Do Customer Data Platforms Need Real-Time Processing?

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Is real-time processing a requirement for a Customer Data Platform? It’s a deceptively simple question that can’t be answered without resolving two additional questions: What do we mean by real-time processing? How do we decide what is and isn’t a requirement?

Let’s tackle the definition of real time first. There are at least four different flavors of real time processing that relate to CDPs.



  • Real-time updates. This means that new data flows into the CDP and is added to the exposed customer profiles in a few seconds. The exact speed requirement isn’t clear: although one second is widely considered to be the threshold for real time interactions (based on a study done in 1968), longer lags are acceptable for sharing customer data between systems. In practical terms, customers will not be annoyed if it takes a half-minute before a call center agent learns about her latest Web interaction.  Many CDP vendors offer what they call “near-real-time” updates, where the lag might be one to five minutes. This is obviously too slow to manage an interaction like online chat. But it can support asynchronous activities such as sending order confirmation emails.
Real-time updates are quite difficult. The first step, adding a new piece of data into the CDP data store, isn’t too hard for most CDPs, which simply append each item without touching existing data. But there’s usually additional processing to update customer profile elements, such as lifetime purchase value, predictive model scores, or last purchase date. This requires finding the right profile, reading the existing data, running whatever calculation is needed, and storing the new result. That takes time. And there’s often an additional step to copy data from the profile into a separate data store that’s optimized for real-time access, such as a flat file or in-memory database. This takes time too.
  • Real-time identity resolution. This is a special case of real-time updates, where the system needs to do some processing to associate a piece of data with the right customer profile. It’s needed when the new data isn’t already associated with a known identifier such as a customer ID.  It may require substantial processing to run matching algorithms that test various combinations of data against existing records. Usually this process is limited to adding the data to an existing profile, but it might also re-examine all profiles to see if the new data uncovers a connection that would allow them to be merged or split. That requires still more processing. This sort of comprehensive reexamination is usually done in a batch process that might run anything from nightly to monthly.
  • Real-time access. This means an external system can query the CDP in real time for a copy of an existing customer profile. This might be done with an API call or by accessing a separate data store. Note that the profile itself isn’t necessarily being updated in real time: in fact, companies commonly run a nightly batch process that loads profiles and next-best-actions into an online data store. The data remains unchanged until the next nightly update.
  • Real-time interactions. This means an external system can send data to the CDP and receive back a profile that incorporates that data – for example, with an updated model score, product recommendation, or marketing messages. It’s another flavor of real-time updates but is limited to activities within a single system. In practice, real-time interactions often work by moving a copy of the profile into memory at the start of an interaction, updating the in-memory copy as the interaction proceeds, and then copying the final version of the profile back into the main database after the transaction is over. This avoids the need for real-time updates of the main database. Real-time interactions are often integrated with multi-step campaign flows so the user can guide the interaction process.

It’s important to recognize these distinctions and to clarify which are included when you’re discussing a real-time CDP. All systems in the CDP Institute’s Vendor Comparison Report say they do real-time access while only half do real-time interactions. Real-time data loads are almost universally available but the report doesn’t capture which systems can make the data available in real time. Nor do we ask about real-time identity resolution.



This brings us to the second question, of how to decide whether the CDP definition should include real-time capabilities (and, if so, which ones).  This matters because the market is confused by the variety of companies claiming to be a CDP.  A clear, widely understood definition is essential to reducing that confusion.

One approach is to start with current user expectations. CDP Institute research shows that users’ top priorities are data collection and unification. Real-time access and real-time recommendations rank far down their list. We can’t tell whether users include real-time updates in their definition of data collection.  My suspicion is that most do not. But I haven’t seen any reliable research.

A second approach is to look at what’s included in existing CDP systems. As we’ve already seen, all systems in our Vendor Comparison Report offer real-time access and about half offer real-time interactions. While we don’t ask directly about real-time updates, we do know that quite a few offer near-real-time updates, which presumably means they don’t do full-real-time updates. You may notice there’s some circular logic here, since we have to decide in advance which systems to examine.

A third approach is to look at common use cases. The data are again ambiguous because top applications like predictive modeling and personalization can benefit from real-time updates but don’t require it. Some standard CDP use cases do require real-time updates, such as providing call center agents with information about recent Web behaviors. But plenty of others do not, ranging from customer journey analysis to email audience selection.

Since none of these options offers much guidance, how do we decide?  I’ll argue that we ultimately want to make the decision that best serves CDP users.  Many users need real-time updates and interactions but many others do not. If we want the CDP category to include systems that meet the needs of both groups, we should include non-real-time systems in the category.



But that’s not enough.  We also need to help users understand which CDPs provide real-time capabilities and which specific capabilities are included.  CDP Institute is addressing this need with its RealCDP program, which will gather and present information about real-time capabilities.  We’ll also add real-time updates to the Vendor Comparison report. Stay tuned for more information.

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