As the world of data and technology continues its relentless race forward, its speed often outpaces our ability to keep up with the new terms it generates. One of the latest—and quite important—of these is “identity graph.”

If you had a graphic that described everything you know about a shopper, from his or her demographics, to online and offline shopping behavior, to channel preferences and social media interaction, further amplified with third-party data to fill in the gaps (from the make and model of that person’s car to their music tastes), and that information were continuously updated and validated over time, that would be an identity graph.

The identity graph is the next step along the continuum of marketers’ understanding of their customers. That continuum look like this:

  1. Customer data: This includes any data located in any of a number of a company’s often siloed databases, including purchase, email, direct mail, advertising, web, app, and in-person. It can include demographic data, as well as behavioral and psychographic data.
  2. Identity resolution: People interact with brands through any number of different channels. Identity resolution is the process of identifying individuals across those channels and connecting their profiles from each channel into a single, comprehensive profile. For example, through identity resolution, a marketer can identify Janie B. Smith who shops online on her laptop as the same as Chocolate Labs Forever who interacts on social media on her iPhone as the same as Janice B. Smith who shops in-store.
  3. 360-degree customer view: Once identity resolution has occurred and the customer data from disparate silos has been pulled together, marketers have a “360-degree view” of each customer that they can use to target their marketing campaigns with incredible precision. For example, as described by Amperity, “An airline can easily create a segment of people who have flown to Denver in the last 12 months, who have not checked a bag, have the airline’s credit card, and are opted in to email communications. This sample segment could be used for highly targeted marketing campaigns across a variety of digital and non-digital channels.”
  4. Identity graph. An identity graph is the next step beyond all of this. It adds even more data, whether gathered by the marketer or purchased from other sources. It contains and centralizes all of the data touchpoints for a customer, not just in the moment, but over time. It’s who they are, where they live, what devices they use and their device IDs, social media interactions, demographic and psychographic characteristics, buying preferences, purchase history, and any other characteristics or behaviors that can be known about them. An identity graph ensures that, at any give time, the information on each customer is accurate, complete, up to date, and as deployable as possible.

Key to an identify graph is not just gathering information, but linking it. Linking is the ability to accurately link data sets so that this view of a customer is not only complete, but accurate. You don’t want to inadvertently link two different people into a single, inaccurate profile. An identity graph is also set up to provide continuous, long-term updating and verification so those profiles stay current over time. After all, people move, get married, have children, change jobs, get new email addresses, change their names, and discover new hobbies. Yet, they are still the same person.

Needless to say, it takes a heavy lift of artificial intelligence (AI) and processing power to create and maintain an identity graph. It can be done in-house, or through a third-party. But creating these graphs is growing in importance, particularly as marketers eye the upcoming “demise of the third-party cookie” (as Google joins Firefox and Mozilla in no longer support third-party cookies by 2022). Third-party cookies are a key way for brands to track, understand, and serve up relevant online ads to potential customers. As third-party cookies get phased out, brands currently relying on them for precise targeting information will have to find other ways to understand and connect with potential buyers.

As defined by infutor, which offers identity graphing capabilities, “An identity graph turns the unknown consumer into the known, enabling your brand to recognize customers—and know their history, needs, and interests—across any channels they choose for their interactions.”

In other words, identity graphs do, in essence, what third-party cookies do by following consumers around the web. But instead of treating them as anonymous web visitors to whom brands are trying to sell stuff, they turn each shopper into a human being, someone who is known, a person with a name, a life, and a profile.

Everything has a next generation, from iPhones to high-speed inkjet presses, and identity graphs are the next generation of customer identity management. You may not be ready to set up identify graphs for your customers, but it’s a concept that you should be familiar with because it’s going to be part of the ongoing marketing discussion for awhile. At least, until the next generation comes along.