Back in 2005, I proudly debuted my first audience database for a b-to-b media company focused on residential construction. Working with our fulfillment company, I’d pulled together all the subscribers from forty-some magazines and email newsletters into one consolidated database.
“Look at this!” I told the sales and marketing groups working with surveys and events and webinars. “Rather than just pull a list for our home builder magazine versus our remodeler magazine versus our architect magazine, we can identify all the builders and remodelers and architects we reach across all our products.”
The response was pretty much:
“Wow, that’s great! But for this particular effort, we only want to focus on remodelers. So let’s just use the remodeler magazine list.”
Yes, for all our hype about audience integration, many b-to-b marketers still think of audience as a mailing list or email list for each product and brand. Maybe it’s because we’ve done such a good job of establishing brand identity for advertisers—“If you want to reach Group A, you have to use our Magazine A!”—that we find it hard to look beyond brand and see our audience as one pool of customers whom we touch through multiple channels.
Even many of the new integrated database systems being offered by fulfillment and email vendors focus on audience as a collection of lists. I’ve worked with several systems that simply compile multiple lists, so that an individual involved with several products ends up with multiple separate records. Yes, those individual records are matched up, so when you combine lists you’ll get a de-duplicated total. But the database is essentially just a big merge-purge, with no real integration of the records.
That type of database is sometimes called a “unified” structure, as distinguished from an “integrated” structure that builds a single consolidated record per individual. On a practical level, you can see the difference in the actual process of building a selection. Can you start by selecting all customers with a particular characteristic—everyone in certain states or with a valid email—regardless of what list they are in? Or must you always start by selecting List A and then List B and then List C, and combining the three for a de-duplicated total?
Both approaches have their advantages. A unified database is generally simpler to set up and manage. The structure makes it very easy to add new lists from multiple sources—a big help for media companies struggling to combine contacts and registrations from different channels. You don’t have to map each new source to update a consolidated individual record, with endless business rules for when one mailing address should override another or which business demographics have priority.
The “list first” query process of a unified structure also matches the way many of us think about list selection. In fact, if all you really need from your audience database is the ability to create targeted lists for promotions, a unified database will more than meet your needs—and probably cost substantially less in both time and money.
However, if your company is looking beyond easier list creation, and hopes to move into the big data world of communication and advertising targeted by individual behavior, then a simple unified list of lists won’t take you too far. You will need a true integrated database structured around the individual audience member, with a single record that ties together all of that individual’s registrations and history and activity.
I think most b-to-b media companies are still struggling to find big data business models that work in our small industry-specific niches. Most don’t need a true integrated audience database right now. But if you are picking a database solution today, keep in mind the structure you may need tomorrow.