The Case for First-Party Data Control


One of the advantages of having been in the business as long as I have is perspective (okay, hold off on the “old” jokes). Over the past 14 years, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of complexity arise around the lack of interoperability between digital marketing technologies and the sites they work with. This frustrating complexity has resulted in site owners losing control over their most valuable asset, their first-party customer interaction data.


This article originally appeared on BrightTag’s Bright Ideas blog. It has been reprinted with permission.

The truth is, they never really had control. If you take a look under the hood of our multi-billion dollar interactive marketing industry, there is a significant lack of centralization and standardization when it comes to the data gathered on a website. Today’s marketers are overwhelmed by the complexity of data collection and coordinating how their data is used across multiple services (e.g. retargeting, ad networks, search, analytics, product recommendation, content optimization, widgets, etc.).


Rather than simply provide specified access to data elements (e.g. product ID, SKU, etc.) to the third-party services that require access to site owner data, site owners have been forced to manage to a legacy process where third parties use their own unique methods for extracting an uncontrolled and opaque amount of data from their sites. If that sounds painful and a little scary, it is. This lack of control doesn’t just result in data silos, operational inefficiencies, lost revenue opportunities, busywork, and an endless source of frustration for all parties involved, it also results in the perpetuation of an outdated industry infrastructure that only benefits the monolithic monarchs.


The ability to centrally collect and manage first-party data should be core functionality for any website. In a competitive digital world where knowledge of one’s users is power, why have site owners allowed themselves to be first party ignorant?


A Foundation Not Built to Scale

At the root of all the complexity is the seemingly innocuous method for how first-party data is collected today: The tracking tag. The current marketing data infrastructure — represented by layers of browser-based pixels and tags — does not favor the first party or the consumer.


Site owners are required to manage many-to-many connections between their site and the multitude of third-party analytics and marketing services with which they contract. In doing so, their sites become cluttered with third-party code, which slows down site performance and directly impacts revenue.


These cracks in our industry’s foundation are becoming even more evident amid rising concerns about consumer privacy and data protection. As we’ve seen in the headlines, site owners are experiencing the real fallout of not having complete control over the data gathered on their websites. We have managed to create an industry that — as it grows — actually prevents both marketers and their digital services partners from innovating and extracting maximum value from their efforts.


A Common Current Pays Dividends

The inflexibility and lack of a “common current” for data transmission lies in stark contrast to the command marketers have over another core component of their business: Their ad campaigns. Looking back, one of the biggest and possibly underappreciated innovations in our vibrant digital marketing industry is the centralized ad server. Ad-serving technology offered operational control at the service level while eliminating the need to manage multiple individual relationships. Once we had a template for standardization, we saw a tremendous amount of innovation emerge to support rich media and other advances. Not to mention a massive increase in spending.


Today’s sophisticated ad serving platforms drive campaign effectiveness by utilizing a host of capabilities including consolidating campaign data across channels, conditional ad serving, support for dynamic creative, and a host of trafficking features. There is permissioned and controlled access to ad campaign elements. It’s not always a perfect science, but it’s also impossible to conceptualize an environment where granular-level control of campaign elements was not the norm. Shouldn’t the same be true for first-party data?


Innovation Through a Centralized Data Server

The solution to today’s disparate data collection process involves a fundamental change in perspective and creative use of technology. A first-party data server — owned and managed by the site owners — changes the way data is collected and shared while solving a number of operational issues at the same time.


If we are going to clear a path for innovation, we need to focus on solutions that address industry-wide challenges at the source. We can’t hit “undo” and roll back a digital marketing paradigm that has been in place for years. Nor can we course-correct with band-aid solutions that sound good in theory, but are temporal at best and only exacerbate the current weaknesses of our industry. It’s time to envision what the next generation of marketing infrastructure looks like and how it can enable agility among all participants.


Real-time access to cleaner, more granular-level first-party data has the potential to spark the kind of creative revolution that has been a hallmark of our industry. We’re smarter than we were 14 years ago. And the time for change is now.


Check out more opinion and analysis on BrightTag’s Bright Ideas blog.