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Connecticut College Magazine

Chris O’Hara ’90 of Salesforce is helping companies ethically navigate the evolving world of digital marketing and consumer data.

BY DOUG DANIELS


There’s an iconic scene in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (a sci-fi thriller) in which Tom Cruise walks through a shopping mall, a steady stream of jabbering digital billboards scanning his retinas and instantly plying him with personalized advertisements that call his character out by name and even reference past purchases.

That movie is set in the year 2054. But today, we already have much of the technical capability to create the type of intrusive consumer experience Spielberg’s film envisioned, generating unprecedented opportunities for businesses and organizations to reach their customers, clients and audiences with precision-targeted strategies. This can be a double-edged sword, offering consumers more-personalized marketing and advertising and introducing them to products they love while also presenting a potential slippery slope into privacy violations and misuse of online data.   

“The challenge is striking a balance,” says Chris O’Hara ’90, P’24, VP of global product marketing in the Data and Identity Group at Salesforce, a cloud-based software company that provides customer relationship management services. “People really want personalization, but they also want privacy. And now, either because of new state-level laws or because of voluntary company policies, organizations are looking at how to start collecting data from consumers in a more responsible way and still offer that personalization.”

Salesforce, with its headquarters in San Francisco, has grown exponentially since its founding in 1999, with 60,000 employees and more than $21 billion in revenue for the 2021 fiscal year. And as the world’s digital reliance continues to spread, Salesforce and its subsidiaries are expected to see steady revenue growth in the years to come.

Tech giants like Apple and Google are dramatically changing the way they use and share personal data, and many companies are now scrambling to adjust to the new challenges to marketing and advertising as their access to that data becomes increasingly limited.

But while the privacy landscape is certainly changing in the U.S., not everywhere in the world is following suit. While Europe led the way with its highly restrictive General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, Japan has taken a different approach. There, billboards have been equipped with facial recognition cameras so they can identify a person’s gender and age as they’re walking past and instantly tailor ads to them, not unlike the scene in Minority Report. The technology is intended to be anonymous, but it isn’t a giant leap to totally personalized advertising, and that raises enormous privacy concerns. Facial recognition technology is becoming so common that many of us unlock our phones with it now. Beyond the business and advertising implications, there are also questions about data obtained by government and law enforcement entities. The FBI alone has access to nearly half a billion images for facial recognition uses.

Traditionally, data from various websites is aggregated and profiles are built based on site visits. Lots of the browsing data on laptops, and desktops are captured via “cookies,” or little snippets of code that identify users and store their data. Mobile phones and other web-connected devices (even some refrigerators) also capture behavioral data. Widely available for purchase on open marketplaces, this consumer data can include credit scores, online behavior, a person’s specific interests, particular websites they’ve visited—all information collected and shared almost entirely without the knowledge of the precise individual. If you have ever looked at a pair of shoes online and then noticed ads for those exact same shoes that follow you to a series of other websites, such as news sites, that is part of what cookies do.

A big development in data regulation came in 2018, when California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act, requiring more transparency and limits relating to data use. That’s when you may have started noticing the ubiquitous pop-ups on websites asking you to opt in or out of a company’s data collection or cookies policy.

Google has said it plans to enforce new policies by next year, depriving marketers of the ability to purchase the type of data they’ve long treasured. Exactly how consumer relationships are built moving forward and how marketers and advertisers ply their online trade will most likely involve a blend of new tactics and strategies that will replace the use of third-party cookies, which have been a central component of online advertising for years.

“One idea is something called FLoC—Federated Learning of Cohorts,” O’Hara explains. “The way that would work is Google will identify somebody as belonging to one or multiple cohorts, which are basically groups based on people’s interests. So you might be in the fashionista cohort, or the traveler cohort, or the outdoors-enthusiast cohort, and you’ll be assigned this random number and Google will build these various FLoCs as long as there are enough people who meet the criteria.”

This type of group-level web tracking would represent a significant shift for how advertisers identify new potential customers. Instead of companies targeting the browsing history and hyperspecific consumer data about individuals, they’ll now be forced to settle for information about various cohorts as a whole.

What will these new privacy rules mean for big publishers and big marketers, and how will they collect and use data responsibly?

CHRIS O’HARA ’90

Say, for example, you are identified as a European-travel intender and antique-thimble collector. Instead of having your personal information shared, you would simply be assigned anonymously to a larger group that could include thousands or millions of antique thimble collectors. No individual-level data that could violate privacy would be included.

“The advertising industry is pushing back on this idea of cohorts, because obviously they’re used to doing things a certain way, and it has sparked a really big, raging debate about what the future is going to look like and how it’s going to work,” O’Hara says. 

“What will these new privacy rules mean for big publishers and big marketers, and how will they collect and use data responsibly? Advertisers need to learn to use Google, Facebook and Amazon in new, effective ways that are still responsible and ethical.”

One important ongoing debate, O’Hara says, revolves around whether companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google are objective “platforms” for content or they should be considered “publishers,” since they do exercise some editorial control and create their own algorithms and other structural elements that can control who sees what information.

O’Hara has been working in data-driven marketing and advertising from the earliest days, when the concept seemed more science fiction than concrete business necessity. An English major at Conn, his passions resided in creative writing, philosophy and drama. But a post-college job as a writer and editor for a cigar magazine introduced him to emerging marketing and advertising strategies just when the internet was beginning to broaden its reach, in the 1990s.

He quickly discovered he had a knack for sales and advertising and began learning about data-driven tools that would later prove revolutionary. He joined Salesforce four years ago, when it acquired Krux, the startup where O’Hara led data strategy, for $800 million. Krux, a data management firm, helped clients in the marketing industry better understand, analyze and target the customers who visited their websites and apps so that they could improve engagement and enhance customer relations through the use of far more precise ad targeting. 

He and the co-founders of Krux wrote Data Driven, a book that examines the ways in which new data is transforming marketing. His latest book is titled Customer Data Platforms: Use People Data to Transform the Future of Marketing Engagement. The extensive line of marketing products Salesforce offers includes software for marketing emails, mobile ad campaigns, social media advertising and analytics, making it a one-stop shop for digital marketing. O’Hara’s role involves marketing and strategy for the products related to data. 

“My job is to meet with clients and discuss data strategy with them and determine how to better understand people through their data,” he says. “This way, I can help them build better experiences across different touchpoints for their customers.”

A big part of what O’Hara does for clients at Salesforce is coordinate customer data in ways that improve customer service and incorporate more efficiency. For example, few people have been spared the misery of speaking to a call center representative who has a boilerplate script yet no knowledge of your history with the company or how to resolve your individual issue. Large companies often have disparate databases where customer info is stored. Salesforce helps consolidate data and use it more effectively so that when somebody contacts a call center, the person on the other end of the phone instantly has access to the caller’s order history, their interests and the marketing campaigns they’ve already been exposed to. The customer doesn’t have to start from scratch with each new person they speak to, repeatedly providing order numbers and other details.

“It may sound simple, but that’s really what creates value,” O’Hara says. “That’s what makes people more likely to stay as a customer, and more likely to spend more money, and it makes them happier and more satisfied. And that’s really, from a broad perspective, the type of stuff we’re working on.”

O’Hara contends that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated and forced changes in data collection. While some companies may have been reluctant to embrace a “digital first” model, the pandemic has left them with little choice. The challenge remains to find balance when it comes to privacy and managing data. Prior to Covid, people at least had some control over their marketing experience, in the sense that they could choose to log on to Facebook or Instagram, or to use a phone app to make purchases. But during the pandemic, to help ensure social distancing, many daily tasks—like getting coffee—have transitioned into the digital-first approach O’Hara mentions.

“I love that I can choose to place a coffee order with Dunkin’ Donuts through their iPhone app, go pick it up at the drive-through, and not have to exchange any money to get my order,” O’Hara says.

“But that’s my choice, and I know [Dunkin’ will] be using that data to suggest new items for me to try, for example. Where things cross the line is if I’m just walking by a Dunkin’ Donuts, having never opted in to anything, and my mobile phone lights up within 50 feet and says, ‘Hey, Chris, take 20 percent off a large coffee and a donut.’

“That’s an invasion of privacy, and at that point, you’re just like Tom Cruise walking through that mall.”

{This originally appeared in Connecticut College’s CC Magazine, Summer 2021 issue)

Uncategorized

Paleo Adtech Podcast

Chris O’Hara is V.P. of Global Product Marketing at Salesforce, focusing on the data and identity suite of products including Audience Studio (a DMP) and the Salesforce CDP. A well-known speaker, pundit and author, Chris has written eight titles including six on culinary pursuits (listen to the episode for more on this fascinating jaunt in his personal journey), “Data Driven” with Krux co-founders Tom Chavez and Vivek Vaidya and “Customer Data Platforms: Use People Data to Transform the Future of Marketing Engagement,” co-written with Paleo Ad Tech co-host Martin Kihn. The latter is the #1 book on the hottest category in marketing technology today. It’s also one of the only books on the category, but let’s not quibble.

After a smoke-filled start as cigar review editor at Smoke magazine, Chris held various sales roles at publishers including MediaBistro, at the time a thriving content and job search site for media mavens, before finding his way to ad tech via start-ups such as Traffiq and nPario. The latter was an early DMP/CDP that provided the data spine for WPP agencies and Xaxis. It was launched by ex-Yahoo and SAS execs in 2010.

An encounter with Krux co-founder Tom Chavez while writing a position paper on DMPs for eConsultancy led to a position as head of DMP marketer sales for that pioneering platform. Meanwhile, Chris was a prolific writer for industry publications such as AdExchanger and his own blog, The Devil’s Work, a reference to “idle hands” (we think). Krux was acquired by Salesforce in 2016, bringing Chris to his current bivouac.

In this frolicsome episode, Marty and Jill follow Chris up the dot-com boom and back down again, as his family grows and he’s out there “hustling” for ad sales, perfecting his writing and pitching voice, and earning his ad tech pedigree. He shares what it’s like to work in a decommissioned building, how long it takes an ex-Russian Army officer to eat to a large steak, and why it’s time to break up with the third-party cookie. Don’t miss it.

CDP

CDP and the “Five Vs”

I jumped into my friend’s amazing blog to write about the “five Vs” that every CDP needs to be successful. Read the full article on Vala’s ZDNet blog!

The rise of the customer data platform has been interesting to watch. CDPs are an exciting new software category, and most progressive organizations are looking at them as a way of solving some fundamental business challenges — how do you get a “single source of truth” for customer data, when customers create so much of them? Data, that is.

Endless advertising and martech software acquisitions, patched together through brittle “data extensions” and manual integrations lead to many differing views of customers, mostly centered on what channel they are engaging on. Companies tend to have a “marketing” customer they can understand through interactions in e-mail, an “advertising” customer they know through pseudonymous online interactions, and “sales” customers they understand by their profile in a CRM system. Connecting those identities into a rich profile can unlock a lot of value.

Imagine if the call center employee, for example, could have access to a rich profile of every customer that included her recent purchases, loyalty status and points, marketing interactions, and lifetime value score? You might be able to have a real, personalized interaction rather than reading from a canned call script. Imagine further, if the system was smart enough to assign an inbound call priority based on those data attributes, such that a “Platinum” loyalty member got routed to the local call center, rather than the overseas location? Better, more personalized, service. Less customer churn. The possibilities are endless!

The good news is that this is happening today. Large enterprises with sophisticated IT departments, in-house developers, and large software budgets are connecting these systems together to create such results. The bad news is that it’s very expensive, requires constant vigilance and development to keep it working, and its dependent upon licensing solutions from dozens of software vendors for data ingestion to data activation, and everything in between.

The other problem is that this innovation seems to be aimed solely at marketing use cases today. Despite the fact that 80% of companies we surveyed in our State of Marketing Report say they have already begun to connect their marketing and service systems, today’s CDPs seem to be narrowly focused on marketing, advertising, and personalization use cases. But why stop data management there?

If you are embarking on a true data management journey and want some guideposts for building a system that can truly connect your entire enterprise at the data platform layer (where it counts), there are five critical things to think about:

Velocity
Your systems need to manage a high volume of data, coming in at various speeds. Some data, such as CRM and legacy enterprise system data is slower moving, and generally comes in via batch mode, in the form of tables. These are things like customer records, purchase history data, and the like. But there’s a lot of data that needs to some into the system in real time. A online customer looking for a local store where they can apply an offer they received is information happening in real time that can be applied to real world use cases. Unless you can read and react to that signal quickly, they are likely find the nearest competitor. So having a system that can handle data at many different speeds is a requirement, especially as more and more signals are created from real time and real life interactions.

Variety
You then need to map first-party data into a single information model. Data silos, as discussed above, are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s obvious that connecting marketing, advertising, and CRM systems can create new use cases that drive business value, but the true underlying issue isn’t the systems themselves, but how they store data. One system labels a first name as “First_Name” and another as “FirstName.” It seems trivial, but every system has a slightly different main identifier or “source of truth,” and the goal is to have one. This starts with being able to provision a universal information model, or schema, which can organize all of the differently labeled data into a

common taxonomy. Companies are starting to organize around a Common Information Model (The “Cloud” Information Model for companies like Google, Amazon, and Salesforce) as a way of creating a Rosetta Stone for data.

Veracity
Companies must ensure they can provision a single, persistent profile for every customer or account. Social media systems think of your social “handle” as your primary identifier. E-mail systems use the e-mail address. DMPs usually see people as cookies. Every system is somewhat different. How do you get a “single source of truth” for people data? All of these identity types need to roll up to a rich profile or universal ID. This gets resolved in “known” PII data by making sure one person is the same among many different e-mail and postal addresses, as an example. In the digital world, where people tend to have dozens of cookies and device IDs, these identifiers also need to be mapped to the universal ID. It’s a hard problem to solve, but a system that has a strong identity spine is the only way to get there.

Volume
Once you manage to resolve and identify data from many different sources and systems, you end up with…a lot of data. It has been theorized that, in 2020, 1.7MB of data was created every second for every person on earth. That’s hard to fathom, but it’s a problem that is not going away in a world that increasingly values every click, call, and video view. If you want to use those interactions to form the basis of your digital engagement strategy, you have to store them somewhere. That necessitates a system that can handle billions of data attributes, millions of rows, and thousands of interconnected tables. Machine learning works best when pointed at petabytes of analytic data. Your system needs to be built for a world in which more data is created every day, and there are more systems that require them to work well.

Value
The real question is, how do you make data actionable in every channel — marketing, sales, service, commerce, and analytics — and get tangible value from them? Once you have a clean, unified set of scaled data there are many ways to derive value from it. Segmentation tools can pull data from any source and stitch it into scaled groups of addressable customers. Analytics tools get more powerful when analyzing a robust and comprehensive dataset whether for BI or for media analytics. The best part? AI systems get more powerful. Success in machine learning is not about the algorithms — it’s about giving them the ability to run across a highly scaled, true, set of data that creates results.

If you are thinking about starting your company’s digital transformation journey with a CDP or an enterprise data management system, the five Vs are a great framework for success.

CDP

Customer Data Platforms: The Book!

I’m very excited to announce a new book I have written with Martin Kihn, which is the first book on the customer data platform (CDP) category, a very hot topic in advertising and marketing technology right now! Look for it in November 2020, from Wiley. Pre-order the hardcopy here.

Marketers are faced with a stark and challenging dilemma: customers demand deep personalization, but they are increasingly leery of offering the type of personal data required to make it happen. As a solution to this problem, Customer Data Platforms have come to the fore, offering companies way to capture, unify, activate, and analyze customer data. CDPs are the hottest marketing technology around today, but are they worthy of the hype? Customer Data Platforms takes a deep dive into everything CDP so you can learn how to steer your firm toward the future of personalization.

Over the years, many of us have built byzantine “stacks” of various marketing and advertising technology in an attempt to deliver the fabled “right person, right message, right time” experience. This can lead to siloed systems, disconnected processes, and legacy technical debt. CDPs offer a way to clear out the cobwebs and easily solve for a balanced and engaging customer experience. Customer Data Platforms breaks down the fundamentals, including how to:

Understand the problems of managing customer data

Understand what CDPs are and what they do (and don’t do)

Organize and harmonize customer data for use in marketing

Build a safe, compliant first-party data asset that your brand can use as fuel

Create a data-driven culture that puts customers at the center of everything you do

Understand how to leverage AI and machine learning to drive the future of personalization

Orchestrate modern customer journeys that react to customers in real-time

Power analytics with customer data to get closer to true attribution

In this book, you’ll discover how to build 1:1 engagement that scales at the speed of today’s customers.

Writing

Data Driven Wins the Axiom Awards!

DATA_DRIVEN_AXIOMProud to announce that my book, Data Driven, has won the 2019 Silver medal for best Business Technology book!

In August of 2007, Jenkins Group launched the Axiom Awards, “recognizing and promoting the year’s best business books.” Now, 12 years later, they have announced the winners of the 2019 Axiom Business Book Awards, honoring this year’s best business books, their authors, and publishers.

The Axiom Business Book Awards are intended to bring increased recognition to exemplary business books and their creators, with the understanding that business people are an information-hungry segment of the population, eager to learn about great new books that will inspire them and help them improve their careers and businesses.