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What’s a customer data platform? The definitive guide to CDPs (2021)

Dec 12, 2020 Jordan Torpy 16 min read

Everything You Wanted to Know About Customer Data Platforms

You’ve heard the buzz. You’ve heard the letters CDP bandied about. Maybe your boss asked you if your company needs a CDP. Maybe you’re a boss wondering the same thing. We’re here to give you all the info you need.

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What’s a Customer Data Platform? The Definitive Guide to CDPs | Audio Version

What Exactly Is a Customer Data Platform?

A Customer Data Platform (CDP) is a type of software. Specifically, it’s a kind of database software: one that creates persistent, unified records of all your customers, their attributes, and their data. A good CDP should both easily integrate with your existing data and allow for easy retrieval of the data it stores.

A CDP builds a complete picture of your customers on an individual level. It collects 1st party customer data (transactional, behavioral, demographic) from a multitude of sources and systems, and links that information to the customer that created it. 

This creates a 360-degree customer profile, also called a single customer view, which can then be used by 3rd party tools or built-in marketing automation tools (check Standalone CDP vs CDXP) to execute marketing activities and analyze their performance.

CDP Characteristics

  • Ready‑to‑Use Solution

All customer data is neatly organized and available for immediate use. Some technical resources are required to set up and maintain the CDP, but it does not require a high level of technical skill compared to a traditional data warehouse.

  • Single Customer View

Data collected and organized with a CDP is visualized through individual data profiles for each user. This 360-degree view of the customer is possible due to the fact that all customer data is located in one central location.

  • Customer Data Unification

Inconsistent data from multiple online and offline sources is combined to create a unified single customer view.

  • Accessible Data for 3rd Parties

Data contained within a CDP is ready for use in 3rd party systems focused on adtech and campaign delivery.

The most challenging barrier to Marketing Automation success is data integration between the various marketing systems of an organization.

CDP Skill Requirements

Unlike some other database software programs, a CDP is a tool built mainly for marketers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a CDP can be operated without any technical support. To get the most out of a CDP, an organization will typically need these three roles:

  • Marketer: a person who understands the market and can suggest business-tailored use cases for the CDP.
  • IT Person: someone to help support the marketer during the implementation phase of the CDP, and can help manage tasks like using webhooks, deploying recommendations on the web, setting up emailing, helping with integrations. Knowledge of HTML, CSS, and Javascript is also helpful for building powerful weblayers.
  • Analytical Person: a person that knows how to work with data, and knows what to track in custom dashboards, how to analyze A/B test, and can report results to the marketing team.

These don’t have to be three separate people, but for maximum value from a CDP you’ll need all those skills.

Customer Data Platform & Exponea (Video):


What Is the History of Customer Data Platforms?

Managing customer data is nothing new. From handwritten filing cards and massive independent mainframes to modern cloud-based solutions, the search for the best tool has been going strong for decades. Modern computing power has significantly increased the pace of progress, allowing for more and more useful tools. 

Online customer relationship management (CRM) software was introduced in the 90’s, and allowed companies to manage their interactions with both current and potential customers. These platforms could also perform data analysis that could help drive retention and sales. While useful, these tools had some limitations: they only managed data for registered clients, and they only used predefined first-party data. 

Things changed in the 2000’s with the rise of data management platforms (DMPs). These were aimed towards advertisers and helped with the planning and execution of media campaigns. Unlike CRMs, DMPs worked with second- and third-party data, and could segment anonymous IDs.

The customer data platform (CDP) was introduced a few years back, as a reaction to the demand for an improved customer experience and omni-channel marketing initiatives. Older tools, while useful for their purposes, had created data silos. CRM data was one thing, DMP data was another – and marketers weren’t able to productively use all the data the company had access to. 

CDPs solved this problem by offering a unified customer view that gathers a company’s first-party data (and to some extent, second- and third-party data) into a single, comprehensive platform. A major advantage of CDPs is their ability to store extremely granular first-party data, such as events on a website.


Exponea: A CDP Since 2012

Recent announcements from major companies have pushed CDPs into the spotlight. But CDPs have already existed for a number of years. Exponea built its CDP from the ground up, starting in 2012. Years of experience have allowed Exponea to refine and improve its platform, and build powerful tools on top of it. Thanks to years of hard work and growth, Exponea has an industry-leading CDP, made even more powerful by user-centric analytics, predictions, recommendations and marketing automation layers. We call it a Customer Data & Experience Platform (CDXP).


Why is Customer Data Important?

Today’s customers expect a lot from companies. They’ve experienced good personalized service, and if you want to keep their business, you need to provide it. A consistent customer experience across channels, appropriate recommendations, tailored communications: for today’s customers these are necessary. 

Not many companies can actually deliver these experiences. But if you can’t meet customers heightened expectations, you have a problem. If customers think you don’t care about them, they’ll take their business somewhere else – and they won’t be coming back. The fight to win those customers back will be much more difficult than getting their business in the first place.

This is why it’s so crucial to have well-maintained, accessible, and insightful customer data. And now, a good CDP makes that possible. It’s only a matter of getting the right data.

What Kind of Customer Data Does a CDP Work With?

The sheer volume and speed of digital data is hard to comprehend, and overwhelms traditional database software. A CDP, however, is purpose-built to manage this flow of data. 

The most reliable way for a CDPs to collect this type of data is via their own SDK, but most CDPs can also ingest data from other systems via JSON or batch ETL transfers. 

The types of data a CDP can work with include: 

  • Events: behavioral data that arises from a user’s actions in a session on a website, in an app, or on a mobile browser.
  • Customer attributes: including names, addresses, contact details, birthdays, etc. Advanced CDPs can also store machine-learning powered predictions, such as likelihood to purchase.
  • Transactional data: purchases, returns, and other info from e-commerce or POS systems.
  • Campaign metrics: engagement, reach, impressions, and other metrics from campaigns.
  • Customer service data: live chat data, number and length of interactions, frequency, NPS scores, other data from CRM systems.

What Makes a Customer Data Platform Different from DMP and CRM?

When comparing data gathering software, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There’s a sea of similar acronyms, product descriptions that look almost the same, and lots of claims about which program best suits your needs.

You might have come across customer relationship software (CRM), customer data platforms (CDPs) and data management platforms (DMP). While their capabilities might sound similar, it’s important to understand the distinctions between them so you can evaluate vendors and choose the right product for your business needs.

CDP vs DMP vs CRM: Comparison Table

CDP vs DMP vs CRM: Table Explained

  • Holistic Customer Data: Does the platform combine customer data from all available sources (behavioral, demographic, personal, transactional, device, etc)?
  • Lasting Customer Profiles: Does the platform retain customer data for a long period of time?
  • Packaged System: Can the platform exist as a ready-to-use piece of software?
  • Real-time Capability: Does the platform update data in real-time, allowing for quick reactions to changes?
  • Open Platform: Is it simple to get data into the platform? Is it easy to share data from the platform with other services?
  • Cross-channel Personalization: Does the platform allow for the personalization of messages across different customer touchpoints?
  • Only Anonymized Data: DMPs by design work with anonymized customer data. CRMs and CDPs work with identified customers, and allow for granularized views of individual customers.
  • Identity Resolution: Does the platform allow you to connect the behavior of anonymous visitors with known customers after they have given their consent? Does the platform recognize customers across devices?
  • Data priority – First Party: Does the platform primarily deal with data from 1st party sources?
  • Data priority – Third Party: Does the platform primarily deal with data from 3rd party sources?
  • Requires IT Support: Does day-to-day operation of the software require support from IT?

Author's note

Finding the right platform is no easy task, but we’ve got you covered.

In our One-Page Knowledge Card, you’ll get pocket-sized know-how on Customer Data Platforms (CDPs), Data Management Platforms (DMPs) and Customer Relationship Management Platforms (CRMs). Grab the Knowledge Card now to summarize, differentiate and help identify the data platform that’s right for you.

CDP vs DMP vs CRM (Knowledge Card)

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Customer Data Platform Types and Usage: Deep Dive

The Customer Data Platform market has matured, leading to a number of different providers. These providers are differentiated based on their target market and their intended use cases. Let’s take a look at some of the differences.

Standalone CDP vs Customer Data & Experience Platform (CDXP)

A key distinction among CDP vendors is whether they provide a product which is only a CDP, or a CDP plus other capabilities. It’s crucial to understand what your vendor is providing, because this distinction can cause large differences in how your business uses the CDP.

Standalone CDP

A standalone CDP is exactly what it sounds like: a customer data platform without extra capabilities. It ingests all of a company’s first-party data and uses that to build complete pictures of all of your customers (also known as a single customer view). Usually a standalone CDP will offer analytics capabilities, allowing for granular segmentations of your audience. 

This data is accessible for use by other systems, but the standalone CDP cannot execute campaigns. It needs the help of dedicated tools that can make use of the comprehensive data it collects.

For companies that already have campaign execution tools, a standalone CDP might make sense. But companies that lack those capabilities might want to consider a CDXP.

Standalone CDP (Visualization):

Customer Data Platform - Visualization

Customer Data & Experience Platform (CDXP)

A Customer Data and Experience Platform (CDXP) is the next generation of the CDP. It combines all the benefits of a Standalone CDP with an experience cloud, creating a single, powerful, customer-centric marketing platform.

A CDXP gives marketers the complete toolset they need for creating incredible customer experiences, by bringing together AI-driven marketing automation, real-time analytics and UX optimization with a best-in-class CDP.

A CDXP simplifies workflows and increases productivity by collecting frequently used tools into one integrated interface. But a CDXP is also flexible, and can fit into your existing tech stack. It molds around what you already have and fills gaps, creating the perfect solution for your company.

Customer Data & Experience Platform

Key Benefits Of CDXP:

Customer Data & Experience Platform (Visualization):

Customer Data & Experience Platform - Visualization

Exponea: The Most Versatile CDP on The Market

Exponea offers you the flexibility to pick and choose which features you want to use; it’s not an “all or nothing” solution. Although Exponea is Customer Data & Experience Platform (CDXP), it can act as a standalone CDP, providing a unified source of customer data to the clients existing technology stack (analytics, campaign execution), or it can be used to handle all marketing activities using the additional layers of campaign execution and analytics.

Difference Between Enterprise-Grade CDP and Small Business CDPs

There are multiple CDP providers out there, each with differing purposes and capabilities. A key consideration when choosing a CDP is the intended scale of the software. Is it built for small businesses? Or is it a full-fledged enterprise solution? There are some key points to remember when answering that question.

Scalability. Enterprise-level companies need to work with massive amounts of data. That data can change quickly, and for a CDP to be useful, it needs to respond to those changes quickly and accurately. This means that a CDP needs to be built for scale from the very beginning – it needs a scalable architecture.

Flexibility. No two companies are the same. For enterprise-level companies, a plug-and-play type solution will almost never be suitable for the unique needs of a company – therefore flexibility in a CDP is a must-have. A CDP must be able to ingest a company’s data from all its unique sources, as well as interface successfully with the platforms the company uses to function.

Integrity. A CDP needs to be trusted with the sensitive data of the company that uses it – and that can mean data for millions of customers. This requires rigorous security protocols and a dedication to privacy. These need to be core values of the CDP provider if they are to be trusted with customer data.


Exponea: An Enterprise-Grade CDP

Exponea has been built from the ground up as an enterprise-grade CDP. Thoughtful product planning and experience with world-class clients has made Exponea an industry leader in customer data platforms for the most demanding of applications.


Scalability: Exponea’s agile in-memory framework is scalable by design, and is ready to handle massive volumes of rapidly changing data at the speeds necessary for business success.

Flexibility: Exponea easily adapts to the needs of enterprise-class businesses. A quick onboarding process integrates Exponea with existing data. A rich API makes 3rd party integrations smooth and painless. And native integrations with best-in-class tools means Exponea works with the tools you already use.

Security: Privacy and security have been core values of Exponea from the very beginning. Exponea is the first GDPR-certified SaaS company in the world, and undergoes regular audits to maintain this status, as well as ISO 27017 and 27018 certifications.

How to Use a Customer Data Platform? (Key Use Cases)

The large number of CDP vendors on the market can be overwhelming. When choosing a vendor, it can be helpful to consider the list of use cases you hope to accomplish with a help of CDP. While it’s important to have high-level goals (improve the customer experience, foster loyalty), you also need to know how a CDP can help you achieve those goals through lower-level use cases.

We’ve collected what we believe to be some of the most important use cases below.

Use Cases:

1. Online to Offline Connection

Merge online and offline activities in order to create an accurate customer profile. Identify customers from online activities when they enter a brick and mortar store.


2. Customer Segmentation & Personalization

Segment customers according to their behavior (RFM, LTV prediction) and subsequently deliver a personalized, omni-channel experience throughout the entire customer lifecycle.


3. Predictive Customer Scoring

Enrich your customer profiles with predictive data (probability of purchase, churn, visit, email open).


4. Smart Behavioral Retargeting & Lookalike Advertising

Integration with Facebook Ads, Google Ads, Analytics & Doubleclick enables you to leverage insights from Exponea to run powerful acquisition & retention (lookalike) campaigns outside of your website.


5. Product Recommendations

Create and use different recommendation models such as “similar products” or “customers also bought” and deliver the best shopping experience to drive engagement, increase brand loyalty, and sell, up-sell, or cross-sell your products or services.


6. Conversion Rate Optimization & A/B Testing

Quickly transform the appearance of your pages. Use our smart website overlays (pop-ups), or send cart abandonment emails to increase your ROI. Create different designs and determine which variant performs better with the automatic A/B testing feature.


7. Omni-Channel Automation

Guide your customers through their entire lifecycle with personalized and timely messages sent to their preferred channel, significantly enhancing your opportunities to both acquire and keep a loyal customer.


8. Email Deliverability Enhancement

Increase email open rates. Thanks to an AI-powered algorithm, you can determine the ideal distribution time for each user based on their email opening habits, and reach them at this optimal hour.


9. Reviews Optimization

Get better and more online reviews from your customers through personalized omni-channel communication and NPS survey analysis


How Can a CDP Improve Customer Lifetime Value and Foster Customer Loyalty?

The most effective way to foster customer loyalty is to give your customers exactly what they’re looking for: a consistent, high-quality, and personalized experience. Customer data platforms make it possible to deliver these experiences at scale, personalizing the journey of each customer.

CDPs enable loyalty-building strategies by solving the problem of fragmented, siloed data. They arrange customer data in a way that makes personalization at scale possible (though personalization tools themselves are not always part of a CDP). 

If your data is siloed, you can’t create a consistent experience for your customers. Without that central data hub, you can’t provide the omni-channel experience customers expect, with up-to-date interactions regardless of which channel the customer communicates through.

Customer Lifetime Value

How Long Does It Take to Implement a Customer Data Platform?

The short answer? It depends. A very rough estimate would be in the neighborhood of 4-12 weeks.

The long answer? Without knowing the details of your organization and business needs, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. A few things you’ll need to take into consideration:

  • Integration complexity – how many tools will you need to integrate with? 
  • CDP output requirements what will you need from the CDP?
  • Current state of your data – data cleansing can lead to a longer implementation
  • Unique business rules
  • Identity merging needs – siloed data can lead to a single customer having multiple profiles across different platforms, and merging these profiles takes time
  • Level of detail in data attributes

Every business that wants the benefits of a CDP will have different requirements, goals, and structure – so it’s impossible to give a precise answer to how long the implementation process will take.

Nevertheless, most businesses can expect to go through a similar set of steps when implementing a CDP.

Let’s walk through the typical steps in the process of implementing a CDP.

We’ll also look at the differences between implementing a Standalone CDP and CDP with built-in campaign execution and analytics capabilities (CDXP).
Customer Data Platform: Implementing Phases desktop
Customer Data Platform: Implementing Phases mobile

The 3 Necessary Stages To Implementing a CD(X)P: Infographic Transcript

How to Choose the Right CDP for Your Company

After you’ve decided that a CDP is the right tool for your business, you’ve got to decide which vendor to choose. The number of possible vendors might make the choice seem overwhelming, so it’s important to have a plan to your buying process.

Each company will have different requirements and use cases, but some parts of the buying process should look the same for most businesses.


First, you need to define your use cases. How do you plan to use a CDP? Do you want a CDP with execution layers and personalization capabilities (CDXP)? Or do you just need identity resolution and customer segmentation (Standalone CDP)? Answering this question will help you better understand your requirements.

Once you’ve done that, you can start to match your requirements to potential vendors. Can they handle the use cases that you require? This allows you to create a short-list of candidates.

Next, evaluate the vendors you’ve selected. Ask them to demonstrate their platform executing a use case that you require, instead of relying on a canned demo that only showcases the best that platform has to offer. This will show you if a potential solution is right for you or not.

G2 Grid® for Customer Data Platform


Finally you can make your decision. This might involve an RFP or a pilot project to make sure that the solution you’ve chosen actually meets your needs. If it has, congratulations! You’re ready to start taking advantage of all a CDP has to offer.


Be wary of hype around customer data platforms. The power and capabilities of customer data platforms are enticing. Companies wanting to get in on the hype might disguise themselves as customer data platform without actually being one. If you decide to become customer-centric, be sure to do your research on available solutions.

Why Choose Exponea As Your New CDP?

While other companies have recently decided to jump on the CDP bandwagon, Exponea has offered an industry-leading CDP since 2012. Other CDPs are Frankenstein-like programs, built from a series of acquisitions and mergers, Exponea is entirely homegrown. All parts of the platform were built to work together, which means faster integrations, smooth operation, and better results.

Exponea is scalable, flexible, and secure. As the world’s first GDPR-certified SaaS company, you can be confident that your customer data will not just drive growth for your company, but that it will do so securely. That’s why companies like Missguided, Desigual, T-Mobile, and the Arcadia group have already chosen Exponea to make the most of their data and create win-win relationships with their customers.

Watch this 3‑minute video of Exponea’s main CDXP features and learn how it enables you to use in‑depth customer intelligence contained in a unified single customer view, delivering personalized experiences that are relevant and unified across all channels and devices.

What Should You Read Next? Author's Hand-Picked Recommendation:

CDP vs DMP vs CRM: Which one is best for your business?

In this one‑page comparison guide, you'll get the pocket‑sized know-how to summarize, differentiate, help identify the data platform that's right for you.

meet the authors
Jordan Torpy
Technical CDXP Specialist
Jordan works closely with the content team and Exponea experts to create material that brings value to readers. With a background in teaching, training, and marketing, Jordan uses case studies, presentations, newsletters and more to illustrate what's possible in the martech world today.
Lukas Sitar
Senior Content Operations Manager
Lukas is the Senior Content Operations Manager contracted with Exponea, where he prepares B2B content strategies. Lukas has years of experience in online marketing fields such as analytics, inbound marketing, customer lifecycle marketing and customer experience. His passion is psychology and behavioural economics and he is currently developing his skills in these areas.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Customer Data Platform?

A Customer Data Platform is a system that ingests, consolidates and normalizes customer data from multiple online and offline sources, regardless of the data’s structure or identifier (email, cookie, etc). The data is centralized, wrangled and enriched so other systems (usually 3rd party tools) can understand and utilize them for custom analytics, marketing campaigns, and other data-related business needs.

What is a Customer Data & Experience Platform?

A Customer Data & Experience Platform (CDXP) is the evolution of a traditional CDP. A CDXP unifies customer data into a single customer view in real-time. Additionally, it has the ability to enrich this data through customer-centric analytics and AI, and instantly utilize that data for personalized communication via its own built‑in omni-channel marketing systems. These processes are all interconnected and managed from a single user-friendly interface.



CDP vs CRM vs DMP: What's the Difference?

CDP:  Collects 1st party data from online and offline sources in real‑time to create a unified customer view, powering highly‑personalized marketing campaigns.


DMP: Segment anonymous 3rd‑party data to power retargeting campaigns.


CRM: Enable customer-facing teams (sales, customer support, etc.) to manage customer relationships.


Further Reading (Knowledge Card): Learn How to Choose & Implement a Customer Data Platform

How Are CDPs Used?

The most frequent business needs covered by CDPs are:


  • Ingesting the right volume and speed of data for your business.
  • Combining cross-channel data.
  • Enabling omni-channel orchestration.
  • Providing audience insights and discovery to non-technical/analytical users.
  • Using insights to inform customer interactions in real-time.
  • Providing data visibility, clarity, and compliance.
  • Extending customer insights beyond the marketing department.

What Are Some of the Customer Data & Experience Platform Use Cases?

  1. Online to Offline Connection
  2. Customer Segmentation & Personalization
  3. Predictive Customer Scoring
  4. Smart Behavioral Retargeting & Lookalike Advertising
  5. Product Recommendations
  6. Conversion Rate Optimization & A/B Testing
  7. Omni-Channel Automation
  8. Email Deliverability Enhancement
  9. Reviews Optimization

How to Successfully Choose the Right CDP?

  • Be clear about what you expect from a CDP (even before you look at vendors)
  • Think beyond the short-term, and look for a future-proof solution
  • Understand your options and look into vendor history (do they actually have CDP capabilities?)
  • Success depends on the right mindset and attitude

Further Reading: Learn How to Choose & Implement a Customer Data Platform

Watch Exponea demo video!
Explore the Customer Data & Experience Platform B2C Leaders Love to Use

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