There’s a topic that keeps popping up among the Adobe Digital Marketing team. It’s nothing new; other marketers have already tackled it in umpteen blog posts, panel discussions, reports, and water cooler conversations over the past few years. Yet, despite the buzz, very little has actually been said. So little in fact that most folks in our industry are still scratching their heads, embarrassed to admit they’re no wiser than before.

The topic is third-party data—alright, the title probably gave it away. If that sounds boring then you might be reading the wrong blog. Third-party data is quickly becoming essential to everything digital marketers do, from brand building to advertising campaigns to content personalization. At the same time, these new data streams are carrying us into uncharted waters. And that’s exactly why we keep talking about it around the office.

Are You Sailing Without a Compass?

The ocean of Big Data is calling for more sophisticated navigation tools. Data integration apps and software are rapidly developing to answer that call. This is a crucial moment. Right now—before the technology is fully formed and the industry settles on a few standard tools—we have the opportunity to shape the future of digital marketing. Our questions, concerns, demands, and preferences can steer developers. After all, we are their future customers.

At Adobe, we’ve come up with 10 questions to help navigate the ocean of data and find out if it leads to new worlds, or a sudden drop-off in conversion rates.

Why Bother to Ask?

The abundance of data now up for sale presents an opportunity to fully realize the concepts digital marketers gush about: precision targeting, nuanced personalization, and attention-grabbing content.  Yet most companies are using third-party data the same way they used the first-party stuff. They’re asking it the same questions, running it through the same battery of tests, and expecting different results. And if their conversion rates don’t go through the roof, they conclude it’s a waste of money and go back to their comfy, predictable, little data pool. That may or may not be the right conclusion, but we’ll never know unless we truly put third-party data to the test.

Maybe this has happened to you: You get the green light to purchase third-party data. Great! While you’re still celebrating the sudden influx of customer information, the execs come down with a question: What are you gonna do with it? You delicately explain that you—ahem—have no idea.

Read on for 10 questions that will help you avoid these awkward moments.

Where Did the 10 Questions Come From?

At Adobe we’ve been using outside data providers with some success. When we leverage third-party sources in our targeting strategies, we typically see a 30–40% increase in lead generation and conversion rates. People also stick around and dig deeper into the site, proving that it’s worth the added cost and effort. If that’s a typical result though, it’s also an indication that we’ve only begun to realize the full potential of third-party data. We would be crazy to stop there without testing new strategies to find record-breaking results.

Although these results are encouraging, we are far from satisfied. There are holes in our first- and third-party data integration, communication barriers between online and offline data sources, and technical limitations that hinder our ability to solve these issues.

We’re not the only ones. A recent Acxiom and Digiday “State of the Industry” report revealed that

  • 70% of marketers haven’t figured out how to integrate their online and offline customer data,
  • 80% don’t use customer value scores to drive personalized sales efforts, and
  • 74% can’t recognize customers in real time.

In other words, digital marketers are struggling to understand their customers as individuals and provide them with relevant experiences in real time. That’s our number one goal at Adobe, and the source of our questions. Each of the 10 questions has come up in our day-to-day troubleshooting, strategizing, and daydreaming.

10 Questions for the Future of Third-Party Data

  1. How can we use third-party data to supply the right content to the right person at the right time?
  2. How can we convert generic third-party data into detailed and relevant context for our customers?
  3. How can we vet third-party data companies to ensure data is reliable, accurate, and up to date?
  4. How do we determine which third-party providers are best for our unique needs?
  5. How do we separate the transitory data from the stable data to make sure our third-party investment has lasting returns?
  6. How can we rebrand data accumulation and behavioral targeting to earn trust and keep pace with customers who are increasingly savvy to—and wary of—these practices?
  7. How can we assimilate third-party data to real-time modeling so our entire data pool is continually adaptable?
  8. How can we create and manage a profile for the individual utilizing all the data that we have available?
  9. How can we effectively integrate our offline data (i.e., make our Web analytics talk to the call center too)?
  10. While tools and technology are still developing, how can we unify the multiple tools we have in use and analyze our data as a whole?

All 10 of these questions might boil down to this: How do we effectively integrate third-party data into our personalization strategies? Or, at the risk of belaboring the metaphor: How do we turn this vast, rolling ocean into many vigorous, targeted streams?

Your Turn…

I invite you to respond to these questions, or offer your own, in the comments. Here’s hoping they provoke some fruitful dialogue that will benefit us all.