Healthy competition: an argument for third-party data

Jed Mole, European Marketing Director at Acxiom, on why third-party data is important for business. 

Jed Mole

Few, if any marketers, are measured on the amount of data they have. The vast majority have goals around winning customers, keeping them happy and generating revenue. Focusing on these goals is how they beat the competition.

Competition is important. Recently I called a friend during the closing minutes of a Champions League match; I was calling from the US so I could be forgiven, surely.  A supporter of neither team, my friend was nevertheless ecstatic that Liverpool were about to beat Manchester City 3-0. When I asked why he was so pleased, he replied, 'Because now there's competition! I was sure City were going to win everything this year.'

Competition is healthy in pretty much every aspect of life, never mind business. I'm not sure they would acknowledge it but you can be sure, Coke is a better business because of Pepsi, BMW because of Mercedes and Apple because of Samsung. Competition is great for business, the economy and the consumer. These days, fuelling that effective competition is data and that includes third-party data. 

Data helps competition because data is today's (necessary) proxy for the customer. Make no mistake, since data improved the ability to recognise, understand and make communications more relevant to customers, marketers have increasingly embraced it. From the early days of direct mail through to today's digital advertising, we know data works because the customer tells us it works, by responding to targeted marketing more than they do untargeted alternatives.

More than ever, we need competition in the marketing space. The explosion of innovation in the martech and adtech space has led to a myriad of platforms, publishers, partners and more for the marketer to harness, in delivering the nirvana of a great customer experience. Few marketers want all their eggs in one basket, whether it's with a tech stack or publisher. Data is the only common language connecting it all together. Companies like ours get the data unified at the data layer (it's not simply about connecting technology) and get it to wherever it needs to be. This allows players large and small, established and new, to make the marketing ecosystem work, to promote competition and yes, to create better customer experiences. 

So why stand up for third-party data? Let's look at another example. Years ago, the government wanted to increase competition in the telco sector beyond BT, the original national provider. This proved more difficult than first imagined because even if you chose a competitor to BT, their network still provided the last few miles of line. So, no matter how good your telco was, BT knew whether you called locally or internationally, during the day or at night, and how much you used the internet. It doesn't take a genius to work out this first-party data would give them an advantage in winning back customers with offers tailored to their actual usage needs. In 2006, the government insisted BT be separated into BT Retail, who would serve customers, and OpenReach, who would operate the network for all. This created a level playing field of data and so improved competition.

Without high quality, ethically sourced third-party data, we risk seeing the opposite of OpenReach: a winner takes all approach where the company that sells you a product has the only (first-party) data, leaving their competition to rely on untargeted media; a valid part of an overall marketing mix but one with potential for a lot of wasted spend. Whether it's big firms with big budgets competing against one another or new, smaller competitors, why should marketers be inhibited from carefully assembling, ethically and legally sourced third-party data, to bring customers a great offer that's more likely to be relevant to them? Surely that helps competition and choice? Surely that's a smarter, less wasteful way to market and a better way to respect the customer.

Some argue that third-party data lacks accuracy. Let's tackle that head on by talking about the context in which it is used. The role of third-party data in marketing is to promote relevance over randomness and across marketers' campaigns. It achieves that; as many of the world's leading marketers within the biggest brands have found over many decades. Indeed, now in the 'digital age', marketers continue to gravitate to using data to improve the relevance of the customer experience and results; think programmatic as just one example. To achieve the best results, marketers know that third-party data can make a positive contribution to understanding their customers' preferences and to making marketing better. Contemporary, ethically sourced third-party data plays an important role.

Competition is healthy and marketers get measured on customers. Data helps both.

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