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Dreaming of the Omni-Channel Customer Journey

Is the omni-channel customer journey reality or just a dream?

Earlier this month I attended the inaugural Omni.Digital conference in Chicago, hosted by AdExchanger. My main takeaway from the event was fairly simple: as an industry, we have lots of work ahead of us. According to a recent eConsultancy report, only 17% of marketers say they have the ability to fully analyze the customer journey. Despite this sobering fact, I think we, as an industry, are now clearer than ever on the biggest gaps we need to fill to realize the omni-channel vision.

To get to a 360-degree view of the customer journey, we need a unified identity system, where a prospect or customer receives relevant messages from a brand across all channels and formats. This needs to happen at precisely the right time in the customer lifecycle, all with proper end-to-end measurement and attribution. There are, not surprisingly, a few obstacles in the way.

(1) Global system of record for tracking identity

With all the talk of having a universal ID with which to track and target individuals wherever they may be on the Internet (which is increasingly across a multitude of connected devices and formats), marketers today don’t yet have a concrete and comprehensive solution. Given all the time that people spend on Google and Facebook properties, and the projected market share they are poised to capture from advertisers in the coming years, (especially on mobile), the fact that users “go dark” in these proprietary areas of the Internet makes global identity challenging.

Not to mention the various IDs that need to be linked across the open web and mobile apps. Marketers are now challenged with connecting different IDs across mobile, email, TV/video, search, social, and more. Earlier this week, when Kevin Akeroyd, senior vice president and general manager of Oracle Marketing Cloud, was asked if Oracle plans to facilitate that universal ID, he answered:

When we talk again in a year, it will probably be one of the things I talk about most. These closed gardens – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple – they will be big and strong but they’re optimized on spend for themselves, not across each of them or the open web. Marketers don’t want to rely on a platform to measure that’s beholden to selling you media on its own network. We think that’s going to be us.”

In other words, they are working on it. And so are many others. Until we have a single, accurate way to ID who an individual may be, no matter which device or channel they may be on, we won’t be able to create a meaningful omni-channel customer experience.

(2) Attribution solutions need urgency

The ramifications of identity issues spill over into attribution – the art and science of determining the effectiveness of marketing investments. Attribution is undeniably important, but it seems as if there is no urgency on the part of marketers or agencies to get it right. Or perhaps there is urgency, but advanced tools in the space haven’t been easy to access or implement. That probably explains why the majority of companies still rely on last-touch attribution models, which are deeply flawed because they discredit the contributions of top-funnel efforts. The good news is, there are voices of reason out there beating the drum and evangelizing smarter models.

While there are better attribution models available, they have not yet been implemented widely. Steve Latham, CEO of Encore, and one of the panelists at the Omni.Digital event, recently wrote:

Among those that are leveraging attribution, most are still picking low-hanging fruit with a focus on desktop media spend. Very few have figured out mobile and even fewer are connecting the dots to gain a multi-platform view of users.”

Whether this is an education issue, or a product gap in the market, adoption of advanced attribution methods is not where it should be in order to meet the needs of the omni-channel customer journey.

(3) Market shifts are outpacing technology solutions

The word omni-channel literally means “all the channels.” As Melissa Parish, executive director of AdExchanger Research, aptly pointed out during the conference, it’s a never-ending game of catch-up for marketers, as the number of ways to reach an individual continues to expand. The technology around us, and the habits of populations, are evolving faster than marketers can effectively react and adapt to them.

Furthermore, we are only beginning to see the convergence of advertising and marketing technology, which is a requirement to realizing the omni-channel dream. Surely, consolidation of these technologies will continue over the next decade. However, in the meantime, we will have a fragmented vendor landscape with disparate advertising and marketing technology systems and scattered connections between the two.

Last but not least, we have the growing ideological differences between the open web (which includes most of the advertising technology ecosystem) and proprietary “walled gardens” (which include Google, Facebook, Apple, and others), with data as the unfortunate hostage. It still remains to be seen which ideology and business model will end up winning this pivotal war for digital market share. Make no mistake, it will impact every facet of digital advertising and publishing.

Wasn’t programmatic supposed to solve all this?

The promise of programmatic has always been truly personalized advertising powered by data, and delivered in an efficient manner. It’s now possible, with real-time bidding (RTB) technology to target individuals, wherever they happen to be, and show them a customized message based on their past behaviors and interests. That’s a key difference with programmatic RTB: a reversal of the publisher-centric view of the world, to a more customer or audience-centric view.

While it definitely aligns and brings us somewhat closer to the vision of the omni-channel customer journey, programmatic is still just a portion of the larger digital media world. Laurie Sullivan, senior reporter, at MediaPost, made these comments recently with regards to the maturity of programmatic ad technology:

“Even if we take programmatic out of the picture, the industry has a lot of growing up to do. I realize the industry does the best it can, and technology needs to grow up, but I feel like I have been writing about that same problem for years. […]  I can tell you that the programmatic systems connecting ad serving and bidding in the online advertising industry are equivalent to a one-month old infant. The ad industry has lots to learn. These ad systems are silos similar to media channels that one day will connect to each other.”

Such technology solutions do not come overnight. They take years to develop and gain meaningful adoption, which means there is still a significant amount of effort required to make all media measureable, speak the same language, and integrate intelligently with our larger marketing technology stacks.

Looking ahead

The dream of mind-blowing Minority Report advertising systems, where every interaction you have with a brand is personalized to you and your behavior is still just that: a dream. Mind you, progress is being made to realize that vision, and fragments of it can be seen today, but the main challenges we’re facing are a lack of global identity, lagging adoption of advanced attribution, accelerating audience and technology fragmentation, and a growing schism in Internet ideologies.

The AdExchanger team deserves credit for spearheading such events and for driving awareness of this topic into the consciousness of our industry. It’s the only way we will move closer towards our collective vision of delivering seamless marketing experiences between the digital and physical worlds.