Data & Analytics

Building Customer Intelligence through Data Collaboration

March 18, 2021  |   LiveRamp

Investing in the ability to know your customers better is an opportunity you can’t afford to miss. Increasingly, this responsibility falls to Chief Data Officers who are now charged with turning data into a competitive advantage for their business all while protecting it. 

Laura McElhinney, CDO of Horizon Media, is our guest in this episode of Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud. She shares how she’s advising clients to take control of their data strategy, safely and securely collaborate with others, better understand and empathize with their customers, and establish a clear value exchange in order to prosper now and in the future. 

Listen or read an edited transcript below:

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Transcript:

Daniella:
Welcome to Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud, a podcast from LiveRamp. I’m your host, Daniella Harkins, and I am delighted to be joined today by Laura McElhinney, Chief Data Officer at Horizon Media. Laura, welcome, how are you today?

Laura:
Thank you so much for having me; I’m super excited to be here. We finally have some nice weather. I wish I were outside enjoying it a little bit more.

Daniella:
Laura, why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself.

Laura:
I am Chief Data Officer at Horizon Media, the largest privately held company in the U.S. I manage all of the data that flows in and out of the agency and the tech stack and infrastructure surrounding it. Something unique about my position as CDO is that I work very closely with the business and data strategy teams that manage our clients’ business. In a lot of companies, the person in my role doesn’t have a direct connection to the brand, the business, or the clients. 

Daniella:
It’s clear that the data strategy component is core to driving the business and growth that you see within the agency. It’s a pretty big signal.

Laura:
Absolutely. Data has always been at the forefront of agencies since I’ve been in the business. I think what’s different now is the granularity of the data we have available to us, the technology to utilize that data, and the transparency around it. You don’t buy and plan media like you used to “back in the day,” when I grew up in the business. It’s data-driven marketing, through and through. We are marketing partners with our clients vs. just being their media agency.

Daniella:
Laura, you sit at the epicenter of data and customer intelligence and supporting and driving client conversations about how to improve and expand the customer experience. The topic I’d love to talk about today is relevant to your role around building customer intelligence, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the past year. It’s clear that the events of 2020 fundamentally changed some things. I’d love for you to talk about something that you learned.

Laura:
I learned that partnerships are extremely important. We quickly realized who our true partners were, who were the people we wanted to work with, and that relationships really do matter. I also think that data was at the forefront. We needed to make it work harder for us because we needed to make our dollar work harder. Particularly in media, you have all this investment that’s committed to broadcast and venues. The clients that were more data savvy and positioned to pivot quicker, and being able to help drive clients to get to that place was a big thing that we learned. Some were more technically and data savvy than others, and it was especially challenging with brick-and-mortar businesses. How do you pivot them to an e-commerce strategy? We learned a lot of future-proofing lessons, and we were lucky that we had a lot of data we could utilize for our clients on their behalf. 

Daniella:
As you focus on 2021 and how you’re working with your clients, there’s the idea of an even broader definition of future-proofing. Is that still first and foremost as you drive into strategies for this year and beyond?

Laura:
Absolutely. I think clients are realizing that they need to own their assets. Brands need to have portability and adaptability, and they need to know that their data is an asset that they own. We’re seeing a lot of brands that are building out their own internal tech stack and need to be able to plug and play. That word sometimes seems like a cop-out, but it’s a real strategy; you must have infrastructure that is nimble. You also need to have infrastructure on the business side, not just on the technological side. 

Daniella:
I literally wrote down “data plus infrastructure” for a second, because I think that plays well into customer intelligence. I’d love to hear how you define customer intelligence. Why is it important? 

Laura:
Every consumer has a journey on their path to purchase. Customer intelligence means you understand that journey—you understand what’s important for the consumer—so you can deliver content that makes the journey more pleasurable. That’s what we all want to do at the end of the day, right? Engage with consumers, make it meaningful, and get them to engage back with you. You want it to become a two-way street, and I think that’s the core of what customer intelligence is.

Daniella:
As we think about customer intelligence and the value it brings when we’re building meaningful experiences, it’s not easy. We talk about it almost in an overly simplistic way, but the reality is, it’s not easy. Can you talk to us about some of the challenges that you see or that you’re helping your clients get through as it pertains to harnessing the power of customer intelligence?

Laura:
The biggest thing is for clients to understand what their internal data assets truly are. We think of it as first-party data, but it can be made up of a host of different things: media data, performance media, how you’re performing, web traffic data, CRM loyalty programs, and so on. Once the data assets are defined, utilize them to help drive what you already know about your consumer to enrich and enhance their experience. That’s going to help you not only bring new consumers to you as a brand, but also understand how you can engage with your customers and upsell them, or give more brand lift, or whatever that KPI may be for you. Surrounding all of this are data privacy laws, which are good thing. They actually help us gain more access to data when clients are willing to share it with us, and we have found that a lot of consumers are willing to share information about themselves if it’s going to benefit them—but you have to show that benefit. 

Daniella:
Pretty immediately you have to show the benefit, right?

Laura:
Absolutely. You can’t wait for it. The consumer wants immediate gratification. We help our clients drive that to gain more information about their consumers. I think the quicker you can get there, the better you are. But data privacy hurts us in regards to measurement. That’s the hardest part of our business. We can find the people we want to advertise to and we can take the data we know about these people and drive better content for them, but showing that proof is hard. Media and engagement with your consumer is not one-way, it needs to be two-way, and the wheel needs to be constantly fed. It’s almost like taking the test-and-learn approach, but that should apply to everything that you’re doing. You’re constantly learning and enhancing and optimizing as you go, and when you look at that on the back side, that’s where it hurts. We talked earlier about data collaboration. That’s a way that the industry could work together to help bridge those gaps.

Daniella:
So, talk to us about data as we progress as an industry. What do you think about data collaboration, and specifically, when we think about enhancing what we know about a consumer and the privacy piece of it, I’m interested to know your thoughts around how data collaboration can help in those areas.

Laura:
Data collaboration means different things to different people; there’s many different aspects. We have data co-ops, where you have smaller brands that don’t have enough first-party data, but enough that they could share it in a consortium of like-minded categories and utilize that to learn more about brands, without giving away trade secrets of course. Take mortgage companies and insurance companies. You could marry those data assets together to create a big picture to drive both. For example, somebody looking to buy a new home and somebody who needs homeowners’ insurance. That’s one type of data collaboration.
There’s also data collaboration in regards to brands, media outlets, and media partners. There’s a lot of data that media partners have that they don’t want to part with, but that data could also be utilized to help drive and close the gaps we were talking about in regards to measurement. If the media partners and outlets could agree on what the structure, rules, and guardrails would look like, I think that could be a huge opportunity for the industry.

Daniella:
I think there have been starts and stops of co-ops for probably as long as you and I have been in the industry. I loved the example you gave between insurance and investment. Or if you think about two brands, one that is data rich and one that might not have as much data, but they’re dependent. And retail/CPG, there’s that sort of model, and then from a media partner standpoint, be it a publisher and brand type of integration. I love that idea, and I think there’s a lot of benefits that come with it, if you can agree to the rules of usage up front.

Laura:
That’s exactly right. Those guardrails do need to be in play, and there needs to be a consortium of sorts. People like to be led. You just have to find who that leader is.

Daniella:
When you think about the complexity of data privacy, how does that play into the idea of data collaboration? Does it facilitate it? Does it make it harder? 

Laura:
This is going to sound crazy, but I actually think it helps, because it’s black and white. You either have consumers who want to participate or don’t, and it makes it easier to share the data.
What’s hard are the processes and the governance around it, and if you don’t have that, then it can break down and fail. Everyone has to be following the same framework to ensure that data privacy is happening. If an opt-out is happening, it needs to filter through the entire “food chain.” But if you have that in place, it can be a beautiful thing and very easy to manage.

Daniella:
I agree. Do you see your clients pushing for this? Do you see them wanting to find innovative ways to share data?

Laura:
We have clients that are realizing they need to own more of their assets, and while they want to be more protective, they realize the need to share their assets to drive business. Whether it’s media performance, media data, media campaign sales data, CRM data, etc, it’s still your asset, and the only thing you’re using it for is to learn about and understand your consumer—to acquire customer intelligence, if you will—to drive better campaigns and outcomes. Show that you’re in it with them. It’s a shared risk but also a shared reward, and it can be extremely beneficial across the board. I think those are the big conversations you need to have with your clients. Be fully transparent with what you’re going to do with it and what you’re hoping to get out of it, and don’t be afraid to show when there’s a failure. We get better when we fail, and it would be silly for us to think that failures aren’t a part of everything we do.

Daniella:
We’ve been talking about data collaboration for a long time, but I think it’s only now that we’re actually starting to see the tools and technology that can actually help power not only a better business, but also a better consumer experience.
Laura, I appreciate your time and insight; I always learn from you. Before I let you go, I have a few more questions. We made it to 2021. Have you been dreaming about the first vacation you’re going to take?

Laura:
Yes. I have a trip planned with my girls. Last year, we were planning to go to Paris to celebrate my daughter’s graduation from high school and it was cancelled at the last minute. My girls have never been but I’ve gone a million times, mostly for work. I’m dying to go back.

Daniella:
Last question, is there a new show or anything that you’ve been asked about in 2020 that you can’t get enough of?

Laura:
I binge-watched Gossip Girl and I’m ashamed to admit but I absolutely loved it. And I went back and rewatched Dexter with my boys.

Daniella:
That is a great show. It’s dark and beautiful, I love it. Laura, thank you again for joining us today and for sharing your insights. 

Laura:
Thank you so much for having me.