No unitaskers allowed: 7 questions to help you choose the best customer data platform (CDP) for your business
Chef, food show presenter, and self-described “foodist” Alton Brown once said the only unitasker he allows in his kitchen is a fire extinguisher.
A unitasker is a tool that can only do one thing—a garlic press, for example. And Tony Morelli, director of product design at Klaviyo, who grew up watching Brown on the Food Network, believes the same principle applies to marketing technology.
“No one wants to buy a product they’re only going to use once a month, once a quarter, once a year,” Morelli points out. “You need the ability to customize, change, modify, and experiment as much as you wish.”
That may be the perfect advice for selecting the best customer data platform (CDP) for your business.
Considering that only 10% of CDP users feel their current CDP meets all their needs and a dismal 1% believe their CDP meets their future requirements, according to a recent report from Zeta Global and Forrester Consulting, one thing is abundantly clear: Not all CDPs are created equal.
Here are 7 key questions to keep in mind to make sure you end up with a CDP that meets all your business needs and demands—in 2024 and beyond.
1. What are our key use cases?
This is the most important step in selecting the right CDP for your business, experts agree. Your business goals should determine your use cases, and your use cases should determine which CDP you select.
“You have to think about, ‘OK, what are we looking to achieve?’” says Anthony DelPizzo, lead product marketing manager, Klaviyo CDP. “Define your key outcomes, and then define the use cases it will take to get there.”
For example, if your goal is to transform a generic marketing campaign into a personalized customer touchpoint, your use cases might involve incorporating customer behavior data from your website into your Facebook advertising and email marketing efforts so that the communications you send are relevant to actions your customers have taken while shopping in your online store.
When defining your key CDP use cases, be as specific—and thorough—as possible. The CDP you select needs to not only offer the technical features your business can’t live without, such as data transformation and multi-channel marketing orchestration. It also needs to accommodate the human resources and processes you have available to achieve your desired outcomes.
As DelPizzo puts it, “it’s really just defining, one by one, for each of your marketing channels or data analytics end states, how is the CDP going to get the data ready to be sent there?”
2. Who needs to be involved?
CDPs are “very much a marketing-owned but cross-team initiative,” DelPizzo says.
Although your CDP should be accessible and user-friendly enough that your marketing team can use and maintain it on their own, without relying on developers or data scientists, a CDP is like any other piece of your tech stack in that it’s important to gain cross-functional buy-in before adopting it.
Consider involving the following teams as stakeholders in the CDP selection process:
- Marketing team
- IT team
- Development/engineering team
- Data science/analysis team
- Sales team
- Customer success team
3. Is the CDP easy to implement?
CDP implementation is essentially the process of connecting the rest of your tech stack to your CDP. And historically, says Justin Ragsdale, VP of business development and corporate strategy at full-service digital agency IM Digital, that process has been “extremely resource-heavy.”
Two key factors make typical CDP implementation a headache:
- Custom integration work: “I have worked with CDPs where you are basically building middleware to get the CDP to talk to whatever other database you’re trying to work with,” Morelli says. “All of those custom builds become very costly.”
- Complex data mapping: “Most CDPs require you to create a robust data dictionary of defining each data point and how it will be ingested—mapping different data points to different properties, like a ‘placed order’ event or an ‘add to cart’ event,” DelPizzo explains. “So you have to do really extensive data mapping, and from each different platform in your tech stack, that process can be really complex.”
Typical CDPs are “blank boxes, not structured databases,” Morelli says. And because of that, DelPizzo says, implementation can be “super complex and super costly and take a lot of time—we’re talking minimum $50K and 3-8 months of a lot of effort and professional and developmental resources.”
“Brands have a hard time prioritizing the CDP initiative because it’s usually a 10- to 12-month process until they can act on the data effectively,” agrees Olivia Yuan, co-founder of Shopify-focused agency Tomorrow.
That’s time and money no brand, regardless of size, can afford to waste. “We have a very small development team—it’s two people,” says Richard Cowell, VP of digital strategy and operations at Citizen Watches. “So whenever we’re adding a new tool, it’s really important that we can add that tool quickly and keep moving with our other priorities.”
“We’re a lean team, and we’re an incredibly small company,” agrees TJ Ferrara, co-founder of BUBS Naturals. “We don’t have a lot of time for not focusing on our customers or on sales or growth. At the end of the day, we want to focus on our customers instead of working internally on stuff that doesn’t matter.”
To that end, look for a CDP that:
- Does not require predefined schemas
- Intelligently maps data to the correct place for you, with the flexibility to adjust as needed
- Comes with a robust catalog of pre-built integrations, especially with the specific tech your business can’t operate without
- Offers flexible APIs
Bonus points if the CDP vendor’s pre-built integrations are specific to your brand’s industry, or the CDP vendor at least has proven expertise in your vertical. Otherwise, “it’ll require a lot more custom work,” DelPizzo says.
4. Is the CDP easy for marketers to use?
“There are many great CDP solutions out there that provide state-of-the-art features,” Ragsdale says. “But if you can’t execute and use those features to deliver ROI, it’s all for naught.”
When adding a new software, ease of use is a top priority for the teams at Citizen Watches and BUBS Naturals.
“One of the things we look at is whether it’s going to be user-friendly and able to be used by a small team,” Cowell says. “If we implement a system that is overly complicated, where the data isn’t accessible by the people who are trying to use the data, we’re going to end up with data that no one’s going to use.”
“Ease of use with the CDP is top of mind more than anything,” Ferrara agrees. “Having our employees be able to slice and dice data with very little thought is the most important thing to us.”
But a lot of legacy CDPs, Ragsdale explains, require “extensive training and expertise to understand how to develop campaigns, how to drill down into reporting, how to find that granular insight that’s ultimately going to move the needle.”
Even once they develop that expertise, “marketers’ hands are tied behind their backs,” Ragsdale adds. “They see the insights, they know what they want to do, but they need to submit a ticket to their dev teams in order to execute on their vision. And all of that takes time.”
Maintenance and ease of use, says Nick Kobayashi, group product manager at Klaviyo, are often overlooked during the CDP selection process. But they’re “especially important for upper SMB and mid-market businesses that don’t have a lot of developmental capacity and resourcing available.”
If your business is “incredibly price-sensitive” and you “do not have a team or have a very small team,” Morelli says, you should be looking for a CDP that offers “low cost of entry, low effort, and low- or no-code solutions.”
Beware, too, CDPs that claim to offer extensive training resources and support, but actually just expect you to do 25 hours of homework to understand how to work the technology. “Marketers don’t have hours and hours to devote to watching tutorials,” DelPizzo says. “They need a CDP that’s intuitive.”
5. Does the CDP combine multiple functions in the same platform?
“A lot of CDPs on the market today are really good at unification of data, transformation of data, and syncing that to all your different data sources,” Kobayashi says. “But analytics and activation have been pushed out to different systems.”
Acting on the different types of data living in this kind of disjointed tech stack may look something like this:
- You unify and transform the original population of data in your CDP.
- You push that data into your analytics platform for segmentation.
- You take those conditions into your marketing platform and attempt to re-segment using those same conditions.
When you use several different technologies for each of these functions, it means “the data’s different between each platform,” Kobayashi explains. “You’re basically creating a drop-off of who those customers are by hopping between those different platforms.”
“You can have all the data in the world, but when it comes to using the CDP to build out campaigns and personalize content and leverage all of these different types of segmentation, incorporating AI-based recommendations and stitching that into the on-site customer experience—that’s really where a lot of CDPs fall short,” Ragsdale adds.
Look for a CDP that owns the entire experience, from data collection, unification, and transformation to data activation and analytics—a situation Yuan calls “ideal.”
“That would save a lot of effort in terms of integrating the CDP to other systems that activate the data, and it would make it a lot easier for marketers to use the data more effectively and have an intuitive way of understanding the data source vs. what it can do for them,” Yuan explains.
A key benefit of “all of this happening in the same platform is that it’s always the same data that you’re unifying, analyzing, and segmenting, and actually running campaigns off of,” Kobayashi explains.
“It’ll connect the dots, but there are also a lot of benefits in terms of getting into the same admin dashboard so that people don’t need to jump around and look at different data sources,” Yuan adds. “That allows them to analyze the impact a lot better as well—the ROI of the tool and the impact they’re having on their customer journey.”
Flavia D’Urso, lead product designer at Klaviyo, summarizes it this way: “When we’re seeing that unification of the tech stack, it makes all these jobs easier and easier.”
6. Is the CDP built for businesses of all sizes, not just enterprises?
As your business matures, “your needs become more and more sophisticated at scale,” Morelli points out.
And “if you make changes or add different tools, you don’t want to need either this massive effort from external professional services or more engineering hours from your own team,” DelPizzo says. “You need to be able to have a CDP that scales with you.”
As important as ease of use is, then, customizability is equally important.
For example, your CDP should offer sophisticated analysis models out of the box, but also “give you the flexibility to tweak and customize those models” according to your needs and specific use cases, Kobayashi says.
Morelli puts it simply: “Anywhere you want to build, your CDP should be able to set you up for that, grow alongside your business, and help you get to that next step.”
7. Will the CDP save you time—and money?
D’Urso says many SMBs “want more” out of their tech stack, but “don’t necessarily have the budget to pay for additional software services.”
The right CDP, then, should “move the needle a lot faster,” she says—while also lowering costs.
“One of the most important aspects that we look into for our clients is time to market,” Ragsdale agrees. “How long until we start generating ROI? Is it going to take me 18 months to build out the CDP, or am I going to be ROI-positive within 90 days?”
When evaluating CDP costs and time to value, consider:
- Ease of implementation and ease of use
- Basic functionality vs. add-on features
- The number of users that need access to the CDP
- The level of support the CDP vendor offers
- The size and complexity of your database and tech stack
- Overhead vs. ROI
That last one is particularly important, DelPizzo says: “How much are the implementation, maintenance, and other platform fees, and then how much does it actually take to run it, both from a human and technical perspective?”
The CDP that checks all the boxes: Klaviyo CDP
One of the biggest challenges of selecting the right CDP for your business, Kobayashi says, is “seeing through the bullshit.”
“It’s really easy to be sold on a demo of a lot of cool things that a CDP might be able to do,” he explains. “But when it comes time to actually owning that technology, you need to understand how you would do it all for yourself.”
Any CDP can, in theory, help you make sense of your customer data and use it to inform personalized, omnichannel marketing. But to truly shorten the distance between data, insight, and action, you need a user-friendly CDP like Klaviyo CDP—a vertically integrated CDP that simplifies your tech stack and empowers you to more effectively manage and activate your data.
Ferrara puts it this way: “Traditional CDPs take a little bit of time and effort. You do have to have some technical skill when it comes to customer segmentation and really knowing how to string together if/then or if/else statements.”
By contrast, he says, “If you can turn on an iPhone, you can use Klaviyo.”
Want to go beyond what to consider when choosing a CDP? We cover everything you need to know to make sure you start from a place of value and end with loyal, lifelong customer relationships in this CDP marketing series. Check out:
Customer data platform FAQs
What are the key challenges associated with using a CDP?
The most common CDP challenges include inability to scale, slow time to value, high operational overhead, usage difficulty, and lack of analytics or activation capabilities. When selecting a CDP for your business, pay particular attention to how the vendor addresses all of the above.
Is a CDP suitable for an SMB?
The short answer: Historically, no. Now, absolutely.
The long answer: Historically, CDPs were designed for enterprise businesses with substantial financial and developmental resources to invest in implementation, maintenance, and everyday operations—leaving SMBs with unmet needs around data storage, unification, and activation. But now, with a user-friendly CDP like Klaviyo CDP, SMBs can now flexibly ingest, store, and centralize high volumes of data for real-time marketing and advanced analysis—without predefined schemas, custom development, or data scientists.
How does a CDP work?
First, a CDP pulls together zero-party data, first-party data, third-party data, and other customer data from multiple silos together into a single customer view. Then, it performs identity resolution between sources. Finally, it activates or sends data either natively or across other external systems.