Even AI Needs Clean Data in Order to Be the Shiny Object

Users are quickly realizing that investing in AI is not the end of the road. Then again, in this analytics journey, there really is no end anyway; much like the scientific journey, it is a constant series of hypothesis, testing, and course corrections.

Users are quickly realizing that investing in AI is not the end of the road. Then again, in this analytics journey, there really is no end anyway; much like the scientific journey, it is a constant series of hypothesis, testing, and course corrections. And now, I’ll explain why that means even AI needs clean data.

If there is a book out there — many have asked me about it — it would look more like a long series of case studies, not some definitive roadmap for all. Why? Because prescribing analytics is much like a doctor’s work. It depends as much on the unique situation of the patient as on the list of solutions.

That is the main reason why one cannot just install AI and call it a day. Who’d give it a purpose, guide it, and constantly fine-tune it? Not itself, for sure.

Then there is a question about what goes into it. AI — or any type of analytics tool, for that matter — depends on clean and error-free data. If the data are dirty and unusable, you may end up automating inadequate decision-making processes, getting wrong answers really fast. I’d say that would be worse than not having any answer at all.

So far, you may say I am just stating the obvious here. Of course, AI or machine learning require clean and error free data. The real trouble is that such data preparation often takes up as much as 80% (if not more) of the whole process of applying data-based intelligence to decision-making. In fact, users are finding out that the algorithmic part of the equation is the simplest to automate. The data refinement process is far more complicated than that, as it really depends on the shape of the available data. And some are really messy (hence, the title of my series in this fine publication, “Big Data, Small Data, Clean Data, Messy Data”).

So, why aren’t data readily usable?

  • Data Are in Silos: This is so common that “siloed data” is actually a term that we commonly use in meeting rooms. Simply, if the data are locked up somewhere, they won’t be much of use for anyone. Worse, each silo may be on a unique platform, with incompatible data formats from others.
  • Data Are in One Place, But Not Connected: Putting the data in one place isn’t enough, if they are not properly connected. Let’s say an organization is pursuing the coveted “Customer 360” (or more properly, “360-degree view of a customer”) for personalized marketing. The first thing to do is to define what a “person” means, in the eyes of the machine and algorithms. It could be any form of PII or even biometrics data, through which all related data would be merged and consolidated. If the online and offline shopping history of a person aren’t connected properly, algorithms will treat them as two separate entities, devaluating the target customer. This is just one example; all kinds of analytics — whether they be forecasting, segmentation, or product analysis — perform better with more than one type of data, and they should be in one place to be useful.
  • Data Are Connected, But Many Fields Are Wrong or Empty: So what if the data are merged in one place? If data are mostly empty or incorrect, they will be worse than not having any at all. Good luck forecasting or predicting anything with data fields with really low fill rates. Unfortunately, we encounter tons of missing values in the case of “Customer 360.” What we call Big Data have lots of holes in them, when everything is lined up around the target (i.e., it is nearly impossible to know everything about everyone). Plus, remember that most modern databases record and maintain what are available; but in predictive analytics, what we don’t know is equally important.
  • Data Are There, But They Are Not Readily Usable, as They Are in Free-Form Formats: You may have the data, but they may need some serious standardization, refinement, categorization, and transformation processes to be useful. Many times I encountered hundreds, at time over a thousand, offer and promotion codes. To find out “what marketing efforts worked,” we would have to go through some serious data categorization to make them useful. (Refer to “The Art of Data Categorization”) This is just one example of many. Too often, analytics work is stuck in the middle of too much free-form, unstructured data.
  • Data Are Usable, But They Are One-Dimensional: Bits and pieces of data, even if they are clean and accurate, do not provide a holistic portrait of target individuals (if the job is about 1:1 marketing). Most predictive analytics work requires diverse data of a different nature, and only after proper data consolidation and summarization, we can obtain a multi-dimensional view. So-called relational databases and unstructured databases do not provide such a perspective without data summarization (or de-normalization) processes, as entities of such databases are just lists of events and transactions (e.g., on such and such date, this individual clicked some email link and bought a particular item for how much).
  • Data Are Cleaned, Consolidated, and Summarized, But There Is No Built-in Intelligence: To predict what the target individual is interested in, data players must rearrange the data to describe the person, not just events or transactions. Why do you think even large retailers, like Amazon, treat you like you are only about the very last transaction, sending the “likes” of the last item you purchased, ignoring years of interaction history? Because their data are not describing “you” as a target. And you are not just a sum of past transactions, either. For instance, your days in between purchases in the home electronics category may be far greater than those in the apparel category, yet showing higher average spending in the first category. This type of insight only comes out when the data are summarized properly to describe the buyer, not each transaction. Further, summarized data should be in the form of answers to questions, acting as building blocks of predictive scores. Intelligent variables always increase the predictive power of models, machine-based or not.
  • Data Variables Include Intelligence, But It Is Still Difficult to Derive Insights: Lists of intelligent variables are just basic necessities for advanced analytics, which would lead us to deeper and actionable insights. Even statisticians and analysts require a long training period to derive meanings out of seemingly beautiful charts and effectively develop stories around them. Yes, we can see that certain product sales went down, even with heavy promotion. But what does that really mean, and what should we do about it? For a machine to catch up with that level of storytelling, the data best be on silver platters in pristine condition first. Because changing assumptions based on “what is not there” or “what looks suspicious” is still in the realm of human intuition. Machines, for now, will read the results as if every bit of input data is correct and carries equal weight.

There are schools of thought that machines should be able to take raw data in any form, and somehow spit out answers for us mortals. But I do not subscribe to such a brute-force approach. Even if there is no human intervention in the data refinement process, machines will have to clean data in steps, like we have been doing. Simply put, a machine that is really good at identifying target individuals will be separately trained from the one that is designed for prediction of any kind.

So, what does clean and useful data mean? Just reverse the list above. In summary, good data must be:

  • Free from silos
  • Properly connected, if coming from disparate sources
  • Free from errors and too many missing values (i.e., must have good coverage)
  • Readily usable by non-specialists without having to manipulate them extensively
  • Multi-dimensional as a result of proper data summarization
  • In forms of variables with built-in intelligence
  • Presented in ways that provide insights, beyond a simple list of data points

Then, what are the steps of data refinement process? Again, if I may summarize the key steps out of the list above:

  1. Data collection (from various sources)
  2. Data consolidation (around the key object, such as individual target)
  3. Data hygiene and standardization
  4. Data categorization
  5. Data summarization
  6. Creation of intelligent variables
  7. Data visualization and/or modeling for business insights

Conclusion

I have covered all of these steps in detail through this column over the years. Nevertheless, I just wanted to share these steps on a high level again, as the list will serve as a checklist, of sorts. Why? Because I see too many organizations — even the advanced ones — that miss the whole category of necessary activities. How many times have I seen unstructured and uncategorized data, and how many times have I seen very clean data but only on an event and transaction level? How can anyone predict the target individual’s future behavior that way, with or without the help of machines?

The No. 1 reason why AI or machine learning do not reach their full potential is inadequate input data. Imagine putting unrefined oil as fuel or lubricant for a brand new Porsche. If the engine stalls, is that the car’s fault? To that point, please remember that even the machines require clean and organized data. And if you are about to have machines do the clean-up, also remember that machines are not that smart (yet), and they work better when trained for a specific task, such as pattern recognition (for data categorization).

One last parting thought: I am not at all saying that one must wait for a perfect set of data. Such a day will never come. Errors are inevitable, and some data will be missing. There will be all kinds of collection problems, and the limitation in data collection mechanisms cannot be fully overcome, thanks to those annoying humans who don’t comply well with the system. Or, it could be that the target individual simply did not create an event for the category yet (i.e., data will be missing for the Home Electrics category, if the buyer in question simply did not do anything in that category).

So, collect and clean the data as much as possible, but don’t pursuit 100% either. Analytics — with or without machines — always have been making the most of what we have. Leave it at “good enough,” though machine wouldn’t understand what that means.

How to Outsource Analytics

In this series, I have been emphasizing the importance of statistical modeling in almost every article. While there are plenty of benefits of using statistical models in a more traditional sense (refer to “Why Model?”), in the days when “too much” data is the main challenge, I would dare to say that the most important function of statistical models is that they summarize complex data into simple-to-use “scores.”

In this series, I have been emphasizing the importance of statistical modeling in almost every article. While there are plenty of benefits of using statistical models in a more traditional sense (refer to “Why Model?”), in the days when “too much” data is the main challenge, I would dare to say that the most important function of statistical models is that they summarize complex data into simple-to-use “scores.”

The next important feature would be that models fill in the gaps, transforming “unknowns” to “potentials.” You see, even in the age of ubiquitous data, no one will ever know everything about everybody. For instance, out of 100,000 people you have permission to contact, only a fraction will be “known” wine enthusiasts. With modeling, we can assign scores for “likelihood of being a wine enthusiast” to everyone in the base. Sure, models are not 100 percent accurate, but I’ll take “70 percent chance of afternoon shower” over not knowing the weather forecast for the day of the company picnic.

I’ve already explained other benefits of modeling in detail earlier in this series, but if I may cut it really short, models will help marketers:

1. In deciding whom to engage, as they cannot afford to spam the world and annoy everyone who can read, and

2. In determining what to offer once they decide to engage someone, as consumers are savvier than ever and they will ignore and discard any irrelevant message, no matter how good it may look.

OK, then. I hope you are sold on this idea by now. The next question is, who is going to do all that mathematical work? In a country where jocks rule over geeks, it is clear to me that many folks are more afraid of mathematics than public speaking; which, in its own right, ranks higher than death in terms of the fear factor for many people. If I may paraphrase “Seinfeld,” many folks are figuratively more afraid of giving a eulogy than being in the coffin at a funeral. And thanks to a sub-par math education in the U.S. (and I am not joking about this, having graduated high school on foreign soil), yes, the fear of math tops them all. Scary, heh?

But that’s OK. This is a big world, and there are plenty of people who are really good at mathematics and statistics. That is why I purposefully never got into the mechanics of modeling techniques and related programming issues in this series. Instead, I have been emphasizing how to formulate questions, how to express business goals in a more logical fashion and where to invest to create analytics-ready environments. Then the next question is, “How will you find the right math geeks who can make all your dreams come true?”

If you have a plan to create an internal analytics team, there are a few things to consider before committing to that idea. Too many organizations just hire one or two statisticians, dump all the raw data onto them, and hope to God that they will figure some ways to make money with data, somehow. Good luck with that idea, as:

1. I’ve seen so many failed attempts like that (actually, I’d be shocked if it actually worked), and

2. I am sure God doesn’t micromanage statistical units.

(Similarly, I am almost certain that she doesn’t care much for football or baseball scores of certain teams, either. You don’t think God cares more for the Red Sox than the Yankees, do ya?)

The first challenge is locating good candidates. If you post any online ad for “Statistical Analysts,” you will receive a few hundred resumes per day. But the hiring process is not that simple, as you should ask the right questions to figure out who is a real deal, and who is a poser (and there are many posers out there). Even among qualified candidates with ample statistical knowledge, there are differences between the “Doers” and “Vendor Managers.” Depending on your organizational goal, you must differentiate the two.

Then the next challenge is keeping the team intact. In general, mathematicians and statisticians are not solely motivated by money; they also want constant challenges. Like any smart and creative folks, they will simply pack up and leave, if “they” determine that the job is boring. Just a couple of modeling projects a year with some rudimentary sets of data? Meh. Boring! Promises of upward mobility only work for a fraction of them, as the majority would rather deal with numbers and figures, showing no interest in managing other human beings. So, coming up with interesting and challenging projects, which will also benefit the whole organization, becomes a job in itself. If there are not enough challenges, smart ones will quit on you first. Then they need constant mentoring, as even the smartest statisticians will not know everything about challenges associated with marketing, target audiences and the business world, in general. (If you stumble into a statistician who is even remotely curious about how her salary is paid for, start with her.)

Further, you would need to invest to set up an analytical environment, as well. That includes software, hardware and other supporting staff. Toolsets are becoming much cheaper, but they are not exactly free yet. In fact, some famous statistical software, such as SAS, could be quite expensive year after year, although there are plenty of alternatives now. And they need an “analytics-ready” data environment, as I emphasized countless times in this series (refer to “Chicken or the Egg? Data or Analytics?” and “Marketing and IT; Cats and Dogs”). Such data preparation work is not for statisticians, and most of them are not even good at cleaning up dirty data, anyway. That means you will need different types of developers/programmers on the analytics team. I pointed out that analytical projects call for a cohesive team, not some super-duper analyst who can do it all (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist”).

By now you would say “Jeez Louise, enough already,” as all this is just too much to manage to build just a few models. Suddenly, outsourcing may sound like a great idea. Then you would realize there are many things to consider when outsourcing analytical work.

First, where would you go? Everyone in the data industry and their cousins claim that they can take care of analytics. But in reality, it is a scary place where many who have “analytics” in their taglines do not even touch “predictive analytics.”

Analytics is a word that is abused as much as “Big Data,” so we really need to differentiate them. “Analytics” may mean:

  • Business Intelligence (BI) Reporting: This is mostly about the present, such as the display of key success metrics and dashboard reporting. While it is very important to know about the current state of business, much of so-called “analytics” unfortunately stops right here. Yes, it is good to have a dashboard in your car now, but do you know where you should be going?
  • Descriptive Analytics: This is about how the targets “look.” Common techniques such as profiling, segmentation and clustering fall under this category. These techniques are mainly for describing the target audience to enhance and optimize messages to them. But using these segments as a selection mechanism is not recommended, while many dare to do exactly that (more on this subject in future articles).
  • Predictive Modeling: This is about answering the questions about the future. Who would be more likely to behave certain ways? What communication channels will be most effective for whom? How much is the potential spending level of a prospect? Who is more likely to be a loyal and profitable customer? What are their preferences? Response models, various of types of cloning models, value models, and revenue models, attrition models, etc. all fall under this category, and they require hardcore statistical skills. Plus, as I emphasized earlier, these model scores compact large amounts of complex data into nice bite-size packages.
  • Optimization: This is mostly about budget allocation and attribution. Marketing agencies (or media buyers) generally deal with channel optimization and spending analysis, at times using econometrics models. This type of statistical work calls for different types of expertise, but many still insist on calling it simply “analytics.”

Let’s say that for the purpose of customer-level targeting and personalization, we decided to outsource the “predictive” modeling projects. What are our options?

We may consider:

  • Individual Consultants: In-house consultants are dedicated to your business for the duration of the contract, guaranteeing full access like an employee. But they are there for you only temporarily, with one foot out the door all the time. And when they do leave, all the knowledge walks away with them. Depending on the rate, the costs can add up.
  • Standalone Analytical Service Providers: Analytical work is all they do, so you get focused professionals with broad technical and institutional knowledge. Many of them are entrepreneurs, but that may work against you, as they could often be understaffed and stretched thin. They also tend to charge for every little step, with not many freebies. They are generally open to use any type of data, but the majority of them do not have secure sources of third-party data, which could be essential for certain types of analytics involving prospecting.
  • Database Service Providers: Almost all data compilers and brokers have statistical units, as they need to fill in the gap within their data assets with statistical techniques. (You didn’t think that they knew everyone’s income or age, did you?) For that reason, they have deep knowledge in all types of data, as well as in many industry verticals. They provide a one-stop shop environment with deep resource pools and a variety of data processing capabilities. However, they may not be as agile as smaller analytical shops, and analytics units may be tucked away somewhere within large and complex organizations. They also tend to emphasize the use of their own data, as after all, their main cash cows are their data assets.
  • Direct Marketing Agencies: Agencies are very strategic, as they touch all aspects of marketing and control creative processes through segmentation. Many large agencies boast full-scale analytical units, capable of all types of analytics that I explained earlier. But some agencies have very small teams, stretched really thin—just barely handling the reporting aspect, not any advanced analytics. Some just admit that predictive analytics is not part of their core competencies, and they may outsource such projects (not that it is a bad thing).

As you can see here, there is no clear-cut answer to “with whom you should you work.” Basically, you will need to check out all types of analysts and service providers to determine the partner best suitable for your long- and short-term business purposes, not just analytical goals. Often, many marketers just go with the lowest bidder. But pricing is just one of many elements to be considered. Here, allow me to introduce “10 Essential Items to Consider When Outsourcing Analytics.”

1. Consulting Capabilities: I put this on the top of the list, as being a translator between the marketing and the technology world is the most important differentiator (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist”). They must understand the business goals and marketing needs, prescribe suitable solutions, convert such goals into mathematical expressions and define targets, making the best of available data. If they lack strategic vision to set up the data roadmap, statistical knowledge alone will not be enough to achieve the goals. And such business goals vary greatly depending on the industry, channel usage and related success metrics. Good consultants always ask questions first, while sub-par ones will try to force-fit marketers’ goals into their toolsets and methodologies.

Translating marketing goals into specific courses of action is a skill in itself. A good analytical partner should be capable of building a data roadmap (not just statistical steps) with a deep understanding of the business impact of resultant models. They should be able to break down larger goals into smaller steps, creating proper phased approaches. The plan may call for multiple models, all kinds of pre- and post-selection rules, or even external data acquisition, while remaining sensitive to overall costs.

The target definition is the core of all these considerations, which requires years of experience and industry knowledge. Simply, the wrong or inadequate targeting decision leads to disastrous results, no matter how sound the mathematical work is (refer to “Art of Targeting”).

Another important quality of a good analytical partner is the ability to create usefulness out of seemingly chaotic and unstructured data environments. Modeling is not about waiting for the perfect set of data, but about making the best of available data. In many modeling bake-offs, the winners are often decided by the creative usage of provided data, not just statistical techniques.

Finally, the consultative approach is important, as models do not exist in a vacuum, but they have to fit into the marketing engine. Be aware of the ones who want to change the world around their precious algorithms, as they are geeks not strategists. And the ones who understand the entire marketing cycle will give advice on what the next phase should be, as marketing efforts must be perpetual, not transient.

So, how will you find consultants? Ask the following questions:

  • Are they “listening” to you?
  • Can they repeat “your” goals in their own words?
  • Do their roadmaps cover both short- and long-term goals?
  • Are they confident enough to correct you?
  • Do they understand “non-statistical” elements in marketing?
  • Have they “been there, done that” for real, or just in theories?

2. Data Processing Capabilities: I know that some people look down upon the word “processing.” But data manipulation is the most important key step “before” any type of advanced analytics even begins. Simply, “garbage-in, garbage out.” And unfortunately, most datasets are completely unsuitable for analytics and modeling. In general, easily more than 80 percent of model development time goes into “fixing” the data, as most are unstructured and unrefined. I have been repeatedly emphasizing the importance of a “model-ready” (or “analytics-ready”) environment for that reason.

However, the reality dictates that the majority of databases are indeed NOT model-ready, and most of them are not even close to it. Well, someone has to clean up the mess. And in this data business, the last one who touches the dataset becomes responsible for all the errors and mistakes made to it thus far. I know it is not fair, but that is why we need to look at the potential partner’s ability to handle large and really messy data, not just the statistical savviness displayed in glossy presentations.

Yes, that dirty work includes data conversion, edit/hygiene, categorization/tagging, data summarization and variable creation, encompassing all kinds of numeric, character and freeform data (refer to “Beyond RFM Data” and “Freeform Data Aren’t Exactly Free”). It is not the most glorious part of this business, but data consistency is the key to successful implementation of any advanced analytics. So, if a model-ready environment is not available, someone had better know how to make the best of whatever is given. I have seen too many meltdowns in “before” and “after” modeling steps due to inconsistencies in databases.

So, grill the candidates with the following questions:

  • If they support file conversions, edit, categorization and summarization
  • How big of a dataset is too big, and how many files/tables are too many for them
  • How much free-form data are too much for them
  • Ask for sample model variables that they have created in the past

3. Track Records in the Industry: It can be argued that industry knowledge is even more crucial for the success than statistical know-how, as nuances are often “Lost in Translation” without relevant industry experience. In fact, some may not even be able to carry on a proper conversation with a client without it, leading to all kinds of wrong assumptions. I have seen a case where “real” rocket scientists messed up models for credit card campaigns.

The No. 1 reason why industry experience is important is everyone’s success metrics are unique. Just to name a few, financial services (banking, credit card, insurance, investment, etc.), travel and hospitality, entertainment, packaged goods, online and offline retail, catalogs, publication, telecommunications/utilities, non-profit and political organizations all call for different types of analytics and models, as their business models and the way they interact with target audiences are vastly different. For example, building a model (or a database, for that matter) for businesses where they hand over merchandise “before” they collect money is fundamentally different than the ones where exchange happens simultaneously. Even a simple concept of payment date or transaction date cannot be treated the same way. For retailers, recent dates could be better for business, but for subscription business, older dates may carry more weight. And these are just some examples with “dates,” before touching any dollar figures or other fun stuff.

Then the job gets even more complicated, if we further divide all of these industries by B-to-B vs. B-to-C, where available data do not even look similar. On top of that, divisional ROI metrics may be completely different, and even terminology and culture may play a role in all of this. When you are a consultant, you really don’t want to stop the flow of a meeting to clarify some unfamiliar acronyms, as you are supposed to know them all.

So, always demand specific industry references and examine client roasters, if allowed. (Many clients specifically ask vendors not to use their names as references.) Basically, watch out for the ones who push one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter solutions. You deserve way more than that.

4. Types of Models Supported: Speaking of cookie-cutter stuff, we need to be concerned with types of models that the outsourcing partner would support. Sure, nobody employs every technique, and no one can be good at everything. But we need to watch out for the “One-trick Ponies.”

This could be a tricky issue, as we are going into a more technical domain. Plus, marketers should not self-prescribe with specific techniques, instead of clearly stating their business goals (refer to “Marketing and IT; Cats and Dogs”). Some of the modeling goals are:

  • Rank and select prospect names
  • Lead scoring
  • Cross-sell/upsell
  • Segment the universe for messaging strategy
  • Pinpoint the attrition point
  • Assign lifetime values for prospects and customers
  • Optimize media/channel spending
  • Create new product packages
  • Detect fraud
  • Etc.

Unless you have successfully dealt with the outsourcing partner in the past (or you have a degree in statistics), do not blurt out words like Neural-net, CHAID, Cluster Analysis, Multiple Regression, Discriminant Function Analysis, etc. That would be like demanding specific medication before your new doctor even asks about your symptoms. The key is meeting your business goals, not fulfilling buzzwords. Let them present their methodology “after” the goal discussion. Nevertheless, see if the potential partner is pushing one or two specific techniques or solutions all the time.

5. Speed of Execution: In modern marketing, speed to action is the king. Speed wins, and speed gains respect. However, when it comes to modeling or other advanced analytics, you may be shocked by the wide range of time estimates provided by each outsourcing vendor. To be fair they are covering themselves, mainly because they have no idea what kind of messy data they will receive. As I mentioned earlier, pre-model data preparation and manipulation are critical components, and they are the most time-consuming part of all; especially when available data are in bad shape. Post-model scoring, audit and usage support may elongate the timeline. The key is to differentiate such pre- and post-modeling processes in the time estimate.

Even for pure modeling elements, time estimates vary greatly, depending on the complexity of assignments. Surely, a simple cloning model with basic demographic data would be much easier to execute than the ones that involve ample amounts of transaction- and event-level data, coming from all types of channels. If time-series elements are added, it will definitely be more complex. Typical clustering work is known to take longer than regression models with clear target definitions. If multiple models are required for the project, it will obviously take more time to finish the whole job.

Now, the interesting thing about building a model is that analysts don’t really finish it, but they just run out of time—much like the way marketers work on PowerPoint presentations. The commonality is that we can basically tweak models or decks forever, but we have to stop at some point.

However, with all kinds of automated tools and macros, model development time has decreased dramatically in past decades. We really came a long way since the first application of statistical techniques to marketing, and no one should be quoting a 1980s timeline in this century. But some still do. I know vendors are trained to follow the guideline “always under-promise and over-deliver,” but still.

An interesting aspect of this dilemma is that we can negotiate the timeline by asking for simpler and less sophisticated versions with diminished accuracy. If, hypothetically, it takes a week to be 98 percent accurate, but it only takes a day to be 90 percent accurate, what would you pick? That should be the business decision.

So, what is a general guideline? Again, it really depends on many factors, but allow me to share a version of it:

  • Pre-modeling Processing

– Data Conversions: from half a day to weeks

– Data Append/Enhancement: between overnight and two days

– Data Edit and Summarization: Data-dependent

  • Modeling: Ranges from half a day to weeks

– Depends on type, number of models and complexity

  • Scoring: from half a day to one week

– Mainly depends on number of records and state of the database to be scored

I know these are wide ranges, but watch out for the ones that routinely quote 30 days or more for simple clone models. They may not know what they are doing, or worse, they may be some mathematical perfectionists who don’t understand the marketing needs.

6. Pricing Structure: Some marketers would put this on top of the checklist, or worse, use the pricing factor as the only criterion. Obviously, I disagree. (Full disclosure: I have been on the service side of the fence during my entire career.) Yes, every project must make an economic sense in the end, but the budget should not and cannot be the sole deciding factor in choosing an outsourcing partner. There are many specialists under famous brand names who command top dollars, and then there are many data vendors who throw in “free” models, disrupting the ecosystem. Either way, one should not jump to conclusions too fast, as there is no free lunch, after all. In any case, I strongly recommend that no one should start the meeting with pricing questions (hence, this article). When you get to the pricing part, ask what the price includes, as the analytical journey could be a series of long and winding roads. Some of the biggest factors that need to be considered are:

  • Multiple Model Discounts—Less for second or third models within a project?
  • Pre-developed (off-the-shelf) Models—These can be “much” cheaper than custom models, while not custom-fitted.
  • Acquisition vs. CRM—Employing client-specific variables certainly increases the cost.
  • Regression Models vs. Other Types—At times, types of techniques may affect the price.
  • Clustering and Segmentations—They are generally priced much higher than target-specific models.

Again, it really depends on the complexity factor more than anything else, and the pre- and post-modeling process must be estimated and priced separately. Non-modeling charges often add up fast, and you should ask for unit prices and minimum charges for each step.

Scoring charges in time can be expensive, too, so negotiate for discounts for routine scoring of the same models. Some may offer all-inclusive package pricing for everything. The important thing is that you must be consistent with the checklist when shopping around with multiple candidates.

7. Documentation: When you pay for a custom model (not pre-developed, off-the-shelf ones), you get to own the algorithm. Because algorithms are not tangible items, the knowledge is to be transformed in model documents. Beware of the ones who offer “black-box” solutions with comments like, “Oh, it will work, so trust us.”

Good model documents must include the following, at the minimum:

  • Target and Comparison Universe Definitions: What was the target variable (or “dependent” variable) and how was it defined? How was the comparison universe defined? Was there any “pre-selection” for either of the universes? These are the most important factors in any model—even more than the mechanics of the model itself.
  • List of Variables: What are the “independent” variables? How were they transformed or binned? From where did they originate? Often, these model variables describe the nature of the model, and they should make intuitive sense.
  • Model Algorithms: What is the actual algorithm? What are the assigned weight for each independent variable?
  • Gains Chart: We need to examine potential effectiveness of the model. What are the “gains” for each model group, from top to bottom (e.g., 320 percent gain at the top model group in comparison to the whole universe)? How fast do such gains decrease as we move down the scale? How do the gains factors compare against the validation sample? A graphic representation would be nice, too.

For custom models, it is customary to have a formal model presentation, full documentation and scoring script in designated programming languages. In addition, if client files are provided, ask for a waterfall report that details input and output counts of each step. After the model scoring, it is also customary for the vendor to provide a scored universe count by model group. You will be shocked to find out that many so-called analytical vendors do not provide thorough documentation. Therefore, it is recommended to ask for sample documents upfront.

8. Scoring Validation: Models are built and presented properly, but the job is not done until the models are applied to the universe from which the names are ranked and selected for campaigns. I have seen too many major meltdowns at this stage. Simply, it is one thing to develop models with a few hundred thousand record samples, but it is quite another to apply the algorithm to millions of records. I am not saying that the scoring job always falls onto the developers, as you may have an internal team or a separate vendor for such ongoing processes. But do not let the model developer completely leave the building until everything checks out.

The model should have been validated against the validation sample by then, but live scoring may reveal all kinds of inconsistencies. You may also want to back-test the algorithms with past campaign results, as well. In short, many things go wrong “after” the modeling steps. When I hear customers complaining about models, I often find that the modeling is the only part that was done properly, and “before” and “after” steps were all messed up. Further, even machines misunderstand each other, as any differences in platform or scripting language may cause discrepancies. Or, maybe there was no technical error, but missing values may have caused inconsistencies (refer to “Missing Data Can Be Meaningful”). Nonetheless, the model developers would have the best insight as to what could have gone wrong, so make sure that they are available for questions after models are presented and delivered.

9. Back-end Analysis: Good analytics is all about applying learnings from past campaigns—good or bad—to new iterations of efforts. We often call it “closed-loop marketing—while many marketers often neglect to follow up. Any respectful analytics shop must be aware of it, while they may classify such work separately from modeling or other analytical projects. At the minimum, you need to check out if they even offer such services. In fact, so-called “match-back analysis” is not as simple as just matching campaign files against responders in this omnichannel environment. When many channels are employed at the same time, allocation of credit (i.e., “what worked?”) may call for all kinds of business rules or even dedicated models.

While you are at it, ask for a cheaper version of “canned” reports, as well, as custom back-end analysis can be even more costly than the modeling job itself, over time. Pre-developed reports may not include all the ROI metrics that you’re looking for (e.g., open, clickthrough, conversion rates, plus revenue and orders-per-mailed, per order, per display, per email, per conversion. etc.). So ask for sample reports upfront.

If you start breaking down all these figures by data source, campaign, time series, model group, offer, creative, targeting criteria, channel, ad server, publisher, keywords, etc., it can be unwieldy really fast. So contain yourself, as no one can understand 100-page reports, anyway. See if the analysts can guide you with such planning, as well. Lastly, if you are so into ROI analysis, get ready to share the “cost” side of the equation with the selected partner. Some jobs are on the marketers.

10. Ongoing Support: Models have a finite shelf life, as all kinds of changes happen in the real world. Seasonality may be a factor, or the business model or strategy may have changed. Fluctuations in data availability and quality further complicate the matter. Basically assumptions like “all things being equal” only happen in textbooks, so marketers must plan for periodic review of models and business rules.

A sure sign of trouble is decreasing effectiveness of models. When in doubt, consult the developers and they may recommend a re-fit or complete re-development of models. Quarterly reviews would be ideal, but if the cost becomes an issue, start with 6-month or yearly reviews, but never go past more than a year without any review. Some vendors may offer discounts for redevelopment, so ask for the price quote upfront.

I know this is a long list of things to check, but picking the right partner is very important, as it often becomes a long-term relationship. And you may find it strange that I didn’t even list “technical capabilities” at all. That is because:

1. Many marketers are not equipped to dig deep into the technical realm anyway, and

2. The difference between the most mathematically sound models and the ones from the opposite end of the spectrum is not nearly as critical as other factors I listed in this article.

In other words, even the worst model in the bake-off would be much better than no model, if these other business criterion are well-considered. So, happy shopping with this list, and I hope you find the right partner. Employing analytics is not an option when living in the sea of data.

Chicken or the Egg? Data or Analytics?

I just saw an online discussion about the role of a chief data officer, whether it should be more about data or analytics. My initial response to that question is “neither.” A chief data officer must represent the business first.

I just saw an online discussion about the role of a chief data officer, whether it should be more about data or analytics. My initial response to that question is “neither.” A chief data officer must represent the business first. And I had the same answer when such a title didn’t even exist and CTOs or other types of executives covered that role in data-rich environments. As soon as an executive with a seemingly technical title starts representing the technology, that business is doomed. (Unless, of course, the business itself is about having fun with the technology. How nice!)

Nonetheless, if I really have to pick just one out of the two choices, I would definitely pick the analytics over data, as that is the key to providing answers to business questions. Data and databases must be supporting that critical role of analytics, not the other way around. Unfortunately, many organizations are completely backward about it, where analysts are confined within the limitations of database structures and affiliated technologies, and the business owners and decision-makers are dictated to by the analysts and analytical tool sets. It should be the business first, then the analytics. And all databases—especially marketing databases—should be optimized for analytical activities.

In my previous columns, I talked about the importance of marketing databases and statistical modeling in the age of Big Data; not all depositories of information are necessarily marketing databases, and statistical modeling is the best way to harness marketing answers out of mounds of accumulated data. That begs for the next question: Is your marketing database model-ready?

When I talk about the benefits of statistical modeling in data-rich environments (refer to my previous column titled “Why Model?”), I often encounter folks who list reasons why they do not employ modeling as part of their normal marketing activities. If I may share a few examples here:

  • Target universe is too small: Depending on the industry, the prospect universe and customer base are sometimes very small in size, so one may decide to engage everyone in the target group. But do you know what to offer to each of your prospects? Customized offers should be based on some serious analytics.
  • Predictive data not available: This may have been true years back, but not in this day and age. Either there is a major failure in data collection, or collected data are too unstructured to yield any meaningful answers. Aren’t we living in the age of Big Data? Surely we should all dig deeper.
  • 1-to-1 marketing channels not in plan: As I repeatedly said in my previous columns, “every” channel is, or soon will be, a 1-to-1 channel. Every audience is secretly screaming, “Entertain us!” And customized customer engagement efforts should be based on modeling, segmentation and profiling.
  • Budget doesn’t allow modeling: If the budget is too tight, a marketer may opt in for some software solution instead of hiring a team of statisticians. Remember that cookie-cutter models out of software packages are still better than someone’s intuitive selection rules (i.e., someone’s “gut” feeling).
  • The whole modeling process is just too painful: Hmm, I hear you. The whole process could be long and difficult. Now, why do you think it is so painful?

Like a good doctor, a consultant should be able to identify root causes based on pain points. So let’s hear some complaints:

  • It is not easy to find “best” customers for targeting
  • Modelers are fixing data all the time
  • Models end up relying on a few popular variables, anyway
  • Analysts are asking for more data all the time
  • It takes too long to develop and implement models
  • There are serious inconsistencies when models are applied to the database
  • Results are disappointing
  • Etc., etc…

I often get called in when model-based marketing efforts yield disappointing results. More often than not, the opening statement in such meetings is that “The model did not work.” Really? What is interesting is that in more than nine times out of 10 cases like that, the models are the only elements that seem to have been done properly. Everything else—from pre-modeling steps, such as data hygiene, conversion, categorization, and summarization; to post-modeling steps, such as score application and validation—often turns out to be the root cause of all the troubles, resulting in pain points listed here.

When I speak at marketing conferences, talking about this subject of this “model-ready” environment, I always ask if there are statisticians and analysts in the audience. Then I ask what percentage of their time goes into non-statistical activities, such as data preparation and remedying data errors. The absolute majority of them say they spend of 80 percent to 90 percent of their time fixing the data, devoting the rest to the model development work. You don’t need me to tell you that something is terribly wrong with this picture. And I am pretty sure that none of those analysts got their PhDs and master’s degrees in statistics to spend most of their waking hours fixing the data. Yeah, I know from experience that, in this data business, the last guy who happens to touch the dataset always ends up being responsible for all errors made to the file thus far, but still. No wonder it is often quoted that one of the key elements of being a successful data scientist is the programming skill.

When you provide datasets filled with unstructured, incomplete and/or missing data, diligent analysts will devote their time to remedying the situation and making the best out of what they have received. I myself often tell newcomers that analytics is really about making the best of what you’ve got. The trouble is that such data preparation work calls for a different set of skills that have nothing to do with statistics or analytics, and most analysts are not that great at programming, nor are they trained for it.

Even if they were able to create a set of sensible variables to play with, here comes the bigger trouble; what they have just fixed is just a “sample” of the database, when the models must be applied to the whole thing later. Modern databases often contain hundreds of millions of records, and no analyst in his or her right mind uses the whole base to develop any models. Even if the sample is as large as a few million records (an overkill, for sure) that would hardly be the entire picture. The real trouble is that no model is useful unless the resultant model scores are available on every record in the database. It is one thing to fix a sample of a few hundred thousand records. Now try to apply that model algorithm to 200 million entries. You see all those interesting variables that analysts created and fixed in the sample universe? All that should be redone in the real database with hundreds of millions of lines.

Sure, it is not impossible to include all the instructions of variable conversion, reformat, edit and summarization in the model-scoring program. But such a practice is the No. 1 cause of errors, inconsistencies and serious delays. Yes, it is not impossible to steer a car with your knees while texting with your hands, but I wouldn’t call that the best practice.

That is why marketing databases must be model-ready, where sampling and scoring become a routine with minimal data transformation. When I design a marketing database, I always put the analysts on top of the user list. Sure, non-statistical types will still be able to run queries and reports out of it, but those activities should be secondary as they are lower-level functions (i.e., simpler and easier) compared to being “model-ready.”

Here is list of prerequisites of being model-ready (which will be explained in detail in my future columns):

  • All tables linked or merged properly and consistently
  • Data summarized to consistent levels such as individuals, households, email entries or products (depending on the ranking priority by the users)
  • All numeric fields standardized, where missing data and zero values are separated
  • All categorical data edited and categorized according to preset business rules
  • Missing data imputed by standardized set of rules
  • All external data variables appended properly

Basically, the whole database should be as pristine as the sample datasets that analysts play with. That way, sampling should take only a few seconds, and applying the resultant model algorithms to the whole base would simply be the computer’s job, not some nerve-wrecking, nail-biting, all-night baby-sitting suspense for every update cycle.

In my co-op database days, we designed and implemented the core database with this model-ready philosophy, where all samples were presented to the analysts on silver platters, with absolutely no need for fixing the data any further. Analysts devoted their time to pondering target definitions and statistical methodologies. This way, each analyst was able to build about eight to 10 “custom” models—not cookie-cutter models—per “day,” and all models were applied to the entire database with more than 200 million individuals at the end of each day (I hear that they are even more efficient these days). Now, for the folks who are accustomed to 30-day model implementation cycle (I’ve seen as long as 6-month cycles), this may sound like a total science fiction. And I am not even saying that all companies need to build and implement that many models every day, as that would hardly be a core business for them, anyway.

In any case, this type of practice has been in use way before the words “Big Data” were even uttered by anyone, and I would say that such discipline is required even more desperately now. Everyone is screaming for immediate answers for their questions, and the questions should be answered in forms of model scores, which are the most effective and concise summations of all available data. This so-called “in-database” modeling and scoring practice starts with “model-ready” database structure. In the upcoming issues, I will share the detailed ways to get there.

So, here is the answer for the chicken-or-the-egg question. It is the business posing the questions first and foremost, then the analytics providing answers to those questions, where databases are optimized to support such analytical activities including predictive modeling. For the chicken example, with the ultimate goal of all living creatures being procreation of their species, I’d say eggs are just a means to that end. Therefore, for a business-minded chicken, yeah, definitely the chicken before the egg. Not that I’ve seen too many logical chickens.