Data wars fuel an online marketing arms race

John Scott · November 6, 2017 · Short URL:

The big opportunity for marketers is learning how to better leverage the data that they already have

In today’s digital era, around 90 percent of the data collected internationally has been generated in just a few years. Unstructured data, such as human language, account for about 80 percent of what’s collected. A scant half percent of the data collected is actually analyzed, because a great portion is inaccurate, becomes old and outdated, or is difficult to act on.

Yet, as a character in a Mark Twain novel famously says, “There’s gold in them thar hills.”

Indeed, precious nuggets of information can be found by mining this data. As marketers evolve with the advancement of collecting and managing data, new opportunities continue to emerge. With the promise of better targeting, clearer reporting and more personalized experiences to address the growing expectations among shoppers and the internal pressures within organizations, many find themselves continually gathering more data to give themselves a leg up.

However, while new datasets are always welcome, the big opportunity for marketers is learning how to better leverage the data that they already have. In so doing, marketers muster a precision-guided data arsenal, thereby sharpening their competitive edge over others.

In this piece, I’ll explore what these overlooked datasets are and how they can differentiate brands, as they’re already doing so for Amazon; why data can be like gunpowder - losing potency over time; and how data is being underutilized despite its ability to start a conversation with consumers.  

Data can differentiate brands

It’s hard to talk about retail and commerce without mentioning Amazon. In terms of data, Amazon has become the archetypal purveyor of data-driven consumer service.

“Retail brands need to carve out a voice for themselves as they battle the e-commerce giants like Amazon,” said Dave Scrim, VP of Product Management at Conversant. “This requires them to understand their customers at a level of detail that they never needed before.”

Speed is also extremely important. This means deploying the data accurately, to the right person at the right place at the right time, but making sure it gets there fast. Data has to be updated in near real-time in order for it to be most effective.

“If your audience data is not being refreshed and delivered to all media touch points instantaneously, it’s stale and will be significantly less effective,” said Brett House, VP of Global Product Marketing for Nielsen Marketing Cloud. “For us, it’s about working with our clients to ensure they are matching their creative strategy with their audience segmentation strategy, and accounting for all the permutations that entails without having to spend too much money on the actual creative development.”

It’s relatively easy to swap out images, offers, prices and messaging to optimize a creative, House said, emphasizing however, the need for all of these changes to be automated.

All of this represents a big sea change from just a few years ago when marketers still didn’t fully grasp the importance of data.

“I feel like marketers have really shifted and understand now, in a deep way, the value of data and the value of their data,” said Conversant’s Scrim. “Three years ago, we’d talk to people about 1:1 marketing and personalization and they, first of all, didn’t know really what it meant at the depth level and, second, they didn’t necessarily believe 100 percent in the value of that. I think that’s shifted quite a bit.”

Stop retargeting and get into conversation

Imagine walking into a mall during Christmas time and perusing the women’s shoe section in one store, only to be constantly approached by a shoe salesperson wherever you go, and well into the new year. This is retargeting. This doesn’t happen in the real world. But it happens in spades online.

“Retailers have an abundance of first-party data, but they’re not always leveraging this customer data as effectively as they could. They’ve become overly reliant on retargeting campaigns. You abandon a shopping cart, or you visit a homepage, and you’re retargeted based on where you last visited or the product you last saw versus reaching people based on who they actually are and why they are shopping,” said Nielsen’s House.

To make his point, he shared a story not too dissimilar to my example above. House went online to buy boots for his wife, but abandoned his shopping cart. This retail site began to retarget him well beyond the holiday season, when his need for the item would have obviously ended. It proved the site had little understanding of its shoppers.

“Over the course of four-weeks, this retailer was completely wasting ad spend on me,” said House. “What it told me was that this marketing team was not responding to seasonal market changes or understanding basic demographic information. They clearly weren’t connecting the dots on why I was shopping or how my behavior changed over time. To deliver more relevant consumer experiences and avoid the mistakes this retailer made, you need to better manage, distribute, analyze and optimize your audience data. It takes the right combination of marketing technology and quality data to make this happen. "

Philip Smolin, SVP Global Strategy at Amobee, suggested to spend less on retargeting and more on marketing that targets consumers earlier in their shopping journey and “before consumers have committed to a brand and product, when they’re much more open to changes in brand consideration.”

Right now, though, he believes that marketers don’t yet fully understand how to take the data they have and how to put it to its best use.

“Brand teams are getting smarter and more sophisticated, they’re all generally good at having basic tactics like retargeting and demographic user targeting in place. But in terms of becoming more sophisticated in consumer data collection, using the right measurement methodologies, and most importantly using digital data to inform holistic marketing strategies, it’s still early stages,” Smolin said. “A lot of them don’t yet have the right competencies scaled up within their core team or even within the agency; a lot of these organizations are still ramping up in the analytics skills that are necessary to maximize the value out of data.”

Once they do, then they’ll be able to have better, deeper ongoing conversations with consumers that will serve everyone better, and it won’t be like someone reintroducing themselves over and over and over.

“Holding on to identity over time is super important as well. It’s not just about connecting with someone in the moment, but having a conversation with them over time. You want to maintain an understanding of the communications you’ve had with someone over time, and how that fits in context with what you’re going to say to them in the future. It becomes an accretive, ongoing learning conversation. When today’s consumers get an email or see a display ad, they often feel as if brands don’t know who they are. Too many brands deliver ads that makes it seem like it’s the first time the brand and consumer have interacted. This might be the case on occasion, but the lack of recognition leads consumers wondering if a brand is trolling them. If a consumer visits a retailer’s website and looks at a pair of jeans, that can be all the consumer sees for next two weeks. To make matters worse, if they don’t make a purchase they never hear anything from the brand again,” said Conversant’s Scrim.

How data informs the creative

It’s not enough for data to only affect how ads are delivered, but it has to also inform the creative of the ad itself. The data needs to be part of forming and refining the message based on the audience that’s being targeted.

Say, for example, a marketer wants to target a Millennial audience, but within that audience there are geographic differences, lifestyle preferences and even multiple languages. A one-size-fits-all message simply will no longer work.  However, with so many variables and permutations, managing all of these creative variations would be a nightmare.  With data-driven creative, brands can tap into the same data they use for targeting to inform the very content the user sees.  Making for more impactful experiences, and truly speak to the shopper. A web design agency can tailor websites to cater to these diverse preferences, ensuring a more personalized and engaging user experience.

“The hot button for us is this distinction between thinking of data to drive execution, vs thinking of it to inform strategy which then drives execution. That’s a very theoretical statement so consider it this way: is a brand more likely to be successful if the primary focus is on 'better targeting millennials', or 'better understanding millennials?' Yes you have to get in front of the audience, but how do you speak the right language, how do you give them content and experience they will care about in relationship to your brand, and what's going to resonate for them? You learn that through data,” said Amobee’s Smolin.

“It comes down to speaking the language of your audience, and ensuring that the creative, not just in message but in call-to-action, makes sense in the context of who they are and what their life experience is, their communication styles.”

The data arms race

Clearly, data, and more importantly its usage, can be a brand differentiator. Data can also be the entry point to a conversation that evolves over time depending on the creative being used to communicate.

Consumers are already accustomed to a world in which recommendations are made (you recently bought this, so you may like this); shopping lists are collected (here’s your last order, or here’s your shopping history). They also know that new and alternative items are easily found thanks to Amazon or sites like Pinterest. In short: consumers increasingly expect brands and retailers to know them; they have an abundance of options and they will give retailers their loyalty only to the extent their last experience was engaging.

This means that with consumer data, there’s an opportunity to win them over at any given time, and lose them just as quickly. This means the war in retail will be won by the marketers who not only can build up their data arsenal but know how to deploy it effectively.   

(Steven Loeb, Keith McCurdy and Bambi Roizen contributed to this piece)   

(Image source:

Image Description

John Scott

Drawing insights from data and impacting meaningful change and outcomes has been a passion throughout my 25+ year career. I have thrived on initiating innovative and pioneering technology-based solutions to capture and harness data-driven programs.

All author posts

Support VatorNews by Donating

Read more from our "Thought Leadership" series

More episodes

Related Companies, Investors, and Entrepreneurs



Joined Vator on

ShopLiftr provides the easiest way to increase digital campaign engagement and drive in-store sales.  By combining the technology and the content brands require to make the biggest impact, we empower CPGs to create effective omni-channel experiences, eliminating the complexity of other solutions.


John Scott

Joined Vator on

Drawing insights from data and impacting meaningful change and outcomes has been a passion throughout my 25+ year career. I have thrived on initiating innovative and pioneering technology-based solutions to capture and harness data-driven programs.