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In the rush to adopt first-party data strategies, marketers have largely ignored one of the biggest obstacles standing in their way: data maturity.

The value of third-party surveys, audience trends, and research reports has been eclipsed by specific, consent-based buyer signals. That’s led businesses to adopt data practices that both respect customer privacy and give them a more accurate window into their customer journey.

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Unfortunately, it’s not that simple to fully embrace first-party data. Years of decentralized data collection and indirect insights from business partners have left many organizations with a tangled web of customer information.

Failing to address this problem prevents marketers from fully capitalizing on the biggest benefit of first-party data: a closer, more competitive understanding of the conversations your audience wants to have.

The hidden risk of first-party data

First-party data is information that you collect directly from your customers and own. It casts a broad net, and can represent everything from demographics and topical interests to purchase history and the time spent on any of your channels. Having this information empowers us to build brands around the needs of our target communities.

“Having access to an interested audience in our specialist community is quite critical, as we serve dozens of communities,” said Max Gabriel, President of IIRIS at Informa. “Having access to first-party data where we know who they are and what they are interested in is certainly a competitive advantage.”

Gabriel also highlights a particular problem that first-party data exaggerates. There are more communities and communication channels every day, each with their own nuances around data capture. Organizations have only added to the labyrinth of platforms where prospective customers can engage with their brand, rather than focusing on optimizing, consolidating, and even centralizing messages across core channels. Keeping track of all these channels has become a monumental task. In a survey for Adverity, 33% of CMOs said that the biggest impact on marketing is the increasing number of channels and platforms.

The more channels you manage, the more responsibility you have to be a good steward of the data collected from those sources, not only keeping it secure but also finding ways to consolidate and analyze the information.

This is not happening at a broad scale. A 2020 study from BCG revealed less than a third of marketers are effectively integrating data across channels, and few are good at using data to create better outcomes for customers. This complexity has only served to reinforce a dependency on immediately accessible, third-party sources, even as privacy regulation shrinks the available pool of accurate, relevant data.

But with first-party data emerging as the go-to solution, marketers have a chance to not just rethink where and how they’re collecting information from customers, but also reevaluate their entire data ecosystem.

Third-party data is not the enemy

The planned deprecation of third-party cookies in 2024 plays into the reprioritization of first-party data. In the near future, marketers won’t have access to the journeys their customers take to purchase beyond their owned channels. But cookies are just one data source within the broader category (and cookies across your own site are not going anytime soon).

Third-party data is collected and managed by organizations that do not directly interact with your customers. For example, narrowing the audience reach of a Facebook ad is a form of third-party data. Research reports or purchasing data from a business partner are types of third-party information, too. In the case of similar large tech platforms that regularly gather information on their customers, this information often exists in a “walled garden,” which is a closed data environment managed by a platform that marketers can pay to access.

Marketers run the risk of being more dependent on walled garden data sources as cookie consent and “right to be forgotten” options become standard. While these walled gardens might still exist, marketers will lack robust access to use that information to develop richer personas, customer journeys, and business strategies.

This doesn’t mean third-party data is no longer valuable. It can be a good starting point for identifying initial hypotheses about your audience, as well as for figuring out which data to prioritize as you build out your first-party resources.

“Having clarity around the target audience first and foremost is super important,” Gabriel said. “As obvious as it sounds, we tend to make broad assumptions about what has worked in the past. So continuously evaluating: ‘Am I getting the right target audience?’”

Tools like NetLine’s Audience Explorer, for example, can give you a slice of potential demographics that are the primary buyers in your market, as well as the kinds of messages and content that drive the most engagement. First-party data, whether through surveys or lead forms, can validate these hypotheses.

“It’s about molding your third-party partnership to get a clearer picture of what’s happening,” Gabriel said.

How to prepare for a first-party data world

At Informa Tech, Gabriel is looking to use first-party data to add value back into the communities our brands serve through IIRIS, Informa’s centralized data and analytics engine for our B2B markets customer data. This means not just collecting data across the myriad of touch points and brands Informa Tech manages, but also organizing that data into an ecosystem that produces meaningful intelligence about what they actually want and expect from these experiences.

“This is fundamentally learning about our customers to serve them better,” Gabriel said. “That’s the mission. It’s not about adding another toolset or collecting data. Whether it’s events or digital experiences, we want to offer a continuity of experience for our customers.”

Through applications of IIRIS data, Informa can uncover insights around a core question: what happens once leads leave the event? By having the answer to that question discoverable through your data, we can use the tool to build a richer, more targeted nurture program. While marketers might not always have the same resources to build an entire data platform from the ground up, we can take some initial steps to organize our data practices before going all in on first-party data.

Conduct a data audit

Despite the constant demand for more information, we’re currently in the middle of a data overload. Over 67% of CMOs from the same Adverity study said being overwhelmed with data was impacting their decision making, with another 35% saying they use at least 14 data sources. Before rushing to capture more, think about the long-term goal.

“Having gone through the journey to develop this product, I encourage marketers to start paying attention to the types of data they collect,” Gabriel said. “I might want to know all of the things I can about the audience, but that can become a huge roadblock for user experience. Be clear about what information can be observed versus what can be self-reported.”

Document the key questions you want to regularly answer about your audience behavior, including how this will positively impact your goals and the customer experience. Then take stock of the number of data sources you regularly use to answer these questions. Do they provide the answers you need? What’s missing?

Set expectations across the organization

While the end goal of marketing is sales, not all data directly translates into deals. Some of the information you want and need to gather will be focused on building brand awareness or getting the right messages in front of your audience at the right time. Over 90% of sales and marketing teams report misalignment across goals, processes, strategy, and data collection, which can become an obstacle when looking to identify the data points that matter the most to your organization.

Know your customer as an individual

Gabriel connects the true power of an effective first-party data strategy back to having a clear understanding of your audience’s habits, which ultimately allows you to influence them. For B2B marketers, this data reminds us that our target buyers have specific preferences, concerns, and ways they interact with brands — on and off the channels you own.  B2B decision-makers are people, too.

“It’s about paying attention, not just to what’s happening on your website, but the broader attention economy,” he said. “We may look at them as B2B buyers, but they have the same consumer life we do.”

If done right, a strategy that prioritizes consistent, consolidated, and reliable first-party data capture can unlock deeper, more sustainable relationships with your customers.


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