Marketing and IT; Cats and Dogs

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following are the major steps:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and the Schoolboy: Predictive Modeling – Who’s Doing It? Who’s Doing it Right?

Forgive the borrowed interest, but predictive modeling is to marketers as sex is to schoolboys. They’re all talking about it, but few are doing it. And among those who are, fewer are doing it right. In customer relationship marketing (CRM), predictive modeling uses data to predict the likelihood of a customer taking a specific action. It’s a three-step process.

Forgive the borrowed interest, but predictive modeling is to marketers as sex is to schoolboys.

They’re all talking about it, but few are doing it. And among those who are, fewer are doing it right.

In customer relationship marketing (CRM), predictive modeling uses data to predict the likelihood of a customer taking a specific action. It’s a three-step process:

1. Examine the characteristics of the customers who took a desired action

2. Compare them against the characteristics of customers who didn’t take that action

3. Determine which characteristics are most predictive of the customer taking the action and the value or degree to which each variable is predictive

Predictive modeling is useful in allocating CRM resources efficiently. If a model predicts that certain customers are less likely respond to a specific offer, then fewer resources can be allocated to those customers, allowing more resources to be allocated to those who are more likely to respond.

Data Inputs
A predictive model will only be as good as the input data that’s used in the modeling process. You need the data that define the dependent variable; that is, the outcome the model is trying to predict (such as response to a particular offer). You’ll also need the data that define the independent variables, or the characteristics that will be predictive of the desired outcome (such as age, income, purchase history, etc.). Attitudinal and behavioral data may also be predictive, such as an expressed interest in weight loss, fitness, healthy eating, etc.

The more variables that are fed into the model at the beginning, the more likely the modeling process will identify relevant predictors. Modeling is an iterative process, and those variables that are not at all predictive will fall out in the early iterations, leaving those that are most predictive for more precise analysis in later iterations. The danger in not having enough independent variables to model is that the resultant model will only explain a portion of the desired outcome.

For example, a predictive model created to determine the factors affecting physician prescribing of a particular brand was inconclusive, because there weren’t enough dependent variables to explain the outcome fully. In a standard regression analysis, the number of RXs written in a specific timeframe was set as the dependent variable. There were only three independent variables available: sales calls, physician samples and direct mail promotions to physicians. And while each of the three variables turned out to have a positive effect on prescriptions written, the “Multiple R” value of the regression equation was high at 0.44, meaning that these variables only explained 44 percent of the variance in RXs. The other 56 percent of the variance is from factors that were not included in the model input.

Sample Size
Larger samples will produce more robust models than smaller ones. Some modelers recommend a minimum data set of 10,000 records, 500 of those with the desired outcome. Others report acceptable results with as few as 100 records with the desired outcome. But in general, size matters.

Regardless, it is important to hold out a validation sample from the modeling process. That allows the model to be applied to the hold-out sample to validate its ability to predict the desired outcome.

Important First Steps

1. Define Your Outcome. What do you want the model to do for your business? Predict likelihood to opt-in? Predict likelihood to respond to a particular offer? Your objective will drive the data set that you need to define the dependent variable. For example, if you’re looking to predict likelihood to respond to a particular offer, you’ll need to have prospects who responded and prospects who didn’t in order to discriminate between them.

2. Gather the Data to Model. This requires tapping into several data sources, including your CRM database, as well as external sources where you can get data appended (see below).

3. Set the Timeframe. Determine the time period for the data you will analyze. For example, if you’re looking to model likelihood to respond, the start and end points for the data should be far enough in the past that you have a sufficient sample of responders and non-responders.

4. Examine Variables Individually. Some variables will not be correlated with the outcome, and these can be eliminated prior to building the model.

Data Sources
Independent variable data
may include

  • In-house database fields
  • Data overlays (demographics, HH income, lifestyle interests, presence of children,
    marital status, etc.) from a data provider such as Experian, Epsilon or Acxiom.

Don’t Try This at Home
While you can do regression analysis in Microsoft Excel, if you’re going to invest a lot of promotion budget in the outcome, you should definitely leave the number crunching to the professionals. Expert modelers know how to analyze modeling results and make adjustments where necessary.

Omnichannel Customers Are 2X as Valuable – How to Make Them Yours

With so many trying to sort out an “omnichannel” marketing strategy, I thought it would make the most sense this month to provide some structure around what it is, the best way to take the “buzz” out of the term, and provide a framework for thinking strategically about this new mandate in marketing and strategy. For starters, here’s a simple idea, or “true north,” you can use to drive your own marketing strategy as you embrace the omnichannel consumer. “Put the Customer First” and build your “omnichannel strategy” around them.

With so many trying to sort out an “omnichannel” marketing strategy, I thought it would make the most sense this month to provide some structure around what it is, the best way to take the “buzz” out of the term, and provide a framework for thinking strategically about this new mandate in marketing and strategy.

For starters, here’s a simple idea, or “true north,” you can use to drive your own marketing strategy as you embrace the omnichannel consumer. “Put the Customer First” and build your “omnichannel strategy” around them.

Let’s remember, connecting with, engaging and finding the right new customers are where customer value is created and realized in omnichannel marketing. Optimizing that value comes through studying and tuning communications, improving your relevance and becoming more creatively authentic, not in the boardroom, but in the eyes of your customer.

Today, marketers appreciate that consumers engage on multiple platforms, devices and channels—the ones they want, when they want. With mobile devices being a spontaneous window into their thoughts and an outlet for their wants and needs as they arise. What’s a bit more subtle and more often missed is the objective and capability to respect the way your customers choose to engage and buy across them in a scalable manner—as it will either fragment their relationship with your brand or galvanize it.

Consider Kohls. Not exactly a high tech player in most folks’ minds. However they now deliver an omnichannel experience that deepens relationships with them. Recently, my wife received a promotion by direct mail (I doubt if she remembers when they asked for her phone number the first time, making the connection between the POS and her online purchases), she had it in hand as she went to the website to browse. Later, she used another promotion from her email right at the POS with her iPhone.

In a single engagement with the brand, she hopped across three channels, not including a customer service call by phone. As a consumer, she didn’t even notice—she just expected it to work.

Similarly, OpenTable will consistently get you to a good restaurant based on where you’ve dined before, and what your current online browsing and mobile location is. You probably do it all the time. Your relationship with that brand hops between mobile, desktop and point of sale effortlessly—but as a consumer, you’re not exactly impressed: You expect it to work.

As a result, effective omnichannel organizations have become “stitched into” the lifestyles of their customers. Moreover, this supports the creation of competitive advantage in the measurable, trackable, digital age.

Omnichannel Means Understanding the Customer
Putting the customer first obviates really knowing and understanding your customer in more meaningful and actionable ways. Not just with an anecdote of the “average customer,” but with legitimate, fact-based methods that are built on a statistical and logical foundation. This is the basis for the “absolute truth” that your omnichannel source is dependent on.

This, too, is no small task for many organizations, but it’s becoming more “doable.” And it has to be—because your competition is thinking and investing in this path, and it’s not a long-term, viable position to not have an actionable strategy to miss the boat on knowing your customer in a way that is valuable, actionable and profitable.

But first, let’s clear up some of the confusion that we’ve been hearing for at least a year now: Is omnichannel more than the buzzword of 2015, or is it something much more important?

Multichannel
At the most basic level, “multi” means many. As soon as you adopted your second or third channel, be it a catalog or an e-commerce website, your organization became a multichannel organization. Multichannel came quickly—as it’s not uncommon that the majority of a customer base has made a purchase across more than one channel—whether you have that resolution or not is another matter, and often requires a smarter approach to collection.

Digital growth is accelerating channel expansion. With the explosion of online and digital channels and the rapid adoption of mobile smartphones, tablets and now wearables, digital can no longer be viewed as a single channel. We now have the merging and proliferation of digital, physical and traditional channels.

Many marketers have experienced as much challenge in juggling an increasing number of channels as there is opportunity. But digital channels, of course, are more measurable and challenge the traditional approaches by bringing a greater resolution and visibility for some, and confusion for others.

Key factors in leveraging, managing, and maximizing those channels include:

  • Competencies developed in the organization
  • Identifying third-party competencies, especially in digital partnerships
  • The culture of the organization
  • Support for change and innovation in marketing
  • The depth of technical capability in an organization

As channel usage expands, data assets “pile up,” though most of the data in its raw format is of limited practical use and less actionable as one would hope. From the inside of dozens of IT organizations, the refrain is common; “We’re just capturing everything right now.” Creating marketing value would require strategists and the business units.

Omnichannel Is the Way Forward
While most organizations are still working through mastering their channels and the data they perpetually generate, the next wave of both competitive advantage and threats have come with them. The customer learns what works for them relatively quickly and easily, adopting new channels and buying where they want, how they want. Those touches are often lower touch, and introduce intermediaries, and are surrounded by contextual advertising, often from competitors.

Omnichannel buyers aren’t just more complex, they are substantially more valuable. We’ve seen them be as much as twice as valuable as those whose relationship is on a single channel. Perhaps this a reflection of the greater engagement with the brand.

Delivering that omnichannel experience will require more thought, focus and expertise than before. It requires the integration of systems, apps and experiences in a way that’s meaningful—to the customer—and that of course requires an integration of the data about those purchases and experiences.

To serve the business, the Omnichannel Readiness Process has six components, each of which require thoughtful consideration:

1. Capture—many organizations are aware that they need to capture “the data.” The challenge here is shifting to what to capture, and what they may be missing. The key challenge is: It’s impossible to capture “everything” without understanding how it can and should be used and leveraged. How that data is captured in terms of format and organization is of great importance.

2. Consolidate—In order to act on the omnichannel reality, we must have all our data in one place. In the ongoing effort to find the balance between cost, speed and value, “silos” have been built to house various data components. Those data sources must be consolidated through a process that is not quite trivial if those data sources are to create value in the customer experience and over the customer lifetime.

3. Enhance—Even after we’ve pulled our data together into an intelligent framework and model, built to support the business needs, virtually every marketer is missing data that consumers generally don’t provide, or don’t provide reliably on a self-reported basis. “Completing the customer record” requires planning and investing in appropriate third-party data. This will be a requirement if we’re to utilize tools and technology to mine for opportunity in our customer base.

4. Transform—much of the data we need to perform the kinds of analysis and create the kinds of communication that maximize response now, and the customer value over time, utilizes the derivation of new data points from the data you already have. Here is one example: Inter-order purchase time. Calculating the number of days between purchases for every customer in your base allows you to see whose purchase cadences are similar, faster, slower or in decline. On average, we’ll derive hundreds of such fields. This is one example of how a marketer can “mine” data for evidence of opportunity worth acting on and investing in.

5. Summarize—The richest view of a customer with the best data in its most complete state is a lot to digest. So to help make it actionable, we must roll it up into logical and valuable cohorts and components. Call them what you will—segments, personas or models—they are derivative groups that have value and potential that you can act on and learn from.

Many marketers traditionally spend 80 percent to 90 percent of their time and effort on getting their data to a point where it serves both the omnichannel customer and their brand. However, marketers can do better with emerging tools and technologies.There is no replacement for solid data strategy that is built around the customer, but efficiencies can be gained that speed time-to-value in an omnichannel environment.

6. Communicate—The prep work has been done, you’ve found the pockets of opportunity, now it’s time to deliver on the expectations the omnichannel customer holds for marketers. At this juncture, we need to quickly craft and deploy messages that resonate in ways consumers will think about their situation and your brand. They must address the concerns they have and the desires and opportunities they tend to perceive.

Omnichannel customers expect you will recognize them for their loyalty and their engagement with your brand at multiple levels, and that those experiences will be tailored in small ways that can make a bigger difference.

They expect your story to better-fit with their own, if not complete it. That sounds like a dramatic promise, but the ability to know your customers and engage them in the way they prefer, and at scale, is upon us.

Keep It Relevant to Your Business
This entire process must include of course, the answers to key business questions about the types of discoveries we’d make and questions we’d answer with it—for example, does the Web cannibalize our traditional channels? (Hint: It surely doesn’t have to).

That said, we’ve learned to start with the most basic questions—and are not surprised when there are no robust answers:

1. How many customers do you have today?

2. Do you have a working definition of a High Value or Most Valuable Customer?

3. If so, how many of those customers do you have?

4. How many customers did you gain this past quarter? How many did you lose?

a. Assuming you know how many you lost, what was the working definition of a lost customer?

5. How many customers have bought more than once?

6. What’s the value of your “average” customer, understanding that averages are misleading and synthetic numbers are not to be trusted? But we can measure where other customers are in terms of their distance from the mean.

7. Who paid full price? Who bought at discount? Who did both? How many of all the above?

8. For those who bought “down-market,” did they trade up?

9. How many times does a customer or logical customer group (let’s call them “segments,” for now) buy? How long, on average, is it between their purchases? And the order sizes, all channels included?

10. All this, of course, gets back to understanding more deeply, “Who is your customer?” While all this information about how they engage and buy from us is powerful, how old are they? Where are they from? What is relevant to them?

Now, even if a marketer could get the answers to all of these questions, how does this relate to this “Omnichannel” Evolution?

Simple. It only relates to your customer. Of course, they are the most important actors in this business of marketing—in fact in the business of business. What this really means is deceptively simple, often overlooked, and awesomely powerful:

Omnichannel Is Singularly Focused on Customers, Not Channels
It’s about the customer, and having the resources, data and insights at your disposal to serve that customer better. Virtually all of your customers are “multichannel” already. Granted, some are more dominantly influenced by a single channel. For example, online through the voice of the “crowd.” But even then, the point of omnichannel only means one thing: Know your customers across all the channels on which they engage with you. Note the chasm between having the dexterity to examine and serve customers across all the channels, and just knowing their transactions, behaviors or directional, qualitative descriptors.

So “knowing the customer” really means having ready access to actionable customer data. Think about it. If your understanding of your customer data isn’t actionable, how well do you really know your customer in the first place?

Considering the 10 questions above, and evaluating the answers in terms of the most important questions about your customers, is a solid starting point.

When you’ve worked through all of these, you’re now ready to create experiences and communications for customers that are not only relevant, but valuable—to your customer and to the business.

When you’re adding value and are channel-agnostic, as you must become, you’ve achieved the coveted omnichannel distinction that market leaders are bringing to bear already.

Not only is this an impressive accomplishment professionally, it surely is—but remember—it’s the customer we have to impress.

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.

Data Athletes in Modern Organizations

Let’s look at the ideas, insights and strategies for becoming what I have termed a “Data Athlete.” This term has evolved during the many years I have been involved with training and developing exceptionally smart creative analysts. These professionals have a high aptitude and passion to solve big data challenges and possess the dexterity to leap from the intellectually engaging problems to the immediately actionable digital media plays that yield a high ROI. I have found smart analysts love this term—they enthusiastically consider it a badge of honor in making it to the major leagues, where they solve complex marketing problems and optimize campaigns.

Let’s look at the ideas, insights and strategies for becoming what I have termed a “Data Athlete.” This term has evolved during the many years I have been involved with training and developing exceptionally smart creative analysts. These professionals have a high aptitude and passion to solve big data challenges and possess the dexterity to leap from the intellectually engaging problems to the immediately actionable digital media plays that yield a high ROI. I have found smart analysts love this term—they enthusiastically consider it a badge of honor in making it to the major leagues, where they solve complex marketing problems and optimize campaigns.

I’m sharing all of these learnings with you, as organizations are under ever greater pressures to change in a world that only grows more digital, and in the process is generating more and more data at a blinding pace. Keeping up will require a shift in thinking about businesses, marketing and data—and of course its value, or lack thereof. This will require you and/or your team to become or be more of a Data Athlete to compete in an ever more digital world.

What is a Data Athlete?
Like any athlete, a Data Athlete is competitive. If you’re striving to become or to be more of a Data Athlete, competitiveness is important. Data Athletes compete with the norm—challenging it and outperforming it. They also challenge all assumptions, opinions and even the data they work with. Nothing’s too sacred not to inquire, challenge and test.

Most importantly, Data Athletes build brands by creating solutions based on the evidence and the impact. They seek to affect change based on the impact it will realistically have. They methodically create the future and its outcomes.

Data Athletes have that internal drive to solve and to accomplish. Contrast this with the kitschy T-shirts at the Google Developers Conference that say “data nerd” (disclosure, I have one myself). Data Athletes aren’t interested in tech for tech’s sake, or data for data’s sake.

Data Athletes Don’t Come From Traditional IT Structures
Traditional IT organizations may have staff entirely comfortable with data, having spent entire careers working with databases—building and maintaining infrastructure, building cubes, reports, integrating systems and data sources, and performing the necessary “care and feeding.” Until very recently however, traditional IT and marketing have organizationally been far apart. Bridging that gap may realistically take years in some organizations. The cultural differences between Athletes and Traditional IT aren’t trivial, and they are well-founded. IT has, for decades, been focused on stability, consistency, repeatability—command and control and gradual cautious change.

Data Athletes, on the other hand, will seek to fail and fail fast, test and learn. They require an environment that is not only tolerant of, but embraces the rigorous, ambitious development of multiple hypotheses informed by customer data, rapid testing of those hypotheses, and speedy implementation of those tests—quickly weeding out the ideas that don’t work through a data-driven system of meritocracy and speed. Gumming up that value creation process through a traditional IT process and “queue” stifles the innovation and positive change. Data Athletes often have engineering backgrounds—and have little patience, as they know the cost of slow and lumbering improvement, or lack thereof.

Not surprisingly, Data Athletes don’t come from traditional IT departments, even though many come from software engineering, front-end development, Web analytics and data science. They bring direct marketing logic and understand how brands are built. They enjoy marketing and they are creative—they challenge marketing that “can’t” be measured and improved.

So while the circa 2015 Data Athletes has a deep appreciation for traditional IT and the back office, they are different from traditional IT in critical dimensions. Data Athletes are typically driven to engage, communicate and connect with the end customer at scale, where traditional IT tends to serve corporate management and internal customers.

So, why is it so difficult to cultivate an environment that nourishes and rewards data athletes? Why are some large organizations with abundant operational reporting capabilities slow to address the evolving needs of the more digital, “big data” marketplace?

Let’s answer these questions and discuss how companies can move the ball downfield with the help of data athletes, our future organizational stars, and thinking about your level of fitness as a more “data athletic” organization.

Here are four major considerations in the era of the Data Athlete as a mission-critical team member:

1. Data Athletes Differentiate Quickly Between Reporting and Analytics
More than 90 percent of the analytics programs I’ve looked at, specifically in Web analytics, are little more than reporting programs. Visits, clicks, time on site, sales, etc. All good. All interesting, and all are short on actionability.

2. Actionability Is The Data Athlete’s Priority
Successful businesses have the habit of tracking progress over time. It’s often driven by the CFO’s office. All rhythms drive from those operational metrics: sales, units sold, turnover, etc. They have reports on top of reports. No small effort or expense is required to make those reports and answer questions based on them. These are good for business. They also can shape a culture, a culture of looking at the same things. A culture of reporting.

A “report-driven” culture isn’t all bad. Maintaining that continuity of reporting over time doesn’t, in itself, address new challenges, new consumer behaviors, the impact of Pinterest on your customer relationships, or the threat of a new intermediary who’s putting pressure on you and driving up your acquisition costs. These things affect those top-level, “operational” numbers driven by that reporting. By the time they really hit the reports hard enough, you’re already behind, which sets up “fire drills” and suffocates marketing strategy. The direction is oftentimes driven by opinions. More about that in a moment.

Reporting by definition is reactive, where analytics is really driving the creation of strategies to affect change.

3. HiPPOs Usually Aren’t Athletes.
This isn’t the “hippo” at least some of you were thinking of …

A HiPPO is the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” You probably know from experience how often the HiPPO in the room has an opinion—and challenging it isn’t easy. Or maybe you are the “HiPPO” in the room, at times. HiPPO-dominated organizations don’t need evidence that data provides. They don’t assess the impact of decisions with data, either.

HiPPOs often come from backgrounds where data and evidence are non-existent or primitive. Their ideas are rarely tested or proven, they are qualitative and only shoot straight from the hip.

In comparing Amazon to JCPenney, Fortune described Amazon’s perspective on HiPPOs as “leaders who are so self-assured that they need neither others’ ideas nor data to affirm the correctness of their instinctual beliefs.” HiPPOs sometimes frown on using data to inform and shape a business, labeling anything that seeks to create business model scalability through the intelligent use of customer data as “analysis paralysis.”

HiPPOs miss the fact that Data Athletes don’t just gorge themselves on data, they actually loath excessive unusable data and the overhead that comes with it.

An Athlete does not believe in data for data’s sake. They know what they need, and what they can do with it.

Instead, they see the HiPPO’s experience and knowledge as a source to shape problem definition. They validate the opportunity and problem with the right data. Without strong and accurate problem definition, it’s hard for anyone to effectively choose what data matters and what can be thrown away.

If you have these smart data athletes in your organization, don’t be a HiPPO and trample them—for when you do, you miss opportunity.

If you hire smart Data Athletes, it’s a business risk to ignore them. When you do, you’re under-leveraging and you’re not learning and growing yourself.

How Does This Help a Marketer?
First, think about your own organization, your own challenges, and evaluate if you’re dominated by HiPPOs or if you’re leveraging Athletes in your organization. It’s hard to debate if you need them anymore—you do, and you will. Partner with the Athletes in your organization, and you’ll begin the process of performing at an advanced level.

In future articles, we’ll discuss more specific strategic approaches and tactical executions that can help you execute and become more of a Data Athlete and introduce this unique type of “athleticism” to your organization.

Not All Databases Are Created Equal

Not all databases are created equal. No kidding. That is like saying that not all cars are the same, or not all buildings are the same. But somehow, “judging” databases isn’t so easy. First off, there is no tangible “tire” that you can kick when evaluating databases or data sources. Actually, kicking the tire is quite useless, even when you are inspecting an automobile. Can you really gauge the car’s handling, balance, fuel efficiency, comfort, speed, capacity or reliability based on how it feels when you kick “one” of the tires? I can guarantee that your toes will hurt if you kick it hard enough, and even then you won’t be able to tell the tire pressure within 20 psi. If you really want to evaluate an automobile, you will have to sign some papers and take it out for a spin (well, more than one spin, but you know what I mean). Then, how do we take a database out for a spin? That’s when the tool sets come into play.

Not all databases are created equal. No kidding. That is like saying that not all cars are the same, or not all buildings are the same. But somehow, “judging” databases isn’t so easy. First off, there is no tangible “tire” that you can kick when evaluating databases or data sources. Actually, kicking the tire is quite useless, even when you are inspecting an automobile. Can you really gauge the car’s handling, balance, fuel efficiency, comfort, speed, capacity or reliability based on how it feels when you kick “one” of the tires? I can guarantee that your toes will hurt if you kick it hard enough, and even then you won’t be able to tell the tire pressure within 20 psi. If you really want to evaluate an automobile, you will have to sign some papers and take it out for a spin (well, more than one spin, but you know what I mean). Then, how do we take a database out for a spin? That’s when the tool sets come into play.

However, even when the database in question is attached to analytical, visualization, CRM or drill-down tools, it is not so easy to evaluate it completely, as such practice reveals only a few aspects of a database, hardly all of them. That is because such tools are like window treatments of a building, through which you may look into the database. Imagine a building inspector inspecting a building without ever entering it. Would you respect the opinion of the inspector who just parks his car outside the building, looks into the building through one or two windows, and says, “Hey, we’re good to go”? No way, no sir. No one should judge a book by its cover.

In the age of the Big Data (you should know by now that I am not too fond of that word), everything digitized is considered data. And data reside in databases. And databases are supposed be designed to serve specific purposes, just like buildings and cars are. Although many modern databases are just mindless piles of accumulated data, granted that the database design is decent and functional, we can still imagine many different types of databases depending on the purposes and their contents.

Now, most of the Big Data discussions these days are about the platform, environment, or tool sets. I’m sure you heard or read enough about those, so let me boldly skip all that and their related techie words, such as Hadoop, MongoDB, Pig, Python, MapReduce, Java, SQL, PHP, C++, SAS or anything related to that elusive “cloud.” Instead, allow me to show you the way to evaluate databases—or data sources—from a business point of view.

For businesspeople and decision-makers, it is not about NoSQL vs. RDB; it is just about the usefulness of the data. And the usefulness comes from the overall content and database management practices, not just platforms, tool sets and buzzwords. Yes, tool sets are important, but concert-goers do not care much about the types and brands of musical instruments that are being used; they just care if the music is entertaining or not. Would you be impressed with a mediocre guitarist just because he uses the same brand of guitar that his guitar hero uses? Nope. Likewise, the usefulness of a database is not about the tool sets.

In my past column, titled “Big Data Must Get Smaller,” I explained that there are three major types of data, with which marketers can holistically describe their target audience: (1) Descriptive Data, (2) Transaction/Behavioral Data, and (3) Attitudinal Data. In short, if you have access to all three dimensions of the data spectrum, you will have a more complete portrait of customers and prospects. Because I already went through that subject in-depth, let me just say that such types of data are not the basis of database evaluation here, though the contents should be on top of the checklist to meet business objectives.

In addition, throughout this series, I have been repeatedly emphasizing that the database and analytics management philosophy must originate from business goals. Basically, the business objective must dictate the course for analytics, and databases must be designed and optimized to support such analytical activities. Decision-makers—and all involved parties, for that matter—suffer a great deal when that hierarchy is reversed. And unfortunately, that is the case in many organizations today. Therefore, let me emphasize that the evaluation criteria that I am about to introduce here are all about usefulness for decision-making processes and supporting analytical activities, including predictive analytics.

Let’s start digging into key evaluation criteria for databases. This list would be quite useful when examining internal and external data sources. Even databases managed by professional compilers can be examined through these criteria. The checklist could also be applicable to investors who are about to acquire a company with data assets (as in, “Kick the tire before you buy it.”).

1. Depth
Let’s start with the most obvious one. What kind of information is stored and maintained in the database? What are the dominant data variables in the database, and what is so unique about them? Variety of information matters for sure, and uniqueness is often related to specific business purposes for which databases are designed and created, along the lines of business data, international data, specific types of behavioral data like mobile data, categorical purchase data, lifestyle data, survey data, movement data, etc. Then again, mindless compilation of random data may not be useful for any business, regardless of the size.

Generally, data dictionaries (lack of it is a sure sign of trouble) reveal the depth of the database, but we need to dig deeper, as transaction and behavioral data are much more potent predictors and harder to manage in comparison to demographic and firmographic data, which are very much commoditized already. Likewise, Lifestyle variables that are derived from surveys that may have been conducted a long time ago are far less valuable than actual purchase history data, as what people say they do and what they actually do are two completely different things. (For more details on the types of data, refer to the second half of “Big Data Must Get Smaller.”)

Innovative ideas should not be overlooked, as data packaging is often very important in the age of information overflow. If someone or some company transformed many data points into user-friendly formats using modeling or other statistical techniques (imagine pre-developed categorical models targeting a variety of human behaviors, or pre-packaged segmentation or clustering tools), such effort deserves extra points, for sure. As I emphasized numerous times in this series, data must be refined to provide answers to decision-makers. That is why the sheer size of the database isn’t so impressive, and the depth of the database is not just about the length of the variable list and the number of bytes that go along with it. So, data collectors, impress us—because we’ve seen a lot.

2. Width
No matter how deep the information goes, if the coverage is not wide enough, the database becomes useless. Imagine well-organized, buyer-level POS (Point of Service) data coming from actual stores in “real-time” (though I am sick of this word, as it is also overused). The data go down to SKU-level details and payment methods. Now imagine that the data in question are collected in only two stores—one in Michigan, and the other in Delaware. This, by the way, is not a completely made -p story, and I faced similar cases in the past. Needless to say, we had to make many assumptions that we didn’t want to make in order to make the data useful, somehow. And I must say that it was far from ideal.

Even in the age when data are collected everywhere by every device, no dataset is ever complete (refer to “Missing Data Can Be Meaningful“). The limitations are everywhere. It could be about brand, business footprint, consumer privacy, data ownership, collection methods, technical limitations, distribution of collection devices, and the list goes on. Yes, Apple Pay is making a big splash in the news these days. But would you believe that the data collected only through Apple iPhone can really show the overall consumer trend in the country? Maybe in the future, but not yet. If you can pick only one credit card type to analyze, such as American Express for example, would you think that the result of the study is free from any bias? No siree. We can easily assume that such analysis would skew toward the more affluent population. I am not saying that such analyses are useless. And in fact, they can be quite useful if we understand the limitations of data collection and the nature of the bias. But the point is that the coverage matters.

Further, even within multisource databases in the market, the coverage should be examined variable by variable, simply because some data points are really difficult to obtain even by professional data compilers. For example, any information that crosses between the business and the consumer world is sparsely populated in many cases, and the “occupation” variable remains mostly blank or unknown on the consumer side. Similarly, any data related to young children is difficult or even forbidden to collect, so a seemingly simple variable, such as “number of children,” is left unknown for many households. Automobile data used to be abundant on a household level in the past, but a series of laws made sure that the access to such data is forbidden for many users. Again, don’t be impressed with the existence of some variables in the data menu, but look into it to see “how much” is available.

3. Accuracy
In any scientific analysis, a “false positive” is a dangerous enemy. In fact, they are worse than not having the information at all. Many folks just assume that any data coming out a computer is accurate (as in, “Hey, the computer says so!”). But data are not completely free from human errors.

Sheer accuracy of information is hard to measure, especially when the data sources are unique and rare. And the errors can happen in any stage, from data collection to imputation. If there are other known sources, comparing data from multiple sources is one way to ensure accuracy. Watching out for fluctuations in distributions of important variables from update to update is another good practice.

Nonetheless, the overall quality of the data is not just up to the person or department who manages the database. Yes, in this business, the last person who touches the data is responsible for all the mistakes that were made to it up to that point. However, when the garbage goes in, the garbage comes out. So, when there are errors, everyone who touched the database at any point must share in the burden of guilt.

Recently, I was part of a project that involved data collected from retail stores. We ran all kinds of reports and tallies to check the data, and edited many data values out when we encountered obvious errors. The funniest one that I saw was the first name “Asian” and the last name “Tourist.” As an openly Asian-American person, I was semi-glad that they didn’t put in “Oriental Tourist” (though I still can’t figure out who decided that word is for objects, but not people). We also found names like “No info” or “Not given.” Heck, I saw in the news that this refugee from Afghanistan (he was a translator for the U.S. troops) obtained a new first name as he was granted an entry visa, “Fnu.” That would be short for “First Name Unknown” as the first name in his new passport. Welcome to America, Fnu. Compared to that, “Andolini” becoming “Corleone” on Ellis Island is almost cute.

Data entry errors are everywhere. When I used to deal with data files from banks, I found that many last names were “Ira.” Well, it turned out that it wasn’t really the customers’ last names, but they all happened to have opened “IRA” accounts. Similarly, movie phone numbers like 777-555-1234 are very common. And fictitious names, such as “Mickey Mouse,” or profanities that are not fit to print are abundant, as well. At least fake email addresses can be tested and eliminated easily, and erroneous addresses can be corrected by time-tested routines, too. So, yes, maintaining a clean database is not so easy when people freely enter whatever they feel like. But it is not an impossible task, either.

We can also train employees regarding data entry principles, to a certain degree. (As in, “Do not enter your own email address,” “Do not use bad words,” etc.). But what about user-generated data? Search and kill is the only way to do it, and the job would never end. And the meta-table for fictitious names would grow longer and longer. Maybe we should just add “Thor” and “Sponge Bob” to that Mickey Mouse list, while we’re at it. Yet, dealing with this type of “text” data is the easy part. If the database manager in charge is not lazy, and if there is a bit of a budget allowed for data hygiene routines, one can avoid sending emails to “Dear Asian Tourist.”

Numeric errors are much harder to catch, as numbers do not look wrong to human eyes. That is when comparison to other known sources becomes important. If such examination is not possible on a granular level, then median value and distribution curves should be checked against historical transaction data or known public data sources, such as U.S. Census Data in the case of demographic information.

When it’s about the companies’ own data, follow your instincts and get rid of data that look too good or too bad to be true. We all can afford to lose a few records in our databases, and there is nothing wrong with deleting the “outliers” with extreme values. Erroneous names, like “No Information,” may be attached to a seven-figure lifetime spending sum, and you know that can’t be right.

The main takeaways are: (1) Never trust the data just because someone bothered to store them in computers, and (2) Constantly look for bad data in reports and listings, at times using old-fashioned eye-balling methods. Computers do not know what is “bad,” until we specifically tell them what bad data are. So, don’t give up, and keep at it. And if it’s about someone else’s data, insist on data tallies and data hygiene stats.

4. Recency
Outdated data are really bad for prediction or analysis, and that is a different kind of badness. Many call it a “Data Atrophy” issue, as no matter how fresh and accurate a data point may be today, it will surely deteriorate over time. Yes, data have a finite shelf-life, too. Let’s say that you obtained a piece of information called “Golf Interest” on an individual level. That information could be coming from a survey conducted a long time ago, or some golf equipment purchase data from a while ago. In any case, someone who is attached to that flag may have stopped shopping for new golf equipment, as he doesn’t play much anymore. Without a proper database update and a constant feed of fresh data, irrelevant data will continue to drive our decisions.

The crazy thing is that, the harder it is to obtain certain types of data—such as transaction or behavioral data—the faster they will deteriorate. By nature, transaction or behavioral data are time-sensitive. That is why it is important to install time parameters in databases for behavioral data. If someone purchased a new golf driver, when did he do that? Surely, having bought a golf driver in 2009 (“Hey, time for a new driver!”) is different from having purchased it last May.

So-called “Hot Line Names” literally cease to be hot after two to three months, or in some cases much sooner. The evaporation period maybe different for different product types, as one may stay longer in the market for an automobile than for a new printer. Part of the job of a data scientist is to defer the expiration date of data, finding leads or prospects who are still “warm,” or even “lukewarm,” with available valid data. But no matter how much statistical work goes into making the data “look” fresh, eventually the models will cease to be effective.

For decision-makers who do not make real-time decisions, a real-time database update could be an expensive solution. But the databases must be updated constantly (I mean daily, weekly, monthly or even quarterly). Otherwise, someone will eventually end up making a wrong decision based on outdated data.

5. Consistency
No matter how much effort goes into keeping the database fresh, not all data variables will be updated or filled in consistently. And that is the reality. The interesting thing is that, especially when using them for advanced analytics, we can still provide decent predictions if the data are consistent. It may sound crazy, but even not-so-accurate-data can be used in predictive analytics, if they are “consistently” wrong. Modeling is developing an algorithm that differentiates targets and non-targets, and if the descriptive variables are “consistently” off (or outdated, like census data from five years ago) on both sides, the model can still perform.

Conversely, if there is a huge influx of a new type of data, or any drastic change in data collection or in a business model that supports such data collection, all bets are off. We may end up predicting such changes in business models or in methodologies, not the differences in consumer behavior. And that is one of the worst kinds of errors in the predictive business.

Last month, I talked about dealing with missing data (refer to “Missing Data Can Be Meaningful“), and I mentioned that data can be inferred via various statistical techniques. And such data imputation is OK, as long as it returns consistent values. I have seen so many so-called professionals messing up popular models, like “Household Income,” from update to update. If the inferred values jump dramatically due to changes in the source data, there is no amount of effort that can save the targeting models that employed such variables, short of re-developing them.

That is why a time-series comparison of important variables in databases is so important. Any changes of more than 5 percent in distribution of variables when compared to the previous update should be investigated immediately. If you are dealing with external data vendors, insist on having a distribution report of key variables for every update. Consistency of data is more important in predictive analytics than sheer accuracy of data.

6. Connectivity
As I mentioned earlier, there are many types of data. And the predictive power of data multiplies as different types of data get to be used together. For instance, demographic data, which is quite commoditized, still plays an important role in predictive modeling, even when dominant predictors are behavioral data. It is partly because no one dataset is complete, and because different types of data play different roles in algorithms.

The trouble is that many modern datasets do not share any common matching keys. On the demographic side, we can easily imagine using PII (Personally Identifiable Information), such as name, address, phone number or email address for matching. Now, if we want to add some transaction data to the mix, we would need some match “key” (or a magic decoder ring) by which we can link it to the base records. Unfortunately, many modern databases completely lack PII, right from the data collection stage. The result is that such a data source would remain in a silo. It is not like all is lost in such a situation, as they can still be used for trend analysis. But to employ multisource data for one-to-one targeting, we really need to establish the connection among various data worlds.

Even if the connection cannot be made to household, individual or email levels, I would not give up entirely, as we can still target based on IP addresses, which may lead us to some geographic denominations, such as ZIP codes. I’d take ZIP-level targeting anytime over no targeting at all, even though there are many analytical and summarization steps required for that (more on that subject in future articles).

Not having PII or any hard matchkey is not a complete deal-breaker, but the maneuvering space for analysts and marketers decreases significantly without it. That is why the existence of PII, or even ZIP codes, is the first thing that I check when looking into a new data source. I would like to free them from isolation.

7. Delivery Mechanisms
Users judge databases based on visualization or reporting tool sets that are attached to the database. As I mentioned earlier, that is like judging the entire building based just on the window treatments. But for many users, that is the reality. After all, how would a casual user without programming or statistical background would even “see” the data? Through tool sets, of course.

But that is the only one end of it. There are so many types of platforms and devices, and the data must flow through them all. The important point is that data is useless if it is not in the hands of decision-makers through the device of their choice, at the right time. Such flow can be actualized via API feed, FTP, or good, old-fashioned batch installments, and no database should stay too far away from the decision-makers. In my earlier column, I emphasized that data players must be good at (1) Collection, (2) Refinement, and (3) Delivery (refer to “Big Data is Like Mining Gold for a Watch—Gold Can’t Tell Time“). Delivering the answers to inquirers properly closes one iteration of information flow. And they must continue to flow to the users.

8. User-Friendliness
Even when state-of-the-art (I apologize for using this cliché) visualization, reporting or drill-down tool sets are attached to the database, if the data variables are too complicated or not intuitive, users will get frustrated and eventually move away from it. If that happens after pouring a sick amount of money into any data initiative, that would be a shame. But it happens all the time. In fact, I am not going to name names here, but I saw some ridiculously hard to understand data dictionary from a major data broker in the U.S.; it looked like the data layout was designed for robots by the robots. Please. Data scientists must try to humanize the data.

This whole Big Data movement has a momentum now, and in the interest of not killing it, data players must make every aspect of this data business easy for the users, not harder. Simpler data fields, intuitive variable names, meaningful value sets, pre-packaged variables in forms of answers, and completeness of a data dictionary are not too much to ask after the hard work of developing and maintaining the database.

This is why I insist that data scientists and professionals must be businesspeople first. The developers should never forget that end-users are not trained data experts. And guess what? Even professional analysts would appreciate intuitive variable sets and complete data dictionaries. So, pretty please, with sugar on top, make things easy and simple.

9. Cost
I saved this important item for last for a good reason. Yes, the dollar sign is a very important factor in all business decisions, but it should not be the sole deciding factor when it comes to databases. That means CFOs should not dictate the decisions regarding data or databases without considering the input from CMOs, CTOs, CIOs or CDOs who should be, in turn, concerned about all the other criteria listed in this article.

Playing with the data costs money. And, at times, a lot of money. When you add up all the costs for hardware, software, platforms, tool sets, maintenance and, most importantly, the man-hours for database development and maintenance, the sum becomes very large very fast, even in the age of the open-source environment and cloud computing. That is why many companies outsource the database work to share the financial burden of having to create infrastructures. But even in that case, the quality of the database should be evaluated based on all criteria, not just the price tag. In other words, don’t just pick the lowest bidder and hope to God that it will be alright.

When you purchase external data, you can also apply these evaluation criteria. A test-match job with a data vendor will reveal lots of details that are listed here; and metrics, such as match rate and variable fill-rate, along with complete the data dictionary should be carefully examined. In short, what good is lower unit price per 1,000 records, if the match rate is horrendous and even matched data are filled with missing or sub-par inferred values? Also consider that, once you commit to an external vendor and start building models and analytical framework around their its, it becomes very difficult to switch vendors later on.

When shopping for external data, consider the following when it comes to pricing options:

  • Number of variables to be acquired: Don’t just go for the full option. Pick the ones that you need (involve analysts), unless you get a fantastic deal for an all-inclusive option. Generally, most vendors provide multiple-packaging options.
  • Number of records: Processed vs. Matched. Some vendors charge based on “processed” records, not just matched records. Depending on the match rate, it can make a big difference in total cost.
  • Installment/update frequency: Real-time, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. Think carefully about how often you would need to refresh “demographic” data, which doesn’t change as rapidly as transaction data, and how big the incremental universe would be for each update. Obviously, a real-time API feed can be costly.
  • Delivery method: API vs. Batch Delivery, for example. Price, as well as the data menu, change quite a bit based on the delivery options.
  • Availability of a full-licensing option: When the internal database becomes really big, full installment becomes a good option. But you would need internal capability for a match and append process that involves “soft-match,” using similar names and addresses (imagine good-old name and address merge routines). It becomes a bit of commitment as the match and append becomes a part of the internal database update process.

Business First
Evaluating a database is a project in itself, and these nine evaluation criteria will be a good guideline. Depending on the businesses, of course, more conditions could be added to the list. And that is the final point that I did not even include in the list: That the database (or all data, for that matter) should be useful to meet the business goals.

I have been saying that “Big Data Must Get Smaller,” and this whole Big Data movement should be about (1) Cutting down on the noise, and (2) Providing answers to decision-makers. If the data sources in question do not serve the business goals, cut them out of the plan, or cut loose the vendor if they are from external sources. It would be an easy decision if you “know” that the database in question is filled with dirty, sporadic and outdated data that cost lots of money to maintain.

But if that database is needed for your business to grow, clean it, update it, expand it and restructure it to harness better answers from it. Just like the way you’d maintain your cherished automobile to get more mileage out of it. Not all databases are created equal for sure, and some are definitely more equal than others. You just have to open your eyes to see the differences.

Missing Data Can Be Meaningful

No matter how big the Big Data gets, we will never know everything about everything. Well, according to the super-duper computer called “Deep Thought” in the movie “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (don’t bother to watch it if you don’t care for the British sense of humour), the answer to “The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” is “42.” Coincidentally, that is also my favorite number to bet on (I have my reasons), but I highly doubt that even that huge fictitious computer with unlimited access to “everything” provided that numeric answer with conviction after 7½ million years of computing and checking. At best, that “42” is an estimated figure of a sort, based on some fancy algorithm. And in the movie, even Deep Thought pointed out that “the answer is meaningless, because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was.” Ha! Isn’t that what I have been saying all along? For any type of analytics to be meaningful, one must properly define the question first. And what to do with the answer that comes out of an algorithm is entirely up to us humans, or in the business world, the decision-makers. (Who are probably human.)

No matter how big the Big Data gets, we will never know everything about everything. Well, according to the super-duper computer called “Deep Thought” in the movie “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (don’t bother to watch it if you don’t care for the British sense of humour), the answer to “The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” is “42.” Coincidentally, that is also my favorite number to bet on (I have my reasons), but I highly doubt that even that huge fictitious computer with unlimited access to “everything” provided that numeric answer with conviction after 7½ million years of computing and checking. At best, that “42” is an estimated figure of a sort, based on some fancy algorithm. And in the movie, even Deep Thought pointed out that “the answer is meaningless, because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was.” Ha! Isn’t that what I have been saying all along? For any type of analytics to be meaningful, one must properly define the question first. And what to do with the answer that comes out of an algorithm is entirely up to us humans, or in the business world, the decision-makers. (Who are probably human.)

Analytics is about making the best of what we know. Good analysts do not wait for a perfect dataset (it will never come by, anyway). And businesspeople have no patience to wait for anything. Big Data is big because we digitize everything, and everything that is digitized is stored somewhere in forms of data. For example, even if we collect mobile device usage data from just pockets of the population with certain brands of mobile services in a particular area, the sheer size of the resultant dataset becomes really big, really fast. And most unstructured databases are designed to collect and store what is known. If you flip that around to see if you know every little behavior through mobile devices for “everyone,” you will be shocked to see how small the size of the population associated with meaningful data really is. Let’s imagine that we can describe human beings with 1,000 variables coming from all sorts of sources, out of 200 million people. How many would have even 10 percent of the 1,000 variables filled with some useful information? Not many, and definitely not 100 percent. Well, we have more data than ever in the history of mankind, but still not for every case for everyone.

In my previous columns, I pointed out that decision-making is about ranking different options, and to rank anything properly. We must employee predictive analytics (refer to “It’s All About Ranking“). And for ranking based on the scores resulting from predictive models to be effective, the datasets must be summarized to the level that is to be ranked (e.g., individuals, households, companies, emails, etc.). That is why transaction or event-level datasets must be transformed to “buyer-centric” portraits before any modeling activity begins. Again, it is not about the transaction or the products, but it is about the buyers, if you are doing all this to do business with people.

Trouble with buyer- or individual-centric databases is that such transformation of data structure creates lots of holes. Even if you have meticulously collected every transaction record that matters (and that will be the day), if someone did not buy a certain item, any variable that is created based on the purchase record of that particular item will have nothing to report for that person. Likewise, if you have a whole series of variables to differentiate online and offline channel behaviors, what would the online portion contain if the consumer in question never bought anything through the Web? Absolutely nothing. But in the business of predictive analytics, what did not happen is as important as what happened. Even a simple concept of “response” is only meaningful when compared to “non-response,” and the difference between the two groups becomes the basis for the “response” model algorithm.

Capturing the Meanings Behind Missing Data
Missing data are all around us. And there are many reasons why they are missing, too. It could be that there is nothing to report, as in aforementioned examples. Or, there could be errors in data collection—and there are lots of those, too. Maybe you don’t have access to certain pockets of data due to corporate, legal, confidentiality or privacy reasons. Or, maybe records did not match properly when you tried to merge disparate datasets or append external data. These things happen all the time. And, in fact, I have never seen any dataset without a missing value since I left school (and that was a long time ago). In school, the professors just made up fictitious datasets to emphasize certain phenomena as examples. In real life, databases have more holes than Swiss cheese. In marketing databases? Forget about it. We all make do with what we know, even in this day and age.

Then, let’s ask a philosophical question here:

  • If missing data are inevitable, what do we do about it?
  • How would we record them in databases?
  • Should we just leave them alone?
  • Or should we try to fill in the gaps?
  • If so, how?

The answer to all this is definitely not 42, but I’ll tell you this: Even missing data have meanings, and not all missing data are created equal, either.

Furthermore, missing data often contain interesting stories behind them. For example, certain demographic variables may be missing only for extremely wealthy people and very poor people, as their residency data are generally not exposed (for different reasons, of course). And that, in itself, is a story. Likewise, some data may be missing in certain geographic areas or for certain age groups. Collection of certain types of data may be illegal in some states. “Not” having any data on online shopping behavior or mobile activity may mean something interesting for your business, if we dig deeper into it without falling into the trap of predicting legal or corporate boundaries, instead of predicting consumer behaviors.

In terms of how to deal with missing data, let’s start with numeric data, such as dollars, days, counters, etc. Some numeric data simply may not be there, if there is no associated transaction to report. Now, if they are about “total dollar spending” and “number of transactions” in a certain category, for example, they can be initiated as zero and remain as zero in cases like this. The counter simply did not start clicking, and it can be reported as zero if nothing happened.

Some numbers are incalculable, though. If you are calculating “Average Amount per Online Transaction,” and if there is no online transaction for a particular customer, that is a situation for mathematical singularity—as we can’t divide anything by zero. In such cases, the average amount should be recorded as: “.”, blank, or any value that represents a pure missing value. But it should never be recorded as zero. And that is the key in dealing with missing numeric information; that zero should be reserved for real zeros, and nothing else.

I have seen too many cases where missing numeric values are filled with zeros, and I must say that such a practice is definitely frowned-upon. If you have to pick just one takeaway from this article, that’s it. Like I emphasized, not all missing values are the same, and zero is not the way you record them. Zeros should never represent lack of information.

Take the example of a popular demographic variable, “Number of Children in the Household.” This is a very predictable variable—not just for purchase behavior of children’s products, but for many other things. Now, it is a simple number, but it should never be treated as a simple variable—as, in this case, lack of information is not the evidence of non-existence. Let’s say that you are purchasing this data from a third-party data compiler (or a data broker). If you don’t see a positive number in that field, it could be because:

  1. The household in question really does not have a child;
  2. Even the data-collector doesn’t have the information; or
  3. The data collector has the information, but the household record did not match to the vendor’s record, for some reason.

If that field contains a number like 1, 2 or 3, that’s easy, as they will represent the number of children in that household. But the zero should be reserved for cases where the data collector has a positive confirmation that the household in question indeed does not have any children. If it is unknown, it should be marked as blank, “.” (Many statistical softwares, such as SAS, record missing values this way.) Or use “U” (though an alpha character should not be in a numeric field).

If it is a case of non-match to the external data source, then there should be a separate indicator for it. The fact that the record did not match to a professional data compiler’s list may mean something. And I’ve seen cases where such non-matching indicators are made to model algorithms along with other valid data, as in the case where missing indicators of income display the same directional tendency as high-income households.

Now, if the data compiler in question boldly inputs zeros for the cases of unknowns? Take a deep breath, fire the vendor, and don’t deal with the company again, as it is a sign that its representatives do not know what they are doing in the data business. I have done so in the past, and you can do it, too. (More on how to shop for external data in future articles.)

For non-numeric categorical data, similar rules apply. Some values could be truly “blank,” and those should be treated separately from “Unknown,” or “Not Available.” As a practice, let’s list all kinds of possible missing values in codes, texts or other character fields:

  • ” “—blank or “null”
  • “N/A,” “Not Available,” or “Not Applicable”
  • “Unknown”
  • “Other”—If it is originating from some type of multiple choice survey or pull-down menu
  • “Not Answered” or “Not Provided”—This indicates that the subjects were asked, but they refused to answer. Very different from “Unknown.”
  • “0”—In this case, the answer can be expressed in numbers. Again, only for known zeros.
  • “Non-match”—Not matched to other internal or external data sources
  • Etc.

It is entirely possible that all these values may be highly correlated to each other and move along the same predictive direction. However, there are many cases where they do not. And if they are combined into just one value, such as zero or blank, we will never be able to detect such nuances. In fact, I’ve seen many cases where one or more of these missing indicators move together with other “known” values in models. Again, missing data have meanings, too.

Filling in the Gaps
Nonetheless, missing data do not have to left as missing, blank or unknown all the time. With statistical modeling techniques, we can fill in the gaps with projected values. You didn’t think that all those data compilers really knew the income level of every household in the country, did you? It is not a big secret that much of those figures are modeled with other available data.

Such inferred statistics are everywhere. Popular variables, such as householder age, home owner/renter indicator, housing value, household income or—in the case of business data—the number of employees and sales volume contain modeled values. And there is nothing wrong with that, in the world where no one really knows everything about everything. If you understand the limitations of modeling techniques, it is quite alright to employ modeled values—which are much better alternatives to highly educated guesses—in decision-making processes. We just need to be a little careful, as models often fail to predict extreme values, such as household incomes over $500,000/year, or specific figures, such as incomes of $87,500. But “ranges” of household income, for example, can be predicted at a high confidence level, though it technically requires many separate algorithms and carefully constructed input variables in various phases. But such technicality is an issue that professional number crunchers should deal with, like in any other predictive businesses. Decision-makers should just be aware of the reality of real and inferred data.

Such imputation practices can be applied to any data source, not just compiled databases by professional data brokers. Statisticians often impute values when they encounter missing values, and there are many different methods of imputation. I haven’t met two statisticians who completely agree with each other when it comes to imputation methodologies, though. That is why it is important for an organization to have a unified rule for each variable regarding its imputation method (or lack thereof). When multiple analysts employ different methods, it often becomes the very source of inconsistent or erroneous results at the application stage. It is always more prudent to have the calculation done upfront, and store the inferred values in a consistent manner in the main database.

In terms of how that is done, there could be a long debate among the mathematical geeks. Will it be a simple average of non-missing values? If such a method is to be employed, what is the minimum required fill-rate of the variable in question? Surely, you do not want to project 95 percent of the population with 5 percent known values? Or will the missing values be replaced with modeled values, as in previous examples? If so, what would be the source of target data? What about potential biases that may exist because of data collection practices and their limitations? What should be the target definition? In what kind of ranges? Or should the target definition remain as a continuous figure? How would you differentiate modeled and real values in the database? Would you embed indicators for inferred values? Or would you forego such flags in the name of speed and convenience for users?

The important matter is not the rules or methodologies, but the consistency of them throughout the organization and the databases. That way, all users and analysts will have the same starting point, no matter what the analytical purposes are. There could be a long debate in terms of what methodology should be employed and deployed. But once the dust settles, all data fields should be treated by pre-determined rules during the database update processes, avoiding costly errors in the downstream. All too often, inconsistent imputation methods lead to inconsistent results.

If, by some chance, individual statisticians end up with freedom to come up with their own ways to fill in the blanks, then the model-scoring code in question must include missing value imputation algorithms without an exception, granted that such practice will elongate the model application processes and significantly increase chances for errors. It is also important that non-statistical users should be educated about the basics of missing data and associated imputation methods, so that everyone who has access to the database shares a common understanding of what they are dealing with. That list includes external data providers and partners, and it is strongly recommended that data dictionaries must include employed imputation rules wherever applicable.

Keep an Eye on the Missing Rate
Often, we get to find out that the missing rate of certain variables is going out of control because models become ineffective and campaigns start to yield disappointing results. Conversely, it can be stated that fluctuations in missing data ratios greatly affect the predictive power of models or any related statistical works. It goes without saying that a consistent influx of fresh data matters more than the construction and the quality of models and algorithms. It is a classic case of a garbage-in-garbage-out scenario, and that is why good data governance practices must include a time-series comparison of the missing rate of every critical variable in the database. If, all of a sudden, an important predictor’s fill-rate drops below a certain point, no analyst in this world can sustain the predictive power of the model algorithm, unless it is rebuilt with a whole new set of variables. The shelf life of models is definitely finite, but nothing deteriorates effectiveness of models faster than inconsistent data. And a fluctuating missing rate is a good indicator of such an inconsistency.

Likewise, if the model score distribution starts to deviate from the original model curve from the development and validation samples, it is prudent to check the missing rate of every variable used in the model. Any sudden changes in model score distribution are a good indicator that something undesirable is going on in the database (more on model quality control in future columns).

These few guidelines regarding the treatment of missing data will add more flavors to statistical models and analytics in general. In turn, proper handling of missing data will prolong the predictive power of models, as well. Missing data have hidden meanings, but they are revealed only when they are treated properly. And we need to do that until the day we get to know everything about everything. Unless you are just happy with that answer of “42.”

It’s All About Ranking

The decision-making process is really all about ranking. As a marketer, to whom should you be talking first? What product should you offer through what channel? As a businessperson, whom should you hire among all the candidates? As an investor, what stocks or bonds should you purchase? As a vacationer, where should you visit first?

The decision-making process is really all about ranking. As a marketer, to whom should you be talking first? What product should you offer through what channel? As a businessperson, whom should you hire among all the candidates? As an investor, what stocks or bonds should you purchase? As a vacationer, where should you visit first?

Yes, “choice” is the keyword in all of these questions. And if you picked Paris over other places as an answer to the last question, you just made a choice based on some ranking order in your mind. The world is big, and there could have been many factors that contributed to that decision, such as culture, art, cuisine, attractions, weather, hotels, airlines, prices, deals, distance, convenience, language, etc., and I am pretty sure that not all factors carried the same weight for you. For example, if you put more weight on “cuisine,” I can see why London would lose a few points to Paris in that ranking order.

As a citizen, for whom should I vote? That’s the choice based on your ranking among candidates, too. Call me overly analytical (and I am), but I see the difference in political stances as differences in “weights” for many political (and sometimes not-so-political) factors, such as economy, foreign policy, defense, education, tax policy, entitlement programs, environmental issues, social issues, religious views, local policies, etc. Every voter puts different weights on these factors, and the sum of them becomes the score for each candidate in their minds. No one thinks that education is not important, but among all these factors, how much weight should it receive? Well, that is different for everybody; hence, the political differences.

I didn’t bring this up to start a political debate, but rather to point out that the decision-making process is based on ranking, and the ranking scores are made of many factors with different weights. And that is how the statistical models are designed in a nutshell (so, that means the models are “nuts”?). Analysts call those factors “independent variables,” which describe the target.

In my past columns, I talked about the importance of statistical models in the age of Big Data (refer to “Why Model?”), and why marketing databases must be “model-ready” (refer to “Chicken or the Egg? Data or Analytics?”). Now let’s dig a little deeper into the design of the “model-ready” marketing databases. And surprise! That is also all about “ranking.”

Let’s step back into the marketing world, where folks are not easily offended by the subject matter. If I give a spreadsheet that contains thousands of leads for your business, you wouldn’t be able to tell easily which ones are the “Glengarry Glen Ross” leads that came from Downtown, along with those infamous steak knives. What choice would you have then? Call everyone on the list? I guess you can start picking names out of a hat. If you think a little more about it, you may filter the list by the first name, as they may reflect the decade in which they were born. Or start calling folks who live in towns that sound affluent. Heck, you can start calling them in alphabetical order, but the point is that you would “sort” the list somehow.

Now, if the list came with some other valuable information, such as income, age, gender, education level, socio-economic status, housing type, number of children, etc., you may be able to pick and choose by which variables you would use to sort the list. You may start calling the high income folks first. Not all product sales are positively related to income, but it is an easy way to start the process. Then, you would throw in other variables to break the ties in rich areas. I don’t know what you’re selling, but maybe, you would want folks who live in a single-family house with kids. And sometimes, your “gut” feeling may lead you to the right place. But only sometimes. And only when the size of the list is not in millions.

If the list was not for prospecting calls, but for a CRM application where you also need to analyze past transaction and interaction history, the list of the factors (or variables) that you need to consider would be literally nauseating. Imagine the list contains all kinds of dollars, dates, products, channels and other related numbers and figures in a seemingly endless series of columns. You’d have to scroll to the right for quite some time just to see what’s included in the chart.

In situations like that, how nice would it be if some analyst threw in just two model scores for responsiveness to your product and the potential value of each customer, for example? The analysts may have considered hundreds (or thousands) of variables to derive such scores for you, and all you need to know is that the higher the score, the more likely the lead will be responsive or have higher potential values. For your convenience, the analyst may have converted all those numbers with many decimal places into easy to understand 1-10 or 1-20 scales. That would be nice, wouldn’t it be? Now you can just start calling the folks in the model group No. 1.

But let me throw in a curveball here. Let’s go back to the list with all those transaction data attached, but without the model scores. You may say, “Hey, that’s OK, because I’ve been doing alright without any help from a statistician so far, and I’ll just use the past dollar amount as their primary value and sort the list by it.” And that is a fine plan, in many cases. Then, when you look deeper into the list, you find out there are multiple entries for the same name all over the place. How can you sort the list of leads if the list is not even on an individual level? Welcome to the world of relational databases, where every transaction deserves an entry in a table.

Relational databases are optimized to store every transaction and retrieve them efficiently. In a relational database, tables are connected by match keys, and many times, tables are connected in what we call “1-to-many” relationships. Imagine a shopping basket. There is a buyer, and we need to record the buyer’s ID number, name, address, account number, status, etc. Each buyer may have multiple transactions, and for each transaction, we now have to record the date, dollar amount, payment method, etc. Further, if the buyer put multiple items in a shopping basket, that transaction, in turn, is in yet another 1-to-many relationship to the item table. You see, in order to record everything that just happened, this relational structure is very useful. If you are the person who has to create the shipping package, yes, you need to know all the item details, transaction value and the buyer’s information, including the shipping and billing address. Database designers love this completeness so much, they even call this structure the “normal” state.

But the trouble with the relational structure is that each line is describing transactions or items, not the buyers. Sure, one can “filter” people out by interrogating every line in the transaction table, say “Select buyers who had any transaction over $100 in past 12 months.” That is what I call rudimentary filtering, but once we start asking complex questions such as, “What is the buyer’s average transaction amount for past 12 months in the outdoor sports category, and what is the overall future value of the customers through online channels?” then you will need what we call “Buyer-centric” portraits, not transaction or item-centric records. Better yet, if I ask you to rank every customer in the order of such future value, well, good luck doing that when all the tables are describing transactions, not people. That would be exactly like the case where you have multiple lines for one individual when you need to sort the leads from high value to low.

So, how do we remedy this? We need to summarize the database on an individual level, if you would like to sort the leads on an individual level. If the goal is to rank households, email addresses, companies, business sites or products, then the summarization should be done on those levels, too. Now, database designers call it the “de-normalization” process, and the tables tend to get “wide” along that process, but that is the necessary step in order to rank the entities properly.

Now, the starting point in all the summarizations is proper identification numbers for those levels. It won’t be possible to summarize any table on a household level without a reliable household ID. One may think that such things are given, but I would have to disagree. I’ve seen so many so-called “state of the art” (another cliché that makes me nauseous) databases that do not have consistent IDs of any kind. If your database managers say they are using “plain name” or “email address” fields for matching or summarization, be afraid. Be very afraid. As a starter, you know how many email addresses one person may have. To add to that, consider how many people move around each year.

Things get worse in regard to ranking by model scores when it comes to “unstructured” databases. We see more and more of those, as the data sources are getting into uncharted territories, and the size of the databases is growing exponentially. There, all these bits and pieces of data are sitting on mysterious “clouds” as entries on their own. Here again, it is one thing to select or filter based on collected data, but ranking based on some statistical modeling is simply not possible in such a structure (or lack thereof). Just ask the database managers how many 24-month active customers they really have, considering a great many people move in that time period and change their addresses, creating multiple entries. If you get an answer like “2 million-ish,” well, that’s another scary moment. (Refer to “Cheat Sheet: Is Your Database Marketing Ready?”)

In order to develop models using variables that are descriptors of customers, not transactions, we must convert those relational or unstructured data into the structure that match the level by which you would like to rank the records. Even temporarily. As the size of databases are getting bigger and bigger and the storage is getting cheaper and cheaper, I’d say that the temporary time period could be, well, indefinite. And because the word “data-mart” is overused and confusing to many, let me just call that place the “Analytical Sandbox.” Sandboxes are fun, and yes, all kinds of fun stuff for marketers and analysts happen there.

The Analytical Sandbox is where samples are created for model development, actual models are built, models are scored for every record—no matter how many there are—without hiccups; targets are easily sorted and selected by model scores; reports are created in meaningful and consistent ways (consistency is even more important than sheer accuracy in what we do), and analytical language such as SAS, SPSS or R are spoken without being frowned up by other computing folks. Here, analysts will spend their time pondering upon target definitions and methodologies, not about database structures and incomplete data fields. Have you heard about a fancy term called “in-database scoring”? This is where that happens, too.

And what comes out of the Analytical Sandbox and back into the world of relational database or unstructured databases—IT folks often ask this question—is going to be very simple. Instead of having to move mountains of data back and forth, all the variables will be in forms of model scores, providing answers to marketing questions, without any missing values (by definition, every record can be scored by models). While the scores are packing tons of information in them, the sizes could be as small as a couple bytes or even less. Even if you carry over a few hundred affinity scores for 100 million people (or any other types of entities), I wouldn’t call the resultant file large, as it would be as small as a few video files, really.

In my future columns, I will explain how to create model-ready (and human-ready) variables using all kinds of numeric, character or free-form data. In Exhibit A, you will see what we call traditional analytical activities colored in dark blue on the right-hand side. In order to make those processes really hum, we must follow all the steps that are on the left-hand side of that big cylinder in the middle. Preventing garbage-in-garbage-out situations from happening, this is where all the data get collected in uniform fashion, properly converted, edited and standardized by uniform rules, categorized based on preset meta-tables, consolidated with consistent IDs, summarized to desired levels, and meaningful variables are created for more advanced analytics.

Even more than statistical methodologies, consistent and creative variables in form of “descriptors” of the target audience make or break the marketing plan. Many people think that purchasing expensive analytical software will provide all the answers. But lest we forget, fancy software only answers the right-hand side of Exhibit A, not all of it. Creating a consistent template for all useful information in a uniform fashion is the key to maximizing the power of analytics. If you look into any modeling bakeoff in the industry, you will see that the differences in methodologies are measured in fractions. Conversely, inconsistent and incomplete data create disasters in real world. And in many cases, companies can’t even attempt advanced analytics while sitting on mountains of data, due to structural inadequacies.

I firmly believe the Big Data movement should be about

  1. getting rid of the noise, and
  2. providing simple answers to decision-makers.

Bragging about the size and the speed element alone will not bring us to the next level, which is to “humanize” the data. At the end of the day (another cliché that I hate), it is all about supporting the decision-making processes, and the decision-making process is all about ranking different options. So, in the interest of keeping it simple, let’s start by creating an analytical haven where all those rankings become easy, in case you think that the sandbox is too juvenile.

5 Things ’60 Minutes’ (Intentionally) Didn’t Tell Americans About Data Brokers

Kids, “60 Minutes” is no longer U.S. broadcast journalism at its former best—it’s pseudo-infotainment. Frankly, correspondent Steve Kroft and company had their own point of view that they wanted to report to whip up hysteria, and it wasn’t part of any of the data-driven advertising ecosystem that anyone of us practitioners recognize. Here’s what I know—that I want every consumer to know—and what CBS and “60 Minutes” should have told its viewers:

Kids, “60 Minutes” is no longer U.S. broadcast journalism at its former best—it’s pseudo-infotainment.

The Direct Marketing Association, my editor at Target Marketing, our friends at Direct Marketing News and The Magill Report were spot on with their responses.

Frankly, correspondent Steve Kroft and company had their own point of view that they wanted to report to whip up hysteria, and it wasn’t part of any of the data-driven advertising ecosystem that anyone of us practitioners recognize. Bryan Kennedy of Epsilon did yeoman’s work: Self-regulation exists because all marketers know that data is the currency of our livelihood, and consumer trust underpins us all.

Here’s what I know—that I want every consumer to know—and what CBS and “60 Minutes” should have told its viewers:

1. You Can Opt Out
For decades, Americans have had numerous free ways to “opt-out” of the data-sharing-for-marketing-use marketplace—and millions upon millions of Americans have taken advantage of these free industry-offered programs:

  • DMAChoice, offered by DMA, allows industry-wide opt-out of prospect direct mail, email, do-not-call (for selected states) and unaddressed mail delivery.
  • Nearly all consumer brands also offer their own preference centers and in-house suppression lists on their Web sites and Privacy Policies—both for do-not-send and for do-not-share, bridging multiple channels. Many business brands also do the same.
  • More recently, the Digital Advertising Alliance and its Consumer Choice Page provides an industry-wide opt-out mechanism for targeted display ads online that are served (in a de-identified basis, by the way) based on browsing behavior. Consumers can harden their choices against cookie removal once each opt-out choice is made.
  • A similar opt-out mechanism for mobile interest-based advertising from DAA is now in the works.

2. Marketing Data Is Used for Marketing Only
Every code of conduct and every ethics guideline in our business states this clearly. Furthermore, firewalls exist between marketing data (our business’s data sources) and individual referential data (information used for private investigation, employment, credit, insurance eligibility). If “60 Minutes”—or a consumer, or anyone else for that matter—has evidence that a marketer or service provider is sharing, renting or selling marketing data for non-marketing uses, the DMA’s Committee on Ethical Business Practice would want to be first to know—so as to investigate and bring any organization into compliance. Hypotheticals and inferences are not reality, despite the innuendoes used by Kroft.

3. Sensitive Data Are Already Regulated
Areas of sensitivity that most consumers care about—personally identifiable data related to their children, financial data, health information, credit data and a few other categories—are already regulated under federal law. Marketers must adhere to these laws and regulations.

4. Fraud Is Not Marketing
Another sensitive area—where and when marketing data is breached with a likelihood for fraud—you’ll find that most marketing organizations indeed want one national standard (not 50 plus one) for how consumers are notified and what protections they are afforded. Fraud prevention—as well as data governance and data stewardship—is a heightened priority for all businesses and organizations that rely on consumer information.

5. Data Benefits Customers
Data used for marketing purposes should be a government concern: not on how to stop it—but how to promote it, both domestically and globally, to benefit consumers and the economy. On the whole, consumers demand relevance. They demand recognition. They crave personalization. And every day—millions of times a day—they vote with their wallets: They shop, they donate, they subscribe, they raise their hands, all based on their participation in commerce. Marketing data also enables competition and the innovation and variety of choices consumers enjoy. As DMA has ably documented, marketing data exchange generates sales, jobs and tax revenue—and, might I add, satisfied consumers. Yes, we need consumer protection from fraud, bad players and unfair and deceptive practices—but “our data-driven economy” is a hugely wonderful default.

Which begs the question: Where is the harm, “60 Minutes”?