Martech Starter Kit
Identity Resolution — Defined
By Jason Compton | 11.10.18
Names. Addresses. Emails. Phone numbers. Device IDs. Cookies. Account-specific credentials. Your customers are associated with all of these and hundreds of other personally identifiable markers. But stitching them together into a single and reliable identity across all campaigns and channels is a constant struggle.
Enter the identity resolution discipline, which promises to keep businesses and customers connected in more precise and targeted ways than ever by tightening up the links between these data points in a durable and privacy-safe manner.
Table of Contents
What it is. more...
What it isn’t. more...
What marketing business problems does a CDP help tackle? more...
What opportunities does it help marketers take advantage of? more...
What are the main challenges or drawbacks? more...
What size company is it primarily intended for? more...
Which marketing discipline is it primarily intended for? more...
What’s the projected time to ROI? more...
What are typical results? more...
What does it take to add identity resolution tools to a marketing organization’s existing tech stack? more...
Some of the vendors that serve this space. more...
What it is:
Identity resolution is an emerging discipline that blends deterministic identifiers (exact matches, such as account numbers and email addresses) with probabilistic factors (inferred, modeled, or proxied connections to an individual) to improve matches to an individual consumer. The actual increase in match rates varies based on a variety of circumstances, but industry estimates range between a 10 to 40 percent improvement. In its August 2018 white paper Know Your Audience, Winterberry Group defines the challenge being solved as one of “recognizing, understanding and appropriately engaging consumers across an increasingly varied and complex customer journey.”
Historically, audience data has been managed—and “identity” reconciled—largely within each siloed channel. Marketers became skilled at refining identity based on an email address to send more targeted email campaigns, and to associate better identity with a phone number for SMS or telemarketing campaigns. Identity resolution provides a persistent profile that ties in with all of those identifying factors and can be used across channels.
It also adapts the profile as individuals change from prospects to customers, and as they distance from or even dispose of some of the identifiers (e.g., email addresses) and devices (e.g., smartphones) that are connected with their profile. And it coordinates data from internal sources such as CRM systems with third-party sources like CDPs.
What it isn’t:
It’s not sign-on identity. A tech-only approach to solve identity starts to look like sign-on management: finding more ways to get people to definitively log in. Identity resolution doesn’t require that level of confirmation.“You’re identifying the profileof a person: the devices they own and connect with, the TV sets they watch, the websites they visit,” says Bruce Biegel, senior managing director at Winterberry Group. He strongly prefers the term identity resolutionover identity managementto cut down on ambiguity.
It’s not a new form of data cleansing. Although clean, de-duplicated data helps, this is not a different swing at that particular piñata. “Some people run to the notion that it is the re-identification of data. It is not,” says Kevin Dean, president and general manager, targeting North America, at Experian.
It’s not strictly a B2C exercise. Although B2B identity management isn’t getting as much attention just yet because the pools of lookalike customers are smaller (fewer people buy wind turbines than shoes), the principles are largely the same.
It’s not a solution to social marketing challenges. Social platform operators such as Facebook and other digital giants such as Amazon and Google have their own approach to these problems—and to keeping marketers at arm’s length from their customers’ data. Identity resolution is instead focused at media outside those walled gardens, from first- and third-party websites to addressable media such as over-the-top television services.
It’s not a solution to a one-time problem. Although customer acquisition and onboarding is a common application for identity resolution, the scope is much broader. And identity profiles need to be routinely reevaluated because the markers that feed into them are not fixed. “People move, get married, change their names,” says Dave Dague, CMO of Infutor. “Millions of people change their phone numbers every year and add or delete email addresses.”
What’s the most common misconception about it?
That good CRM solves the same problems.Good CRM is good at aligning details such as contacts, addresses, and purchase history to improve targeting in later campaigns over direct channels. It’s not particularly good at combining personally identifiable (PII) and anonymous (non-PII) markers. That’s what identity resolution takes care of.
What marketing business problems does a CDP help tackle?
In a 2018 Winterberry Group survey of over 400 business leaders, just 15 percent said they could accurately and consistently identify audiences. Identity resolution is one solution to that problem.
The gap in identity insights between “walled gardens” and independent marketers
The huge, data-rich platforms are using their identity advantage to offer services well beyond their original scope, and that could be bad news for many different companies. “Amazon is getting into healthcare. Facebook is getting into payments. If you are a major, enterprise brand that competes with them, are adjacent to them, or are threatened by them, you need to compete with a new level of precision,” Winterberry Group’s Biegel says.
Carrying on customer conversations across increasingly complex, varied journeys
The proliferation of addressable devices isn’t going to slow any time soon. Consumers already have a virtually unlimited range of pathways to engage with brands, with voice agents and AI promising to make things even more complicated.
What opportunities does it help marketers take advantage of?
Better insights for paid media targeting
The potential improvement starts at the top of the funnel, with better targeting of profiles that match a brand’s criteria and less wasted spend on recipients who should be excluded. It travels down through the rest of the engagement as marketers gain a better understanding of exactly who is responding and how they behave at each step in the journey.
Identity resolution can “help inform those decisions on everything from who makes a good prospect to the best approach for retaining customers,” Experian’s Dean says.
Omnichannel engagement, particularly offline-to-online
Because identity resolution combines offline and online markers, it offers marketers the best hope yet to provide a seamless transition between channels. “It’s about continuity of voice, and making sure that you're talkingto somebody, not just having a series of first dates,” says Ric Elert, president of Conversant.
The greatest long-term promise for identity resolution may be attribution—understanding all of an individual’s interactions with a brand to optimize future planning and investments. “To do attribution properly, you need to understand and manage identity, so you know if you reached the right people with the right message at the right time in the right channel,” Winterberry Group’s Biegel says.
What are the main challenges or drawbacks?
There’s no entirely free lunch in identity resolution. The more your models and profile incorporate probabilistic data, the further from 100 percent your accuracy rate drops. So, marketers still need to understand that there will be misses—and build in risk tolerance. “That’s one of the issues the industry wrestles with,” Biegel said. “It’s not about being right or wrong; it’s about what you want to use identity for.”
A typical consumer owns more than three digital devices, and when accounting for participation in major social networks and addressable streaming services, the number is considerably higher. This expansion in devices and platforms will continue, creating more data andmore uncertainty.
Changing standards for consumer privacy mean that innovation in identity resolution will likely run into regulatory friction. That won’t stop development, but it could mean a realignment. “We think GDPR and privacy regulation is a good thing for the industry,” Biegel says. “It forces companies to focus on the care of customer data, and it assures people that their information will be used in a more responsible manner.”
What size company is it primarily intended for?
To date, identity resolution’s need for high-volume data and a deep budget has favored larger enterprises. There’s some interest in bringing solutions down to the upper midmarket. There’s also been industry advocacy to create identity consortia and finding a privacy-safe way for smaller brands and publishers to get to scale by combining identity data and inventory. But, to date, the success stories have come from the largest brands with more to spend and more to gain in raw dollar terms. “We’ll work with some smaller [companies], but you have a better chance of reaching more people if you have millions of customers,” Conversant’s Elert says.
Which marketing discipline is it primarily intended for?
Any and all elements of marketing, although pure-play social is least likely to benefit because social networks have their own approach to identity.
What’s the projected time to ROI?
Expect a year or more to see operational cost reductions. More tactical goals, such as lowering acquisition costs, could pay off in a matter of months.
Biegel says that companies succeeding with identity resolution are closely guarding ROI figures, not only to protect competitive advantage, but also to keep identity resolution vendors from pushing for bigger margins. “We know it’s working because these solutions are licensed annually, and clients continue to subscribe and they’re committing to greater spending,” he says.
What are typical results?
Better segmentation and targeting
“With bad identity resolution, you're delivering messages to people who shouldn't get the message, and you're probably leaving out people that should,” Elert said.
If you haven’t been able to find a way to justify investing in programmatic media or over-the-top streaming platforms, identity resolution could be the key to unlocking opportunities in those markets. It’s also the next logical step if you feel your investments in personalization have been maxed out in other avenues. “If your goal is better personalization and relevance, you can’t do it without better identity underneath,” Biegel says.
Identity resolution can cut down on obvious retargeting fails, such as chasing down the wrong household member after they browse an item or make a related purchase. And it can open the door to new conversations as marketers find additional ways to mine identity profiles for insights.
What does it take to add this product to a marketing organization’s existing tech stack?
Estimated implementation timeframe: Varies based on the goals and scope of the implementation.“If you just want to improve identity in your paid media advertising, you could turn that on tomorrow,” Biegel says. “To make everything work everywhere could take one to two years. But there are numerous quick wins along the way.”
Integrations: Typically starts with CRM and a customer data platform (CDP), then grows to web platforms, apps, and other platforms. “Get your first-, second-, and third-party data act together, then take on your applications, and understand that it will be a long journey,” Biegel says.
Dedicated administrator? Yes—possibly a senior marketing or IT executive, or a data analyst. Although identity resolution is typically delivered as a service, one or more marketing professionals need to take the lead and keep the identity solution aligned with marketing goals.
Typical users: Any member of the broader marketing organization can be a user, and there is potential in customer service and inbound sales, as well.
Typical number of users: Could possibly be everyone in the marketing organization and more besides. Identity resolution is typicallylicensed by data or transaction volume, not seats or users.
Amount of initial training for users: Users could need weeks of onboarding to fully understand the identity data and to incorporate those signals into the marketing environment, call center, and other arms of the organization.
Data sources: Beyond the CRM and CDP systems, this could extend to any and every connected device. Biegel urges a slow-and-steady approach to bringing on new data sources. “Start with devices that can handle two-way communication; something that has a speaker or screen or keyboard,” Biegel says. “After that, go after the one-way devices.”
Notable process changes: Adding identity resolution to existing processes should be transparent in most cases.
Who “owns” it over time? Usually marketing, but could be owned by IT.
How often should you consider a complete upgrade or replacement? This space is still evolving, and the service-oriented delivery means that most customers are along for the ride as vendors refine their approach. Reevaluating the way data is being used and models are being constructed on a monthly basis is prudent.
Some of the vendors that serve this space:
View more vendors at
> The 2018 Chief Martech Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic
Analysts’ view of the landscape:
> Know Your Audience: The Evolution of Identity in a Consumer-Centric Marketplace (Winterberry Group)
> Now Tech: Identity Resolution, Q3 2018 (Forrester)
About the Author
Ginger Conlon found freelance writer Jason Compton shoved in a desk drawer by her predecessor at CRM magazine. He has covered CRM and marketing topics extensively since 1999, largely in her service.