Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ensighten Transforms Web Tags into Rich Customer Data

Looking back once more at last month’s post on the future of marketing data, you may recall that I briefly mentioned the intriguing rise of Web tag management systems as platforms to integrate customer data. Tealium highlighted the topic on Tuesday with $30.7 million in new funding, bringing the total to $77.9 million to support its stated mission of “capturing and serving up real-time, 360-degree customer insight to all of their [customers’] enterprise applications.” Sounds like a Customer Data Platform to me.

But I'll get back to Tealium some other time.  Today I'm writing about Ensighten, another major player in the tag management space, and one that is also pursuing a much grander vision: to be an “open marketing platform” that lets clients build a “custom marketing cloud”.

If origin stories count, and I think they do, then it’s worth noting that Ensighten’s started in 2009 as a digital analytics agency. Frustrated by the limits that traditional tagging methods placed on clients’ ability to move quickly, the firm developed an engine to generate custom sets of tags for each Web site visitor. This differs from the more common approach of serving one container that holds all possible tags.  (The problem both solutions address is that many Web pages contain a large number of tags from different systems; tag managers consolidate those tags so load more efficiently and are easier to control.) Ensighten’s method meant that only the tags that would actually fire for a particular visitor were loaded, while a container serves all tags and lets the Web page figure out which to fire. Ensighten studies have found it reduces page load time by 40% and tag deployment time by 75%.

Whatever the relative merits of Ensighten’s approach to tag management, the company’s focus today is on the data itself.  In particular, Ensighten wants to ensure data from the tags is available for the client’s own use. This regains control that is lost when partners place their own tags on company Web pages and don’t necessarily share the resulting information.

As I’m sure you see coming, Ensighten’s next step is to assemble the tag data into detailed individual profiles for personalization, testing, attribution, and other purposes. Ensighten added these capabilites a year ago, just after taking a $40 million investment (bringing its own total to $55.5 million if you're keeping score). These features go beyond Web page tags to capture data from mobile apps, from ad pixels served on external Web sites, and from other systems via batch data imports. They also include processes to merge profiles using customer IDs, cross-reference tables for IDs from different systems, probabilistic matching of shared data elements, correlated behaviors, and links between individuals and devices.  This kind of identity association is arguably the hardest part of building an effective customer database and many systems don't do it.

Ensighten can deliver rule-driven personalized messages along with the custom page tags. It also provides services including Web site performance monitoring and privacy management and will apply machine learning to personalization and recommendations later this year.  But such applications are peripheral to the company’s long-term strategy of letting external systems use the data for their own purposes.  This is what puts the  “open” in “open marketing platform” and the “custom” in “custom marketing cloud”.

This approach means the company’s real competitors are other marketing suites and customer data management systems. Since last year’s funding, Ensighten has supported its strategy with acquisitions of tag management competitor TagMan in March 2014 and cloud analytics and predictive marketing vendor Anametrix in October 2014.  The TagMan deal put Ensighten's foot inside many new corporate doors, while Anametrix provided advanced technology for customer database management and analytics.

So far, it all seems to be working. Ensighten reported 150% revenue growth last year and says it now has “a few hundred” global clients, mostly very large enterprises. Pricing is based on volume, which could be Web traffic or audience size depending on the situation. The company doesn't release details but this is enteprise software: you can safely assume it’s not cheap.

I’ll end where I started: what Ensighten (and Tealium and others) are doing is remarkably clever: take a mundane service (tag management) that places them in a strategic position (touching all digital interactions) and use it to build a strategic service. Their starting point gives them a shorter path to building a company’s primary customer database than applications like lead scoring or customer success management, which must create new data flows before they can build the database they need to support their service.  The tag management vendors' position also lets them give equal access to all applications without worrying about competition with their own application services. And, from a purely practical stand point, it also gives them an initial relationship with many potential clients. This advantage alone is probably why Ensighten has so many more clients than the “pure play” CDP vendors Aginity or NGData I wrote about earlier this week.

Of course, the tag managers' success is not guaranteed. Building an integrated, persistent customer database is quite different from managing Web tags.  But it's always a good thing when marketers have more options.  Companies looking for help in building their core customer database should definitely take a look in the tag managers’ direction.

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