Zero/First Party Data and your ESP - an opportunity for email marketers


We email marketers are in a great position to deal with the data challenges posed by new data-privacy laws and the impending loss of third-party tracking cookies. That's because we often have access to the most valuable kinds of data, most commonly referred to as first-party data and, increasingly, zero-party data.

Our current challenge – finding ways to collect more zero-party and first-party data and to use both to make better decisions that lead to stronger performance. 

I think the answer is our ESPs! The rest of this article is an introduction to zero-party and first-party data and why your ESP is a great place to leverage them.

Let's jump in!

Zero-party versus first-party data: What's the difference?

Data historically has fallen in one of three categories:

  • First-party data: Data you own on your subscribers and customers
  • Second-party data: Data shared from a partner like an affiliate or co-registration source
  • Third-party data: Data you rent or buy from an outside source

"Zero-party" data is a relatively new entry in the data lexicon. Forrester defined it in 2018 to separate the data people give you voluntarily through opt-ins, registrations or preferences, from the data you collect from their activities on platforms you control, such as your email messages and websites.

Consent makes the difference: Zero-party data comes with explicit consent, while observed behavior is indirect but with implied consent because it springs from voluntary activities like email clicks, web visits and purchases.

Are these distinctions important? Or is zero-party data just a subset of first-party data? Data scientists and marketers are still debating that question.

Why do zero-party and first-party data matter?

There's no debate here.

Zero-party and first-party data come directly from the source – your subscribers and customers, whether they volunteer it, or you observe it from their behavior. This is valuable for three of reasons:

  1. You know where the data comes from, when and how it was collected, and the security measures you use to protect it from leaks and hackers.
  2. It's often less expensive to obtain than data you purchase from an outside source, and it reflects your customers, not proxies or lookalikes.
  3. You can use the data to create highly personalized campaigns and journeys!

Four reasons why your ESP is a great place to collect zero-party and first-party data

Your email platform is the great place to collect zero-party and first-party data. Here are my four reasons why:

1. The data in your ESP is specific to each contact.

Your ESP gives you access to a wealth of specific information about each subscriber, like subscription details, which campaigns you sent them, and much more.

You can add in all of your zero-party and first-party data you have on each customer, such as preferences, purchase history and web visits and then use that information to guide the automations you use to personalize your messages.

In the ESP this information is available in each subscriber record. It won’t be aggregated, as can often happen in analytics reporting platforms.

2. Your ESP can easily hold and organize additional data.

Most ESPs will allow you to create tags and custom fields (which can also be referred to as personalization or merge fields) to help you capture information about your contacts. These are perfect holders for zero-party and first-party data.

ESPs can automate this data collection via built-in form/survey features, developer tools like APIs or integrations between the ESP and other tools like payment processors.

Virtually every ESP will offer tags and custom fields, others like ActiveCampaign have additional ways like Custom Objects and Site Tracking to collect data about contacts.

No matter which ESP you are using, you can take advantage of their features to collect and organize zero-party and first-party data about your contacts.

3. Your company already has a team of professionals familiar with your ESP (like you!)

If you or your team own email marketing in your organization – you are working in your ESP all the time. It's easier – and faster – to learn new tricks on a platform you already know than to add a new one.

You and your team most likely already have the know-how and expertise to collect and use this information. If not, reach out to your email vendor customer-success team or knowledge base to help you learn. 

4. Your ESP is where you can take personalized action.

This is a key point. The sending of personalized campaigns happens in your email platform, not in an analytics platform or database.

If you’re like me, you notice – and get annoyed – if companies send you generic email campaigns when you know full well they have the data to send you a far more relevant and interesting message. It's also frustrating to work in an organization that collects personal data by the bucketful but doesn't give you access to it so you can send more personalized messages.

If you have access to zero-party and first-party data in your ESP, you can use it to improve campaigns, craft automations and update customer journeys that keep you in step with your subscribers and customers. Your ESP, not a generic analytics platform, allows you to act immediately. You don't have to request the data from another source and then wait for it to be delivered.

Personalization boosts revenue. Survey after survey, whether assessing customer attitudes or measuring the outcomes of personalized messages, show that using data to customize messaging pays off. 

Sean Duffy highlights how personalization can boost your organization’s bottom line in his Only Influencers post, The 5 Ways of Increasing Revenue from Email Marketing. But he also notes an issue with personalization:

"The obvious downside to personalisation is it takes effort, not just from the marketers but pulling IT and data teams into the conversation. If it was that easy everyone would be doing it already."

How true! My work aims to make this easier by providing guidance to collect all of the data and helping make sense of all of the data after you've collected it – that is what I love helping organizations do! Here are a couple of posts I've written that can also help:

Your next steps

As I mentioned earlier, marketers are already dealing with changes from data-privacy laws that have already gone into effect or will be in the near future, with heightened customer concerns about how companies are using and protecting their data and with new practices dictated by platform changes from Apple, Google, and likely others.

Now is the time to go to your CMO or other company leadership and make them aware of the current (and pending) challenges and how your email marketing team and ESP are ideally suited to drive the collection of zero-party and first-party customers.

After all, no one knows your subscribers and your email program better than you!

christin hume Hcfwew744z4 unsplash 600Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash