Getting Started with a Customer Data Platform (CDP)

In this step-by-step guide, discover if your business needs a CDP, and learn how to implement one
Martin Kihn
SVP of Strategy, Salesforce Marketing Cloud
Jay Wilder
VP of Product Marketing

The Customer Data Platform (CDP) is the hottest new piece of marketing technology.  In fact, CDPs are becoming ubiquitous in marketing and seem to pop up in every marketing-related report or search. According to the 2020 State of Marketing Report, among marketers who say they use CDPs, 86% are increasing or maintaining their use of them. This leaves many companies wondering if they need one too, with some asking, what is a CDP, anyway?

That’s what this guide is for. It’s your step-by-step playbook to help your organization decide if you need a CDP and how to best select and prepare your organization for one. Read the chapters below in accordance with your needs.



A CDP usually includes a customer database, marketing automation, multichannel campaign management, and real-time interaction management. Essentially, CDPs are for when you need a marketing database with user-level data. To best understand this category of software, let’s look at some of the underlying challenges in marketing that resulted in its prominence.


We live in an era where the customer is in control. Amazon can predict what products we will buy next, Netflix recommends the shows we like with great accuracy, and Uber lets us customize trips right down to the type of vehicle we want to travel in. Customers expect companies to have an intimate understanding of their preferences, want personalized experiences, and demand fast service. It’s no longer a marketing advantage to deliver on this — it’s table stakes.

When it comes to marketing, customers expect the interactions they have on a company’s website to translate to their mobile app experiences and even in-store visits. The problem is that, for most companies, those environments operate off different datasets — even though the customer is the same. Customers also expect their experiences to be consistent, and “in the moment” as they move from channel to channel. Most customer journeys involve over three different channels (for example, e-mail, web, and mobile app), and customers tend to move seamlessly and quickly between these channels. Most companies, however, don’t have these data environments connected in real time.

The result is disconnected experiences for consumers and the lack of a single source of truth about customers for the marketer.

CDP Basics

The first thing CDPs need to do is connect all of a company’s customer data in a single place. That means not only stitching together a single customer ID from many different CRM instances, but also tying together databases that traditionally don’t share customer data, like marketing clouds, service software, and ecommerce engines. We call that customer resolution.

The next thing CDPs have to do is reconcile the identities we have about our known customers (like email and mobile numbers) with what we know about customers before they share their data with companies (anonymous cookies and mobile device IDs, as an example). This way, we can start to associate an interaction that started with an email campaign and continued onto the website with the same customer. We think of this as a cross-device identity.

Once the CDP has created unified profiles of customers, the system has to make that data available in real time so companies can deliver personalized experiences. That means connecting customer data to many different types of systems – email-send engines, demand-side platforms, and content management systems.

In a nutshell, CDPs are concerned with these primary tasks: data collection, data unification, data activation, and data insights.

Use Cases

So, what do companies use CDPs for? Here are a few examples, and they aren’t all related to marketing.

  • Personalization: Say you see a consumer come to your website, browse a product, and leave. Wouldn’t it be great if you could tie everything you’ve learned about that customer to a personalized offer via email or push notification? CDPs make the unified profile available to all addressable channels, enabling personalization and relevancy. Customers who see content tailored to their interests are five times as likely to engage with a brand.
  • Suppression: Sometimes the best use of data in marketing isn’t to better target consumers — but to not target them at all. A unified profile that connects marketing and purchase data enables marketers to optimize their addressable spend by suppressing consumers that have already made a purchase, and redirecting those dollars toward new customers.
  • Insights: Most analytics systems operate in silos. What if an outdoor retailer had a customer’s marketing interactions tied with ecommerce data (purchase history) and website interaction data (products viewed multiple times) — and made that information available to a service rep in the call center? This type of personalization can turn a $15 per hour call center rep into a $100,000 a year salesperson.

Different Types of CDPs

CDPs are really just an evolution of CRM, finely tuned for the high-scale, real-time requirements of the digital-first modern B2C marketer. They’re a natural extension of the kinds of tools Salesforce has been building for enterprises of all sizes, all around the world, for decades. CDPs share CRM’s goals of managing customer data to drive relevant and productive experiences.

Unfortunately, the CDP market is very cluttered, including over 100 vendors (at last count by the Customer Data Platform Institute) who call themselves a “CDP.” No two are the same. Rather than focus on vendor-driven definitions, we asked hundreds of marketers what they need from a CDP and quickly came to realize there are not one but two different types of CDPs.

  1. Insights CDP — Builds a “single view of the customer” by integrating data from multiple disparate sources, handling integration and data management, and enabling analytics and activation.
  2. Engagement CDP — Helps users with real-time personalization, for example, of websites and mobile apps, and powers real-time next-best-offer and action engagement.

The vast majority of CDPs on the market today are either insight CDPs or engagement CDPs — not both. We believe a true enterprise CDP must encompass both insight and engagement.

Next we’ll look at how companies leverage CDPs to go beyond marketing and advertising — and use connected customer data to tie together their organizations, create cross-company insights, and start to value customer data as something they can put on the balance sheet.

To learn more about demystifying the customer data platform, check out this blog post by Salesforce’s SVP of Product Strategy.

In the next chapter, we'll look at how to build a business case for data transformation and a CDP. We’ll look at how companies leverage CDPs to go beyond marketing and advertising — and use connected customer data to tie together their organizations, create cross-company insights, and start to value customer data as something they can put on the balance sheet.


More Resources

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