Q&A: Salesforce’s Chris O’Hara Wants Marketers to Capitalize on the Data Revolution

He talks consumer trust, data use and capturing 'people data'


If you want to learn about data, Chris O’Hara is the right person to ask. O’Hara, who leads global product marketing for Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s suite of data and audience products, is a big believer in the data revolution—but first, marketers need to take stock of what data they actually have.

“Some marketers think they have way more data than they actually have, and others think they don’t have a lot of data but actually do,” O’Hara said.

Before joining Salesforce, O’Hara was at Krux, the data management platform that Salesforce acquired in 2016, working on data marketing. In October, O’Hara, along with Krux alums Tom Chavez and Vivek Vaidya, released a book, “Data Driven,” which dives into how marketers should think about using data to overhaul customer engagement and experience.

Before the book’s release, Adweek talked with O’Hara about the book and about how marketers can leverage the data they have while keeping data privacy and consumer trust in mind. A portion of that conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Adweek: A lot of marketers have talked about the importance of getting better at explaining to consumers what exactly is being collected and how exactly data is being used. Do you think it’s the responsibility of tech and advertising companies to explain that to the public?

Chris O’Hara: Marketing is better when you have the permission of consumers. Consumers are entitled to know exactly how their data is being used, and consumers are absolutely entitled to have control over their own data. As you talk about the opportunities to get more personalized with customers, you’re allowed to deliver great personalization if the customer has opted in for you to do that on their behalf. If you do that without their consent, it feels creepy and wrong, right?  It’s common sense. We’re always going to lead with the idea that trust comes first and that marketing is better with consent. Period.

You write in your book that the biggest risks of harnessing data are centered around privacy, security and trust. As concerns about data privacy grow, and as data breaches continue to occur, how does the industry best rebuild trust with the public? Where does the industry start with reestablishing trust and maintaining trust with consumers?

It’s all based on permission and an opted-in consumer. I like getting advertising messages that are relevant. When I am shopping for a car and I give Cars.com permission to introduce me to new models and send me an email every week, I appreciate it because I’ve asked for it. When I engage with certain sites on the web, like The Wall Street Journal, where I pay for content, I trust them with a certain amount of my data so they can make my reading experience better. That’s the way it should have been, always. Unfortunately, there are some companies in the space that have taken advantage of little oversight to do otherwise. But what we’ve seen in the market is that companies that are not leading with trust are not being valued as highly or perceived as more valuable than companies that do put trust at the center of their relationship with customers.

What’s the biggest misconception marketers have with data?

Something we write about in the book is that some marketers think they have way more data than they actually have, and others think they don’t have a lot of data but actually do. One of Pandora’s svps, Dave Smith, came to us and said, ‘I have one of the biggest mobile data assets in the world. Everyone who uses Pandora is logged in, so we know so much about our customers: what kind of cellphone they have, what kind of music they like, perhaps the ages of the kids in their home, when they listen.’ That’s a lot of data. Pandora probably has one of the largest data assets in the entire world. But Pandora doesn’t know when people are going to buy a car or people’s incomes, necessarily. They don’t know when you’re planning on taking a family vacation. So they turned to second- and third-party data to enrich their understanding of consumers.

On the flip side, take a marketer like Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s doesn’t really have a ton of people going to FrostedFlakes.com; they don’t have millions and millions of people signing up for their loyalty program. The data they have is relatively scarce. What they did have is the data they get when they spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on digital media—what people click on, what ads they have engaged with, what creative appeals to them. And that’s a lot of data—mobile device data, cookie data, ad interaction data. So even though they didn’t have the type of data Pandora had, Kellogg’s realized that they had a ton of data.

Marketers understand the potential of data, but they’ve just scraped the surface. If you line up the data and collect more of it and build out first-party data sets, it begins to open up really interesting use cases that can drive business value.

Is more data always better?

No. Absolutely not.

So how do you decide what’s good data, and when you have enough?  

Consumers give off what we think of as digital exhaust when they interact with the digital world. They’re giving off little bits of signals about what’s interesting to them. Years ago, a marketer’s view of a customer was stuck inside a CRM system—this is Chris O’Hara, and he lived at this address, this zip code, and maybe he bought this from me before. There’s a relatively static, uninteresting view of an individual, although it’s important. I think as we’ve turned more to digital and as people have thrown off more of this digital exhaust, now through my interactions with all of these devices you know that I live in this zip code and I make this income, that maybe I’m in the market for this car, or I’m a frequent skiier, that I have three kids in my house and I’m a soccer dad and I love these brands, and when I go shopping this is what you’ll find in my shopping cart. The amount of data you can get in this modern world is fascinating and really valuable, but you have to be able to capture it. People data is the data people throw off when they interact with the modern world and technology, and for it to be valuable you have to associate the data with a person and really bring that data together to get a more holistic view of the consumer.

You mentioned earlier that consent—permission—is the main difference between a good ad and a creepy ad. How does a marketer strike that balance, and where’s the line between good targeting and creepy? Is that line changing?

Is getting retargeted for a shoe ad creepy? That’s the popular analogy—I bought a pair of shoes; even if I bought them, I’m seeing this ad for the same pair of shoes over and over. Why can’t somebody figure out I’ve already bought them? That’s not really creepy. It’s just annoying. There’s a good opportunity to be smarter about using data to determine if someone already bought something, and the ability to stop wasting a lot of marketing money marketing to somebody who’s already bought the thing you’re trying to get them to buy.

I think creepy is when a consumer maybe didn’t opt into geolocation targeting and you’re standing in front of, say, a Starbucks and you get an offer for 20 percent off your latte when you didn’t ask for that. That’s weird, right? I think there’s a line there, and I think where the line is is this: Do I have a relationship with this company? Did I give them the permission to offer me this coupon? Did I tell them it’s OK for them to know where I am? If all those boxes are checked and consent has been given, that’s an awesome ad. But in the case where consent hasn’t been given, it’s a terrible experience that makes people feel weird. And you can’t actually deliver those experiences without having infrastructure and technology to know that it’s OK to deliver certain messages.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.