Big data is probably still part of the answer for brands' desire to know their customers and prospects in 2019. But if so, it's not because of the sheer scale of the data. Rather, it's due to having the right data -- and using smart software to unearth intelligent insights.

And consumer privacy?

It's right up there with marketer's other top priorities.

At least, that's what almost 200 chief marketing officers and top corporate leaders told me as part of a marketing data 2019 project with Singular. (Full disclosure: I consult with Singular.) Perhaps Felicity Carson, CMO for Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence division, said it best:

"Among all the marketing data challenges, the biggest in 2019 will be how marketers instill trust in data -- both for the marketing discipline and customers -- balanced with the need to improve customer experience by identifying meaningful patterns buried deep within the deluge of data."

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Recently I asked 199 top marketing pros one simple question: What will be the biggest challenge with marketing data in 2019?

One answer stood out: actionable insights. But two others were not far behind: consumer privacy, and unifying marketing data.

The top challenges with marketing data are:

  1. Actionable insights: 31%
  2. Privacy/trust/security: 20%
  3. Unified data: 19%
  4. AI/automation: 13%
  5. Accuracy/quality: 9%
  6. Too much data: 8%

The problem is not too little data anymore. As the last answer shows, many marketers have too much data now. "Marketers are drowning in data from various analytics systems,' Jo Ann Sanders, VP of Product Marketing at Optimizely, told me. 

And the ceaseless avalanche of big data is actually becoming the problem it intended to solve, says SurveyMonkey CMO Leela Srinivasan.

"With the exponential growth of data over the past decade and into the new year, it's becoming harder daily to turn information into action. While more data has the potential to deliver more meaningful insights, prioritizing an action plan to address it is critical."

What that means is that investment in marketing analytics is shifting.

Brands have the data they need, by and large.

What they lack is the ability to see the forest for the trees. And ... see the one or two trees that really matter, which might point towards a transformative growth opportunity.

"Marketing data still struggles with insights and it would be amazing to see more of a focus on this essential craft," says Tara Hunt, CEO of Truly. "There are endless tools for gathering the WHAT -- numbers and histories and basic information about your customers -- but very little that helps us figure out the WHY. The big challenge in 2019 (and likely for a few more years) is going to be training people to understand how to read the what to get to that why."

Training is critically important. But it's probably not enough.

Smart insights from smart software are key

Marketers need tools that can help them figure out the why. And those tools, increasingly, are intelligent. As consumers we all use AI every day: in Google searches, in Facebook grazing sessions, in asking Siri to start a call, in telling Alexa to turn on the lights.

But high-level scientific marketing is increasingly getting impossible to do without smart insights from smart software. Increasingly, that's some form of artificial intelligence using machine learning or neural networks.

"Marketing professionals are spending way too much time searching for information and clicking through multiple pages in applications to gather the insights they need to design, execute, and measure effective campaigns," says Tim Minahan, Chief Marketing Officer and SVP for Citrix. "To tackle this problem, marketing organizations need to tap into intelligent technologies like machine learning that can make data-driven marketing smarter and easier to execute."

AI can indeed make use of all that data marketers have been gathering.

And CMOs are already using it that way

"We ... believe marketing and customer engagement will be an excellent first use-case for enterprise AI," says OpenText CMO Patricia Nagle. "AI systems can analyze structured and unstructured data to identify opportunities for marketing outreach, customer support, and other actions that enhance overall customer experience."

But AI alone won't help solve the other major problem marketers see. That will take a different marketer mindset.

Customer privacy and data security: now a top priority

Marketers have been given a bad rap for invading consumer privacy. Increasingly however, they're working to protect privacy while still providing excellent, customized engagement.

That's leading toward a new "social contract" between people and brands.

"In 2019, marketers will struggle with the social contract of data exchange between consumers and brands," says Jessica Groopman of Kaleido Insights. "They'll wrestle with these questions: How will users be compensated beyond personalization? How can marketers do this without being 'creepy?' And, as more biometric data emerges, how can marketers use in an ethical manner?"

That struggle is real.

In the era of smart products, brands are starting to know us better than we know ourselves. Nokia knows my weight, how it fluctuates, and my body fat percentage, thanks to my smart scale. Google knows when I'm cold and need to turn up the (Nest) thermostat. Apple knows when I take a workout, and how high my heart rate goes, as measured by the Apple Watch. And Spotify knows what kind of mood we're in when we select an upbeat or a sad or a romantic playlist.

Smart products for smart homes -- smart matter, is what I call it -- is bringing a whole new mindset to how we think about actions, data, and privacy.

And it's going to have huge implications.

"Data ethics will become more important than data analytics," says SAP senior vice president Lloyd Adams. 

"The single biggest challenge B2B marketers face in the coming year will be balancing privacy and personalization to regain the trust of their audiences," says Hootsuite CMO Penny Wilson. "In many ways, 2018 was a tumultuous year for brands, marketers, and customer experience leaders. Concerns around fake news, fake followers, and data privacy led individuals to question their trust in politicians, media outlets, social networks, and businesses alike. Those same concerns extended to how brands -- both B2C and B2B -- forge relationships with customers, and the data they use to do so."

For 2019, Wilson says, marketers have to focus on reassuring customers that their data is safe and that their privacy is respected. That requires openness and transparency, and Wilson says it means brands need to focus more on quality engagement than maximum reach.

And it requires better communication.

That needs to change, says Zappo's VP Kedar Deshpande.

"There's currently a huge lack of communication between brands and customers as to how and why that data is being used," Deshpand says. "Without more transparency with customers around why personalized outreach is happening and how it's benefiting them, the immediate reaction is one of distrust, uncertainty, and even fear or anger."

Unifying marketing data is critical

Smart insights are great. Protecting consumer privacy is essential. But without unified marketing data, most marketers can't do either. They can't generate smart insights from disparate datasets ... and they don't actually have a good handle on exactly how much data they have on their customers and prospects.

"Everyone's data is a mess," says Peter Reinhardt, CEO of Segment.


Simple: so much of it is in disconnected silos.

"The biggest issue with marketing data is federating it into a meaningful whole picture," says Eric Quanstrom, CMO of Cience. "As CMO, I live in (literally) a dozen different dashboards, daily. And that number is growing."

That's not a sustainable situation.

It's stressful to manage, it's insecure by design, and it virtually ensures that marketers can't generate quality insights from the data that they ethically possess. And so it's clear that here is one of marketing's key challenges for the coming year.

"The biggest data-related challenge will be consolidation and a full 360-degree view of the customer relationship," says John Hernandez, CEO of the Selligent Marketing Cloud. "As it stands, data lives in different places -- sales, customer service, digital marketing -- and migrating it into a single platform and making sense of it all is going to be difficult. I hope that in a year's time, we'll see a lot of progress."

The marketing technology industry's ongoing expansion is not going to help here, according to DemandBase CTO Aman Naimat.

It is simply increasing in size, complexity, and diversity.

The only option in Naimat's opinion?

Integrate key marketing technologies -- even if you can't integrate them all -- to get a more unified picture of your customer across CRM, marketing automation, and account-based marketing platforms. For B2C marketers, that picture looks different, of course, and probably incorporates a variety of attribution, social, web, and mobile tools to understand consumer needs and behavior.

Summing it all up

Marketing is changing.

It's not about getting all the data you can anymore and getting out of Dodge. That ship has sailed. Now, it's about getting the right data ethically, connecting it programmatically, and generating insights from it intelligently. 

Only then can brands have good insight into their customers and consumers have good faith in their suppliers.

And only then will marketers no longer hold their breath in fear when they hear about the next implementation of GDPR legislation in another country or state.

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As part of this project, I gathered input from 199 marketing leaders, including CMOs, VPs of marketing, and thought leaders in the space. Quotes and other insights from many more of them that do not fit here can be found here.)