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Customer Data Management

What's the Difference Between a CDP and a CRM?

August 30, 2023 7 minute read
For marketers researching whether a CDP or CRM is right for them, there's a lot of confusion between the two solutions

The marketing world is full of acronyms so you’re forgiven if you’ve mixed up CDPs with CRMs in the past. You’ll want to straighten out the terms, though, because a customer relationship management (CRM) system and a customer data platform (CDP) are each distinct solutions that help organizations reach important but different goals.

While both support marketers, CDPs are increasingly seen as the foundational layer upon which companies can best begin to understand their customers. That’s because CDPs compile data from multiple sources (including CRMs) along the entire customer journey in real time, while CRMs gather information in direct, one-to-one interactions and draw on historical data to inform future touchpoints — in short, CRMs, though powerful in many respects, don’t facilitate personalization in real time.

And, because CDPs collect information from numerous sources, they offer organizations a broader understanding of how their audiences behave and engage with their brand and subbrands. So, to gain wider insights or a bird’s-eye view of trends, marketers and executive leaders continue to turn toward CDPs.

But let’s compare and contrast them to CRMs to ensure your business objectives are supported by the technology that best meets and exceeds your targets.

What are the business goals of a CRM and CDP?

While CRMs and CDPs have overlapping similarities and key differences, the critical distinction between them is in their very names: CRMs address customer relationships and generally support sales teams, while CDPs address customer data and support a broader group of teams, such as marketers and revenue operations. 

CDPs and CRMs also differ in how they affect your bottom line. Developed first and long considered a B2B tool, CRMs are meant to help teams win new clients and retain existing customers by making it easier to manage direct, personal interactions. Their primary users are in customer-facing roles — think salespeople and customer success or support teams. Lastly, much of the data found in a CRM is entered manually.

CDPs, on the other hand, were developed to fill an unmet need among B2C companies that wanted CRM-like systems that could operate at market scale and leverage high levels of automation. The retail sector in particular has benefited from CDPs, where they unify data from multiple sources, producing customer profiles that optimize marketing efforts in real time.

And unlike CRMs, the primary users of CDPs are not customer-facing. They sit on marketing, product, and leadership teams, and the information they review is gathered from a wide variety of sources: display ads, social media profiles, point-of-sale systems, and so on. The data is compiled automatically via integrations and code snippets, which means it’s pulled from apps, websites, and devices like cell phones and tablets.

These are broad-stroke descriptions of the technologies, however. Let’s look at each one in a little more detail, so you have a complete picture of where they dovetail and where they diverge.


Designed to improve personal interactions with customers, CRMs feature contact information for leads and existing customers, as well as historical data, like past customer-support tickets and notes entered by a salesperson, such as the pain points a prospect raised at a demo or a client’s hobbies. Maybe they like to golf or garden, or maybe they continue to have trouble with an issue that one of your products solves — any tidbit that could help your colleagues better connect with a customer or prospect may be included in a CRM. This data is used only within the CRM. Extracting it requires work.

CRMs are also employed in the management of manually executed workflows, like problem resolution and managing the sales process for individual deals.


CDPs are all about scale and automation. The data they collect is broader than what a CRM captures. Information from every customer touchpoint or source feeds into a CDP, such as:

  • Customer loyalty programs. Who are your repeat customers?
  • Social media tags or check-ins at brick-and-mortar locations. Which stores attract high-net-worth individuals versus Gen Z shoppers?
  • Email service providers. Which links did customers click on, and what are their email addresses?
  • E-commerce platforms. Did the customer list more than one shipping address? 
  • Product review platforms. What feedback have customers left on underperforming products? What do they say about your latest launch?
  • Digital ads. Which ad did they click on to get to your product page? Was it one shown on Instagram, or were they hooked by a QR code at an event?

That’s not an exhaustive list — even data from a CRM can flow into a CDP. Behavioral, transactional, structured, unstructured — the data types that a CDP collects are far-ranging, with its compilation of unstructured data a differentiator between it and CRMs.

And, as we mentioned earlier, a CDP consolidates all that customer data in a central repository. Then, through a process called identity resolution, it connects the dots to link multiple online and offline interactions to a unique individual, standardizing and deduplicating the information. This process enables a unified view of every customer, whether they signed up for emails under the name Joe Smith or shopped in-store as Joseph Smith.

CDP users are also interested in communicating with customers and prospects in targeted groups called segments. With that complete and unified profile available for each of your customers, you can aggregate them to better understand their behavior, allowing you to more effectively segment and analyze audiences to improve your targeting and engagement efforts.

So, to sum up, CDPs yield rich customer profiles and clusters that can be used in a number of ways by a number of different teams. Segmentation can help marketers better target priority audiences, while in-product behavior and product reviews can guide engineering and product development. The C-suite can also use a CDP to better understand the lifetime value of their customers and the overall cost of acquisition. Sales teams aren’t left out in the cold, either — CDPs can be used for highly personalized, account-based sales. (Here are more examples of CDP use cases.)

CRMs vs. CDPs: Which one is right for you?

Good news: Businesses can have both a CRM system and a CDP. In fact, you may already have a CRM system. Many companies start with a CRM before realizing it doesn’t quite meet their broader marketing needs. For instance, CRMs don’t always feature a campaign development environment or flexible integrations for the collection of inbound data and for passing target audiences along to downstream activation tools like email service providers (ESP). In other words, they can’t deliver a holistic customer experience. CRMs also don’t support real-time marketing nor do they compile unstructured data.

So, the next question becomes how do you choose a CDP? And, for buyers who want to conduct more research, there may be other topics to resolve (like the difference between a CDP vs. a DMP) or to learn about (like types of CDPs).

There are numerous resources available to aid your search, but if you’d rather jump right into the nuts and bolts of what Acquia CDP can offer, request a demo to discover all the benefits and how it can power your organization forward.

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