How Do Agencies Succeed in Changing Times?

The marketing and advertising industry, like many other industries, appears to be in a constant state of flux. So why do some advertising agencies succeed while others fail?

I love the marketing and advertising industry. And like other industries, it appears to be in a constant state of flux. So why do some advertising agencies succeed while others fail?

In business school you’re taught the concept of competitive landscape, the notion that this landscape is dynamic and ever changing. And that competitive advantage is fickle and fleeting. Your competitors are lurking and there’s a constant threat of losing your position in the ecosystem. The companies that succeed in this environment are the ones who continuously evolve and grow. This concept has proven itself to me time and again.

I’ve worked in the advertising industry +20 years. And I believe my professional experience has many parallels with changes in the industry. I’m an accountant by trade, started my career at a privately held marketing firm, followed by many years  in the holding company environment, and now am the CFO at an independent agency. Over the years, I’ve watched the industry that I love evolve into various renditions of itself.

I witnessed an industry predominately comprised of small independently owned agencies, transform via acquisitions and mergers into a handful of publicly traded holding companies. Unfortunately, these agencies have become so large and complex, they’ve struggled to react to client and market demands. And recently,  like my career the industry has come full circle with the return of the small independent agency structure.

And still there is more change in the horizon.  New players such as media giants, consultancies, and in house marketing departments have entered the space and are competing for marketing dollars. Have you ever wondered why agencies like DDB, BBDO, Ogilvy have succeeded with longevity?  Why have they dominated the industry for so many years while so many others have sailed away in the night?

  • These organizations understand what differentiates them from other players and are smart enough not to become complacent. They cultivate, invest in, nurture those differentiations and do not stray very far from their core capabilities. I once worked for an agency, founded in 1903, which originally specialized in tombstone print advertisement. Up until about the 1990’s, tombstone advertising was a very lucrative business and the agency’s client list included many large financial institutions on Wall Street. However, tombstone advertising was a dying art doomed for extinction with the prevalence of Internet technology. But when I joined the agency in 2013, it had successfully evolved to a B2B specialist with a niche in the financial sector. The +115 year old agency is a good example of the importance of nurturing and cultivating ones craft, it didn’t straying from its core capabilities and continues to service many of the same financial institutions at an  expanded capacity.  Evolution is key.
  • Standards need to be high. “If you have passion for what you do, the company you keep, the life you live, it will be reflected in whatever you create. Passion is like that; it springs out, jumps, unpredictable and unplanned, into everything we touch.” — R.D. Laing. These organizations have very high standards for the company they keep, services they provide and are passionate about the work they produce. My first Omnicom agency experience was invaluable in so many ways. Largely, because of the smart, talented, accomplished, passionate individuals that I had the pleasure to work with. Our leadership team of four, consisted of me, an Wharton MBA, NYU MBA and Oxford University graduate.  No, an Ivy League degree  wasn’t a prerequisite for the job. However the agency employed a rigorous screening process and were very selective with hires.  It was truly a special environment where each day was filled with opportunity to grow as a professional, collaborate with extremely talented colleagues and learn from super accomplished senior talent. The agency was successful in many ways, but largely for developing exemplary talent many of whom now hold senior leadership roles at various agencies across the country.
  • Lastly, there is a plan. It’s too easy to lose focus, the most successful leaders and organizations stay focused on the north star.  Successful agencies develop, communicate and deploy a well thought out strategic plan that is flexible and nimble enough to easily and quickly adjust. Generally, the leaders of these organizations are well liked and respected. They communicate their vision and strategy and inspire large groups of people to work towards that shared vision.  There is intention behind every decision, every purchase, every hire, every client interaction.

I believe the advertising industry is at a crossroads. With recent senior leadership changes at several of the holding companies, changing client demands and structures, with a steady growth of internal marketing departments. Which agencies will prevail and succeed in this next phase?

 

The 5 Best HR Tips for Increasing Employee Engagement

Effective employee engagement improves sales figures, decreases workforce turnovers and improves client satisfaction. The companies with the healthiest company culture are those with management who actively engage with employees. Follow these five best HR practices for the most effective employee engagement.

Effective employee engagement improves sales figures, decreases workforce turnovers and improves client satisfaction. The companies with the healthiest company culture are those with management who actively engage with employees. Engagement within an organization is the most effective tool companies can use to track and encourage employee successes. 

Below are the five best HR practices for increasing employee engagement:

1. Employee Engagement Begins With Training

Employee training is key for ensuring new employees have a smooth transition into an organizations culture. An informative and instructive on boarding process is the foundation upon which  employee engagement begins with an organization’s goals. By communicating clear and defined expectations management can pave the path for reaching the desired results.

Unfortunately a lot of management teams fail to incorporate employee engagement into the company’s organizational structure. In fact, 55% of new hires are not provided a sufficient induction or training plan.

Every company has different organizational structures. For that reason, it is imperative that management outlines the key expectations of the role. Outlining job responsibilities is the framework for which employees can reach goals and is essential for success.

2. Communicate Role Expectations

Setting up initial goals and objectives within your organization is a great way to ensure that your staff is on the right track. Individual roles should have their own set of responsibilities. Be sure to make time every few months for communication between management and staff members. This fosters the opportunity to evaluate role satisfaction and develop a plan for employee progression and career development. This will not only increase autonomy and integrity in the work place, but also allows management to understand the respective areas of interest for future positions and hiring.

This will also bolster engagements and motivate your new employees to strive for excellence in all areas. A successful CEO will make sure that new hires have a sound understanding of the firm’s values, mission, and goals.

3. Active Engagement and Role Maintenance

Once management is confident that the new hires have fully settled in to their designated role, it is important to keep levels of employee engagement as high as possible.

Commitment and gratitude toward employees goes a long way. Model behavior for employees starts at the top. So, it is likely that a company’s staff will mirror that same level of commitment and gratitude in their work performance.

Regular “one-on-ones”, acknowledgments and objective setting will motivate employees to reach goals and improve their skillsets. Don’t be afraid to challenge your people and engage in healthy competition.

4. Promote From Within

There are many tools available for managers to utilize to acknowledge the accomplishments of their team. One of the most traditional and effective means of rewarding hardworking employees, is granting them a raise or promotion; or both if you can.  If available, promotion from within is key for morale and a great way reward your staff members for their hard work.

Promotion from within provides an extremely strong index of the firm’s core culture. Managers should recognize that the individual  rewards send a message to the entire organization. Be certain that the behaviors which are being endorsed by the promotion are in line with the firm’s culture and values. Again, being a model of positive behavior will ensure the remainder of the staff will look to emulate those behaviors you want to see reinforced.

Encouraging employee engagement through vertical communication is also great way to express mutual respect and show appreciation amongst one another.

5. Hire Multi-talented Employees

To maintain an edge in this increasingly competitive economy, companies need to ensure that they employ individuals referred to as “Unicorns” by HR managers. A Unicorn refers to a multi-skilled employee who is able to multitask and wear more than one hat.  .

Unicorns are normally talented in numerous areas and can execute them all beyond a superficial level. Finding these employees starts before the interview process. A persons references and past work experience provides a window to the type of benefits they can provide your company.

Here are some of the key advantages of hiring Multi-talented employees:

  • Multi-talented employees can save you a significant amount of money.
  • Employees with a wide range skill sets improve productivity and business efficiency. You won’t need to worry about the level of work quality since they’ll perform remarkably in all business tasks and projects handed over to them.
  • Having multi-talented employees allows for other team members to take sick and vacation days due to their ability to step into various roles. He or she can easily fill in and execute many jobs impeccably.
  • Improves staff retention and motivation.

 

7 Event Planning Tips and Tricks From the Pros

Event planning is an eloquent art that can leave a lasting impression on attendees. Strategic event planning can be used to create new relationships, promote a product and increase employee participation. When done right, an event will leave a positive lasting impression long after it has passed. Follow this easy to use, step-by-step guide to plan an event like the pros.

Event planning is an eloquent art that can leave a lasting impression on attendees. Strategic event planning can be used to create new relationships, promote a product and increase employee participation. When done right, an event will leave a positive lasting impression long after it has passed.

Follow this easy to use, step-by-step guide to plan an event like the pros.

1. Event Planning with a Purpose

The beginning stages of event planning can never start too early. The first thing you should focus on is the purpose of your event. Are you fundraising, holding an informational workshop or corporate event? Or maybe your event is a celebration like a birthday party, wedding or anniversary. Whatever the occasion, once you clearly define your purpose, other things will fall into place, including who will be attending, the décor and how the occasion will be organized.

2. Gather Volunteers

Event planning is hard work and it can be difficult to go it alone. If you know people who are willing to volunteer, you can start delegating specific tasks to them. Sending invites, welcoming guests and cleaning are things you should think about when considering who is going to do what. If you are unable to find people who can help you for free, consider hiring a crew.

3. Create an Event Budget

If you don’t create a budget, you run the risk of spending way more than you had anticipated. Think about the cost of location, staff, food and whatever other expenses will be incurred. Try to save money wherever possible.  This can be done by finding inexpensive venues and using volunteers rather than a hired staff.

4. Decide on the Event Time and Place

Before deciding on a date, think about what else might be happening around that time. If there are other events that are similar to yours happening on the same date, it may hurt your attendance. Also, consider working around holidays and school or work schedules.

When thinking about location, find something that will be easily accessible for your guests. Also, note that your venue should be booked in advance, so you can be sure it will be available on the date you are requesting. If you are planning an event in Detroit, Brooklyn Outdoor can provide an industrial chic loft with panoramic views of the city. Use of this space includes an attentive staff that can see to every last detail.

6. Other Logistics

Other logistics to be considered include parking, what items and equipment you will need, whether you want to provide giveaways for your guests to take home and whether you want to have a photographer present to document the event.

7. The Countdown

As the event gets closer, you will realize there is a lot of be done to make everything run smoothly. When you are about two weeks out from the event, you will want to think about meeting with your team, visiting the venue and confirming your guest list to make sure everyone is on the same page.

During this time, it is easy to become stressed out so do your best to keep calm. Careful planning in the early stages can help to eliminate some of the stress. Planning an event is a lot of work, but if you are well organized, it can go relatively smoothly.

Customer Journeys Don’t Start on Your Website

Let’s forget about all the technology and data stuff for a moment, and bring in some common sense here: We all are the sum of our past experiences, not just a snapshot of the present moment. Without having a degree in psychology, anyone who has any long-term relationship with other human beings knows that.

Winning Over Consumers: The 4 essential content considerations that drive prospects to choose you over your competitorsDuring my startup CTO days, which were a relatively long time ago in tech years (much like dog years), I’d met with folks at Google to see if there was any synergy to be found. This was way before they became almighty; you could say that it was when they were just a search company, though they were already the best one in the industry at that. But the short story is that the meeting went south as soon as it started.

Our company was one of the first behavioral targeting companies based on SKU-level transaction data from more than 1,000 sources. (Now I hear that the same co-op database is much bigger.) In those days, the first page of our presentation deck said, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” a statement that I still stand by.

But one of the mid-level executives from Google cut our CEO off in mid-sentence and said that the company did not subscribe to that point of view. He said the only thing that matters is what the user types in the search box right at this moment. I was too shocked by such bold statement to refute, but I thought that it was such a myopic view.

Obviously, based on what we hear in the news and our user experience, we can see that Google has been collecting every bit of data that comes its way, and actually uses everything it collects. I wonder if the person who made that statement properly represented Google’s view of the world, even back then.

Let’s forget about all the technology and data stuff for a moment, and bring in some common sense: We all are the sum of our past experiences, not just a snapshot of the present moment. Without having a degree in psychology, anyone who has any long-term relationship with other human beings knows that. Likewise, if marketers want to stay relevant with their customers and prospects, yes, they simply cannot ignore their pasts.

Luckily for marketers and data players, human beings constantly leave trails behind, digital or otherwise. Data are everywhere, from the past to the present moment. With all of the technologies available to us, we can do almost magical things in comparison to the early days of marketing analytics and targeting. Then, why aren’t we impressed with modern-day marketing as consumers? Aren’t we living in the days of Big Data? And why do you think the very word “Big Data” doesn’t sound so promising anymore?

I dare to say it is because of decision-makers with tunnel-vision occupying the marketing world. No amount of data will help the matter if the users lack vision. If a marketer thinks that the so-called “customer journey” starts only after someone lands on some site, well, he is already stuck in that small world. Unfortunately, customers do not live in some one-dimensional channel, and their journeys started long before they ever landed anywhere, or before they typed in any search word in that little box. Someone — maybe the channel manager’s colleague a few doors down the corridor — did something to evoke curiosity for the search. And that trigger may have happened because yet someone else collected and analyzed the data from an even earlier moment.

In this world, there are marketers who create “needs,” and there are ones who react to customer action, and we obviously need them all. “Omnichannel” marketing is a popular term, but even that is based on a flat point of view. We need to see the world along the timeline, as well. It is just that the situation often is misunderstood, because not all channels may seemingly be relevant at the same time. When marketing departments are divided based on channels, it becomes nearly impossible for any one player to obtain such a timeline view.

To part away from the pusher’s side, let’s follow a journey of a consumer. For me, as a consumer, to receive a catalog or an email for golf equipment, someone must have collected a lot of data about me. Then someone else must have carefully consolidated all kinds of data around me (i.e., creating a 360-degree view of “me” based on demographic, transactional, behavioral, psychographic, attitudinal, movement, geographic data, etc.). When treated right, such data trails would lead to proper targeting, so that I get to see relevant messages or offers, through appropriate delivery channels, digital or not.

Cutting Through the Mumbo-Jumbo of Search

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, semantic search, Hummingbird and Rank Brain are just part of a dizzying array of technical terms and reserved words used by search professionals at the developmental and marketing levels.

SEOArtificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, semantic search, Hummingbird and Rank Brain are just part of a dizzying array of technical terms and reserved words used by search professionals at the developmental and marketing levels.

These terms, at their very base, all refer to processes and technologies used to determine if a page on your site should return as No. 1 in the search results.

It is my contention that this bewildering and ever-growing vocabulary can be easily turned into operational SEO, if the site owner simply focuses on a few clear principles and then executes against them. This may sound simplistic, and it is at the 20,000-foot view. Look out — the ground-level view is much more complex. Here are the principles:

Search Is About Users Wanting to Find Your Site

If you are an e-commerce vendor and have on offer a nice selection of desirable merchandise, then the task is straightforward.

You must make sure that your site clearly conveys what you are selling — more clearly than your competitors do, or Google will put them ahead of you.

This requires a single-minded focus on making sure that your users know what you have on offer, can find it on your site, and that your content and navigation facilitate the process. Focus on what you are selling, and on guiding the customer to your merchandise.

Search Is About the Customers, Not About the Company

I once had a strange experience evaluating a business-to-business site. After reading the entire site carefully, I had no idea of what the company did. I actually had to call the site owner and ask for the elevator pitch on the company.

The company had a talented and experienced management team (or so the site said). There were lots of references to Six Sigma and lean manufacturing, as well as an impressive list of clients; but nowhere was it clearly stated what the company did.

The content could have applied to dozens of different manufacturing companies. They did not have a search problem — an SEO problem. What they had was an internally focused site that did not consider who would want to find it, and what the searcher coming to the site might need or want.

The business wanted more customers and had built an impressive site in hopes of attracting more customers, but they had forgotten about what the customer might want.

Takeaway for Marketers
Years ago, when sites were little more than brochure-ware, the website functioned as a corporate capabilities document. Some of this thinking still leaks into site development.

Search is then expected to be layered on top of the final construct. This is backward.

The searcher should be front-and-center if you expect to garner lots of traffic from search. Every decision should be made with the finder, the searcher, and the end-user in mind.

Search Is About Words and Content

Until artificial intelligence advances to a non-verbal level of understanding, words and content are essential for guiding users to what they want. It does not matter if the searcher is using a voice or a keyboard, words will be streamed together to articulate, however poorly, what the individual wants.

If you want searchers to come to your site, you must make sure that your content meshes with the words a searcher might use. We have freighted this process with the terminology like keyword analysis, but it is really much simpler in principle. It requires an understanding of your user’s intent and the building of a rich vocabulary for describing what a searcher might want to find at the site.

Takeaway for Marketers
If you build your site with these three simple principles in mind, then all of the rest of the technical aspects of search will fall into place more easily. Yes! It gets very messy at the ground level. Each section and each page must be agonized over (I do mean optimized). That is the stuff for future posts, so as they say: “Watch this space.”

Your Secret Weapon for Amplification: Employees!

There are sales enablement programs, partner and channel enablement programs and even influencer enablement programs. Why are there then, so few employee enablement programs—especially when both the knowledge of the company and the CRM/integrated marketing technology is already in use?

There are sales enablement programs, partner and channel enablement programs and even influencer enablement programs. Why are there then, so few employee enablement programs—especially when both the knowledge of the company and the CRM/integrated marketing technology is already in use?

Very few companies fully engage employees in the work of connecting with customers, prospects and new markets, according to a 2014 Altimeter Group survey of HR and marketing executives. Only 41 percent of respondents reported having a strategic approach for employee engagement, and just 43 percent say they have a culture of trust and empowerment. Yet, Altimer finds that company who do engage employees in a purposeful digital outreach enjoy measurable business impact, greater reach and improved customer satisfaction.

One of the biggest factors in this untapped opportunity, according to the report, is that most employees don’t have a clear understanding of what they can or should share on behalf of the brand. As a result, most stay quiet.

A quick way to measure the impact on your business is to assess the variance between the collective reach of your employees on LinkedIn, Twitter or Pinterest and the number of fans and followers on your branded corporate pages. That delta is your opportunity-every professional post or pin by an employee is an opportunity to connect people back to your corporate properties.

Of course a purposeful approach to empowering employees must be respectful of everyone’s personal brand and voice. Forcing people to stiffly spout the company line will not only backfire in terms of employee loyalty, it will be a turn off for readers. The engagement has to be authentic in order to resonate.

The technology is here-in the past decade there has been a plethora of new digital tools for helping employees connect with each other and with their professional communities. Many tools are embedded in the CRM and sales enablement tools already in use for outside engagement. Why aren’t people using them internally? Perhaps because the presence of a tool itself is not enough-to create business value the tools must be accessible, helpful and aligned with the business culture.

Marketers who want employee engagement must develop a repeatable and respectful plan for advocacy:

  • Cross-Functional Reach:
    While sales, marketing and service teams often advocate for the business as part of their job descriptions, employees across the organization can also be incentivized to participate. Making these activities a win-win for the employee and the employer is key to participation.
  • Training:
    Most employees would be happy to support a respectful program, but truly do not know what to say. Setting clear boundaries and sharing sample messaging is a start, but also be explicit about the “how to” aspects. Encourage employees to make the message personal-and thus of higher impact-by translating the corporate message into their own voice.
  • Culture of Mutual Respect:
    Employees who cannot be trusted with confidential information also can’t be expected to fully engage in any innovation or forward-thinking programs. If this is the case for your organization, then your culture may not be a fit for employee engagement.
  • Content:
    Most businesses are publishers today-from blogs to social media to customer service scripts. These are rich sources for content that can be easily shared and amplified through employee engagement.

Creating active and visible employees may give some managers pause. Altimer recommends encouraging personal brand building anyway, claiming the risk is low that top talent will be poached. The opposite is usually true, the report says. Employees build a sense of pride and connectedness, and become invested in the company success.

Beyond email signatures and call center scripts, how is your company tapping the rich network of your employees to build the brand, amplify messaging and generate leads? Are your employees already active participants in sharing your company brand story? If so, how can you bring that forward into a more purposeful program? Share your challenges and ideas in the comments section.

Exciting New Tools for B-to-B Prospecting

Finding new customers is a lot easier these days, what with innovative, digitally based ways to capture and collect data. Early examples of this exciting new trend in prospecting were Jigsaw, a business card swapping tool that allowed salespeople to trade contacts, and ZoomInfo, which scrapes corporate websites for information about businesspeople and merges the information into a vast pool of data for analysis and lead generation campaigns. New ways to find prospects continue to come on the scene—it seems like on the daily.

Finding new customers is a lot easier these days, what with innovative, digitally based ways to capture and collect data. Early examples of this exciting new trend in prospecting were Jigsaw, a business card swapping tool that allowed salespeople to trade contacts, and ZoomInfo, which scrapes corporate websites for information about businesspeople and merges the information into a vast pool of data for analysis and lead generation campaigns. New ways to find prospects continue to come on the scene—it seems like on the daily.

One big new development is the trend away from static name/address lists, and towards dynamic sourcing of prospect names complete with valuable indicators of buying readiness culled from their actual behavior online. Companies such as InsideView and Leadspace are developing solutions in this area. Leadspace’s process begins with constructing an ideal buyer persona by analyzing the marketer’s best customers, which can be executed by uploading a few hundred records of name, company name and email address. Then, Leadspace scours the Internet, social networks and scores of contact databases for look-alikes and immediately delivers prospect names, fresh contact information and additional data about their professional activities.

Another dynamic data sourcing supplier with a new approach is Lattice, which also analyzes current customer data to build predictive models for prospecting, cross-sell and churn prevention. The difference from Leadspace is that Lattice builds the client models using their own massive “data cloud” of B-to-B buyer behavior, fed by 35 data sources like LexisNexis, Infogroup, D&B, and the US Government Patent Office. CMO Brian Kardon says Lattice has identified some interesting variables that are useful in prospecting, for example:

  • Juniper Networks found that a company that has recently “signed a lease for a new building” is likely to need new networks and routers.
  • American Express’s foreign exchange software division identified “opened an office in a foreign country” suggests a need for foreign exchange help.
  • Autodesk searches for companies who post job descriptions online that seek “design engineers with CAD/CAM experience.”

Lattice faces competition from Mintigo and Infer, which are also offering prospect scoring models—more evidence of the growing opportunity for marketers to take advantage of new data sources and applications.

Another new approach is using so-called business signals to identify opportunity. As described by Avention’s Hank Weghorst, business signals can be any variable that characterizes a business. Are they growing? Near an airport? Unionized? Minority owned? Susceptible to hurricane damage? The data points are available today, and can be harnessed for what Weghorst calls “hyper segmentation.” Avention’s database of information flowing from 70 suppliers, overlaid by data analytics services, intends to identify targets for sales, marketing and research.

Social networks, especially LinkedIn, are rapidly becoming a source of marketing data. For years, marketers have mined LinkedIn data by hand, often using low-cost offshore resources to gather targets in niche categories. Recently, a gaggle of new companies—like eGrabber and Social123—are experimenting with ways to bring social media data into CRM systems and marketing databases, to populate and enhance customer and prospect records.

Then there’s 6Sense, which identifies prospective accounts that are likely to be in the market for particular products, based on the online behavior of their employees, anonymous or identifiable. 6Sense analyzes billions of rows of 3rd party data, from trade publishers, blogs and forums, looking for indications of purchase intent. If Cisco is looking to promote networking hardware, for example, 6Sense will come back with a set of accounts that are demonstrating an interest in that category, and identify where they were in their buying process, from awareness to purchase. The account data will be populated with contacts, indicating their likely role in the purchase decision, and an estimate of the likely deal size. The data is delivered in real-time to whatever CRM or marketing automation system the client wants, according to CEO and founder Amanda Kahlow.

Just to whet your appetite further, have a look at CrowdFlower, a start-up company in San Francisco, which sends your customer and prospect records to a network of over five million individual contributors in 90 countries, to analyze, clean or collect the information at scale. Crowd sourcing can be very useful for adding information to, and checking on the validity and accuracy of, your data. CrowdFlower has developed an application that lets you manage the data enrichment or validity exercises yourself. This means that you can develop programs to acquire new fields whenever your business changes and still take advantage of their worldwide network of individuals who actually look at each record.

The world of B-to-B data is changing quickly, with exciting new technologies and data sources coming available at record pace. Marketers can expect plenty of new opportunity for reaching customers and prospects efficiently.

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

Smart Data – Not Big Data

As a concerned data professional, I am already plotting an exit strategy from this Big Data hype. Because like any bubble, it will surely burst. That inevitable doomsday could be a couple of years away, but I can feel it coming. At the risk of sounding too much like Yoda the Jedi Grand Master, all hypes lead to over-investments, all over-investments lead to disappointments, and all disappointments lead to blames. Yes, in a few years, lots of blames will go around, and lots of heads will roll.

As a concerned data professional, I am already plotting an exit strategy from this Big Data hype. Because like any bubble, it will surely burst. That inevitable doomsday could be a couple of years away, but I can feel it coming. At the risk of sounding too much like Yoda the Jedi Grand Master, all hypes lead to over-investments, all over-investments lead to disappointments, and all disappointments lead to blames. Yes, in a few years, lots of blames will go around, and lots of heads will roll.

So, why would I stay on the troubled side? Well, because, for now, this Big Data thing is creating lots of opportunities, too. I am writing this on my way back from Seoul, Korea, where I presented this Big Data idea nine times in just two short weeks, trotting from large venues to small gatherings. Just a few years back, I used to have a hard time explaining what I do for living. Now, I just have to say “Hey, I do this Big Data thing,” and the doors start to open. In my experience, this is the best “Open Sesame” moment for all data specialists. But it will last only if we play it right.

Nonetheless, I also know that I will somehow continue to make living setting data strategies, fixing bad data, designing databases and leading analytical activities, even after the hype cools down. Just with a different title, under a different banner. I’ve seen buzzwords come and go, and this data business has been carried on by the people who cut through each hype (and gargantuan amount of BS along with it) and create real revenue-generating opportunities. At the end of the day (I apologize for using this cliché), it is all about the bottom line, whether it comes from a revenue increase or cost reduction. It is never about the buzzwords that may have created the business opportunities in the first place; it has always been more about the substance that turned those opportunities into money-making machines. And substance needs no fancy title or buzzwords attached to it.

Have you heard Google or Amazon calling themselves a “Big Data” companies? They are the ones with sick amounts of data, but they also know that it is not about the sheer amount of data, but it is all about the user experience. “Wannabes” who are not able to understand the core values often hang onto buzzwords and hypes. As if Big Data, Cloud Computing or coding language du jour will come and save the day. But they are just words.

Even the name “Big Data” is all wrong, as it implies that bigger is always better. The 3 Vs of Big Data—volume, velocity and variety—are also misleading. That could be a meaningful distinction for existing data players, but for decision-makers, it gives a notion that size and speed are the ultimate quest. But for the users, small is better. They don’t have time to analyze big sets of data. They need small answers in fun size packages. Plus, why is big and fast new? Since the invention of modern computers, has there been any year when the processing speed did not get faster and storage capacity did not get bigger?

Lest we forget, it is the software industry that came up with this Big Data thing. It was created as a marketing tagline. We should have read it as, “Yes, we can now process really large amounts of data, too,” not as, “Big Data will make all your dreams come true.” If you are in the business of selling toolsets, of course, that is how you present your product. If guitar companies keep emphasizing how hard it is to be a decent guitar player, would that help their businesses? It is a lot more effective to say, “Hey, this is the same guitar that your guitar hero plays!” But you don’t become Jeff Beck just because you bought a white Fender Stratocaster with a rosewood neck. The real hard work begins “after” you purchase a decent guitar. However, this obvious connection is often lost in the data business. Toolsets never provide solutions on their own. They may make your life easier, but you’d still have to formulate the question in a logical fashion, and still have to make decisions based on provided data. And harnessing meanings out of mounds of data requires training of your mind, much like the way musicians practice incessantly.

So, before business people even consider venturing into this Big Data hype, they should ask themselves “Why data?” What are burning questions that you are trying to solve with the data? If you can’t answer this simple question, then don’t jump into it. Forget about it. Don’t get into it just because everyone else seems to be getting into it. Yeah, it’s a big party, but why are you going there? Besides, if you formulate the question properly, often you will find that you don’t need Big Data all the time. If fact, Big Data can be a terrible detour if your question can be answered by “small” data. But that happens all the time, because people approach their business questions through the processes set by the toolsets. Big Data should be about the business, not about the IT or data.

Smart Data, Not Big Data
So, how do we get over this hype? All too often, perception rules, and a replacement word becomes necessary to summarize the essence of the concept for the general public. In my opinion, “Big Data” should have been “Smart Data.” Piles of unorganized dumb data aren’t worth a damn thing. Imagine a warehouse full of boxes with no labels, collecting dust since 1943. Would you be impressed with the sheer size of the warehouse? Great, the ark that Indiana Jones procured (or did he?) may be stored in there somewhere. But if no one knows where it is—or even if it can be located, if no one knows what to do with it—who cares?

Then, how do data get smarter? Smart data are bite-sized answers to questions. A thousand variables could have been considered to provide the weather forecast that calls for a “70 percent chance of scattered showers in the afternoon,” but that one line that we hear is the smart piece of data. Not the list of all the variables that went into the formula that created that answer. Emphasizing the raw data would be like giving paints and brushes to a person who wants a picture on the wall. As in, “Hey, here are all the ingredients, so why don’t you paint the picture and hang it on the wall?” Unfortunately, that is how the Big Data movement looks now. And too often, even the ingredients aren’t all that great.

I visit many companies only to find that the databases in question are just messy piles of unorganized and unstructured data. And please do not assume that such disarrays are good for my business. I’d rather spend my time harnessing meanings out of data and creating values, not taking care of someone else’s mess all the time. Really smart data are small, concise, clean and organized. Big Data should only be seen in “Behind the Scenes” types of documentaries for manias, not for everyday decision-makers.

I have been already saying that Big Data must get smaller for some time (refer to “Big Data Must Get Smaller“) and I would repeat it until it becomes a movement on its own. The Big Data movement must be about:

  1. Cutting down the noise
  2. Providing the answers

There is too much noise in the data, and cutting it out is the first step toward making the data smaller and smarter. The trouble is that the definition of “noise” is not static. Rock music that I grew up with was certainly a noise to my parents’ generation. In turn, some music that my kids listen to is pure noise to me. Likewise, “product color,” which is essential for a database designed for an inventory management system, may or may not be noise if the goal is to sell more apparel items. In such cases, more important variables could be style, brand, price range, target gender, etc., but color could be just peripheral information at best, or even noise (as in, “Uh, she isn’t going to buy just red shoes all the time?”). How do we then determine the differences? First, set the clear goals (as in, “Why are we playing with the data to begin with?”), define the goals using logical expressions, and let mathematics take care of it. Now you can drop the noise with conviction (even if it may look important to human minds).

If we continue with that mathematical path, we would reach the second part, which is “providing answers to the question.” And the smart answers are in the forms of yes/no, probability figures or some type of scores. Like in the weather forecast example, the question would be “chance of rain on a certain day” and the answer would be “70 percent.” Statistical modeling is not easy or simple, but it is the essential part of making the data smarter, as models are the most effective way to summarize complex and abundant data into compact forms (refer to “Why Model?”).

Most people do not have degrees in mathematics or statistics, but they all know what to do with a piece of information such as “70 percent chance of rain” on the day of a company outing. Some may complain that it is not a definite yes/no answer, but all would agree that providing information in this form is more humane than dumping all the raw data onto users. Sales folks are not necessarily mathematicians, but they would certainly appreciate scores attached to each lead, as in “more or less likely to close.” No, that is not a definite answer, but now sales people can start calling the leads in the order of relative importance to them.

So, all the Big Data players and data scientists must try to “humanize” the data, instead of bragging about the size of the data, making things more complex, and providing irrelevant pieces of raw data to users. Make things simpler, not more complex. Some may think that complexity is their job security, but I strongly disagree. That is a sure way to bring down this Big Data movement to the ground. We are already living in a complex world, and we certainly do not need more complications around us (more on “How to be a good data scientist” in a future article).

It’s About the Users, Too
On the flip side, the decision-makers must change their attitude about the data, as well.

1. Define the goals first: The main theme of this series has been that the Big Data movement is about the business, not IT or data. But I’ve seen too many business folks who would so willingly take a hands-off approach to data. They just fund the database; do not define clear business goals to developers; and hope to God that someday, somehow, some genius will show up and clear up the mess for them. Guess what? That cavalry is never coming if you are not even praying properly. If you do not know what problems you want to solve with data, don’t even get started; you will get to nowhere really slowly, bleeding lots of money and time along the way.

2. Take the data seriously: You don’t have to be a scientist to have a scientific mind. It is not ideal if someone blindly subscribes anything computers spew out (there are lots of inaccurate information in databases; refer to “Not All Databases Are Created Equal.”). But too many people do not take data seriously and continue to follow their gut feelings. Even if your customer profile coming out of a serious analysis does not match with your preconceived notions, do not blindly reject it; instead, treat it as a newly found gold mine. Gut feelings are even more overrated than Big Data.

3. Be logical: Illogical questions do not lead anywhere. There is no toolset that reads minds—at least not yet. Even if we get to have such amazing computers—as seen on “Star Trek” or in other science fiction movies—you would still have to ask questions in a logical fashion for them to be effective. I am not asking decision-makers to learn how to code (or be like Mr. Spock or his loyal follower, Dr. Sheldon Cooper), but to have some basic understanding of logical expressions and try to learn how analysts communicate with computers. This is not data geek vs. non-geek world anymore; we all have to be a little geekier. Knowing Boolean expressions may not be as cool as being able to throw a curve ball, but it is necessary to survive in the age of information overload.

4. Shoot for small successes: Start with a small proof of concept before fully investing in large data initiatives. Even with a small project, one gets to touch all necessary steps to finish the job. Understanding the flow of information is as important as each specific step, as most breakdowns occur in between steps, due to lack of proper connections. There was Gemini program before Apollo missions. Learn how to dock spaceships in space before plotting the chart to the moon. Often, over-investments are committed when the discussion is led by IT. Outsource even major components in the beginning, as the initial goal should be mastering the flow of things.

5. Be buyer-centric: No customer is bound by the channel of the marketer’s choice, and yet, may businesses act exactly that way. No one is an online person just because she did not refuse your email promotions yet (refer to “The Future of Online is Offline“). No buyer is just one dimensional. So get out of brand-, division-, product- or channel-centric mindsets. Even well-designed, buyer-centric marketing databases become ineffective if users are trapped in their channel- or division-centric attitudes, as in “These email promotions must flow!” or “I own this product line!” The more data we collect, the more chances marketers will gain to impress their customers and prospects. Do not waste those opportunities by imposing your own myopic views on them. Big Data movement is not there to fortify marketers’ bad habits. Thanks to the size of the data and speed of machines, we are now capable of disappointing a lot of people really fast.

What Did This Hype Change?
So, what did this Big Data hype change? First off, it changed people’s attitudes about the data. Some are no longer afraid of large amounts of information being thrown at them, and some actually started using them in their decision-making processes. Many realized that we are surrounded by numbers everywhere, not just in marketing, but also in politics, media, national security, health care and the criminal justice system.

Conversely, some people became more afraid—often with good reasons. But even more often, people react based on pure fear that their personal information is being actively exploited without their consent. While data geeks are rejoicing in the age of open source and cloud computing, many more are looking at this hype with deep suspicions, and they boldly reject storing any personal data in those obscure “clouds.” There are some people who don’t even sign up for EZ Pass and voluntarily stay on the long lane to pay tolls in the old, but untraceable way.

Nevertheless, not all is lost in this hype. The data got really big, and types of data that were previously unavailable, such as mobile and social data, became available to many marketers. Focus groups are now the size of Twitter followers of the company or a subject matter. The collection rate of POS (point of service) data has been increasingly steady, and some data players became virtuosi in using such fresh and abundant data to impress their customers (though some crossed that “creepy” line inadvertently). Different types of data are being used together now, and such merging activities will compound the predictive power even further. Analysts are dealing with less missing data, though no dataset would ever be totally complete. Developers in open source environments are now able to move really fast with new toolsets that would just run on any device. Simply, things that our forefathers of direct marketing used to take six months to complete can be done in few hours, and in the near future, maybe within a few seconds.

And that may be a good thing and a bad thing. If we do this right, without creating too many angry consumers and without burning holes in our budgets, we are currently in a position to achieve great many things in terms of predicting the future and making everyone’s lives a little more convenient. If we screw it up badly, we will end up creating lots of angry customers by abusing sensitive data and, at the same time, wasting a whole lot of investors’ money. Then this Big Data thing will go down in history as a great money-eating hype.

We should never do things just because we can; data is a powerful tool that can hurt real people. Do not even get into it if you don’t have a clear goal in terms of what to do with the data; it is not some piece of furniture that you buy just because your neighbor bought it. Living with data is a lifestyle change, and it requires a long-term commitment; it is not some fad that you try once and give up. It is a continuous loop where people’s responses to marketer’s data-based activities create even more data to be analyzed. And that is the only way it keeps getting better.

There Is No Big Data
And all that has nothing to do with “Big.” If done right, small data can do plenty. And in fact, most companies’ transaction data for the past few years would easily fit in an iPhone. It is about what to do with the data, and that goal must be set from a business point of view. This is not just a new playground for data geeks, who may care more for new hip technologies that sound cool in their little circle.

I recently went to Brazil to speak at a data conference called QIBRAS, and I was pleasantly surprised that the main theme of it was the quality of the data, not the size of the data. Well, at least somewhere in the world, people are approaching this whole thing without the “Big” hype. And if you look around, you will not find any successful data players calling this thing “Big Data.” They just deal with small and large data as part of their businesses. There is no buzzword, fanfare or a big banner there. Because when something is just part of your everyday business, you don’t even care what you call it. You just do. And to those masters of data, there is no Big Data. If Google all of a sudden starts calling itself a Big Data company, it would be so uncool, as that word would seriously limit it. Think about that.

Marketing Success Is (Almost) All About the Data: Optimizing Customer Loyalty Behavior Initiatives

Much of what I’ve learned over the years about sales, marketing and customer service has to do with the critical importance of customer data, and how those data are converted to actionable insights. It’s how companies generate the right customer data, manage and share data the right way, and use it at the right time. It’s also how they use data to the best effect, to optimize loyalty and profitability, that makes them successful, or not, on an individual customer basis. Culture, leadership, and systems will facilitate effective information gathering, storage and application; and, CRM, CEM, ERP, or other acronyms notwithstanding, it’s impossible to be successful without having as much relevant anecdotal and dimensional content about customers as possible.

Much of what I’ve learned over the years about sales, marketing and customer service has to do with the critical importance of customer data, and how those data are converted to actionable insights. It’s how companies generate the right customer data, manage and share data the right way, and use it at the right time. It’s also how they use data to the best effect, to optimize loyalty and profitability, that makes them successful, or not, on an individual customer basis. Culture, leadership, and systems will facilitate effective information gathering, storage and application; and, CRM, CEM, ERP, or other acronyms notwithstanding, it’s impossible to be successful without having as much relevant anecdotal and dimensional content about customers as possible.

Bill Gates, often a prophet, said in “Business @ The Speed of Thought” (1999):

The best way to put distance between you and the crowd is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage and use information will determine whether you win or lose.

He might have added, had he really understood how to create and optimize customer loyalty, that what information, particularly customer-specific information, a company collects, and how they manage, share and apply it to the customer will determine how successful they can become.

One of my key sources for the uses of information gathered by customer clubs and, particularly, loyalty programs, for example, is friend and colleague, Brian Woolf (www.brianwoolf.com). Brian is president of the Retail Strategy Center, Inc., and a fountain of knowledge about how companies apply, and don’t apply, data generated through these programs.

In a Peppers & Rogers newsletter, for example, Don Peppers quoted Brian in his article, “The Secrets of Successful Loyalty Programs”:

Loyalty program success has less to do with the value of points or discounts to a customer, and much more to do with a company’s use of data mining to improve the customer experience. Top management hasn’t figured out what to do with all the information gleaned. You have all this information sitting in a database somewhere and no one taking advantage of it.

You need to mine the information to create not only relationships but also an optimum (purchasing) experience. The best loyalty programs use the customer data to improve not only promotions, but also store layout, pricing, cleanliness, check-out speed, etc.

Firms that do this are able to double their profits. When these elements are not addressed, all you’re doing is teaching the customer to seek out the lowest price.”

Tesco, one of the world’s largest retail chains, is using its customer information for a number of marketing and process initiatives. In his book “Loyalty Marketing: The Second Act,” Brian described how Tesco leveraged customer data drawn from its loyalty program to move into offering banking and financial services:

With information derived from its loyalty card and enriched by appended external demographic data, they can readily develop profiles of customers who would most likely be interested in basic banking services, as well as an array of related options, ranging from car loans and pension savings programs, to insurance for all types of needs—car, home, travel and even pets. It costs Tesco significantly less than half of what it costs a bank to acquire a financial services customer. Without a doubt, having detailed customer information gives them a competitive edge.

A few years ago, Tesco parlayed its offline customer data to also become the world’s largest online grocery and sundries home delivery service. Additionally, Tesco uses its customer data to target and segment communications to the millions of its loyalty program members by almost infinite demographic, purchase and lifestyle profiles. In his book, Brian notes that Tesco can create up to 150,000 variations of its promotion and reward statement mailings each quarter. These variations, as he says, ” … are both apparent and subtle, ranging from the product offer (i.e., which customers receive which offers at what price) to the content of the letter and the way it is personalized.”

Tesco is absolutely a company that knows how to leverage customer information. Its customer database contains not just demographic and lifestyle data, food spending in stores and on home delivery, but also specifics about its customers’ interest in, and use of, a diverse range of non-food products and services. As Bill Gates’ statement suggests, incisive and leveraged customer data has enabled Tesco to put distance between itself and its competitors, in both traditional and non-traditional retail markets.

An understanding of the real value and impact of customer information, and a disciplined plan for sharing and using the data to make a company more customer-centric, is needed more than ever. A good analogy, or model, for CEM and loyalty program effectiveness or ineffectiveness in building desired customer behavior, may be what can be termed the “car-fuel relationship.” A car, no matter how attractive, powerful and technically sophisticated, can’t go anywhere without fuel.

Not only that, to reach a desired destination, the car must have the right fuel for its engine, and in the right quantity. For customers, the car is CRM and its key data-related systems components (data gathering, integration, warehousing, mining and application).

The destination is optimized customer lifetime value and profitability. The fuel is the proper octane and amount of customer data.

Leading-edge companies are focusing on customer lifetime value as a destination. They are collecting the right data and using the right skills, processes, tools and customer information management technologies to make sure that key customer insights are available wherever they are needed, in all parts of the enterprise. Jeremy Braune, formerly head of customer experience at a leading U.K. consulting organization, has been quoted as saying: ” … organizations need to adopt a more structured and rigorous approach to development, based on a real understanding of what their customers actually want from them. The bottom line must always be to start with the basics of what is most important to the customer and build from there.”

I completely agree. It’s (almost) all about the data.

Client Maturity

As an agency, or even a marketing department, you must work with clients of every possible ilk. Oh sure, your client might be your company’s CEO or it might be the marketing director of a third-party company, but when you provide marketing services, you’re nearly always reporting to someone else. So what happens when that client doesn’t have the maturity required to participate at a high level in discussions and project development?

As an agency, or even a marketing department, you must work with clients of every possible ilk. Oh sure, your client might be your company’s CEO or it might be the marketing director of a third-party company, but when you provide marketing services, you’re nearly always reporting to someone else. So what happens when that client doesn’t have the maturity required to participate at a high level in discussions and project development? This lack of maturity might result in an abandonment of the project before completion because it “seemed to take too long,” “needed too much development,” or “was broken.”

As campaign architects and builders, we find ourselves working with clients who need to learn a new vernacular in order to participate in meetings and decision-making with our teams. Simple explanations are one thing, but when we spend copious time in calls and meetings simply educating, it’s time to take a long, hard look at the fit of the client.

For the immature client, working to build campaigns will be a daunting task—made so by longer meetings and hours’ long descriptions of design and development processes as you attempt to keep them in the know and in the loop. If our client is lacking the required maturity to participate in a meaningful manner, the negative impact on the project may derail efforts to the point of paralysis or even abandonment.

In an effort to find the best customers for your company, consider developing a maturity-diagnosis document. In this document, ask questions to help you determine at what level your customer will be able to contribute to conversations and decision-making. You could ask questions such as:

  • Do you know the difference between drip and nurture campaigns?
  • Does your company have a revenue goal this year?
  • Are you on target to reach your goal?
  • How will this campaign contribute to the goal?
  • How big is your sales team?
  • How are they compensated?
  • At what level is your understanding of HTML and CSS?
  • Is your website responsive; do you know what that is?
  • Does your website offer e-commerce? If so, what platform?
  • Does your e-commerce system enable you to send auto-responders?
  • Do you know how to modify these auto-responders?
  • How dependent are you on your IT department or other departments?

As you can see, the questions you might ask should span myriad topics, but which to ask will be dependent upon your company and the types of services you provide to clients.

If you are a .NET website-development company, you may need to ask questions focused more on the maturity of knowledge of our client in the e-commerce space. If you provide simple blast emails, you may wish to focus on their understanding of various types of emails and SEO. In both cases, however, you are looking to minimize the overhead created by having to educate your client each step or phase of the project.

Not every prospect who dials your number or fills out a form is a customer with whom your company should engage. You are not in the business of education, you’re in the business of providing a service—and the more quickly, succinctly and efficiently you can provide that service, the more profitable you will be.

Vet your customers. They certainly vetted you.