They say that &THEN is “the event for data and marketing mastery.” It’s hosted by the DMA (an one-hundred-year-old organization), and brings together marketers, industry titans, and solution providers to discuss “what’s next” in marketing.

In 2018, that might just be blockchain. This year’s &THEN was the first time in the event’s prestigious history to feature an entire content track devoted to the technology and its use cases.

So what did the greatest minds in marketing and data have to say about blockchain? Let’s find out.

Blockchain as the Next Programmatic

We spend a lot of time in marketing trying to predict the future. Will more ad dollars go towards influencer marketing? Is content still king? Will Facebook and Google maintain their stranglehold on the industry?

Blockchain has finally coaxed its way into that conversation. Asked about the future of blockchain technology in marketing, Louisa Wong, Chief Transformation Officer at Carat, provided this comparison:

“When I first started in programmatic, everyone said it was crazy. It would never scale. Now 50 cents of every dollar is done programmatically… I want to talk about how, yes, there is a real need for transparency, and blockchain will be the next version of programmatic.”

Blockchain as the next version of programmatic is a bold idea. But if you consider that data was the catalyst that allowed programmatic to boom in the way that it has, then the ability to audit that data does make sense as the next evolution.

Will blockchain replace programmatic? No, not quite. Programmatic is a targeting and ad delivery tool. Blockchain is for measurement.

Instead, blockchain and programmatic will work in concert with one another, promising the most efficient and cost effective way to market a product.

Obsessed with Identity

In addition to talking about blockchain as a measurement tool, several sessions at &THEN focused on blockchain as an identity tool. Here’s why:

  • Blockchain could allow consumers on the Internet to create a universal, self-sovereign identity
  • Because the blockchain database is decentralized, consumers would largely be protected from identity theft and fraudulent activities
  • Consumers would also be able to take ownership of their data and monetize it
  • This creates significant opportunities for brands as well as significant challenges

Consumer identity managed by blockchain technology could be an opportunity for brands to create more sophisticated brand loyalty programs. Keith Poplawski, founder of Lalena and Creative Technologist, spoke to the idea that by using blockchain, brands could crowdsource for creative ideas, deterministically track user behavior to offer increased rewards, and tailor services based on direct consumer feedback (killing surveys in the process).

However, as Manny Puentes, CEO of Rebel AI pointed out, consumers are also becoming more aware of their own data privacy, and blockchain will give them greater control over their own data.

So while brands will have the opportunity to use blockchain to their benefit, they will also have to navigate a new paradigm in which consumers have the ultimate say over how their data is used by brands.

Blockchain and the Walled Gardens

There’s always an elephant in the room, and in this case we have two.

The behemoths of Google and Facebook command most of the industry’s budget and almost all of the available consumer data.

Unlike blockchain, Google and Facebook house their data in centralized databases. And as we’ve seen, centralized databases can be hidden, manipulated, or even hacked.

“Centralized databases are not the future,” said Richard Bush, President of Nyiax, during a session on blockchain for ad verification and performance.

In the same session, Manny Puentes discussed some of the drawbacks to centralized systems that go beyond just identity theft and fraud.

“If you have a database owned by one entity, the only way to get data out is to ask for permission,” he said. The point being that scaling business around private, siloed databases creates dependency.

In contrast, blockchain removes that dependency and allows marketers to make faster decisions.

Louisa Wong made perhaps the most salient point on the matter:

“Ad Fraud is table stakes. It’s not a case of ‘we need more money.’ It’s because we are reliant on 2-3 large ledger systems like Google and Amazon. We should be pushing these walled gardens to open their walled gardens. To create an open database. We need to collaborate around this data and demand the buyers and sellers in our marketplace to follow a standard of conduct.”

A Note on Scaling Blockchain

There was more than one instance where blockchain’s scaling issue was brought up. Specifically, the fact that most public chains can only process around 20 transactions per second and for blockchain to work in marketing, it obviously needs to have a much higher transactional throughput.

It’s certainly an interesting topic of discussion. But it was surprising that the multitude of blockchain scaling solutions that either exist today, or are currently in development, were never mentioned. Perhaps the speakers and panelists at &THEN were unaware of these solutions, or felt it wasn’t the right time and place to dive in.

In any case, there are a number of scaling solutions for blockchain and you can read more about them here.

The Need for More Education

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest takeaway of &THEN.

Everyone understands blockchain a little bit differently.

Some tie it inextricably to cryptocurrencies. Some see it as a way to create a universal, self-sovereign identity. Others see it as simply a way to verify records and transactions.

And then there are those who only know it as a buzzword to be ignored.

In reality, blockchain is all of this and then some.

But in order to have productive conversations around its applicability for industries like marketing, there needs to be a baseline understanding of what the technology is and what it isn’t. What real blockchain looks like and what it doesn’t look like.

That’s the only way we can avoid getting burned by scams, and start answering the most important questions.

Questions like “will blockchain work for me?”