Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Thunderhead ONE Provides Powerful Journey Orchestration

As I wrote a couple of posts back, I’ve recently noticed a new set of vendors offering “journey optimization engines”*. The key feature of these systems is they select customer treatments based on movement through a journey map. The treatments are usually executed through external systems such as email service providers, CRM, or Web content management. The systems also assemble the unified customer database needed to track customer journeys. This, of course, is a function they share with Customer Data Platforms. But CDPs don’t necessarily have journey mapping or treatment selection functions. On the other hand, journey optimization engines don’t always expose their data to external systems, which is a core requirement for CDPs. Journey optimization engines also provide at least some tools to analyze customer journeys and choose the best customer treatments. These may include predictive models, machine learning, and automatic creation of journey maps, but don’t have to.

Thunderhead ONE Engagement Hub is a charter member of this new little club. UK-headquartered Thunderhead itself was founded way back in 2001 and launched its original customer engagement product (highly personalized customer communications such as account statements) in 2004. ONE was developed by a U.S.-based engineering team.  It was released in Europe in 2015 and in the U.S. earlier this year.

Let’s look at how ONE handles the three core journey optimization functions:

- Data assembly. ONE provides its own Javascript tag to capture Web and email interactions and a SDK to connect with mobile apps. Other systems can feed data into ONE using a REST API or batch file imports. There are prebuilt API connectors for CRM, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, and SAP Cloud for Customer. The system will automatically replicate the structure of imported data, maintaining relationships between different data elements. This allows ONE to store nearly any kind of data including not just customer attributes and identifiers, but also interaction and purchase details, touchpoint configurations, and product information.

Data is time-stamped to allow trending and give access to previous values of individual elements. Users can define calculations to create derived values such as engagement score, customer type, preferences, or interests. In addition to storing the imported information in a persistent database, ONE can lets users define in-memory profiles available for real-time access during interactions. These are updated immediately as new data is gathered, so the system is always working with the most current information.

ONE can link data using customer identifiers from different sources so long as there is a common element somewhere in the chain, such as an email address that is attached to a Web browser cookie through a form fill and to a mobile device through app registration. This allows the system to start tracking anonymous users when they first appear and later connect them to a personal profile when they identify themselves. But ONE does not standardize customer attributes, such as name or address, or use “fuzzy” matching to infer likely relationships.

All told, this is an exceptionally broad set of data management features. Many systems that build profiles – both CDPs and journey optimization engines – lack ONE's ability to store information about entities such as touchpoints or products. Nor do they always provide both a persistent data store and in-memory access. And while most can stitch together identities using shared identifiers, some rely on external systems to provide a common ID.

- Journey mapping. ONE lets users assign journey stages to activities and then classify interactions by activity type.  Interactions can also be tagged with other attributes such as channel, product, and marketing asset. The system uses this information to create many varieties of journey maps, including one that shows movement between stages broken out by channels, which is delightfully similar to the Customer Experience Matrix** I’ve been working with since 2006.*** Other versions filter the inputs to show maps for specific products, customer segments, or touchpoints within a channel (such as specific Web sites, retail stores, or phone agents). Maps can also compare attributes of different groups, such as customers who advanced towards purchase vs those who dropped out. Slicing the data in yet another way, maps can show the impact on engagement score of specific actions.  Hours of fun, eh?

- Execution. Users can create “conversations” that send messages to customers who match a specified combination of journey stage, customer attributes, and channels.  Eligibility and relevance rules can ensure the chosen messages are truly appropriate. One conversation can include several  messages in different channels.  Message contents can be drawn from a repository within ONE or from an external asset library.

The system uses machine learning to estimate how each customers will respond to each conversation and to calculate the value of the conversation. An arbitration function can then find the highest value conversation in each situation. The system can deploy conversations in real time, presenting CRM agents with recommended actions (along with a detailed customer profile and history) or Web pages with personalized contents (deployed in user-specified locations on the page). Personalized content and data can also be pushed to other execution systems such as email through API connections, either in batch or real time. External systems can access individual customer records through the ONE API.  Data can also be extracted from ONE to standard SQL databases, which external systems could then query.

Pricing for ONE starts at $30,000 per year and is based on the volume of interactions and personalization recommendations, with unit costs varying by channel.  The system has 38 clients in Europe and about a dozen in North America.


*I would love to call these JOEs but don’t have the heart to inflict another obscure acronym on the industry. You’re welcome.

** Originally developed by my colleague Michael Hoffman. Click here for his take on it.

*** I’m not suggesting that Thunderhead based their map on the Customer Experience Matrix. Many people have come up with similar ideas. I do like to think that Hoffman and I were ahead of our time.

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