As customer data platforms (CDPs) evolve from technical, database-focused solutions to data-fueled customer experience enablement platforms, vendors have increasingly focussed their messaging on CDP-enabled outcomes: seamless omni-channel brand experiences, higher retention rates, better ROI. One prominent message has been around the ease of use for marketers — the primary users of a CDP. “A CDP should enable near-100% independence from IT by allowing business teams to perform tasks that previously required IT, such as advanced segmentation, attribute creation, predictive model usage and data activation,” said James Meyers, head of martech strategy at ActionIQ, a CDP vendor that has been stressing the importance of a marketer-friendly UI to enable more independence.

But can CDPs actually deliver that degree of independence? While there is no simplistic answer, it’s clear that vendor promises may not match user expectations unless several moving parts are aligned. Below are five perspectives on the topic from independent CDP industry experts, users and vendors.

1. Marketing Independence Depends on Several Factors

These factors include how you define "independence," at what stage (pre- or post-deployment) you seek it, how mature your data usage is, the marketing team structure, the marketing use cases of the CDP, and the vendor-solution you finally select.

Tony Byrne, founder of Real Story Group, which helps enterprises make technology decisions said it’s a big win for speed-to-market and adaptiveness, "if IT or some sort of data office has been building and activating segments so far, and the CDP is able to successfully enable marketers to do this themselves."

A marketer-friendly UI helps greatly, added Meyers, specifically if it ensures enablement of the least technical user. "Most of marketing is non-technical, and the faster they can ramp up their martech usage, the faster they can make a business impact."

Marketers tend to learn what they need to and let IT handle the rest. As David Raab, founder of the CDP Institute said, "I don’t think CDP is ever really independent of IT, who control the systems that feed data into the CDP. It’s probably a matter of end-users learning a particular set of features that they’ll use. For example, some CDPs provide end-users with data collection tags [for websites], and let users modify those tags to collect new events without IT help."

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2. Independence From IT Doesn't Mean Disconnected from IT

Building a trust-based partnership with IT is central to overall business success, not just CDP deployment. Meyers suggested keeping IT abreast of how data is being used, and giving them "ample credit for contributing to the project's success." Byrne added that no CDP is truly plug and play, and the data integration work will never end. "So you need a strong IT, data ops and marketing ops partnership to get the marketing data into the CDP, in the right format, at the right time, in an actionable way."

3. Marketing Has Changed. So Should the Marketing Team

CDPs do make marketing independent, provided marketing includes data analysts and marketing ops roles to operate it (and act as the conduit/liaison to IT). These roles didn’t necessarily exist in this form or this degree of proximity with their brand marketing colleagues in the past.

For example, data analysts (distinct from marketing or ecommerce analysts) are specialists who know both — the company's customer data and SQL — and will be able to answer questions and eliminate friction in data usage. "Since they're able to write SQL, they can help source and validate data within the CDP — tasks traditionally fulfilled by someone in IT," said Meyers.

Even the most marketer-friendly CDPs require fairly advanced skills, education and training for a business person to master. Daniele Sghedoni, who led the build of an open CDP based on Google Cloud Platform for Benetton, agreed that a sound marketing ops team is the crux for marketing being able to derive value from the CDP deployment.

But these technical roles, experts caution, need to be well-entrenched with business users to avoid creating even more silos. "In RSG's experience, most licensees end up delegating this work to a small team of marketing ops specialists, and that can create a kind of bottleneck in itself," said Byrne.

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4. Marketers Don't Necessarily Want Total Independence

Arguing the very notion that independence from IT is a goal for marketers, Raab added that the need for independence really depends on the task. “Many CDPs have extensive analytical, campaign management, and personalization features that are specially designed for end-users.” Those usually work out fine. The issues, he said, are mainly with data management features such as adding new sources or data elements. "My sense is that those still require some technical skill, so they are handled by martech staff where available, or IT or the vendor. This is not necessarily a problem; I don’t think many marketers really want to do those sorts of things for themselves."

It seems what marketers want is not so much "independence from IT," but rather a system that lets them be truly agile, flexible, market-responsive and scalable. They want the freedom to execute without waiting for weeks to get the datasets they need to run experiments or activate campaigns. They will likely address that need with smoother alignment with IT and data, better trained marketing ops staff, and a user-friendly CDP.

5. You Can Build for Independence

With growing data sources, volumes and formats, marketing's reliance on IT and Data Ops will likely grow rather than lessen. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Byrne advises marketing ops to instead become more conversant with the data, be able to better leverage it and more clearly articulate needs as the scope expands. And critically, be able to incorporate non-marketing touchpoints into the mix for more customer-centric journeys.

With easy access to the CDP data once it is loaded, marketers can create exports or execute segmentation, campaigns, and other marketing activities if they have clarity on their most pressing use-cases. "It is most important to understand how the CDP is intended to be used and ensure everything is in place to make that happen, including user training," said Raab.

Doing homework before vendor selection is another way to enable post-deployment success. The vendor should be able to provide a truly flexible data model. It's important because “no user has a crystal ball of all the data points they'll need to fulfill future use cases. You need to give them flexibility to make data adjustments as needed,” said Meyers.

Related Article: What Can You Do With a Customer Data Platform?

Marketers Will Still Work With IT — And That's OK

There you have it. CDPs wont have marketers magically creating intelligent, real-time campaigns all by themselves anytime soon. For CDP outcomes that get better and stronger over time, a strong and sustained partnership between IT, data ops and marketing ops is the only sustainable pathway. The CMO, CDO and CTO would rather invest in ways to streamline processes, eliminate bottlenecks, and improve efficiency and speed as scale and use cases grow, than get hung up on independence. The operative word should really be "interdependence."