform every day. Order history, personalisation and relevance didn’t cut it any more. Knowing which pages customers have visited but didn’t buy from was important.

We want to stay ahead so we might try emerging technologies that tend to be in development in the startup space, such as experimenting with a facial recognition application that will tell us in our creative whether one execution works better than another. That hasn’t existed in campaign analytics before.

Tech companies might also propose something that hadn’t been thought about before. You need to get to know the account team and understand the level of personalisation they can offer you, the client, on that technology.

The technology has evolved, but my challenge is always how to  make it all work together. It starts with the business, not the platform.

Marketers need to do due diligence on what they’re after, have clear requirements and an understanding of the marketing technology landscape and its complexity. If clients talk to their own IT teams, there are often problems conveying what clients want and the IT team often has its own platform agenda. When clients talk directly to the software vendors they will, of course, get their software recommendation.

Clients should seek advisors that are technology-agnostic and impartial to help understand which choices might be relevant for their organisation while also helping them to implement it. Be mindful that large consultancies often have strategic preferred software partner.

From a procurement perspective, ‘marketing cloud’ offerings that bundle up software modules and functionality are where the market is going. The challenge is that there is a perception among clients that they might be buying things they’re not going to extract value from. The key is to understand what will and won’t be needed and make it part of the negotiation process. Try not to pay for what you don’t need, even if it’s bundled in.

Clarity over what is required combined with good internal collaboration is vital. Having different decision-makers responsible for different pieces of technology can lead to more than one product doing more than one thing and this grows data silos. Getting your marketing house in order is step one.

Trends such as the data management platform come up all the time. It is natural evolution, driven by the aspiration to join digital with traditional data. Eventually, DMPs are going to become stronger and will have huge implications organisationally for agency- and client-side sales and marketing teams. How well vendors can join up customer relationship management with advertising and make a single-user interface between the traditional marketing, CRM, campaign management and media buying will dictate how quick the uptake could be.

For marketing technologies to be successful, companies need to clearly define the problems they’re trying to solve and their understanding of the tools available to solve them. Then run the project, knowing what you want to achieve, have the right people who can help you do it and the most suitable methodology that will take you there. Recognise that embracing the right marketing technology is  a journey and requires focus and effort.

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