With all the terminology in the marketing technology industry, understanding what makes one concept different from another can become a lesson in frustration. Often people use similar terms to describe concepts relating to very different actions. Today many companies use the terms “system of record” and “unified customer profile” almost interchangeably, but while these concepts are related, they result in different actions for the marketer.
At the highest level, both a system of record and a unified customer profile offer marketers detailed information about the customer. A main differentiator between the two comes down to time and context. A system of record holds authoritative information within a single environment for a specific business use. In a sense, it offers a snapshot of the customer as seen by a business user in a known context.
For example, a CRM system hosts demographic and transactional details about consumers and acts as the system of record for sales or support interactions. Support personnel could use a CRM as their core source of information to ensure they’re talking to the right person, and may leverage it extensively, annotating interactions and outcomes for the call center. This makes the CRM a system of record for that specific channel, but it does not mean the CRM hosts a unified customer profile. For instance, there is usually a separate POS or commerce system that includes transactional information (purchases, returns, credit, and payment details) for tracking and auditing sales and returns.
A unified customer profile is what happens when you integrate different systems of record, or “snapshots,” to create a full, panoramic portrait. It takes multiple sources of customer information – systems of record – to construct the panoramic view of each customer’s history with your brand. This is the key difference between the two concepts: brands can and do have multiple systems of record, but none of those systems on its own provides the complete view of all that is knowable about a consumer.
Systems of record are complete from their point of view – like a photograph taken of a child’s birthday party. The picture is a “complete” frame of a scene, but it doesn’t include what was going on outside the final frame of the photo. It can’t. A system of record is similar; it contains data on a particular slice of the customer experience – anonymous clickthroughs on ads in a DMP, contacts of a call center in the CRM, etc. – but doesn’t contain anything outside of that narrow experience. And a well-designed system of record intentionally excludes the data that is not relevant to its business function and user community, just as a well-framed photograph leaves out the irrelevant wider view.
But not all systems of record are created equal. Some may provide accurate data around customer behavior, but are missing addresses or phone numbers. Each needs to be understood, checked, and cleansed to ensure that the information contained in the unified customer profile rises to the level of a “golden record.” That is, the ultimate understanding that a company has of its prospects and customers. If the golden record can’t be trusted, then it’s not a useful tool through which to make decisions.
The unified profile – the golden record – is not just a collection of data “stitched together” from different sources. Instead, it is the product of a complex tuned and automated process based on decisions about trust, accuracy, and matching. One system that does this work well is a customer data platform, which, in addition to the matching/merging function, provides several other underlying functions to produce the unified customer profile.
First, there is the issue of maintaining the information, ensuring that it is the best and most current, and making sure that there is no duplication in the system. A unified customer profile will have all the information available about a person or device collected from various sources. To handle this, the CDP must ingest data from any source, perform data hygiene and validation, and then do deterministic and probabilistic matching to merge it accurately across source systems.
Next, a record of original source data must be maintained along with the current contents and change history for the “master” fields (similar to an MDM system). And “edge cases” where the system cannot conclusively merge or separate records must be presented to users for decisions on disposition. All this must occur each time the unified customer profile needs to be updated.
Finally, there is the issue of cadence. For some types of information, the cadence may be fast, such as with clickstreams, location or event data, and mobile app data. But in other cases, change is much slower: addresses and phone numbers are likely to change but over a much longer period, and names may change even less frequently. The CDP must be able to handle all these cadences from batch feeds to transactions to event streams. Using out-of-date customer data is a recipe for poor interactions and unhappy customers.
Only by handling this process consistently, getting data from all sources at the right speed, and merging it accurately to create the golden record can marketers have the trustworthy and relevant data they need to make the best decisions at the right time. That is, the data needs to be clean, true, relevant, complete, and up-to-date to ensure that marketing can operate in real time. Depending on a single system of record to achieve this goal isn’t feasible; only the unified customer profile that centralizes information from multiple systems of record is able to do this.
It’s important to understand this distinction between a system of record and a unified customer profile – especially as brands seek to more completely understand their customers’ behaviors and preferences to build contextually relevant experiences.