Digital marketers these days are awash in data. In the first Forester Wave report on the subject, the industry research firm tries to sort out the current state of data management platforms (DMPs).

The report, The Forrester Wave: Data Management Platforms, Q3 2013, points out that DMPs have evolved beyond being simple tools for managing third-party audience targeting, and have become uber-platforms for customer marketing and communications in an increasingly complex multi-touchpoint environment.

Three Core Functions

To accomplish this, today's platforms deliver three core functions, according to the report. First, they ingest and normalize many different kinds of data streams, including those from search, display, email, on-site, offline and other sources, which are used to determine user profiles, audience segmentation and targeted marketing.

Then they have to turn all this data into insights about customers, would-be customers and audience targeting. The report quotes one customer of the Adobe AudienceManager platform as saying that marketers need "to be able to see where traffic is coming from and know who those people are to give them different experiences."

Finally, platforms have to maintain connections between various systems in order to accurately deliver up-to-date messages. This includes integrations with ad servers, demand-side platforms for ad bidding, content management systems and other systems.

Not-Yet-Realized Capabilities

But, the report determined, DMPs are not yet fulfilling their promise. For instance, Forrester said, no vendors "can credibly offer a complete mobile solution today," largely because of marketing's current dependence on browsers and third-party cookies. Additionally, most DMP's do not fully integrate traditional campaign management and marketing automation systems, which means that they do not fulfill marketers' needs for complete life-cycle management from targeting to acquisition to retention.

Then there's also the fact that the real world is still there. The bulk of sales, the report noted, are "still generated in brick-and-mortar stores," and, although this Forrester Wave found "early signs" of integration with offline data, such as direct mail or television advertising, such capabilities are still largely being developed.

To assess the top DMP vendors, Forrester chose seven that have proprietary technology, offer the option of using the DMP as a standalone product, and have experience working directly with marketers.

The Leaders

The Leaders were Adobe, X Plus One, Blue Kai and Aggregate Knowledge. Adobe AudienceManager stood out among the Leaders because of the quality of its current offering, a well-defined strategy and the backing of its multibillion-dollar parent company. It scored highly in data collection and normalization, segmentation and user profile management, scoring and modeling, decisioning, user interface and client service.

The report in particular pointed to Adobe's acquisition of standalone DMP technology when the company purchased Demdex in 2010, and especially noted the successful and highly useful integration of the Adobe DMP with the company's Marketing Cloud product suite.

X Plus One, ranked just behind Adobe, offers a "digital marketing hub" with a demand-side platform, on-site personalization engine, a tag management system and a mobile platform, along with predictive modeling and the ability to deliver connected experiences.

Blue Kai’s strength is in third-party data, offering instant access to hundreds of third-party data sources for centralized management of audience insight generation and targeting. The report quotes one client as describing Blue Kai as "most like the Switzerland of data," in that it could "plug into most systems."

Aggregate Knowledge has built on its background as an audience analytics platform, with an extensive integration into the digital advertising environment. Forrester praised in particular its strong media and audience analytics background, highly rated customer service and company leadership.

Strong Performers

The second group, Strong Performers, includes Core Audience, Knotice and nPario. The Core Audience DMP resulted from the 2010 purchase of the DMP vendor Red Aril by global media company Hearst, married with the capabilities of Hearst’s digital multimedia brand agency, iCrossing.

Forrester said the Core Audience DMP has functionality comparable to the Leaders, but it has fewer live clients and fewer active channel deployments. But, as iCrossing clients look to Core Audience for their media and audience management challenges, the report said, and especially as they respond to Core Audience’s emphasis on taking control of their own data, this could change.

Forrester describes Knotice as a “seeming outlier” in the report, because of its early emphasis on linking email, mobile and on-site experiences. But its Universal Profile Management technology has focused on the linking of anonymous and known profiles, making it an “attractive choice” for audience management by small and midsized businesses.

Bringing up the tail is relative newcomer nPario, which had been developed by Yahoo to serve that company’s audience data management needs. It split off in 2010, initially with a focus on publishers, but more recently it has been attracting marketers. Positives include a highly scaled and flexible system for data ingestion and audience analysis, a “smart, accessible leadership,” and a perception by some customers that “this was a platform that could really support big data.”

As might expected in a first-of-its-kind study, this report is trying to get a handle of what DMPs should be, and what they currently are. In subsequent reports, Forrester might better define what functions it feels a DMP should support, but this initial effort has taken an important step toward that end.