Urban Airship CEO on bringing brands to the palm of your hand

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright March 5, 2019
We speak to Brett Caine, CEO of Urban Airship, about its recent acquisition and the business of bringing brand experiences to consumers on their smartphones

Airship over clouds 3D illustration © Michael Rosskothen - shutterstock
It's a truism of modern life that, whenever a group of people are quietly gathered together, it won't be long before somebody's phone punctuates the silence with a subtle ping, beep or buzz. Many of those notifications come from brands that we're signed up to, delivered via the infrastructure of a handful of companies that specialize in this form of real-time messaging.

One of the world's largest such companies is Urban Airship, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, which became significantly larger in January after acquiring Paris-based Accengage, its biggest rival in Europe. The two businesses combined send more than 90 billion messages worldwide each month, on behalf of brands ranging from the BBC, Caesars Entertainment and Vodafone to Air France-KLM, Lidl and Zalando. Yet this is still such a young market that when the two compared their European customer lists, they found virtually no overlap, says Urban Airship CEO Brett Caine, who I spoke to a couple of weeks back:

Across 700 customers we only had two customers in common, which is really quite unique when you acquire a direct competitor.

Spanning push notifications, in-app messaging, SMS, email, digital wallets and now — thanks to Accengage — Facebook Messenger, Urban Airship's mission is to help extend the brand experience into the palm of the customer's hand, Caine tells me. He cites the example of professional basketball team the Cleveland Cavaliers, which no longer has to wait for people get to the stadium to start building anticipation ahead of a match. Mobile notifications about traffic, weather and player status let them engage fans even before they've set off from home. This helps keep the brand front of mind for much longer, he explains:

When we're so interrupt driven, moving from one thing to the next, it's vital for brands to have the continuous experience — and keep the people who are their most enthusiastic customers excited about the brand.

Brands building 'first-party' connections

This is a new level of engagement that has only been possible since the emergence of smartphones in the past decade, and is just starting to go mainstream. Use cases range from push alerts for news channels and banks to digital ticketing, integrated with Google Pay, for cinemas and airlines.

One of the reasons brands are investing heavily is that it's an opt-in channel that gives them a direct connection to the consumer. This 'first-party' connection is particularly important at a time when people are becoming increasingly concerned about who's holding their data and how it's being used, Caine points out:

The whole ad-tech market and Facebook occurrences are really driving brands to understand how they can use first-party data to create experiences that are so vital for the brand. Data that comes to you [in an app] is owned content — it's your first party data.

We see brands across every industry adopting that because they're saying, why do I have to go to Facebook for that? You don't. Mobile engagement from first-party data is core to their strategy, we help them to do that. It's a direct relationship with potential and current consumers.

The advent of GDPR, Europe's stringent data privacy regulation, has sharpened focus globally on the issue. Some of Urban Airship's customers are already applying GDPR as their default privacy standard worldwide, says Caine. Acquiring Accengage helps increase the company's GDPR credibility, as well as adding a European data center — but the nature of mobile is that it's always been transparent about what's happening with user data, he asserts:

Our business has always been opt-in based. It means the consumer's choosing to receive that information. There's many best practises we've applied on mobile that we're now extending to these other channels.

Connecting the experience to the data

The real value comes when brands are able to manage their mobile interactions in the context of all the other data they hold on a customer. Therefore, as well as providing a sophisticated messaging infrastructure, Urban Airship offers data analytics tools along with integration to back-end marketing, merchandising and customer information systems. "I refer to it as 'embrace and extend' the stack," says Caine:

As our platform has matured we capture more and more of the experience in big data and machine learning, and deliver that back to our customers so that they can embed the mobie experience inside their own analytics tools across all the digital channels, whether we power them or not ...

What we hear from our customers is they're really looking for a digital hub — a place to create, manage and orchestrate these experiences for the consumer ... It's very important for marketers to have a single dashboard to manage this complex experience.

Putting that experience in the context of a 'single view of the customer' across the many different channels of engagement is a challenge that brands are currently grappling with, he adds:

Every brand has some form of primary customer data in a warehouse effort under way, to bring that all together. It's unlikely today that [Urban Airship] will be the system of record of that, but we have as part of our platform something called a named user. If you can identify that person in some way, we can attribute all the actions and data persisted with it and deliver that to the primary system of record.

That's very valuable and we do it in real time. While they're sorting out the monolithic element of their CRM or datalake, we're infiltrating it with very valuable mobile data.

My take

The advent of smartphones introduced an entirely new channel for brands to interact with consumers — one that's much more digitally sophisticated than a conventional website or email newsletter. Whereas these earlier phenomena were essentially digital versions of their physical equivalents, the smartphone enables truly digital-native experiences. This in turn has led to the emergence of an entirely new generation of companies that specialize in enabling these new experiences.

It's interesting that these companies are growing into substantial businesses that remain separate from the giant marketing cloud vendors. While the likes of Salesforce, Oracle and others have acquired or developed mobile notification capabilities, these lack the sophistication of specialists like Urban Airship and its main rivals, who include Braze, Leanplum and Swrve.

The acquisition of Accengage marks the first major consolidation within this mobile marketing segment. It's a sign that this separate layer of marketing technology may prove distinctive enough to remain independent alongside the larger players rather than ultimately being swallowed up by them.