“It’s not about technology, it’s about the application of the technology to fuel the omnichannel experience.” That’s Mark Tack, GVP marketing at Acxiom, talking about a conceptual and practical approach to rationalizing the fragmented marketing stack which Acxiom calls “the Omnichannel Integrator.”
The first thing to understand about the Omnichannel Integrator is that, despite its name, it isn’t a shiny new tech tool. You don’t just plug it in, switch it on, and say goodbye to all the problems caused by fragmented messaging across disparate and siloed marketing channels. It’s both more complicated and more interesting than that. But what are the problems it’s designed to solve?
Over 5,000 choices is insane
Tack summarized some of the most pressing pain points experienced by today’s CMO: the need for personalization; the challenge of online/offline attribution; the struggle to engage with customers inside and outside “walled gardens”; the requirement to demonstrate ROI. There’s no shortage of tech platforms and single point solutions which claim to address some or all of these problems: If anything, there are too many. “Over 5,000 choices is too much,” said Tack, referring to the Martech 5,000. “It’s insane, really.”
Brands which attempt to build integrated marketing stacks inhouse, said Tack, “can get in over their heads really quickly.” Of course, there’s no shortage of partners who can assist in integrating such platforms and tools at the systems level. But systems integrators, said Tack, “are great at software, not data.” And successfully traversing the obstacles which confront the CMO is impossible, Tack said, if data remains siloed.
The Omnichannel Integrator, as Acxiom explains it, is neither a product nor a platform, but specific expertise in consolidating the data layer, and making the data available to the multiplicity of marketing channels.
Hops and hand-offs
Acxiom introduced me to Bruce Biegel, senior managing director of the Winterberry Group, a management consultancy playing in the marketing, media, information and tech spaces. Assisting clients with integrations, said Biegel, has meant “interfacing with multiple service suppliers, good with handfuls of point solutions.” Of course, with thousands of solutions on the market, it’s understandable that systems integrators would specialize. “There are too many hops, too many hand-offs,” he said. “It’s the data layer that really glues all this together,” he continued, “[and] the market is moving there.”
Strikingly, Tack points out that the Martech 5,000 — over-stuffed as it is with platforms and solutions — doesn’t include services. It’s basically a guide to marketing software, but integrating that software to serve marketing channels isn’t necessarily a software problem. It’s fundamentally a data challenge.
The Omnichannel Integrator approach begins with the deployment a unitary data environment — Acxiom calls it an “open garden” environment — architected for compliance, for a 360 degree view of the customer, and for orchestration, or the coordinated use of data to support execution through marketing tech and adtech channels. The right data environment provides a foundation of stability beneath the ever shifting tides of new channels and the software solutions built to serve them.
“When we establish a data environment,” said Tack, “you don’t want to come back to that for a decade.” He describes the Acxiom approach as a “one-two punch.” If the first punch is laying the data foundation, the second is connecting the software systems — new technologies or activations, email or mobile providers, whatever the business currently needs. “As long as you have a next generation data environment, you’ve got a rock solid foundation to change or swap out technologies as they develop.”
Underlining that, Biegel pointed out that: “In the next couple of years, the number of use cases driven by data is only going to increase.”
Embracing the approach
The Omnichannel Integrator has been adopted by Embrace Home Loans, the fast-growing direct mortgage lender. I spoke with Tony Branda, chief data and analytics officer and head of multi-channel. “We didn’t have the silos issues,” he said, “but faced challenges with data flows and mapping the customer journey.” An RFP process Branda called “complex,” led to an invitation to Acxiom: “Get us off a one or two channel paradigm, and onto a genuine omnichannel paradigm.”
The Acxiom-designed data environment allows Embrace to more easily deploy third-party solutions to meet its marketing needs. Customer data can be onboarded from the unified data layer to whatever digital channels best suit marketing initiatives, with proper regard for compliance and privacy (Acxiom acquired data onboarding specialist LiveRamp in 2014; a factor Branda said was important in Embrace’s evaluation process).
“We’ve finally built one version of the truth,” Branda told me.
An element of common sense
In effect, the Omnichannel Integrator brings an element of common sense to the construction of a marketing stack. With new and perhaps better point solutions coming online every year (and relatively easy and inexpensive to connect with, thanks to the cloud), and with new marketing channels threatening to emerge every month, integrating and re-integrating tools at the software level — even with the best support — does indeed promise an ongoing game of “integration spaghetti,” as Acxiom calls it in The Age of the Omnichannel Integrator, an explanatory eBook.
Any brand sold on the idea of a single version of truth, inscribed in a unified data lake or data layer, will see the appeal of integration taking place at that layer, with a changing (where necessary) parade of software applications drawing nourishment from it. Branda had an example in mind: addressable TV. This is an emerging channel for Embrace: “We can plug and play the data,” said Branda. Rather than building a new approach to a new channel internally, the structure put in place by Acxiom allows Embrace to “jump over the mid-range, straight to the cutting edge.”
Of course, all this is easier to say than do. Acxiom is one vendor in this developing space, but the strategy is clear, and there are satisfied clients. Take arts and crafts retail chain, Michaels, which said of omnichannel integration in a press release:
This will help us improve our customer engagement, increase the relevance of our customer communication and enable us to more fully measure the effectiveness of our marketing programs.
Or Chief Martech himself, Scott Brinker, also from the Acxiom eBook:
An effective Omnichannel Integrator should be able to take a systems view of marketing. This means having the technical depth to be able to connect systems and data while ensuring quality, governance and privacy. But also taking a strategic approach – understanding how these integrations will impact marketing performance and the customer experiences.