What is Data Onboarding?

Data Onboarding 101

Data onboarding – the technical process of uploading offline customer data to the online environment to match with digital identifiers – made its ad-tech debut years ago. But with today’s increasing focus on identity-driven marketing, this critical capability is once again in the spotlight.

How Data Onboarding Works

As we now know, marketing is no longer just about winning conversions; it’s about maintaining conversations. And the only way to do so is by being able to continually recognize and relate to customers with contextually relevant experiences throughout buyer journeys. This is why resolving customer identity has become a marketing imperative and why, as the foundational first step, data onboarding is pivotal to a brand’s success.

When implementing identity-based strategies, a brand’s data onboarding proficiencies will make the difference between delighting customers with experiences they want—or annoying them with irrelevant, overplayed messages they want to ignore. Sure, this may seem a simple concept to grasp. But it’s one that leaves many marketers confused about where to begin. In this guide, we lead the way.

While there is no one-size-fits all solution to the data onboarding process, in its most basic sense, data onboarding involves the following three steps:

 1. Upload

A brand’s offline, first-party data (like email or postal addresses) is anonymized through a hashing process to remove personally identifiable information (PII) and then uploaded to an onboarder’s platform.

2. Match

Customer data is matched with online identifiers and device IDs available through publishers and other data providers.

3. Activate

A brand creates addressable audience segments from their matched data set and targets them with marketing messages relevant to specific behaviors and attributes.

3 Key Capabilities & Performance Factors for Data Onboarding

When it comes to selecting a data onboarding partner, marketers should carefully evaluate its capabilities, particularly when it comes to processing speed, data accuracy and brand control. These core components will impact the effectiveness of media activation, the level of addressability and the ability to leverage strategic insights to enhance overall brand performance.


Have you ever — or, let’s be real here — how often have you viewed then purchased a product in a matter of minutes…but still had an ad for that same product follow you around the Web for days? Disconnected experiences like these can be the result of slow onboarding.

Most onboarders still process data in batch files, which typically takes five to seven days to upload customer data, match it against digital identifiers and push out customer profiles to media vendors. This means that whatever happens between the initial data upload and the final activation point is not recorded — it’s lost. And customers can do a lot in five days.

Think about how we shop today. We may start a search on our desktop, compare email offers on our phone, seek advice through social media on our laptop and go to a store to make a purchase — all in the span of a few days, hours, even minutes. If you aren’t able to continuously capture, merge and activate this customer data in real time, opportunities to interact with contextual relevance at critical moments in buyer journeys are lost, as are potential conversions, strategic insights and the ability to accurately measure performance.


Onboarding vendors are keen on promoting their match rates, which reflect the quality of a brand’s first-party data as compared to an onboarder’s truth set. And for good reason: Onboarder match rates are usually very high, largely due to their use of probabilistic data (i.e., device IDs, IP addresses or browser types) to create highly likely statistical connections. However, due to their transient nature, often more than half of these IDs are expired, duplicative or incomplete.

Yet while a high match rate may imply greater reach, it does not represent how many individuals are actually reached…nor if they are even the right customers. Between days-long processing and probabilistic IDs, an onboarder’s addressability rate – the odds that a customer is still using the same browser or cookie days later—is quite low.

To make sure you are able to relevantly reach and engage known customers, you need to look beyond match rates and evaluate an onboarder’s abilities for addressability. When an onboarding solution roots profiles in deterministic and authenticated data (such as hashed emails or anonymized login information) that is continually refreshed with each new interaction, you know precisely who you can address and on what channels.



When working with a third-party onboarder, you are often required to “rent” a vendor’s identity graph for the duration of a campaign. Onboarders match your audience segments to their rented identity graph, and once the campaign is over, that segment-level data disappears, along with all those customer connections. Thus you must start the onboarding process all over again to reach the very same customers.

Equally troublesome is onboarding directly with a media partner, such as Facebook or Google. While these walled gardens can upload and match a brand’s data with their own massive lists of logged-in users in a matter of hours and deliver unrivaled scale, they do not share back much (if any) user-level data or insights, making it impossible to connect what happens inside these closed ecosystems with the rest of your marketing efforts.

Today onboarding solutions exist that ensure you maintain complete ownership and control of your customer data. With full transparency into how data is collected, used and distributed, you can track performance and optimize strategies to align with broader business goals.

The Top 4 Questions to Ask a Data Onboarding Vendor

The answers to the following four questions will determine what level of customer identity and addressability you can expect from a data onboarding solution.


1. Once I upload my customer data set, how quickly can I act on it?

If engaging your customers at critical moments is your goal, look for a solution that can onboard and activate data in minutes, rather than days.

2. How do you handle customer data you are not able to match?

With point-in-time batch onboarding, you may be missing customer connections. Only with an onboarding solution that continuously matches and refreshes customer data sets can you be sure your customer data is growing with each new interaction across your digital properties or within the vendor’s identity network.


3. How do I know I can find the customers I’ve onboarded?

You should be able to see so. Literally. Make sure an onboarding solution offers a dashboard with complete visibility into how data is matched within your identity graph as well as within a vendor’s identity network, so you see how accurate your data is, how much it is growing and how it can grow even more.

4. After my data is onboarded, where can I use it?

Ideally, anywhere you want. Seek an onboarding solution that delivers customer identifiers in a flexible format that may be leveraged across your other business systems. Complete portability leads to seamless connectivity.

Unleash the Full Potential of Your Customer Data

Signal’s Onboarding Solution makes it faster and easier than ever to onboard and activate a brand’s first-party data to power identity-based marketing. Through continuous onboarding and deterministic matching, brands can seamlessly update and activate customer profiles at critical moments and extend their addressable reach. Ultimately, Signal’s Onboarding Solution takes the guesswork out of targeting, eliminates wasted ad spend and powers immediate and actionable insights—all of which improves a brand’s bottom line.

Download our free guide to learn more about how the process of data onboarding actually works and the key technical capabilities that impact onboarding effectiveness.