Understanding Adobe Real Time CDP

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Adobe fully released its Real Time Customer Data Platform last November. Although they had briefed me on it before then, it was only this week that I finally caught up with them to discuss the final product. Since this is a topic of great interest – and confusion – it’s worth sharing what I learned.

Part of the confusion has to do with Adobe’s habit of reusing product names. It’s easy to confuse the Adobe Experience Platform, the core system for collecting customer data, assembling profiles, applying machine learning, and sharing the results with services and applications, with Adobe Experience Manager, the Web content management system that is one of those applications. Similarly, Experience Platform contains a Real Time Customer Profile, which is different from the Real Time CDP, one of the services that consumes data from Experience Platform. Got that?

It also doesn’t help that Adobe describes Experience Platform and Real-Time CDP as managing unknown and known profiles for activation across all channels, without clarifying that it’s only referring to first-party data. It turns out that Audience Manager, their Data Management Platform (an “application” in their terminology), holds third party profiles that aren’t shared with Experience Platform.   Adobe nevertheless uses the term “audience activation” to describe movement of first party profiles from Experience Platform into other applications, including into Audience Manager itself.

Somebody get these people a thesaurus.

But that’s just words. What really takes explaining is that Adobe has split what it considers the functions of a CDP between the Experience Platform and the Real Time CDP itself. Specifically, they describe a CDP as doing three things:

  • ingesting customer data from all enterprise sources
  • creating persistent customer profiles used for modeling and segmentation
  • “activating” the profiles by moving them into applications

The first two functions, ingestion and profile management, are provided by Experience Platform. The third is provided by Real Time CDP.  

In other words, although Adobe’s combined stack does everything you expect from a CDP, its Real Time CDP only provides one of the three core functions. I’ll pause for a moment while you wrap your head around that.

Ready to continue? Great.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with Adobe’s approach, which is ultimately another matter of labels. In fact, I’ve recently seen several situations where the CDP is primarily an access tool that connects a master data store to marketing systems. As with Real Time CDP, the role is simply to take already-assembled data and put it in a format that’s suitable for marketers (or potentially other business users). So Adobe may be on to something.

Of course, any system that just provided data access would not be a CDP. Adobe’s combined solution does meet the CDP Institute definition of a CDP: packaged software that builds a unified, persistent customer database accessible to other systems. They might be a bit weak at the edges – I haven’t explored whether they can truly include all sources and all details within the Experience Platform database.  News that that Experience Platform excludes the third party profiles in Audience Manager does raise some questions about that. But, truth be told, quite a few CDPs have some practical limits in those areas.

You’re likely aware that some analysts and CDP vendors disagree with the CDP Institute definition, arguing a CDP should include analytics and experience orchestration. The general logic is that data is worthless unless it’s exploited, so the CDP should include features to use it. This is usually described as “activation”, a word I’m avoiding since Adobe is using it one way (to describe moving data from the CDP into application systems, with some segmentation capability but no message selection), while others often use it to include message selection, personalization, and orchestration. I personally don’t much care how anyone defines “activation” so long as they’re clear about what they mean when they use it. I happen to agree with Adobe that message selection, personalization, and orchestration aren’t essential CDP functions.  But that’s a debate for another day.

That said, it’s important to know that Real Time CDP isn’t the only Adobe service that can access the customer profiles in Experience Platform. Services including analysis, journey orchestration, and offer management provide alternative connections between Experience Manager and the applications. This is wrinkle that wouldn’t be present in a CDP that provided ingestion, profile creation, and access as part of one system. It adds complexity if one application might connect with several services. You might even worry that it recreates the crazy wall of point-to-point connections that causes people to want CDPs in the first place.  But that’s an overstatement if only four services are involved.

A more pressing concern would be how much data is actually loaded into Experience Platform. Some operational data will stay within the individual Adobe applications because no other system can use it.  Beyond that, my understanding is that Experience Platform has an extensible data model which would theoretically handle any information that users wanted it to ingest. But that could be wrong. Anyone thinking about buying the system should check that it can load the sources that matter in their situation. Remember that Experience Platform grew out of Adobe’s previous approach, which largely relied on storing identifiers within the central data store and looking up everything else in its source systems as needed. Adobe has clearly moved beyond that but some traces may linger.

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