Four Simple Steps for making a CDP vs ESP decision

If you are a data-driven business, you need to be smart about the platforms in which you invest your martech dollars. Which often starts with decisions regarding your ESP or, more recently, a CDP.  But for marketers today, it’s becoming increasingly unclear: Do you need both a CDP and ESP? And if so, which one to select first?

Because of the blurred lines between these platforms (see diagram below), the answer isn’t always obvious. A marketer doesn’t want to end up paying for overlapping functionality. Or even worse, spending a lot of time and effort looking into tools they don’t even need. 

We’ve created this simple four step process that helps you go through a combined ESP and Customer Data Platform (CDP) selection.
But first, why are CDPs so popular?

CDP trends and popularity

Customer Data Platform (CDP) mania didn’t reach its peak last year, and so far it shows no signs of slowing down.

Every digital marketer wants one, wants to consider adding one, or is looking for advice as to whether or not he or she needs one.



There is a lot of interest in CDPs, as they promise to be a solution for the elusive challenge to unify all data. But the real question is whether or not you need a CDP to accomplish that!  Because when you look under the hood… 

Enterprise ESP and CDP, is there a difference?

In my conversations with clients a light bulb often goes on when we look at the functionalities of both. And they say something like, “say, a lot of that CDP functionality sounds suspiciously like the things our ESP is already doing!”. And you know what? They’re right!

This chart shows the overlap between the platforms, but be aware that it’s an evolving picture and the overlap grows larger every day.

Because there is this overlap between the two types of systems, it’s critical to understand what your ESP solution is capable of. There isn’t a CDP in existence that can send email campaigns and automated/ triggered emails. But there are, as we’ve noted, ESPs that can do a lot of what a CDP does around data unification and aggregation.

Where to start your ESP and CDP search?

Which means if you begin your process with the search for a CDP, you are always going to need to add an ESP as well. But—and this is the critical thing to remember—if you start your process with a search for the right ESP partner, you may not end up needing a CDP at all!

There are a couple of reasons why you might not need a CDP.

First, there are a lot of ESPs who now come with what I call a “CDP Inside”. In other words, they have built a fully integrated CDP platform to go along with the ESP platform.

Second, there are many ESPs that have many of the same characteristics of a CDP without necessarily covering all of the bases completely.  But you might not need all the functionalities. In which case a solid ESP is all you need.

Take your requirements detail from 20 to 200+ lines

Start out with a clearly defined set of requirements. It is the best way to ensure that you aren’t adding platforms to your martech stack that have overlapping capabilities (stop paying double!).

And I don’t mean a list of 10-20 high level requirements. You need to really get into the weeds, in which case you’re more likely to come up with 200+ requirements.

With a good list in hand, it will be much clearer. Once you’ve selected your ESP partner that meets most of those requirements, you can determine which of your critical requirements, if any, have yet to be met. Only then can you reasonably determine whether or not you need to also consider a CDP.

Do you need a CDP? 4 steps to know 

If you think you need both a CDP and ESP, here’s the order of actions you should follow:

  1. Create a detailed requirements document for your data management and digital messaging needs
  2. Conduct a rigorous RFP to select a new ESP
  3. Conduct a gap analysis between the capabilities of your new ESP and your original requirements document
  4. If—and only if—there are significant gaps identified in #3, then go ahead and conduct a rigorous RFP for a CDP

Follow these 4 steps and you can be relatively certain that you won’t be paying for more than your need, or for overlapping capabilities in two separate platforms.  You can put that money to much better use elsewhere in your marketing program!

Let’s back up a little bit though, because everyone is looking into the CDP market, how do I double check whether or not I need one?

Grasping the ever-changing definition of a CDP

To begin evaluating whether or not you need a CDP, you first need to know what it is exactly. There is little consensus as to the precise definition of a CDP and it seems to be changing all the time.

For the sake of this article, here is my definition which is also very close to that of the CDP Institute.

For a platform to legitimately claim CDP status it has to:

  • Support unstructured data,
  • Be highly flexible to use and model your data,
  • Act as a true integration hub, not proprietary in nature and
  • Provide real-time access.

A CDP should have open APIs, meaning the CDP can receive and provide access to the data and be connected to any systems.

All these features and functions should be included to be a real CDP in my book.  A lot of vendors that call themselves a CDP don’t check all the boxes. Many predictive and B2B analytics vendors, for example, claim to be CDPs because they need to aggregate customer data to do their job in the first place—but that doesn’t make them a CDP. 

3 things a CDP actually does:

What does a CDP actually do, you ask? The following are the functionalities you can expect.

1. Data Aggregation

All customer data is neatly organized and available for immediate use. Data collected and organized with a CDP is visualized through individual data profiles for each user.

2. Single Customer View

Data from multiple online and offline sources is combined to create a unified single customer view This 360-degree view of the customer is possible because all customer data is brought together in one central location.

3. Accessible Data for 3rd Parties

Data contained within a CDP is ready for use in 3rd party systems focused on adtech and campaign delivery.

So which comes first, the ESP or the CDP?

CDPs are hot and we’ve seen this before in the martech space, and behind every single one of these “technology hype cycles” something has been drilled into our psyche.

This has been going on since the years leading up to 2000 by everyone from Gartner Group to the Harvard Business Review, plus an untold number of consultants.

What is it? The fear of ever-growing customer expectations and the absolute necessity to provide industry-leading customer experiences. If you think this is a recent focus of digital marketing, and martech in particular, take a look at this quote from the forward of a book first published in 2002:

Building Great Customer Experiences

By Colin Shaw, John Ivens · 2002

If you’d read that earlier today, and didn’t know where it came from, you’d have no reason to believe it wasn’t something somebody has just written in 2021!

I will leave you with one last thought:. In the collision between ESPs and CDPs that is happening right now, ESPs are going to win and CDPs will eventually be part of an enterprise ESP platform.  It’s already happening with the ESP platforms at Zeta Global and Adobe, for example. So don’t rush into adding a CDP now if you can wait a couple of years.

Chris Marriott

About Chris Marriott


President & Founder of Email Connect. A 25-year veteran of digital marketing, including well over a decade in email marketing, Chris is a recognized expert in the process of connecting leading brands with the right marketing technology partners and platforms.
Prior to founding Email Connect as a consultancy focused exclusively on the ESP/CRM vendor selection process, Chris served as a tenured executive at Acxiom, leading and building its Global Digital and Email Agency Services team into one of the industry’s top services providers.

Chris is also the co-host with Paul Shriner of "Email Geeks at Home Drinking Coffee", a weekly podcast devoted to featuring guests from business, sports and the arts who have great and inspiring stories to share--which sometimes includes email marketing!

Additionally, he is a regular columnist on email marketing and the RFP process and is an advisor to several emerging marketing technology companies including AudiencePoint and CertainSource.

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