Digitas chief data officer Jen Faraci examines WARC Awards for Media entries from Unilever Corporate, Dove and McDonald’s.

The use of first-party data in marketing isn’t a new concept – it’s been a core element of marketing since the days of direct mail – but as access, technology, and application opportunities have grown, so has the sophistication of advertisers and agencies. 

As they evolved, they embraced digital experiences and the digital enabler known as the cookie to start bringing personalization outside owned spaces and developing new mathematical techniques to measure impact. 

Now, with third-party cookies going away, and privacy regulation demanding stricter controls, first-party data has become an exponentially more valuable asset for a future-proofed marketer. A strong first-party data strategy allows advertisers not just to replace previous capabilities, but also to unlock new ones with higher fidelity and more creative applications than before.

We see evidence of this growing emphasis on first-party data in the volume and breadth of this year’s WARC Awards for Media: Best Use of Data submissions. Some were about data collection, others about insight or measurement, and many about activation – there are valuable learnings from all of them that we can explore. 

Unilever Corporate: U-Win

Let’s start for example with the Unilever U-Win submission. To remain competitive, the company needed to find a way to build direct relationships with its highest-value consumers, and at the same time, scale its first-party data. 

So, in a category where this is notoriously difficult, they built a very clever mechanism that targeted those most desirable consumers, and then incentivized them to provide profile information in exchange for an instantly available reward. 

They made it easy by focusing on mobile and showing up where consumers already were. Although none of the specific components of the program were necessarily unique, their creativity in bringing together targeting, promotion, and data collection to produce a highly valuable data asset was smart and, more importantly, it was effective.

Dove: Dove Hair x Google – Future-proofing first party data

In contrast, the Dove submission had plenty of first-party data available but needed a better way to drive scale. The solution was to use its data as seed data, connect it to Google’s data, then layer on custom audience modelling to identify additional consumers that met their target audience criteria. 

This technique is just a standard look-a-like model approach, but was an effective workaround in the absence of cookies; the partnership with Google and use of its CODA API enabled more control and ensured the process was privacy compliant.

McDonald's App: Summer lovin'

The last example I’ll point to is beautiful in its simplicity: make it fun and give consumers something in return.

In the McDonald’s submission, the brand pulled insights from market research about who its consumers were and why they ate at McDonald’s, then used that insight to build a game based on dating app mechanics that lured people in and made it fun to provide data (swipe right for spicy chicken nuggets please!). A layer of targeting ensured it reached the right consumers and their engagement was then rewarded with a promotional offer for their favorite food within the app.

Fun, engaging, and effective!

Maximize the impact of your first-party data

Regardless of which of the dozens of entries this year that had an element of first-party data we are looking at, there are some clear themes emerging about how to successfully maximize the impact of first-party data.

  1. Be PII and privacy compliant. Always.
  2. Provide something of value in exchange for a consumer’s data.
  3. Get creative about finding new ways to scale first-party data.
  4. Use a targeting layer to increase response rates and prevent wasted time and money.
  5. Make it easy and, if possible, make it fun.

Regardless of industry, location, or business model, first-party data is the backbone of the modern marketing engine and is not just helpful but required to target, optimize, and measure in a meaningful and impactful way.   

Employing the best practice we have learned from Unilever, Dove, McDonald’s and others will not only help ensure a successful first-party data strategy and activation, it will also enable flexibility when technology, regulation, or pandemics force us to find new ways to engage consumers.

An abridged version of this article appears in WARC's Report, What's working in data-driven marketing 2022.