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Marketing Tech in Transition: Identity Resolution

I was talking with some friends recently and we were sort of talking politics. I say, “sort of”, because we weren’t talking about candidates or policy as much as how others were talking politics. Criticism and outrage were in abundance, but we wondered how much people really understood the policies. Could they actually explain how a policy would be implemented? Could they give a mechanistic explanation of what would need to be in place to make a policy function in the real world? I’ll admit freely that there are a lot of policies that I couldn’t explain to any depth, but if I were interested I would at least try.

“Hey, you know what? This is like identity resolution.” I said.

“Huh? Mmmm…what?” replied a friend.

I realized that I was not in the proper setting to go off on a marketing technology tangent. It got me thinking, though, about how much marketing budgets are wasted due to a lack of depth in understanding identity resolution.

The concept we were talking about is called the “Illusion of Explanatory Depth.” It’s a phenomenon that is abundant and none of us are immune. Although the concept goes back even further, there is a popular study cited often by Rozenblit and Keil titled, “The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth”. Basically, it refers to the ignorance that we all have about everyday objects, systems, subjects, etc., but that we are ignorant of or our ignorance until we are asked to explain the topic in terms of causal processes. We just divide our cognitive resources into things we must understand at depth and we outsource the rest, relying on external expertise to fill in the cognitive gaps. We don’t really try to understand how they work at much depth. That’s someone else’s job.

This cognitive outsourcing is what’s happening with Identity Resolution and I’d like to encourage you to personally challenge yourself to become more of an expert. I sat down with my colleagues at Conversant to discuss this further.

It starts with a simple question of “How.” If your internal IT department or your agency or your systems integrator or your software partner says they’ll maintain your customer identity, ask them “How.” How does their offline matching work? Do they have reference data and history of previous contact points to help fill in the gaps of a customer’s missing contact information? How many consumers and households do they have data on? How far back? Is there some form of pattern recognition? How is identity bridged from offline to online? What is being used to match offline to online? What’s the bridging process look like? How is the digital identity maintained? Can it be maintained if the customer doesn’t identify himself or herself explicitly? Can it be done across devices? Across how many devices? Is that a probabilistic or deterministic match? Both? How many confirmation events do you see? Millions? Billions? Trillions? How many unique active identities can you reach digitally every month? How about reaching within walled gardens? (See if they acknowledge the difficulties and disconnects that are present in identifying audiences in walled gardens.)

The point here is that if you don’t have a partner that can clearly walk you through the machinations of identity resolution at a depth you’re comfortable with, you need to move on. You are making big marketing spend decisions, perhaps 10s or 100s of millions of dollars and if your partner is lacking explanatory depth or won’t acknowledge the “How”, then you will be left with hope and not much else. So you have 20 million customers, but your approach to identity resolution means that you, at best, will reach less than one million every month online? Are they even the right one million? You’re going to underperform.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that maintaining things like offline matching algorithms, cross-device matching or persistent digital identity is easy. As a marketer, you don’t know how to build those engines. You ought to feel confident in your partners, though. Knowing the multi-step processes of maintaining cross-device identity is important to feel confident in your approach. Understanding how companies get confirmation events for deterministic matching and how many they see, will give you confidence in how large your reach will be when you want to send a message to the right audience. Knowing that they can not only identify people, but can aggregate data sets into a consistent real-time profile offline and can maintain one online as well, gives you an arsenal to really understand how to help your customers no matter the channel of engagement.

Correct any lack of explanatory depth on identity resolution today. It’s OK to ask, “How?” It’s OK to ask for more information. Pick the cooperative partners to help you solve this. In aggregate, the industry has hundreds of millions of marketing dollars riding on getting this right. Be a leader and pick other leaders that really care about getting this right. Don’t buy the illusion.

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