Guiding Clients Through COVID-19 Challenges

Times of drastically scaled back face-to-face client meetings are likely to pop up over the course of your career. Even if you’ve been lucky enough so to have no local COVID-19 concerns, you’ve got to start answering the question: In an age of fewer in-person meetings, how do you adjust your client service strategy?

The move toward more remote work has been advancing for years, but COVID-19 is forcing an acceleration at breakneck speeds. Scheduling a video meeting while folks work from on Fridays is one thing, but moving your big industry events to virtual-only is something no one was truly ready for. But we should consider this the new normal.

Times of drastically scaled back face-to-face client meetings are likely to pop up several more times over the course of your career. Even if you’ve been lucky enough so far to have no local COVID-19 concerns, you have got to start answering the question: In an age of fewer in-person meetings, how do you adjust your client service strategy and help your clients?

Don’t Panic! You’re Already Pretty Good At This

Less face-to-face time can feel like a huge blow to your client service strategy, but it doesn’t have to be. The number of remote workers and companies with remote work policies increases all the time. Chances are, you already know how to work successfully without routine in-person meetings. Just consider COVID-19 your glimpse into the future.

Inventory your client relationships and determine who’s going to need a new approach when lunch meetings aren’t happening. Whose business is likely to suffer most from periods of widespread quarantine, and how can you expand your scope of work to help them plan a response?

The guiding principles for you and your clients are the same as ever: creativity and communication.

Shake Up Your Client Service Strategy!

When it comes to marketing, you’re going to have to take a whole new approach to your client service strategy. Professional conferences in every sector are being cancelled, postponed, or rolled into online-only events. That means big news about data, clinical trials, product launches, trends, and more aren’t going to be communicated the way anyone planned.

Talk to your clients about what they’ll do if in-person events are off the table. Social media and paid media will have to take a much larger role in pushing out the major announcements usually reserved for the year’s biggest in-person events. Many companies have been dragging their feet on developing robust strategies for virtual events, which is where you come in. Whether it’s a live tweet event, Facebook Live, Instagram stories, or something else, get creative about turning the content you wanted to share “in real life” into great web content such as animation, recorded presentations, infographics, etc.

Embrace the Chance to Plan

Getting clients to commit time and resources to planning for contingencies is never easy, but with this new virus on everyone’s mind, seize the moment and have those big conversations. If your clients aren’t worried yet, push them to imagine what they would do if their field’s biggest meeting got canceled.

Ultimately, planning for something like this makes you and your clients more nimble. You can draw on the lessons learned and shelved plans to adapt to other issues that come up.

If you never have to draw on those plans, that’s great, and you’ll have pushed yourself and your clients to find new and compelling ways to share the information that’s most important to them.

Remote work is only becoming more popular, and there’s no telling when the next global health crisis will have us all stuck at home. Start planning now.

 

 

5 Ways Healthcare Marketers Can Prepare for Seat at the Table

Healthcare marketers, are you at the kid’s table or the grown-ups table? Whether in a small town or large city, your medical practice or hospital is impacted by external matters, such as zoning issues, health plan changes, and the national debate about healthcare access.

Healthcare marketers, are you at the kid’s table or the grown-ups table?

Whether in a small town or large city, your medical practice or hospital is impacted by external matters, such as zoning issues, health plan changes, and the national debate about healthcare access. Are you at the leadership table when these issues are made?

Historically — and even today, in some organizations — the marketing and communication function was seen as a “packager” of decisions made by others. This “take this and sell it” mindset can fail spectacularly when the stakes are high, forcing a series of clarifications that make the organization look uncoordinated.

A lack of upfront input from communications contributes to decisions that come across as tone deaf when messaged to the public or other influential audiences  In these situations, the communications function hasn’t failed, but leadership failed to anticipate the external response, because of a lack of communications input at the beginning.

The communications function should be a critical input to actual decision-making, especially when it impacts patients. Having communication professionals at the table can help operational leadership anticipate — and prepare for — criticisms and questions that will arise when major decisions are announced.

For this construct to work, however, the communications function needs to come to the table prepared. This requires five things:

  • Reading a broad array of consumer, medical, and policy publications to understand various perspectives on trending issues, as well as core ones;
  • Staying in contact with external audiences through original and third-party market research and participation in influencer events;
  • Anticipating likely questions and bringing well-developed FAQs to the table for solution development by the full leadership team with an emphasis on how the organization will help transition those who are negatively impacted;
  • Aligning (or internally pointing out misalignment) between a decision and the organization’s publicly stated mission, vision, values, and previous statements. In cases where they do not seem to align, be transparent about the considerations that led to the decision and any steps being taken elsewhere in the organization to lessen perceived harm; and,
  • Recognizing that the outcomes of issues management may impede progress on your carefully constructed strategic marketing framework, particularly if the issue lingers in traditional or social media.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and a seat at the grown-ups table.

Is Your Content Marketing the Right Length to Touch the Ground?

The content marketing debate revolving around length makes me think of a story. A curious little girl is said to have asked Abraham Lincoln how long one’s legs should be. After a moment’s reflection, the tall and lanky president responded wisely, “just long enough to touch the ground.”

The content marketing debate revolving around length makes me think of a story. A curious little girl is said to have asked Abraham Lincoln how long one’s legs should be. After a moment’s reflection, the tall and lanky president responded wisely, “just long enough to touch the ground.”

He certainly could not have realized that he was creating an unassailable template used endlessly ever since to provide dimensions for just how short or long any form of communication should be. Thorin McGee, Target Marketing editor-in-chief, recently explored how to find the right length for your content here and concluded — rightly, I would suggest — that the right length was as long as you can keep your audience engaged. Because when they become bored, they leave.

“Think like a reality TV editor,” he writes, referencing popular media for couch potatoes. He might have found a better frame of reference in the novels of Dickens or Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’, originally published in weekly installments in the popular press. To be certain readers would come back and buy the next installment, each had to end with a cliffhanger — would the hero/heroine fall off of the proverbial cliff or be saved, just in the nick of time, to continue the story?

There is no question that if the copy is engaging or compelling, if it makes promises and poses questions you feel you must have the answers to, length isn’t a primary consideration. Guru Frank Johnson’s classic rule is:

Tell them what you are going to tell them.

Tell them.

Tell them what you told them and what to do about it.

It never fails. And whether you do that in 100 or thousands of words depends only on the type of product, the medium but — most of all — on the ability of the writer to increase the attention and interest of the reader as the narrative continues, never letting him get bored. Johnson liked to remind us that great copy “tracks” — like a train going to the next station, it has to stay on the track or you have a fatal derailment.

Try this from TheDogTrainingSecret.com:

Hi Peter,

It gets me every time …

You see a homeless guy on the streets, a dog cuddled at his side.

Life has clearly not been kind to the gentleman, he’s wearing the rattiest, dirtiest jacket you’ve ever seen and shoes so old, there’s no way his feet could be dry.

His life’s belongings are gathered at his side, in a small duffle bag and maybe a weathered grocery bag.

He’s collecting change in a paper coffee cup.

Maybe $1.25 so far today.

Not much.

And as a result of hard living, he’s painfully thin. Much too thin, for a man living on the streets. And life is bleak.

Except for the one obvious ray of sunshine in his life:

That misfit dog, cuddled up at his side.

A dog with nothing but love, admiration and adoration for his master, pouring from his heart and eyes.

Has YOUR dog ever looked at you like that?

Like you’re the center of his world, the only thing that matters, the only person he trusts, his rock and the one person who’s worth 100% of his love and attention?

I don’t know about you …

… But that look of love you get from a dog?

I tell you, it’s a gut check for me every time.

And it’s this feeling that inspired the next designer T-shirt in our line-up:

Be The Person Your Dog Thinks You Are.

Because wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all stepped up and lived this way? And loved this way?

This T-shirt comes in 3 styles … kids, women’s and unisex.

In a variety of stylish colors.

Check them out …

It’s just 275 words. Is it too long, too short or just right? Can you possibly get bored as the story unfolds?

OK, not everyone loves dogs or will buy the T-shirt, but I’d bet many do. (Disclaimer: I bought one.)

So what is the bottom line of the long or short content length issue?

To this maverick marketer, it is simply that every commercial communication must have an objective supported by a narrative engaging and compelling enough to take you by the hand and lead you to the call to action and to the action itself. All of the theorizing about generational differences in attention spans and similar research pales against one simple thing: Does the story accomplish the objective; is it the right length to touch the ground?

Professional Protocol: How Should We Communicate?

I lament the erosion of talking and listening to live human voices. And I welcome the parts of my day, scheduled and otherwise, where I actually get to talk to someone.

workplace communicationFor better or worse during the workday, email has supplanted telephone communication for “talking” one-to-one or one-to-group for many and most business communication. This is not a personal choice, it’s just how digital communications have evolved and, in practice, that seems to complement the protocols of “open office plans” and shared workplace settings where the only discernible noises most times during the day are keystrokes on a computer (and an occasional outburst of one or another).

I lament the erosion of talking and listening to live human voices. And I welcome the parts of my day, scheduled and otherwise, where I actually get to talk to someone.

In most workplaces, a desktop or conference room telephone still is available for more urgent conversations — but I still watch colleagues let their phones ring, wait for a voice mail, and then later answer that voice mail by email. On the other hand, I actively screen — and if it’s a number I recognize, I answer it. It seems that if someone wants to talk to me now, they’ll be calling me, right?

Is this a generational thing? Or a loss of common courtesy and protocol?

Then there’s the email sent in the workplace between colleagues who are in close proximity of each other.

Here’s a novel idea, take a moment to save your eyesight, take a break from the screen and go talk to the person nearby. Oral skills are still needed in business — and how wonderful it is to speak to someone clearly and concisely, particularly when we have the privilege of working a few feet away from each other. Has establishing eye contact and talking to each other also fallen victim to open office spaces — I thought the intent of such plans was to facilitate collaboration?

Really, we shouldn’t hide behind our screens all the time, should we?

It’s 2017, so now let’s introduce texting and instant messaging to the office — and now I find I’m the one guilty of being non-responsive.

Somehow these “newer” digital, mobile channels have worked their ways into daily business communication taxonomy, because some way, somehow email may not be immediate enough.

So now I find myself stumbling upon texts and instant messages on my smartphone at odd times during the day — because, alas, I’m actually working, and that doesn’t entail watching every screen/page/pop-up available to me simultaneously, 24/7. I only have so much capacity, and to the best of my ability, I’m not able to take to email, instant messaging, texting, and person-to-person and telephone all at once, while developing content as I do for the majority of my day-to-day work.

Thankfully, the instant messaging we use in the office is a “group” platform. My colleagues, waiting for me to respond to digital cues seem to know this: “Gee, Chet, boss i.m.ed you 30 minutes ago — are you going to answer him?” I look up from my computer, where my boss also emailed me on another topic just moments before … why would he instant message me here, and then email me on another subject there. He’s my boss — so I’d better find out!

My take-away: Early on, make sure to establish a communication protocol with bosses, colleagues, clients and partners, setting expectations for immediacy of responsiveness and training where necessary … or you may find yourself frustrated, or frustrating others.

Make the Most of Your Social Media Fans

Most brands and companies today have some sort of social media presence. Even in industrial and technical sectors, Twitter and Facebook have proved themselves to be lively venues for engagement, sharing and conversation.

Social mediaMost brands and companies today have some sort of social media presence. Even in industrial and technical sectors, Twitter and Facebook have proved themselves to be lively venues for engagement, sharing and conversation.

But here’s a new development: The San Antonio based data company Stirista now can turn your social media followers — a portion of them, at least — into an instant marketing database, ready for communications through any channel you like. To me, this sounds like the next big thing in the rapid progression of social media marketing.

The way this works is pretty straightforward, albeit a bit geeky. In a process known as “reverse append,” the social media handles are matched to a vast database of consumers and business people (Stirista’s contains over 120 million names), many of whose records include social media handles. If there’s a hit, the entire record — name, address, phone, email, and demographics — is connected to that social media account. According to Ajay Gupta, Stirista CEO, the best results can be produced for the “big three” networks, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. The match rate averages around 10 percent.

So, with this technique, marketers who have built up sizable social media followings can enrich the relationship. Here are some of the applications that come to mind:

  • Deepen those relationships by communicating through other media channels.
  • Identify customer service problems. Searching on telltale hashtags like #tmobilesucks or #sprintrules, and contact the follower directly to resolve the issue.
  • Market research. Do a demographic analysis of your fan base to gain insights into their nature and needs.
  • Conduct competitive research. GoToMeeting might see who’s following WebExpress, for example. Or Hillary could look at Bernie followers.

Best of all, the reverse append process is inexpensive, and fast.

I learned about the capability a few months ago, when Ajay Gupta brought me in for some consulting help. To launch the service, Stirista came up with a pretty nifty PR idea: They reverse appended consumer data onto the millions of Twitter followers of @realDonaldTrump and @HillaryClinton. They then matched those names against another Stirista product—a voter file—and analyzed the nature and political behavior of the followers of the two presumptive presidential candidates.

The results contained some fascinating facts, which we wrote up in a report, and hired a PR professional with political experience to pitch to journalists. (Does it surprise you that a third of Trump followers turn out to be registered Democrats?)

On the launch day, we were pleased to see a flurry of press attention from outlets like Politico and the Wall Street Journal. As B-to-B PR strategies go, this was a hit.

But to marketers, the big news is this new technique, which takes the value of your social media asset to a new level. Just think of the possibilities if you can instantly add a complete record of 10 percent of your social media followers to your marketing database. Wow.

A version of this article appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Marketing and IT; Cats and Dogs

Cats and dogs do not get along unless they grew up together since birth. That is because cats and dogs have rather fundamental communication problems with each other. A dog would wag his tail in an upward position when he wants to play. To a cat though, upward-tail is a sure sign of hostility, as in “What’s up, dawg?!” In fact, if you observe an angry or nervous cat, you will see that everything is up; tail, hair, toes, even her spine. So imagine the dog’s confusion in this situation, where he just sent a friendly signal that he wants to play with the cat, and what he gets back are loud hisses and scary evil eyes—but along with an upward tail that “looks” like a peace sign to him. Yeah, I admit that I am a bona-fide dog person, so I looked at this from his perspective, first. But I sympathize with the cat, too. As from her point of view, the dog started to mess with her, disrupting an afternoon slumber in her favorite sunny spot by wagging his stupid tail. Encounters like this cannot end well. Thank goodness that us Homo sapiens lost our tails during our evolutionary journey, as that would have been one more thing that clueless guys would have to decode regarding the mood of our female companions. Imagine a conversation like “How could you not see that I didn’t mean it? My tail was pointing the ground when I said that!” Then a guy would say, “Oh jeez, because I was looking at your lips moving up and down when you were saying something?”

 

Cats and dogs do not get along unless they grew up together since birth. That is because cats and dogs have rather fundamental communication problems with each other. A dog would wag his tail in an upward position when he wants to play. To a cat though, upward-tail is a sure sign of hostility, as in “What’s up, dawg?!” In fact, if you observe an angry or nervous cat, you will see that everything is up; tail, hair, toes, even her spine. So imagine the dog’s confusion in this situation, where he just sent a friendly signal that he wants to play with the cat, and what he gets back are loud hisses and scary evil eyes—but along with an upward tail that “looks” like a peace sign to him. Yeah, I admit that I am a bona-fide dog person, so I looked at this from his perspective first. But I sympathize with the cat, too. As from her point of view, the dog started to mess with her, disrupting an afternoon slumber in her favorite sunny spot by wagging his stupid tail. Encounters like this cannot end well. Thank goodness that us Homo sapiens lost our tails during our evolutionary journey, as that would have been one more thing that clueless guys would have to decode regarding the mood of our female companions. Imagine a conversation like “How could you not see that I didn’t mean it? My tail was pointing the ground when I said that!” Then a guy would say, “Oh jeez, because I was looking at your lips moving up and down when you were saying something?”

Of course I am generalizing for a comedic effect here, but I see communication breakdowns like this all the time in business environments, especially between the marketing and IT teams. You think men are from Mars and women are from Venus? I think IT folks are from Vulcan and marketing people are from Betazed (if you didn’t get this, find a Trekkie around you and ask).

Now that we are living in the age of Big Data where marketing messages must be custom-tailored based on data, we really need to find a way to narrow the gap between the marketing and the IT world. I wouldn’t dare to say which side is more like a dog or a cat, as I will surely offend someone. But I think even non-Trekkies would agree that it could be terribly frustrating to talk to a Vulcan who thinks that every sentence must be logically impeccable, or a Betazed who thinks that someone’s emotional state is the way it is just because she read it that way. How do they meet in the middle? They need a translator—generally a “human” captain of a starship—between the two worlds, and that translator had better speak both languages fluently and understand both cultures without any preconceived notions.

Similarly, we need translators between the IT world and the marketing world, too. Call such translators “data scientists” if you want (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist”). Or, at times a data strategist or a consultant like myself plays that role. Call us “bats” caught in between the beasts and the birds in an Aesop’s tale, as we need to be marginal people who don’t really belong to one specific world 100 percent. At times, it is a lonely place as we are understood by none, and often we are blamed for representing “the other side.” It is hard enough to be an expert in data and analytics, and we now have to master the artistry of diplomacy. But that is the reality, and I have seen plenty of evidence as to why people whose main job it is to harness meanings out of data must act as translators, as well.

IT is a very special function in modern organizations, regardless of their business models. Systems must run smoothly without errors, and all employees and outside collaborators must constantly be in connection through all imaginable devices and operating systems. Data must be securely stored and backed up regularly, and permissions to access them must be granted based on complex rules, based on job levels and functions. Then there are constant requests to install and maintain new and strange software and technologies, which should be patched and updated diligently. And God forbid if anything fails to work even for a few seconds on a weekend, all hell will break lose. Simply, the end-users—many of them in positions of dealing with customers and clients directly—do not care about IT when things run smoothly, as they take them all for granted. But when they don’t, you know the consequences. Thankless job? You bet. It is like a utility company never getting praises when the lights are up, but everyone yelling and screaming if the service is disrupted, even for a natural cause.

On the other side of the world, there are marketers, salespeople and account executives who deal with customers, clients and their bosses, who would treat IT like their servants, not partners, when things do not “seem” to work properly or when “their” sales projections are not met. The craziest part is that most customers, clients and bosses state their goals and complaints in the most ambiguous terms, as in “This ad doesn’t look slick enough,” “This copy doesn’t talk to me,” “This app doesn’t stick” or “We need to find the right audience.” What the IT folks often do not grasp is that (1) it really stinks when you get yelled at by customers and clients for any reason, and (2) not all business goals are easily translatable to logical statements. And this is when all data elements and systems are functioning within normal parameters.

Without a proper translator, marketers often self-prescribe solutions that call for data work and analytics. Often, they think that all the problems will go away if they have unlimited access to every piece of data ever collected. So they ask for exactly that. IT will respond that such request will put a terrible burden on the system, which has to support not just marketing but also other operations. Eventually they may meet in the middle and the marketer will have access to more data than ever possible in the past. Then the marketers realize that their business issues do not go away just because they have more data in their hands. In fact, their job seems to have gotten even more complicated. They think that it is because data elements are too difficult to understand and they start blaming the data dictionary or lack thereof. They start using words like Data Governance and Quality Control, which may sound almost offensive to diligent IT personnel. IT will respond that they showed every useful bit of data they are allowed to share without breaking the security protocol, and the data dictionaries are all up to date. Marketers say the data dictionaries are hard to understand, and they are filled with too many similar variables and seemingly conflicting information. IT now says they need yet another tool set to properly implement data governance protocols and deploy them. Heck, I have seen cases where some heads of IT went for complete re-platforming of their system, as if that would answer all the marketing questions. Now, does this sound familiar so far? Does it sound like your own experience, like when you are reading “Dilbert” comic strips? It is because you are not alone in all this.

Allow me to be a little more specific with an example. Marketers often talk about “High-Value Customers.” To people who deal with 1s and 0s, that means less than nothing. What does that even mean? Because “high-value customers” could be:

  • High-dollar spenders—But what if they do not purchase often?
  • Frequent shoppers—But what if they don’t spend much at all?
  • Recent customers—Oh, those coveted “hotline” names … but will they stay that way, even for another few months?
  • Tenured customers—But are they loyal to your business, now?
  • Customers with high loyalty points—Or are they just racking up points and they would do anything to accumulate points?
  • High activity—Such as point redemptions and other non-monetary activities, but what if all those activities do not generate profit?
  • Profitable customers—The nice ones who don’t need much hand-holding. And where do we get the “cost” side of the equation on a personal level?
  • Customers who purchases extra items—Such as cruisers who drink a lot on board or diners who order many special items, as suggested.
  • Etc., etc …

Now it gets more complex, as these definitions must be represented in numbers and figures, and depending on the industry, whether be they for retailers, airlines, hotels, cruise ships, credit cards, investments, utilities, non-profit or business services, variables that would be employed to define seemingly straightforward “high-value customers” would be vastly different. But let’s say that we pick an airline as an example. Let me ask you this; how frequent is frequent enough for anyone to be called a frequent flyer?

Let’s just assume that we are going through an exercise of defining a frequent flyer for an airline company, not for any other travel-related businesses or even travel agencies (that would deal with lots of non-flyers). Granted that we have access to all necessary data, we may consider using:

1. Number of Miles—But for how many years? If we go back too far, shouldn’t we have to examine further if the customer is still active with the airline in question? And what does “active” mean to you?

2. Dollars Spent—Again for how long? In what currency? Converted into U.S. dollars at what point in time?

3. Number of Full-Price Ticket Purchases—OK, do we get to see all the ticket codes that define full price? What about customers who purchased tickets through partners and agencies vs. direct buyers through the airline’s website? Do they share a common coding system?

4. Days Between Travel—What date shall we use? Booking date, payment date or travel date? What time zones should we use for consistency? If UTC/GMT is to be used, how will we know who is booking trips during business hours vs. evening hours in their own time zone?

After a considerable hours of debate, let’s say that we reached the conclusion that all involved parties could live with. Then we find out that the databases from the IT department are all on “event” levels (such as clicks, views, bookings, payments, boarding, redemption, etc.), and we would have to realign and summarize the data—in terms of miles, dollars and trips—on an individual customer level to create a definition of “frequent flyers.”

In other words, we would need to see the data from the customer-centric point of view, just to begin the discussion about frequent flyers, not to mention how to communicate with each customer in the future. Now, it that a job for IT or marketing? Who will put the bell on the cat’s neck? (Hint: Not the dog.) Well, it depends. But this definitely is not a traditional IT function, nor is it a standalone analytical project. It is something in between, requiring a translator.

Customer-Centric Database, Revisited
I have been emphasizing the importance of a customer-centric view throughout this series, and I also shared some details regarding databases designed for marketing functions (refer to: “Cheat Sheet: Is Your Database Marketing Ready?”). But allow me to reiterate this point.

In the age of abundant and ubiquitous data, omnichannel marketing communication—optimized based on customers’ past transaction history, product preferences, and demographic and behavioral personas—should be an effortless routine. The reality is far from it for many organizations, as it is very common that much of the vital information is locked in silos without being properly consolidated or governed by a standard set of business rules. It is not that creating such a marketing-oriented database (or data-mart) is solely the IT department’s responsibility, but having a dedicated information source for efficient personalization should be an organizational priority in modern days.

Most databases nowadays are optimized for data collection, storage and rapid retrieval, and such design in general does not provide a customer-centric view—which is essential for any type of personalized communication via all conceivable channels and devices of the present and future. Using brand-, division-, product-, channel- or device-centric datasets is often the biggest obstacle in the journey to an optimal customer experience, as those describe events and transactions, not individuals. Further, bits and pieces of information must be transformed into answers to questions through advanced analytics, including statistical models.

In short, all analytical efforts must be geared toward meeting business objectives, and databases must be optimized for analytics (refer to “Chicken or the Egg? Data or Analytics?”). Unfortunately, the situation is completely reversed in many organizations, where analytical maneuvering is limited due to inadequate source data, and decision-making processes are dictated by limitations of available analytics. Visible symptoms of such cases are, to list a few, elongated project cycle time, decreasing response rates, ineffective customer communication, saturation of data sources due to overexposure, and—as I was emphasizing in this article—communication breakdown among divisions and team members. I can even go as far as to say that the lack of a properly designed analytical environment is the No. 1 cause of miscommunications between IT and marketing.

Without a doubt, key pieces of data must reside in the centralized data depository—generally governed by IT—for effective marketing. But that is only the beginning and still is just a part of the data collection process. Collected data must be consolidated around the solid definition of a “customer,” and all product-, transaction-, event- and channel-level information should be transformed into descriptors of customers, via data standardization, categorization, transformation and summarization. Then the data may be further enhanced via third-party data acquisition and statistical modeling, using all available data. In other words, raw data must be refined through these steps to be useful in marketing and other customer interactions, online or offline (refer to “‘Big Data’ Is Like Mining Gold for a Watch—Gold Can’t Tell Time“). It does not matter how well the original transaction- or event-level data are stored in the main database without visible errors, or what kind of state-of-the-art communication tool sets a company is equipped with. Trying to use raw data for a near real-time personalization engine is like putting unrefined oil into a high-performance sports car.

This whole data refinement process may sound like a daunting task, but it is not nearly as painful as analytical efforts to derive meanings out of unstructured, unconsolidated and uncategorized data that are scattered all over the organization. A customer-centric marketing database (call it a data-mart if “database” sounds too much like it should solely belong to IT) created with standard business rules and uniform variables sets would, in turn, provide an “analytics-ready” environment, where statistical modeling and other advanced analytics efforts would gain tremendous momentum. In the end, the decision-making process would become much more efficient as analytics would provide answers to questions, not just bits and pieces of fragmented data, to the ultimate beneficiaries of data. And answers to questions do not require an enormous data dictionary, either; fast-acting marketing machines do not have time to look up dictionaries, anyway.

Data Roadmap—Phased Approach
For the effort to build a consolidated marketing data platform that is analytics-ready (hence, marketing-ready), I always recommend a phased approach, as (1) inevitable complexity of a data consolidation project will be contained and managed more efficiently in carefully defined phases, and (2) each phase will require different types of expertise, tool sets and technologies. Nevertheless, the overall project must be managed by an internal champion, along with a group of experts who possess long-term vision and tactical knowledge in both database and analytics technologies. That means this effort must reside above IT and marketing, and it should be seen as a strategic effort for an entire organization. If the company already hired a Chief Data Officer, I would say that this should be one of the top priorities for that position. If not, outsourcing would be a good option, as an impartial decision-maker, who would play a role of a referee, may have to come from the outside.

The following are the major steps:

  1. Formulate Questions: “All of the above” is not a good way to start a complex project. In order to come up with the most effective way to build a centralized data depository, we first need to understand what questions must be answered by it. Too many database projects call for cars that must fly, as well.
  2. Data Inventory: Every organization has more data than it expected, and not all goldmines are in plain sight. All the gatekeepers of existing databases should be interviewed, and any data that could be valuable for customer descriptions or behavioral predictions should be considered, starting with product, transaction, promotion and response data, stemming from all divisions and marketing channels.
  3. Data Hygiene and Standardization: All available data fields should be examined and cleaned up, where some data may be discarded or modified. Free form fields would deserve special attention, as categorization and tagging are one of the key steps to opening up new intelligence.
  4. Customer Definition: Any existing Customer ID systems (such as loyalty program ID, account number, etc.) will be examined. It may be further enhanced with available PII (personally identifiable information), as there could be inconsistencies among different systems, and customers often move their residency or use multiple email addresses, creating duplicate identities. A consistent and reliable Customer ID system becomes the backbone of a customer-centric database.
  5. Data Consolidation: Data from different silos and divisions will be merged together based on the master Customer ID. A customer-centric database begins to take shape here. The database update process should be thoroughly tested, as “incremental” updates are often found to be more difficult than the initial build. The job is simply not done until after a few successful iterations of updates.
  6. Data Transformation: Once a solid Customer ID system is in place, all transaction- and event-level data will be transformed to “descriptors” of individual customers, via summarization by categories and creation of analytical variables. For example, all product information will be aligned for each customer, and transaction data will be converted into personal-level monetary summaries and activities, in both static and time-series formats. Promotion and response history data will go through similar processes, yielding individual-level ROI metrics by channel and time period. This is the single-most critical step in all of this, requiring deep knowledge in business, data and analytics, as the stage is being set for all future analytics and reporting efforts. Due to variety and uniqueness of business goals in different industries, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, either.
  7. Analytical Projects: Test projects will be selected and the entire process will be done on the new platform. Ad-hoc reporting and complex modeling projects will be conducted, and the results will be graded on timing, accuracy, consistency and user-friendliness. An iterative approach is required, as it is impossible to foresee all possible user requests and related complexities upfront. A database should be treated as a living, breathing organism, not something rigid and inflexible. Marketers will “break-in” the database as they use it more routinely.
  8. Applying the Knowledge: The outcomes of analytical projects will be applied to the entire customer base, and live campaigns will be run based on them. Often, major breakdowns happen at the large-scale deployment stages; especially when dealing with millions of customers and complex mathematical formulae at the same time. A model-ready database will definitely minimize the risk (hence, the term “in-database scoring”), but the process will still require some fine-tuning. To proliferate gained knowledge throughout the organization, some model scores—which pack deep intelligence in small sizes—may be transferred back to the main databases managed by IT. Imagine model scores driving operational decisions—live, on the ground.
  9. Result Analysis: Good marketing intelligence engines must be equipped with feedback mechanisms, effectively closing the “loop” where each iteration of marketing efforts improves its effectiveness with accumulated knowledge on a customer level. It is very unfortunate that many marketers just move through the tracks set up by their predecessors, mainly because existing database environments are not even equipped to link necessary data elements on a customer level. Too many back-end analyses are just event-, offer- or channel-driven, not customer-centric. Can you easily tell which customer is over-, under- or adequately promoted, based on a personal-level promotion-and-response ratio? With a customer-centric view established, you can.

These are just high-level summaries of key steps, and each step should be managed as independent projects within a large-scale initiative with common goals. Some steps may run concurrently to reduce the overall timeline, and tactical knowledge in all required technologies and tool sets is the key for the successful implementation of centralized marketing intelligence.

Who Will Do the Work?
Then, who will be in charge of all this and who will actually do the work? As I mentioned earlier, a job of this magnitude requires a champion, and a CDO may be a good fit. But each of these steps will require different skill sets, so some outsourcing may be inevitable (more on how to pick an outsourcing partner in future articles).

But the case that should not be is the IT team or the analytics team solely dictating the whole process. Creating a central depository of marketing intelligence is something that sits between IT and marketing, and the decisions must be made with business goals in mind, not just limitations and challenges that IT faces. If the CDO or the champion of this type of initiative starts representing IT issues before overall business goals, then the project is doomed from the beginning. Again, it is not about touching the core database of the company, but realigning existing data assets to create new intelligence. Raw data (no matter how clean they are at the collection stage) are like unrefined raw materials to the users. What the decision-makers need are simple answers to their questions, not hundreds of data pieces.

From the user’s point of view, data should be:

  • Easy to understand and use (intuitive to non-mathematicians)
  • Bite-size (i.e., small answers, not mounds of raw data)
  • Useful and effective (consistently accurate)
  • Broad (answers should be available most of time, not just “sometimes”)
  • Readily available (data should be easily accessible via users’ favorite devices/channels)

And getting to this point is the job of a translator who sits in between marketing and IT. Call them data scientists or data strategists, if you like. But they do not belong to just marketing or IT, even though they have to understand both sides really well. Do not be rigid, insisting that all pilots must belong to the Air Force; some pilots do belong to the Navy.

Lastly, let me add this at the risk of sounding like I am siding with technologists. Marketers, please don’t be bad patients. Don’t be that bad patient who shows up at a doctor’s office with a specific prescription, as in “Don’t ask me why, but just give me these pills, now.” I’ve even met an executive who wanted a neural-net model for his business without telling me why. I just said to myself, “Hmm, he must have been to one of those analytics conferences recently.” Then after listening to his “business” issues, I prescribed an entirely different solution package.

So, instead of blurting out requests for pieces of data variables or queries using cool-sounding, semi-technical terms, state the business issues and challenges that you are facing as clearly as possible. IT and analytics specialists will prescribe the right solution for you if they understand the ultimate goals better. Too often, requesters determine the solutions they want without any understanding of underlying technical issues. Don’t forget that the end-users of any technology are only exposed to symptoms, not the causes.

And if Mr. Spock doesn’t seem to understand your issues and keeps saying that your statements are illogical, then call in a translator, even if you have to hire him for just one day. I know this all too well, because after all, this one phrase summarizes my entire career: “A bridge person between the marketing world and the IT world.” Although it ain’t easy to live a life as a marginal person.

Truly Greening Digital: The DMA ‘Green 15’ Gain a Digital Edge

With little fanfare, the Direct Marketing Association just published a “refresh” of its “Green 15” sustainable marketing practices first announced in 2007, via the good work of the sustainability team from the DMA Ethics Policy Committee.

With little fanfare, the Direct Marketing Association just published a “refresh” of its “Green 15” sustainable marketing practices first announced in 2007. Via the good work of the sustainability team from the DMA Ethics Policy Committee: Green 15 Best Practices.

The original publication took on such areas as paper procurement and list management, among others, in a bid for the marketing field to reduce GHG emissions by 1 million metric tons through last year. Whether or not that goal was achieved has not been reported by DMA, but then again, there is likelihood of huge reductions in carbon emissions if only for the fact that that there is less mail in circulation today then in 2006 (source reduction).

Yet in the growth of digital, there are also greenhouse gas impacts, among other environmental concerns, says DMA:

The use of certified paper, renewable energy, and consumer messaging to encourage recycling are all well-established best practices that address tangible environmental issues associated with print communications. Today, the rise of data-driven and digital communication requires marketers to address less visible environmental impacts. Toxic ‘e-waste’ impacts people and the environment as a result of improper disposal of electronics. Air pollution, including elevated greenhouse gas emissions, is an environmental and economic consequence of the growing demand for fossil energy to power digital devices and data centers.

The new Green 15 gives some guidance on just what digital and data-driven marketers might look to do:

  • Conduct energy audits at offices and production facilities to identify cost-saving opportunities (energy reduction).
  • Determine the source of power facilities in your facilities, and look to purchase more renewables in the mix gradually. Leverage suppliers of digital and data services to do the same.
  • Use links instead of attachments when sending internal and external communications – minimizing bandwidth and storage space for such documents.
  • Immediately implement best practices for responsible disposal of all electronic equipment at end of life, using such resources as Earth911.com, the EPA’s Web site, and seeking recyclers who adhere to E-Stewards Certificate standards

As anyone on a corporate “Green Team” knows, this list is really just a beginning. The savings and gains in efficiency that can happen as a result, are real—and ripe—for business bottom lines. There’s no reason not to consider these steps. All it takes is an internal champion, and a belief that being digital alone is not being green. Data and interactive communication have to be managed from a sustainability point of view—just as print communicators have done. I am glad the DMA, for one, has taken the lead and given us constructive steps all integrated marketers should consider.

Use Market Research to Tie Brand Awareness and Purchase Intent to Sales

For years, I’ve been saying direct marketers are their own worst enemy when it comes to measurement. Direct marketers are good at measuring the things they’ve traditionally measured—response rates, cost per lead, cost per acquisition, etc.  But they’re not good at measuring the effect that their communications have on the non-responders; when, in fact, the effect of consistent branding in direct communications is what makes direct marketing powerhouses like Omaha Steaks and 1-800-flowers.com top of mind when consumers are ready to purchase (not to mention Amazon).

For years, I’ve been saying direct marketers are their own worst enemy when it comes to measurement.

Direct marketers are good at measuring the things they’ve traditionally measured—response rates, cost per lead, cost per acquisition, etc. But they’re not good at measuring the effect that their communications have on the non-responders; when, in fact, the effect of consistent branding in direct communications is what makes direct marketing powerhouses like Omaha Steaks and 1-800-flowers.com top of mind when consumers are ready to purchase (not to mention Amazon).

Even though consumers engage with brands on their own terms across multiple platforms, many marketers are stuck measuring the results of individual tactics rather than taking a holistic view of measurement. So when a single email or display ad fails to achieve the target level of attributable sales within a specific period of time, then they consider it a failure. Even though the communication has made an impact on those who didn’t respond, they can’t measure it, so they don’t count it.

And while many direct marketing practitioners now embrace the idea that their advertising has a cumulative effect of building a brand over time, most fall short of being able to quantify that ROI with meaningful metrics.

That’s where market research can help.

Consider the following word equations in light of how awareness contributes to sales for the top direct marketing companies:

Top of mind awareness + brand reputation + need = purchase intent
Top of mind awareness + brand reputation + immediate need = purchase

So it follows that if we can monitor awareness and reputation over time and index it to sales, then we can quantify the effects of those elements on sales revenue.

Start by surveying your prospects blindly—either through mail, email or search ads using relevant keywords. Offer an incentive that’s consistent with your product offering, e.g., “Save $$$ on cell phone accessories.” Ask respondents the following questions to determine the levels of unaided and aided awareness:

  • Which brands first come to mind when thinking of “category X”? (unaided awareness)
  • Which of the following brands (list) have you ever heard of? (aided awareness)

Get a better picture of the respondents’ product usage by asking:

  • Which brand(s) within category X do you “regularly” purchase?
  • Which brand is your favorite?
  • Which brand did you last purchase?
  • How often do you purchase this type of product?
    (Light, medium, heavy user?)
  • What percentage of “category X” purchases that you’ve made (within a certain timeframe) were “brand A”? (your share of customer)

For those who have used your brand, quantify purchase intent with the following question:

  • The next time you need this product, how likely are you to purchase “brand A”?

Next, index awareness levels to sales to sales revenues. Be sure account for category sales within the same time period. Your actual sales may have gone down, but the entire category may have gone down as well, and you may in fact have gotten more than your previous share of the category sales.

As you track these metrics over time, you will be able to quantify what a point of unaided awareness is worth in sales revenue. It’s one tool that will help you understand the effect that your communications have on sales beyond the responses that you can count directly.

The ‘Right to be Forgotten’ – Ode to Solitude

Alexander Pope is making a 21st Century comeback. I’d love to be in Google’s conference room as the team there decides just how to adhere to a European court’s decision that European citizens have a right to be forgotten (on Google). Or what about email? A UK court just took a British retailer to task—John Lewis—for having a pre-checked form box for new customers that permits an email communication to the paying customer, along with an easy-to-use opt-out

Alexander Pope is making a 21st Century comeback.

I’d love to be in Google’s conference room as the team there decides just how to adhere to a European court’s decision that European citizens have a right to be forgotten (on Google).

Or what about email? A UK court just took a British retailer to task—John Lewis—for having a pre-checked form box for new customers that permits an email communication to the paying customer, along with an easy-to-use opt-out. The court found that a customer having to uncheck a box is just too taxing, and more than that, a privacy violation.

Here’s an interesting Ken Magill point of view.

I confess that I, too, am a bit of a reactionary to all of this. If commerce is so evil, if advertising is such a privacy violation, maybe we should just pack it up and go back to serving consumers and making money—and paying taxes, and generating jobs—here at home.

Can you imagine what types of costs Google will incur in its attempt to comply—never mind the impact on Google’s utility in Europe? Certainly John Lewis is taking the matter seriously, as it should. As reported in The Register (UK):

A John Lewis spokeswoman said: “Mr Mansfield voluntarily gave us his email address, set up an account online and chose not to opt out of marketing communications when that option was available to him. This case was a very specific set of circumstances and in this instance whilst we do not agree with the decision, we will abide by it. We apologise to Mr Mansfield that he was inconvenienced by our emails.”

Let’s be sure none of this zaniness creeps into our policy and case law here (ethics and best practices are another story), for the sake of our economy.

Sometimes I look to Europe and I scratch my head—yet there are some in America who want to bring these inflexible regimes here. While I respect different cultures for privacy around the world, let’s not sacrifice trade and commerce on the altar of some notion of gaining privacy, when in truth, marketing innovation and privacy can, and do, move along in concert. I guess some parts of the world figure that advertisers are all big brands who spend money only on image campaigns, and then sit back and wait for customers to come to them. In short, if you don’t have the Euros, you don’t get to compete.

Seriously, if an individual wants to be Rip Van Winkle, go to sleep for 20 years and don’t bother participating in the marketplace. Don’t drive. Don’t vote. Don’t shop. Don’t look at your mail. Don’t subscribe to any newspapers or magazines, or watch TV. Don’t browse the Internet. Don’t donate to causes—or to campaigns. And please, don’t tell me you’re a privacy advocate, or even participate in opt-out programs.

Because I’m just going to flag your name and store it in a database somewhere so I can reference you (apparently inappropriately) along with other “privacy-sensitive” folks, or to omit future communication. I certainly don’t want to bother you with any information—such as a product or service to help you protect your privacy, or bolster your security.

The “business” of privacy is booming, even as the “ethics” of privacy in marketing have been around in industry codes for decades. Browsers offer private surfing, and there are apps that allow you to cover your tracks. But how could someone know to learn about these services if we’re all forced to forget such a person by default?

All marketers want to do is create and serve a customer—and they go to great lengths to ensure an opt-out is honored. Where’s the harm? Answer: In commerce, there are only winners. While we can choose to lower our profile through myriad ways, to mandate such profiles as a legal default is to deny the very intelligence—and our consumer economy—that data has served to create.

And here is Alexander Pope on the matter:

Ode on Solitude
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose heards with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

—Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

The Complexities of Simplification

Remember when you were a kid and you learned how to fold a single sheet of paper into a little device that would allow you to tell fortunes? I was reminded of that device recently when my controller walked in carrying the latest direct mail package she received from FedEx. Being a good voyeur of marketing content, she brought it to my attention because she had inadvertently ripped one of the contents inside—and flung it down on my desk declaring it was “stupid”

Remember when you were a kid and you learned how to fold a single sheet of paper into a little device that would allow you to tell fortunes?

It seems it’s called an Origami Fortune Teller and over 1.3 million people have watched the instructional video on YouTube (side note: wish I’d thought to create that video when I didn’t have anything else to do).

I was reminded of that device recently when my controller walked in carrying the latest direct mail package she received from FedEx. The 6″ x 9″ envelope carried a simple teaser line: “My FedEx REWARDS.”

Being a good voyeur of marketing content, she brought it to my attention because she had inadvertently ripped one of the contents inside—and flung it down on my desk declaring it was “stupid.”

It turns out the envelope contained two items: a single-sided “card” and a multi-fold, multi-glued insert that was … well … stupid. This particular insert added no value to the communication other than it was one more item in the envelope.

Whoever designed it probably needed to watch the Origami Fortune Teller video to get some better ideas on how to design something like this because, with its multi-fold/unfold option, it simply wasn’t intuitive—thus the ripped piece that was now lying on my desk.

The insert didn’t add one additional piece of information—not one nugget of “surprise!”—and, in fact, the message inside (that it was easy to earn more great rewards and experiences) was counterintuitive to the experience we were having with the insert.

I think this is a great example of creative gone awry. I’m fairly sure the marketing strategy behind this direct mail package was to inform customers that there was a new FedEx Rewards program. And, the support messaging was:

  • To acknowledge that our company had reached a certain status level.
  • To inform us that we would earn five points on every $1 spent.
  • To excite us that we could redeem points from a robust rewards catalog.

All of that information was on the single-sided “card” that was easily scannable—so why the addition of the extra piece? Why spend the money creating, designing, printing, scoring, cutting, gluing, assembling a device that added no value?

Shall we blame it on the bored production manager who wanted to produce something more exciting than a card in an envelope? Or perhaps the art director who wanted to include a new format in the portfolio? Or the marketing manager who had a bigger budget to spend and it was “use it or lose it” time at the end of the quarter?

Is anyone in marketing at FedEx measuring the effectiveness of this package? Is it being tested against a package that doesn’t contain the insert? Or against a postcard? Or a simple letter in an envelope? If I was making a bet, I’d bet that the response rate AND the cost-per-responder on the package with the insert will be the biggest loser.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for innovative, fun, intelligently designed interactive marketing materials that achieve the desired the marketing objective. But when you have a simple message to communicate, keep the communication simple. Oh, and think about giving the mock up to a couple of people not related to the project to see if they can open it/interact with it without tearing it to shreds.