A Blueprint for Successful Marketing Transformation

April 21, 2022

How Gerber Life Insurance Company converted billions of first-party data records into millions in marketing value

Just about every marketing leader I talk to today understands that their first-party data is a huge, largely untapped asset. Now, as third-party cookies phase out, they’re feeling intense pressure to do something around first-party data. The challenge is figuring out where to start. Too many marketing organizations are spinning their wheels because they’re focused on the biggest, most challenging parts — and overlooking the simple, quick-win fundamentals that must come first.

A real-world example: First-party data strategy comes to life

DELVE recently helped Gerber Life Insurance Company (GLIC) achieve one of those big, challenging goals: GLIC captured and integrated more than 3 billion first-party data records into a cloud-based data lake in Google Cloud Platform — all in less than 12 months — and earning AdExchanger’s 2021 Best First-Party Data Strategy award along the way. If that sounds like a heavy lift, the reality is far less daunting. GLIC laid the foundations for the successful data lake project with small, simple, quick-win projects over the last several years — successfully executing the crawl-walk-run approach to marketing transformation.

Lessons learned on the road to award-winning marketing transformation

I recently hosted a webinar with Peilin Corbanese, former VP of Analytics and Innovation at Gerber Life Insurance — now Global Head of Analytics at EXL Service — who led the award-winning project. We walked through what we called a Recipe for Customer-Centricity in a Cookieless World. I may have had too much fun with the recipe analogies, but Peilin offered some powerful insights and inspiring thoughts on how marketing leaders should be thinking about first-party data as the fuel for marketing transformation — and how they can gain traction and build momentum to get that transformation moving forward.

Just before our webinar, I sat down with Peilin to get her perspective on some of the things marketing leaders are buzzing about right now:

Greg Sobiech: So, to frame this conversation, the crux of every conversation I have right now is that marketers are squeezed between converging realities right now: You have the shift toward privacy, cookies going away and walled gardens going up — and then you have consumers’ expectations rising while their loyalty is falling off. It may seem obvious, but why should marketing leaders be focusing on first-party data as a solution to this challenge?

Peilin Corbanese: Well, I feel like the truth is we have always needed to focus on first-party data. Everyone out there is looking to have an Amazon-esque or Netflix-esque type of experience, right? To do that, we have to know our customers really, really well. And the best way to do that is to use the data that we already have internally — to understand what the data actually means on a customer level; to get as much intelligence as possible from our first-party customer data.

So it doesn’t matter whether cookies are disappearing or not. It’s a natural progression for any organization: If you want to get good at marketing what you do — by knowing your customers’ data, being able to interpret it accurately to forecast performance and knowing what elements are influencing performance the most — you have to invest in first-party data. Because that’s the only way you can actually cross-sell, upsell, and do things like forecasting and using analytics insights to find prospects in the future.

Greg Sobiech: That’s a great way to think about the marketing need for first-party data. But what about the business case? How should marketers think about the business value of first-party data initiatives?

Peilin Corbanese: We can get into the specific business value we realized from our first-party data strategy later. But I would say, in general, using first-party data to drive value could potentially result in somewhere between 5-10% of a company’s annual revenue. So, it could be very significant.

But that’s only the start of the project — not in the middle, not at the end — meaning that if you actually set up your data infrastructure and you start doing the analytics and start picking up the projects that are meaningful and that are ready for your organization to implement, then you could potentially see a very large return on your investment.

Greg Sobiech: A 10% bump in revenue should speak to everyone in the business. But we still hear that buy-in is a huge barrier for most marketing leaders trying to drive marketing transformation toward first-party data-driven strategies. Did everyone at GLIC “get” what you were doing right away, or how did you convince them?

Peilin Corbanese: I think the key is building trust and respect within your own organization. You need to spend the time putting in sweat equity to really prove yourself — to show others that the analytics you’re producing are actually right and will help you make smarter decisions and drive future value.

I’ve got some tips that I can share on how to figure out who your most important influencers are — and how to build up that trust so you can launch a bigger project like our data lake initiative.

Greg Sobiech: That data lake project turned billions of customer records into millions in additional annual marketing revenue. Given such impressive success, should every organization just copy GLIC and start planning to implement a data lake?

Peilin Corbanese: I’m extremely proud of the data lake — and think it’s a huge competitive differentiator for GLIC. But the data lake is what I like to call a “Big Hairy Project.” My personal experience has taught me that it’s better to start with multiple, small proof-of-concepts — simple initiatives where you can either get a quick win or fail fast and learn quickly. Because you never know — you may be surprised by your data. It may go against conventional wisdom or legacy understanding of the business. Like I said earlier, going this crawl-walk-run route lets you learn and earn respect, so you’ll have the knowledge and trust you need to go after a Big Hair Project like a data lake.

Greg Sobiech: I know you feel strongly about getting outside your comfort zone in order to drive change. Can you talk a little more about this?

Peilin Corbanese: I think that people talk about marketing transformation as a technology-driven change — something that’s almost inevitable given the momentum of where the industry is moving. But it’s really a people-driven change, and that requires real leadership. Most marketing leaders I know consider themselves leaders, but very few people actually put themselves out there. When you can be vulnerable and really show people what you truly believe in and what you are passionate about — when people hear that passion, they feel the need, they want to follow and change. And the desire to change is so important because without an evangelist,  human nature is to let inertia keep things the same. That’s a lot more comfortable; change is hard. 

Greg Sobiech: I absolutely love that. It’s a rousing call to action — and marketers love a good CTA. But, at the same time, it sounds daunting. What do you say to someone who looks up to you and thinks, “I could never lead with passionate confident like that”?

Peilin Corbanese: Before this, I had no idea how to lead a digital transformation project as big as what we did. The truth is that I was just a marketing person who loved data. I started to realize how much opportunity there was in our data, but I didn’t know how I could activate it. So, I actually went back to school during the pandemic, and I learned about how to lead transformation, how to be a technology leader, what to focus on. That gave me the confidence of standing behind my beliefs in what we should do and to be confident about what the data shows. And that’s not always easy to do in a world that’s probably not gender-equal — to speak up and advocate for what I believe is right. 

As a result, I grew a lot both professionally and personally. I want to share that story because I think for every organization transformation, there will be personal transformation that goes along with it. Without learning and growing, no organization will transform.

Greg Sobiech: That’s very inspiring. We could talk for hours, but last question for now: We’ve got a picture here of your entire Gerber Life marketing team shortly after winning AdExchanger’s 2021 Best First-Party Data Strategy Award. First of all, congratulations on the well-deserved award. What were you feeling or thinking when they announced GLIC as the winner?

Peilin Corbanese: Honestly, my first reaction was like, “Holy shit, we actually won!” It was an incredible feeling to be recognized by the industry — not only by the insurance industry, but also by the digital marketing industry. I was so proud and happy for my team, thankful to DELVE and to all the people at GLIC that played a role in this huge project. It felt really, really fantastic. 

You can’t drive big numbers without starting small

Now, for the numbers you’ve all been waiting for: Peilin and her GLIC team achieved $700,000 in first-year marketing business value — and uncovered more than $9 million in future marketing business value — through their data lake project. Of course, they also earned AdExchanger’s Best First Party Data Strategy Award for 2021. But, as Peilin reinforced again and again throughout our conversation and the webinar, focusing on these big results overlooks the real lessons that marketing leaders should take away: First-party data-driven marketing transformation is really just enhancing your customer journey. CMOs need to start by thinking strategically and empathetically about the human experience they wanted to create. And the tactical approach should start small, focusing on the fundamentals to build traction and momentum for bigger transformation.

To hear all of Peilin’s hard-earned insights on first-party data and savvy perspectives on marketing transformation, you can watch the full webinar on-demand:

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Greg Sobiech

CEO & Founder