Who are you?
If I were to ask you this question face-to-face, you’d probably know exactly how to answer it. It’s likely you’d start with your first name followed by your last name, right? Then you’d probably mention what you do for a living, your age, gender, hair color, favorite food, or other defining features that make you, you. While we can fairly easily define who we are in the physical world, it becomes much more difficult in the digital one, especially when multiple software systems come into play, each with their own way of defining identity.
When your job brings you to the intersection of data, technology, and marketing, you end up spending a lot of your time thinking about identities, and the best ways to define, capture, and resolve them in a digital setting.
Identity resolution is what distinguishes awe-inspiring, personalized, custom-created-just-for-you user experiences with ones that are just “meh” or just flat out cringe-worthy.
(Like that time you opened up an email to have it read: Hello Bob! when your name is...not Bob).
When you can properly execute on identity resolution across the buying cycle, you can open the doors for those experiences that make your prospects and customers feel like you really know them.
So, what is identity resolution?
Identity resolution is one of the core concepts in good customer data management. It's the process of taking the data points that define an entity from different online or offline systems and merging them to create a single, consolidated, and consistent record of that individual or company. At the end of the day, the goal of identity resolution is to generate a single customer view, or customer identity, from which to rely on.
A couple things are important to address in your identity resolution strategy:
- Ability to connect online and offline data: Because buyers in many industries often have both "online" (e.g. web visits, chat interactions) and "offline" experiences and activities (e.g. in-store visits, physical events and trade shows), it's important that your identity resolution strategy encapsulates and can unify both.
- Ability to connect anonymous and identified web traffic: Most buyers start off as anonymous web visitors, perusing your website prior to filling out a form and revealing their name and contact details. A good identity resolution strategy should be able to "stitch" anonymous and identified traffic to complete the profile and show the whole journey.
Identity resolution sounds simple in theory, but it’s really one of the most complex concepts that’s difficult to execute well on due to the following reasons:
- Different tools may use different unique identifiers. For example, your CRM’s unique identifier may be email address, but your SMS tool may define identities by phone number.
- Buyer lifecycle stages require the use of different identifiers. Anonymous leads are identified differently than known leads, which are identified differently than customers.
In this article, we break down some common identity resolution strategies. The first step to defining your identity resolution strategy is to decide on a common identifier that will (ideally) be the same across all of the different tools you use and allow you to match the identities and merge records together.
At the end of the day, the goal of identity resolution is to generate a single customer view from which to rely on.
Natural key identifiers
Many organizations use natural keys as identifiers because they’re straightforward and work well for a lot of different use cases. When you’re only dealing with a few different software applications that generally tend to define identities in the same way, natural key identifiers may be a good strategy.
The most common natural key identifier in B2B is probably email address (if we’re talking about identifying people vs. companies) because most people have one, and it’s an identifier that a lot of different tools like your CRM, marketing automation platform, or sales engagement tool, also use.
Should your company use natural key identifiers?
Like we mentioned, this is all fairly straightforward when you’re working out of one or two major software systems, like a CRM or marketing automation platform. If your tech stack consists of more than 10 or 20 different tools, things can get complicated really quickly, and natural keys may not be your best bet.
The natural keys approach also becomes much more difficult when a user has multiple natural keys, or no natural keys at all, like an anonymous lead that begins a chat conversation on your website. Having different versions of the same natural key can also throw a wrench into this strategy by creating duplicate users — which is the bane of all data teams.
The universal identifier, or the external ID, is an identity strategy that involves automatically generating a unique ID that is meant to be carried across the entire lifecycle of a Person (or Company) and across the many software systems your organization uses. The universal identifier is immune to natural key updates or changes, and can have as many additional identifiers attached as long as the universal identifier is the master key. The benefit to having a universal identifier in your identity resolution strategy is that it’s a persistent ID.
Should your company use universal (external) identifiers?
When available, this strategy works extremely well. However, it requires a central arbiter for identity generation. We notice that this strategy works well for companies that have a very early relationship with the user, like a “freemium” business model. In those cases, the company’s “leads” are those who’ve signed up for the free tier. When this signup occurs, the backend system generates a unique ID for that individual, which becomes their universal ID.
This strategy is probably not a good fit for companies where an auto-generated ID is not present or if two universal IDs may apply to the same user. These cases produce numerous cleanup efforts and create sections of data whose status is only retained as “tribal knowledge”.
What’s that shadowy place over there? Oh, those data records…you must never go there...
Multiple natural keys
Ok, so you don’t have just one natural key, and you can’t produce a universal key that fits in all cases. Congratulations — you’re not alone! If your company uses more than a few different tools in your customer data tech stack, it’s inevitable that you’ll have tools with varying identity requirements, like:
- Website cookie values
- CRM email addresses
- Chat bot first and last name, or email address
- SMS system phone numbers
A multiple natural key identity resolution strategy is a good way of keeping up with the different requirements for each system. Depending on the system that is generating the users, the key may be different, and respecting those differences means persisting the keys for that system.
A multiple natural keys identity resolution strategy creates different views of a customer until an “identifying” or “unifying” event takes place. An identifying event is what will allow you to match and merge these disparate views. For example, consider a lead who has been browsing on your company website anonymously. At this point, you only have a cookie value that links that anonymous visitor to their web activity. An identifying event might occur when they eventually fill out a web form and provide their email address, which subsequently links this cookie with their anonymous visit to all of their past activities, like marketing email opens and clicks, chat conversations, and more. Your picture of this lead just became a whole lot clearer with that identifying event.
The result of these disparate identifiers and identification events is a bucket of natural keys which all refer to the same person.
Should your company use multiple natural keys?
Using multiple natural keys may be your go-to strategy if, like we mentioned earlier, the systems you use produce different identifiers or you don’t have a way of generating unique, external IDs. However, if you’re not careful and you get the wrong natural key associated with the wrong user, untangling the data can be difficult. Be sure to understand the type of data that’s coming from each system.
Using a data unification system like Hull, you can define exactly how you want to identify and tie users together.
Enlist a customer data platform to help
A core function of a customer data platform is to reconcile identity data across different tools and lifecycle stages to create a unified customer profile. Hull’s B2B customer data platform offers a unique approach to identity resolution that invites our customers to use both natural key identifiers and external IDs to create a holistic view of their prospects and customers.
Our data experts have extensive knowledge in the field of identity resolution and can offer insights on what the right strategy for your company is.
How Does Identity Resolution Work in Hull?
Hull's customer data platform intelligently resolves identities and reconciles multiple data sources to build a holistic customer profile. Read more about our identity resolution feature.
Tim Liu is the Head of Product at Hull. Outside of work, he loves spending time with his wife and three kids, trying new restaurants, and getting the best deal on live lobsters.