Don’t Do It Just Because You Can

Don’t do it just because you can. No kidding. … Any geek with moderate coding skills or any overzealous marketer with access to some data can do real damage to real human beings without any superpowers to speak of. Largely, we wouldn’t go so far as calling them permanent damages, but I must say that some marketing messages and practices are really annoying and invasive. Enough to classify them as “junk mail” or “spam.” Yeah, I said that, knowing full-well that those words are forbidden in the industry in which I built my career.

Don’t do it just because you can. No kidding. By the way, I could have gone with Ben Parker’s “With great power comes great responsibility” line, but I didn’t, as it has become an over-quoted cliché. Plus, I’m not much of a fan of “Spiderman.” Actually, I’m kidding this time. (Not the “Spiderman” part, as I’m more of a fan of “Thor.”) But the real reason is any geek with moderate coding skills or any overzealous marketer with access to some data can do real damage to real human beings without any superpowers to speak of. Largely, we wouldn’t go so far as calling them permanent damages, but I must say that some marketing messages and practices are really annoying and invasive. Enough to classify them as “junk mail” or “spam.” Yeah, I said that, knowing full-well that those words are forbidden in the industry in which I built my career.

All jokes aside, I received a call from my mother a few years ago asking me if this “urgent” letter that says her car warranty will expire if she does not act “right now” (along with a few exclamation marks) is something to which she must respond immediately. Many of us by now are impervious to such fake urgencies or outrageous claims (like “You’ve just won $10,000,000!!!”). But I then realized that there still are plenty of folks who would spend their hard-earned dollars based on such misleading messages. What really made me mad, other than the fact that my own mother was involved in that case, was that someone must have actually targeted her based on her age, ethnicity, housing value and, of course, the make and model of her automobile. I’ve been doing this job for too long to be unaware of potential data variables and techniques that must have played a part so that my mother to receive a series of such letters. Basically, some jerk must have created a segment that could be named as “old and gullible.” Without a doubt, this is a classic example of what should not be done just because one can.

One might dismiss it as an isolated case of a questionable practice done by questionable individuals with questionable moral integrity, but can we honestly say that? I, who knows the ins and outs of direct marketing practices quite well, fell into traps more than a few times, where supposedly a one-time order mysteriously turns into a continuity program without my consent, followed by an extremely cumbersome canceling process. Further, when I receive calls or emails from shady merchants with dubious offers, I can very well assume my information changed hands in very suspicious ways, if not through outright illegal routes.

Even without the criminal elements, as data become more ubiquitous and targeting techniques become more precise, an accumulation of seemingly inoffensive actions by innocuous data geeks can cause a big ripple in the offline (i.e., “real”) world. I am sure many of my fellow marketers remember the news about this reputable retail chain a few years ago; that they accurately predicted pregnancy in households based on their product purchase patterns and sent customized marketing messages featuring pregnancy-related products accordingly. Subsequently it became a big controversy, as such a targeted message was the way one particular head of household found out his teenage daughter was indeed pregnant. An unintended consequence? You bet.

I actually saw the presentation of the instigating statisticians in a predictive analytics conference before the whole incident hit the wire. At the time, the presenters were unaware of the consequences of their actions, so they proudly shared employed methodologies with the audience. But when I heard about what they were actually trying to predict, I immediately turned my head to look at the lead statistician in my then-analytical team sitting next to me, and saw that she had a concerned look that I must have had on my face, as well. And our concern was definitely not about the techniques, as we knew how to do the same when provided with similar sets of data. It was about the human consequences that such a prediction could bring, not just to the eventual targets, but also to the predictors and their fellow analysts in the industry who would all be lumped together as evil scientists by the outsiders. In predictive analytics, there is a price for being wrong; and at times, there is a price to pay for being right, too. Like I said, we shouldn’t do things just because we can.

Analysts do not have superpowers individually, but when technology and ample amounts of data are conjoined, the results can be quite influential and powerful, much like the way bombs can be built with common materials available at any hardware store. Ironically, I have been evangelizing that the data and technology should be wielded together to make big and dumb data smaller and smarter all this time. But providing answers to decision-makers in ready-to-be used formats, hence “humanizing” the data, may have its downside, too. Simply, “easy to use” can easily be “easy to abuse.” After all, humans are fallible creatures with ample amounts of greed and ambition. Even without any obvious bad intentions, it is sometimes very difficult to contemplate all angles, especially about those sensitive and squeamish humans.

I talked about the social consequences of the data business last month (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist“), and that is why I emphasized that anyone who is about to get into this data field must possess deep understandings of both technology and human nature. That little sensor in your stomach that tells you “Oh, I have a bad feeling about this” may not come to everyone naturally, but we all need to be equipped with those safeguards like angels on our shoulders.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but apparently, those smart analysts who did that pregnancy prediction only thought about the techniques and the bottom line, but did not consider all the human factors. And they should have. Or, if not them, their manager should have. Or their partners in the marketing department should have. Or their public relations people should have. Heck, “someone” in their organization should have, alright? Just like we do not casually approach a woman on the street who “seems” pregnant and say “You must be pregnant.” Only socially inept people would do that.

People consider certain matters extremely private, in case some data geeks didn’t realize that. If I might add, the same goes for ailments such as erectile dysfunction or constipation, or any other personal business related to body parts that are considered private. Unless you are a doctor in an examining room, don’t say things like “You look old, so you must have hard time having sex, right?” It is already bad enough that we can’t even watch golf tournaments on TV without those commercials that assume that golf fans need help in that department. (By the way, having “two” bathtubs “outside” the house at dusk don’t make any sense either, when the effect of the drug can last for hours for heaven’s sake. Maybe the man lost interest because the tubs were too damn heavy?)

While it may vary from culture to culture, we all have some understanding of social boundaries in casual settings. When you are talking to a complete stranger on a plane ride, for example, you know exactly how much information that you would feel comfortable sharing with that person. And when someone crosses the line, we call that person inappropriate, or “creepy.” Unfortunately, that creepy line is set differently for each person who we encounter (I am sure people like George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson have a really high threshold for what might be considered creepy), but I think we can all agree that such a shady area can be loosely defined at the least. Therefore, when we deal with large amounts of data affecting a great many people, imagine a rather large common area of such creepiness/shadiness, and do not ever cross it. In other words, when in doubt, don’t go for it.

Now, as a lifelong database marketer, I am not advocating some over-the-top privacy zealots either, as most of them do not understand the nature of data work and can’t tell the difference between informed (and mutually beneficial) messages and Big Brother-like nosiness. This targeting business is never about looking up an individual’s record one at a time, but more about finding correlations between users and products and doing some good match-making in mass numbers. In other words, we don’t care what questionable sites anyone visits, and honest data players would not steal or abuse information with bad intent. I heard about waiters who steal credit card numbers from their customers with some swiping devices, but would you condemn the entire restaurant industry for that? Yes, there are thieves in any part of the society, but not all data players are hackers, just like not all waiters are thieves. Statistically speaking, much like flying being the safest from of travel, I can even argue that handing over your physical credit card to a stranger is even more dangerous than entering the credit card number on a website. It looks much worse when things go wrong, as incidents like that affect a great many all at once, just like when a plane crashes.

Years back, I used to frequent a Japanese Restaurant near my office. The owner, who doubled as the head sushi chef, was not a nosy type. So he waited for more than a year to ask me what I did for living. He had never heard anything about database marketing, direct marketing or CRM (no “Big Data” on the horizon at that time). So I had to find a simple way to explain what I do. As a sushi chef with some local reputation, I presumed that he would know personal preferences of many frequently visiting customers (or “high-value customers,” as marketers call them). He may know exactly who likes what kind of fish and types of cuts, who doesn’t like raw shellfish, who is allergic to what, who has less of a tolerance for wasabi or who would indulge in exotic fish roes. When I asked this question, his answer was a simple “yes.” Any diligent sushi chef would care for his or her customers that much. And I said, “Now imagine that you can provide such customized services to millions of people, with the help of computers and collected data.” He immediately understood the benefits of using data and analytics, and murmured “Ah so …”

Now let’s turn the table for a second here. From the customer’s point of view, yes, it is very convenient for me that my favorite sushi chef knows exactly how I like my sushi. Same goes for the local coffee barista who knows how you take your coffee every morning. Such knowledge is clearly mutually beneficial. But what if those business owners or service providers start asking about my personal finances or about my grown daughter in a “creepy” way? I wouldn’t care if they carried the best yellowtail in town or served the best cup of coffee in the world. I would cease all my interaction with them immediately. Sorry, they’ve just crossed that creepy line.

Years ago, I had more than a few chances to sit closely with Lester Wunderman, widely known as “The Father of Direct Marketing,” as the venture called I-Behavior in which I participated as one of the founders actually originated from an idea on a napkin from Lester and his friends. Having previously worked in an agency that still bears his name, and having only seen him behind a podium until I was introduced to him on one cool autumn afternoon in 1999, meeting him at a small round table and exchanging ideas with the master was like an unknown guitar enthusiast having a jam session with Eric Clapton. What was most amazing was that, at the beginning of the dot.com boom, he was completely unfazed about all those new ideas that were flying around at that time, and he was precisely pointing out why most of them would not succeed at all. I do not need to quote the early 21st century history to point out that his prediction was indeed accurate. When everyone was chasing the latest bit of technology for quick bucks, he was at least a decade ahead of all of those young bucks, already thinking about the human side of the equation. Now, I would not reveal his age out of respect, but let’s just say that almost all of the people in his age group would describe occupations of their offspring as “Oh, she just works on a computer all the time …” I can only wish that I will remain that sharp when I am his age.

One day, Wunderman very casually shared a draft of the “Consumer Bill of Rights for Online Engagement” with a small group of people who happened to be in his office. I was one of the lucky souls who heard about his idea firsthand, and I remember feeling that he was spot-on with every point, as usual. I read it again recently just as this Big Data hype is reaching its peak, just like the dot.com boom was moving with a force that could change the world back then. In many ways, such tidal waves do end up changing the world. But lest we forget, such shifts inevitably affect living, breathing human beings along the way. And for any movement guided by technology to sustain its velocity, people who are at the helm of the enabling technology must stay sensitive toward the needs of the rest of the human collective. In short, there is not much to gain by annoying and frustrating the masses.

Allow me to share Lester Wunderman’s “Consumer Bill of Rights for Online Engagement” verbatim, as it appeared in the second edition of his book “Being Direct”:

  1. Tell me clearly who you are and why you are contacting me.
  2. Tell me clearly what you are—or are not—going to do with the information I give.
  3. Don’t pretend that you know me personally. You don’t know me; you know some things about me.
  4. Don’t assume that we have a relationship.
  5. Don’t assume that I want to have a relationship with you.
  6. Make it easy for me to say “yes” and “no.”
  7. When I say “no,” accept that I mean not this, not now.
  8. Help me budget not only my money, but also my TIME.
  9. My time is valuable, don’t waste it.
  10. Make my shopping experience easier.
  11. Don’t communicate with me just because you can.
  12. If you do all of that, maybe we will then have the basis for a relationship!

So, after more than 15 years of the so-called digital revolution, how many of these are we violating almost routinely? Based on the look of my inboxes and sites that I visit, quite a lot and all the time. As I mentioned in my earlier article “The Future of Online is Offline,” I really get offended when even seasoned marketers use terms like “online person.” I do not become an online person simply because I happen to stumble onto some stupid website and forget to uncheck some pre-checked boxes. I am not some casual object at which some email division of a company can shoot to meet their top-down sales projections.

Oh, and good luck with that kind of mindless mass emailing; your base will soon be saturated and you will learn that irrelevant messages are bad for the senders, too. Proof? How is it that the conversion rate of a typical campaign did not increase dramatically during the past 40 years or so? Forget about open or click-through rate, but pay attention to the good-old conversion rate. You know, the one that measures actual sales. Don’t we have superior databases and technologies now? Why is anyone still bragging about mailing “more” in this century? Have you heard about “targeted” or “personalized” messages? Aren’t there lots and lots of toolsets for that?

As the technology advances, it becomes that much easier and faster to offend people. If the majority of data handlers continue to abuse their power, stemming from the data in their custody, the communication channels will soon run dry. Or worse, if abusive practices continue, the whole channel could be shut down by some legislation, as we have witnessed in the downfall of the outbound telemarketing channel. Unfortunately, a few bad apples will make things a lot worse a lot faster, but I see that even reputable companies do things just because they can. All the time, repeatedly.

Furthermore, in this day and age of abundant data, not offending someone or not violating rules aren’t good enough. In fact, to paraphrase comedian Chris Rock, only losers brag about doing things that they are supposed to do in the first place. The direct marketing industry has long been bragging about the self-governing nature of its tightly knit (and often incestuous) network, but as tools get cheaper and sharper by the day, we all need to be even more careful wielding this data weaponry. Because someday soon, we as consumers will be seeing messages everywhere around us, maybe through our retina directly, not just in our inboxes. Personal touch? Yes, in the creepiest way, if done wrong.

Visionaries like Lester Wunderman were concerned about the abusive nature of online communication from the very beginning. We should all read his words again, and think twice about social and human consequences of our actions. Google from its inception encapsulated a similar idea by simply stating its organizational objective as “Don’t be evil.” That does not mean that it will stop pursuing profit or cease to collect data. I think it means that Google will always try to be mindful about the influences of its actions on real people, who may not be in positions to control the data, but instead are on the side of being the subject of data collection.

I am not saying all of this out of some romantic altruism; rather, I am emphasizing the human side of the data business to preserve the forward-momentum of the Big Data movement, while I do not even care for its name. Because I still believe, even from a consumer’s point of view, that a great amount of efficiency could be achieved by using data and technology properly. No one can deny that modern life in general is much more convenient thanks to them. We do not get lost on streets often, we can translate foreign languages on the fly, we can talk to people on the other side of the globe while looking at their faces. We are much better informed about products and services that we care about, we can look up and order anything we want while walking on the street. And heck, we get suggestions before we even think about what we need.

But we can think of many negative effects of data, as well. It goes without saying that the data handlers must protect the data from falling into the wrong hands, which may have criminal intentions. Absolutely. That is like banks having to protect their vaults. Going a few steps further, if marketers want to retain the privilege of having ample amounts of consumer information and use such knowledge for their benefit, do not ever cross that creepy line. If the Consumer’s Bill of Rights is too much for you to retain, just remember this one line: “Don’t be creepy.”

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.

Beyond RFM Data

In the world of predictive analytics, the transaction data is the king of the hill. The master of the domain. The protector of the realm. Why? Because they are hands-down the most powerful predictors. If I may borrow the term that my mentor coined for our cooperative venture more than a decade ago (before anyone even uttered the word “Big Data”), “The past behavior is the best predictor of the future behavior.” Indeed. Back then, we had built a platform that nowadays could easily have qualified as Big Data. The platform predicted people’s future behaviors on a massive scale, and it worked really well, so I still stand by that statement.

In the world of predictive analytics, the transaction data is the king of the hill. The master of the domain. The protector of the realm. Why? Because they are hands-down the most powerful predictors. If I may borrow the term that my mentor coined for our cooperative venture more than a decade ago (before anyone even uttered the word “Big Data”), “The past behavior is the best predictor of the future behavior.” Indeed. Back then, we had built a platform that nowadays could easily have qualified as Big Data. The platform predicted people’s future behaviors on a massive scale, and it worked really well, so I still stand by that statement.

How so? At the risk of sounding like a pompous mathematical smartypants (I’m really not), it is because people do not change that much, or if so, not so rapidly. Every move you make is on some predictive curve. What you been buying, clicking, browsing, smelling or coveting somehow leads to the next move. Well, not all the time. (Maybe you just like to “look” at pretty shoes?) But with enough data, we can calculate the probability with some confidence that you would be an outdoors type, or a golfer, or a relaxing type on a cruise ship, or a risk-averse investor, or a wine enthusiast, or into fashion, or a passionate gardener, or a sci-fi geek, or a professional wrestling fan. Beyond affinity scores listed here, we can predict future value of each customer or prospect and possible attrition points, as well. And behind all those predictive models (and I have seen countless algorithms), the leading predictors are mostly transaction data, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on them. In the age of ubiquitous data and at the dawn of the “Internet of Things,” more marketers will be in that lucky group if they are diligent about data collection and refinement. Yes, in the near future, even a refrigerator will be able to order groceries, but don’t forget that only the collection mechanism will be different there. We still have to collect, refine and analyze the transaction data.

Last month, I talked about three major types of data (refer to “Big Data Must Get Smaller“), which are:
1. Descriptive Data
2. Behavioral Data (mostly Transaction Data)
3. Attitudinal Data.

If you gain access to all three elements with decent coverage, you will have tremendous predictive power when it comes to human behaviors. Unfortunately, it is really difficult to accumulate attitudinal data on a large scale with individual-level details (i.e., knowing who’s behind all those sentiments). Behavioral data, mostly in forms of transaction data, are also not easy to collect and maintain (non-transaction behavioral data are even bigger and harder to handle), but I’d say it is definitely worth the effort, as most of what we call Big Data fall under this category. Conversely, one can just purchase descriptive data, which are what we generally call demographic or firmographic data, from data compilers or brokers. The sellers (there are many) will even do the data-append processing for you and they may also throw in a few free profile reports with it.

Now, when we start talking about the transaction data, many marketers will respond “Oh, you mean RFM data?” Well, that is not completely off-base, because “Recency, Frequency and Monetary” data certainly occupy important positions in the family of transaction data. But they hardly are the whole thing, and the term is misused as frequently as “Big Data.” Transaction data are so much more than simple RFM variables.

RFM Data Is Just a Good Start
The term RFM should be used more as a checklist for marketers, not as design guidelines—or limitations in many cases—for data professionals. How recently did this particular customer purchase our product, and how frequently did she do that and how much money did she spend with us? Answering these questions is a good start, but stopping there would seriously limit the potential of transaction data. Further, this line of questioning would lead the interrogation efforts to simple “filtering,” as in: “Select all customers who purchased anything with a price tag over $100 more than once in past 12 months.” Many data users may think that this query is somewhat complex, but it really is just a one-dimensional view of the universe. And unfortunately, no customer is one-dimensional. And this query is just one slice of truth from the marketer’s point of view, not the customer’s. If you want to get really deep, the view must be “buyer-centric,” not product-, channel-, division-, seller- or company-centric. And the database structure should reflect that view (refer to “It’s All About Ranking,” where the concept of “Analytical Sandbox” is introduced).

Transaction data by definition describe the transactions, not the buyers. If you would like to describe a buyer or if you are trying to predict the buyer’s future behavior, you need to convert the transaction data into “descriptors of the buyers” first. What is the difference? It is the same data looked at through a different window—front vs. side window—but the effect is huge.

Even if we think about just one simple transaction with one item, instead of describing the shopping basket as “transaction happened on July 3, 2014, containing the Coldplay’s latest CD ‘Ghost Stories’ priced at $11.88,” a buyer-centric description would read: “A recent CD buyer in Rock genre with an average spending level in the music category under $20.” The trick is to describe the buyer, not the product or the transaction. If that customer has many orders and items in his purchase history (let’s say he downloaded a few songs to his portable devices, as well), the description of the buyer would become much richer. If you collect all of his past purchase history, it gets even more colorful, as in: “A recent music CD or MP3 buyer in rock, classical and jazz genres with 24-month purchase totaling to 13 orders containing 16 items with total spending valued in $100-$150 range and $11 average order size.” Of course you would store all this using many different variables (such as genre indicators, number of orders, number of items, total dollars spent during the past 24 months, average order amount and number of weeks since last purchase in the music category, etc.). But the point is that the story would come out this way when you change the perspective.

Creating a Buyer-Centric Portrait
The whole process of creating a buyer-centric portrait starts with data summarization (or de-normalization). A typical structure of the table (or database) that needs to capture every transaction detail, such as transaction date and amount, would require an entry for every transaction, and the database designers call it the “normal” state. As I explained in my previous article (“Ranking is the key”), if you would like to rank in terms of customer value, the data record must be on a customer level, as well. If you are ranking households or companies, you would then need to summarize the data on those levels, too.

Now, this summarization (or de-normalization) is not a process of eliminating duplicate entries of names, as you wouldn’t want to throw away any transaction details. If there are multiple orders per person, what is the total number of orders? What is the total amount of spending on an individual level? What would be average spending level per transaction, or per year? If you are allowed to have only one line of entry per person, how would you summarize the purchase dates, as you cannot just add them up? In that case, you can start with the first and last transaction date of each customer. Now, when you have the first and last transaction date for every customer, what would be the tenure of each customer and what would be the number of days since the last purchase? How many days, on average, are there in between orders then? Yes, all these figures are related to basic RFM metrics, but they are far more colorful this way.

The attached exhibit displays a very simple example of a before and after picture of such summarization process. On the left-hand side, there resides a typical order table containing customer ID, order number, order date and transaction amount. If a customer has multiple orders in a given period, an equal number of lines are required to record the transaction details. In real life, other order level information, such as payment method (very predictive, by the way), tax amount, discount or coupon amount and, if applicable, shipping amount would be on this table, as well.

On the right-hand side of the chart, you will find there is only one line per customer. As I mentioned in my previous columns, establishing consistent and accurate customer ID cannot be neglected—for this reason alone. How would you rely on the summary data if one person may have multiple IDs? The customer may have moved to a new address, or shopped from multiple stores or sites, or there could have been errors in data collections. Relying on email address is a big no-no, as we all carry many email addresses. That is why the first step of building a functional marketing database is to go through the data hygiene and consolidation process. (There are many data processing vendors and software packages for it.) Once a persistent customer (or individual) ID system is in place, you can add up the numbers to create customer-level statistics, such as total orders, total dollars, and first and last order dates, as you see in the chart.

Remember R, F, M, P and C
The real fun begins when you combine these numeric summary figures with product, channel and other important categorical variables. Because product (or service) and channel are the most distinctive dividers of customer behaviors, let’s just add P and C to the famous RFM (remember, we are using RFM just as a checklist here), and call it R, F, M, P and C.

Product (rather, product category) is an important separator, as people often show completely different spending behavior for different types of products. For example, you can send me fancy-shmancy fashion catalogs all you want, but I won’t look at it with an intention of purchase, as most men will look at the models and not what they are wearing. So my active purchase history in the sports, home electronics or music categories won’t mean anything in the fashion category. In other words, those so-called “hotline” names should be treated differently for different categories.

Channel information is also important, as there are active online buyers who would never buy certain items, such as apparel or home furnishing products, without physically touching them first. For example, even in the same categories, I would buy guitar strings or golf balls online. But I would not purchase a guitar or a driver without trying them out first. Now, when I say channel, I mean the channel that the customer used to make the purchase, not the channel through which the marketer chose to communicate with him. Channel information should be treated as a two-way street, as no marketer “owns” a customer through a particular channel (refer to “The Future of Online is Offline“).

As an exercise, let’s go back to the basic RFM data and create some actual variables. For “each” customer, we can start with basic RFM measures, as exhibited in the chart:

· Number of Transactions
· Total Dollar Amount
· Number of Days (or Weeks) since the Last Transaction
· Number of Days (or Weeks) since the First Transaction

Notice that the days are counted from today’s point of view (practically the day the database is updated), as the actual date’s significance changes as time goes by (e.g., a day in February would feel different when looked back on from April vs. November). “Recency” is a relative concept; therefore, we should relativize the time measurements to express it.

From these basic figures, we can derive other related variables, such as:

· Average Dollar Amount per Customer
· Average Dollar Amount per Transaction
· Average Dollar Amount per Year
· Lifetime Highest Amount per Item
· Lifetime Lowest Amount per Transaction
· Average Number of Days Between Transactions
· Etc., etc…

Now, imagine you have all these measurements by channels, such as retail, Web, catalog, phone or mail-in, and separately by product categories. If you imagine a gigantic spreadsheet, the summarized table would have fewer numbers of rows, but a seemingly endless number of columns. I will discuss categorical and non-numeric variables in future articles. But for this exercise, let’s just imagine having these sets of variables for all major product categories. The result is that the recency factor now becomes more like “Weeks since Last Online Order”—not just any order. Frequency measurements would be more like “Number of Transactions in Dietary Supplement Category”—not just for any product. Monetary values can be expressed in “Average Spending Level in Outdoor Sports Category through Online Channel”—not just the customer’s average dollar amount, in general.

Why stop there? We may slice and dice the data by offer type, customer status, payment method or time intervals (e.g., lifetime, 24-month, 48-months, etc.) as well. I am not saying that all the RFM variables should be cut out this way, but having “Number of Transaction by Payment Method,” for example, could be very revealing about the customer, as everybody uses multiple payment methods, while some may never use a debit card for a large purchase, for example. All these little measurements become building blocks in predictive modeling. Now, too many variables can also be troublesome. And knowing the balance (i.e., knowing where to stop) comes from the experience and preliminary analysis. That is when experts and analysts should be consulted for this type of uniform variable creation. Nevertheless, the point is that RFM variables are not just three simple measures that happen be a part of the larger transaction data menu. And we didn’t even touch non-transaction based behavioral elements, such as clicks, views, miles or minutes.

The Time Factor
So, if such data summarization is so useful for analytics and modeling, should we always include everything that has been collected since the inception of the database? The answer is yes and no. Sorry for being cryptic here, but it really depends on what your product is all about; how the buyers would relate to it; and what you, as a marketer, are trying to achieve. As for going back forever, there is a danger in that kind of data hoarding, as “Life-to-Date” data always favors tenured customers over new customers who have a relatively short history. In reality, many new customers may have more potential in terms of value than a tenured customer with lots of transaction records from a long time ago, but with no recent activity. That is why we need to create a level playing field in terms of time limit.

If a “Life-to-Date” summary is not ideal for predictive analytics, then where should you place the cutoff line? If you are selling cars or home furnishing products, we may need to look at a 4- to 5-year history. If your products are consumables with relatively short purchase cycles, then a 1-year examination would be enough. If your product is seasonal in nature—like gardening, vacation or heavily holiday-related items, then you may have to look at a minimum of two consecutive years of history to capture seasonal patterns. If you have mixed seasonality or longevity of products (e.g., selling golf balls and golf clubs sets through the same store or site), then you may have to summarize the data with multiple timelines, where the above metrics would be separated by 12 months, 24 months, 48 months, etc. If you have lifetime value models or any time-series models in the plan, then you may have to break the timeline down even more finely. Again, this is where you may need professional guidance, but marketers’ input is equally important.

Analytical Sandbox
Lastly, who should be doing all of this data summary work? I talked about the concept of the “Analytical Sandbox,” where all types of data conversion, hygiene, transformation, categorization and summarization are done in a consistent manner, and analytical activities, such as sampling, profiling, modeling and scoring are done with proper toolsets like SAS, R or SPSS (refer to “It’s All About Ranking“). The short and final answer is this: Do not leave that to analysts or statisticians. They are the main players in that playground, not the architects or developers of it. If you are serious about employing analytics for your business, plan to build the Analytical Sandbox along with the team of analysts.

My goal as a database designer has always been serving the analysts and statisticians with “model-ready” datasets on silver platters. My promise to them has been that the modelers would spend no time fixing the data. Instead, they would be spending their valuable time thinking about the targets and statistical methodologies to fulfill the marketing goals. After all, answers that we seek come out of those mighty—but often elusive—algorithms, and the algorithms are made of data variables. So, in the interest of getting the proper answers fast, we must build lots of building blocks first. And no, simple RFM variables won’t cut it.

Big Data Must Get Smaller

Like many folks who worked in the data business for a long time, I don’t even like the words “Big Data.” Yeah, data is big now, I get it. But so what? Faster and bigger have been the theme in the computing business since the first calculator was invented. In fact, I don’t appreciate the common definition of Big Data that is often expressed in the three Vs: volume, velocity and variety. So, if any kind of data are big and fast, it’s all good? I don’t think so. If you have lots of “dumb” data all over the place, how does that help you? Well, as much as all the clutter that’s been piled on in your basement since 1971. It may yield some profit on an online auction site one day. Who knows? Maybe some collector will pay good money for some obscure Coltrane or Moody Blues albums that you never even touched since your last turntable (Ooh, what is that?) died on you. Those oversized album jackets were really cool though, weren’t they?

Like many folks who worked in the data business for a long time, I don’t even like the words “Big Data.” Yeah, data is big now, I get it. But so what? Faster and bigger have been the theme in the computing business since the first calculator was invented. In fact, I don’t appreciate the common definition of Big Data that is often expressed in the three Vs: volume, velocity and variety. So, if any kind of data are big and fast, it’s all good? I don’t think so. If you have lots of “dumb” data all over the place, how does that help you? Well, as much as all the clutter that’s been piled on in your basement since 1971. It may yield some profit on an online auction site one day. Who knows? Maybe some collector will pay good money for some obscure Coltrane or Moody Blues albums that you never even touched since your last turntable (Ooh, what is that?) died on you. Those oversized album jackets were really cool though, weren’t they?

Seriously, the word “Big” only emphasizes the size element, and that is a sure way to miss the essence of the data business. And many folks are missing even that little point by calling all decision-making activities that involve even small-sized data “Big Data.” It is entirely possible that this data stuff seems all new to someone, but the data-based decision-making process has been with us for a very long time. If you use that “B” word to differentiate old-fashioned data analytics of yesteryear and ridiculously large datasets of the present day, yes, that is a proper usage of it. But we all know most people do not mean it that way. One side benefit of this bloated and hyped up buzzword is data professionals like myself do not have to explain what we do for living for 20 minutes anymore by simply uttering the word “Big Data,” though that is a lot like a grandmother declaring all her grandchildren work on computers for living. Better yet, that magic “B” word sometimes opens doors to new business opportunities (or at least a chance to grab a microphone in non-data-related meetings and conferences) that data geeks of the past never dreamed of.

So, I guess it is not all that bad. But lest we forget, all hypes lead to overinvestments, and all overinvestments leads to disappointments, and all disappointments lead to purging of related personnel and vendors that bear that hyped-up dirty word in their titles or division names. If this Big Data stuff does not yield significant profit (or reduction in cost), I am certain that those investment bubbles will burst soon enough. Yes, some data folks may be lucky enough to milk it for another two or three years, but brace for impact if all those collected data do not lead to some serious dollar signs. I know how the storage and processing cost decreased significantly in recent years, but they ain’t totally free, and related man-hours aren’t exactly cheap, either. Also, if this whole data business is a new concept to an organization, any money spent on the promise of Big Data easily becomes a liability for the reluctant bunch.

This is why I open up my speeches and lectures with this question: “Have you made any money with this Big Data stuff yet?” Surely, you didn’t spend all that money to provide faster toys and nicer playgrounds to IT folks? Maybe the head of IT had some fun with it, but let’s ask that question to CFOs, not CTOs, CIOs or CDOs. I know some colleagues (i.e., fellow data geeks) who are already thinking about a new name for this—”decision-making activities, based on data and analytics”—because many of us will be still doing that “data stuff” even after Big Data cease to be cool after the judgment day. Yeah, that Gangnam Style dance was fun for a while, but who still jumps around like a horse?

Now, if you ask me (though nobody did yet), I’d say the Big Data should have been “Smart Data,” “Intelligent Data” or something to that extent. Because data must provide insights. Answers to questions. Guidance to decision-makers. To data professionals, piles of data—especially the ones that are fragmented, unstructured and unformatted, no matter what kind of fancy names the operating system and underlying database technology may bear—it is just a good start. For non-data-professionals, unrefined data—whether they are big or small—would remain distant and obscure. Offering mounds of raw data to end-users is like providing a painting kit when someone wants a picture on the wall. Bragging about the size of the data with impressive sounding new measurements that end with “bytes” is like counting grains of rice in California in front of a hungry man.

Big Data must get smaller. People want yes/no answers to their specific questions. If such clarity is not possible, probability figures to such questions should be provided; as in, “There’s an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms on the day of the company golf outing,” “An above-average chance to close a deal with a certain prospect” or “Potential value of a customer who is repeatedly complaining about something on the phone.” It is about easy-to-understand answers to business questions, not a quintillion bytes of data stored in some obscure cloud somewhere. As I stated at the end of my last column, the Big Data movement should be about (1) Getting rid of the noise, and (2) Providing simple answers to decision-makers. And getting to such answers is indeed the process of making data smaller and smaller.

In my past columns, I talked about the benefits of statistical models in the age of Big Data, as they are the best way to compact big and complex information in forms of simple answers (refer to “Why Model?”). Models built to predict (or point out) who is more likely to be into outdoor sports, to be a risk-averse investor, to go on a cruise vacation, to be a member of discount club, to buy children’s products, to be a bigtime donor or to be a NASCAR fan, are all providing specific answers to specific questions, while each model score is a result of serious reduction of information, often compressing thousands of variables into one answer. That simplification process in itself provides incredible value to decision-makers, as most wouldn’t know where to cut out unnecessary information to answer specific questions. Using mathematical techniques, we can cut down the noise with conviction.

In model development, “Variable Reduction” is the first major step after the target variable is determined (refer to “The Art of Targeting“). It is often the most rigorous and laborious exercise in the whole model development process, where the characteristics of models are often determined as each statistician has his or her unique approach to it. Now, I am not about to initiate a debate about the best statistical method for variable reduction (I haven’t met two statisticians who completely agree with each other in terms of methodologies), but I happened to know that many effective statistical analysts separate variables in terms of data types and treat them differently. In other words, not all data variables are created equal. So, what are the major types of data that database designers and decision-makers (i.e., non-mathematical types) should be aware of?

In the business of predictive analytics for marketing, the following three types of data make up three dimensions of a target individual’s portrait:

  1. Descriptive Data
  2. Transaction Data / Behavioral Data
  3. Attitudinal Data

In other words, if we get to know all three aspects of a person, it will be much easier to predict what the person is about and/or what the person will do. Why do we need these three dimensions? If an individual has a high income and is living in a highly valued home (demographic element, which is descriptive); and if he is an avid golfer (behavioral element often derived from his purchase history), can we just assume that he is politically conservative (attitudinal element)? Well, not really, and not all the time. Sometimes we have to stop and ask what the person’s attitude and outlook on life is all about. Now, because it is not practical to ask everyone in the country about every subject, we often build models to predict the attitudinal aspect with available data. If you got a phone call from a political party that “assumes” your political stance, that incident was probably not random or accidental. Like I emphasized many times, analytics is about making the best of what is available, as there is no such thing as a complete dataset, even in this age of ubiquitous data. Nonetheless, these three dimensions of the data spectrum occupy a unique and distinct place in the business of predictive analytics.

So, in the interest of obtaining, maintaining and utilizing all possible types of data—or, conversely, reducing the size of data with conviction by knowing what to ignore, let us dig a little deeper:

Descriptive Data
Generally, demographic data—such as people’s income, age, number of children, housing size, dwelling type, occupation, etc.—fall under this category. For B-to-B applications, “Firmographic” data—such as number of employees, sales volume, year started, industry type, etc.—would be considered as descriptive data. It is about what the targets “look like” and, generally, they are frozen in the present time. Many prominent data compilers (or data brokers, as the U.S. government calls them) collect, compile and refine the data and make hundreds of variables available to users in various industry sectors. They also fill in the blanks using predictive modeling techniques. In other words, the compilers may not know the income range of every household, but using statistical techniques and other available data—such as age, home ownership, housing value, and many other variables—they provide their best estimates in case of missing values. People often have some allergic reaction to such data compilation practices siting privacy concerns, but these types of data are not about looking up one person at a time, but about analyzing and targeting groups (or segments) of individuals and households. In terms of predictive power, they are quite effective and results are very consistent. The best part is that most of the variables are available for every household in the country, whether they are actual or inferred.

Other types of descriptive data include geo-demographic data, and the Census Data by the U.S. Census Bureau falls under this category. These datasets are organized by geographic denominations such as Census Block Group, Census Tract, Country or ZIP Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA, much like postal ZIP codes, but not exactly the same). Although they are not available on an individual or a household level, the Census data are very useful in predictive modeling, as every target record can be enhanced with it, even when name and address are not available, and data themselves are very stable. The downside is that while the datasets are free through Census Bureau, the raw datasets contain more than 40,000 variables. Plus, due to the budget cut and changes in survey methods during the past decade, the sample size (yes, they sample) decreased significantly, rendering some variables useless at lower geographic denominations, such as Census Block Group. There are professional data companies that narrowed down the list of variables to manageable sizes (300 to 400 variables) and filled in the missing values. Because they are geo-level data, variables are in the forms of percentages, averages or median values of elements, such as gender, race, age, language, occupation, education level, real estate value, etc. (as in, percent male, percent Asian, percent white-collar professionals, average income, median school years, median rent, etc.).

There are many instances where marketers cannot pinpoint the identity of a person due to privacy issues or challenges in data collection, and the Census Data play a role of effective substitute for individual- or household-level demographic data. In predictive analytics, duller variables that are available nearly all the time are often more valuable than precise information with limited availability.

Transaction Data/Behavioral Data
While descriptive data are about what the targets look like, behavioral data are about what they actually did. Often, behavioral data are in forms of transactions. So many just call it transaction data. What marketers commonly refer to as RFM (Recency, Frequency and Monetary) data fall under this category. In terms of predicting power, they are truly at the top of the food chain. Yes, we can build models to guess who potential golfers are with demographic data, such as age, gender, income, occupation, housing value and other neighborhood-level information, but if you get to “know” that someone is a buyer of a box of golf balls every six weeks or so, why guess? Further, models built with transaction data can even predict the nature of future purchases, in terms of monetary value and frequency intervals. Unfortunately, many who have access to RFM data are using them only in rudimentary filtering, as in “select everyone who spends more than $200 in a gift category during the past 12 months,” or something like that. But we can do so much more with rich transaction data in every stage of the marketing life cycle for prospecting, cultivating, retaining and winning back.

Other types of behavioral data include non-transaction data, such as click data, page views, abandoned shopping baskets or movement data. This type of behavioral data is getting a lot of attention as it is truly “big.” The data have been out of reach for many decision-makers before the emergence of new technology to capture and store them. In terms of predictability, nevertheless, they are not as powerful as real transaction data. These non-transaction data may provide directional guidance, as they are what some data geeks call “a-camera-on-everyone’s-shoulder” type of data. But we all know that there is a clear dividing line between people’s intentions and their commitments. And it can be very costly to follow every breath you take, every move you make, and every step you take. Due to their distinct characteristics, transaction data and non-transaction data must be managed separately. And if used together in models, they should be clearly labeled, so the analysts will never treat them the same way by accident. You really don’t want to mix intentions and commitments.

The trouble with the behavioral data are, (1) they are difficult to compile and manage, (2) they get big; sometimes really big, (3) they are generally confined within divisions or companies, and (4) they are not easy to analyze. In fact, most of the examples that I used in this series are about the transaction data. Now, No. 3 here could be really troublesome, as it equates to availability (or lack thereof). Yes, you may know everything that happened with your customers, but do you know where else they are shopping? Fortunately, there are co-op companies that can answer that question, as they are compilers of transaction data across multiple merchants and sources. And combined data can be exponentially more powerful than data in silos. Now, because transaction data are not always available for every person in databases, analysts often combine behavioral data and descriptive data in their models. Transaction data usually become the dominant predictors in such cases, while descriptive data play the supporting roles filling in the gaps and smoothing out the predictive curves.

As I stated repeatedly, predictive analytics in marketing is all about finding out (1) whom to engage, and (2) if you decided to engage someone, what to offer to that person. Using carefully collected transaction data for most of their customers, there are supermarket chains that achieved 100 percent customization rates for their coupon books. That means no two coupon books are exactly the same, which is a quite impressive accomplishment. And that is all transaction data in action, and it is a great example of “Big Data” (or rather, “Smart Data”).

Attitudinal Data
In the past, attitudinal data came from surveys, primary researches and focus groups. Now, basically all social media channels function as gigantic focus groups. Through virtual places, such as Facebook, Twitter or other social media networks, people are freely volunteering what they think and feel about certain products and services, and many marketers are learning how to “listen” to them. Sentiment analysis falls under that category of analytics, and many automatically think of this type of analytics when they hear “Big Data.”

The trouble with social data is:

  1. We often do not know who’s behind the statements in question, and
  2. They are in silos, and it is not easy to combine such data with transaction or demographic data, due to lack of identity of their sources.

Yes, we can see that a certain political candidate is trending high after an impressive speech, but how would we connect that piece of information to whom will actually donate money for the candidate’s causes? If we can find out “where” the target is via an IP address and related ZIP codes, we may be able to connect the voter to geo-demographic data, such as the Census. But, generally, personally identifiable information (PII) is only accessible by the data compilers, if they even bothered to collect them.

Therefore, most such studies are on a macro level, citing trends and directions, and types of analysts in that field are quite different from the micro-level analysts who deal with behavioral data and descriptive data. Now, the former provide important insights regarding the “why” part of the equation, which is often the hardest thing to predict; while the latter provide answers to “who, what, where and when.” (“Who” is the easiest to answer, and “when” is the hardest.) That “why” part may dictate a product development part of the decision-making process at the conceptual stage (as in, “Why would customers care for a new type of dishwasher?”), while “who, what, where and when” are more about selling the developed products (as in “Let’s sell those dishwashers in the most effective ways.”). So, it can be argued that these different types of data call for different types of analytics for different cycles in the decision-making processes.

Obviously, there are more types of data out there. But for marketing applications dealing with humans, these three types of data complete the buyers’ portraits. Now, depending on what marketers are trying to do with the data, they can prioritize where to invest first and what to ignore (for now). If they are early in the marketing cycle trying to develop a new product for the future, they need to understand why people want something and behave in certain ways. If signing up as many new customers as possible is the immediate goal, finding out who and where the ideal prospects are becomes the most imminent task. If maximizing the customer value is the ongoing objective, then you’d better start analyzing transaction data more seriously. If preventing attrition is the goal, then you will have to line up the transaction data in time series format for further analysis.

The business goals must dictate the analytics, and the analytics call for specific types of data to meet the goals, and the supporting datasets should be in “analytics-ready” formats. Not the other way around, where businesses are dictated by the limitations of analytics, and analytics are hampered by inadequate data clutters. That type of business-oriented hierarchy should be the main theme of effective data management, and with clear goals and proper data strategy, you will know where to invest first and what data to ignore as a decision-maker, not necessarily as a mathematical analyst. And that is the first step toward making the Big Data smaller. Don’t be impressed by the size of the data, as they often blur the big picture and not all data are created equal.

Chicken or the Egg? Data or Analytics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Model?

Why model? Uh, because someone is ridiculously good looking, like Derek Zoolander? No, seriously, why model when we have so much data around? The short answer is because we will never know the whole truth. That would be the philosophical answer. Physicists construct models to make new quantum field theories more attractive theoretically and more testable physically. If a scientist already knows the secrets of the universe, well, then that person is on a first-name basis with God Almighty, and he or she doesn’t need any models to describe things like particles or strings. And the rest of us should just hope the scientist isn’t one of those evil beings in “Star Trek.”

Why model? Uh, because someone is ridiculously good looking, like Derek Zoolander? No, seriously, why model when we have so much data around?

The short answer is because we will never know the whole truth. That would be the philosophical answer. Physicists construct models to make new quantum field theories more attractive theoretically and more testable physically. If a scientist already knows the secrets of the universe, well, then that person is on a first-name basis with God Almighty, and he or she doesn’t need any models to describe things like particles or strings. And the rest of us should just hope the scientist isn’t one of those evil beings in “Star Trek.”

Another answer to “why model?” is because we don’t really know the future, not even the immediate future. If some object is moving toward a certain direction at a certain velocity, we can safely guess where it will end up in one hour. Then again, nothing in this universe is just one-dimensional like that, and there could be a snowstorm brewing up on its path, messing up the whole trajectory. And that weather “forecast” that predicted the snowstorm is a result of some serious modeling, isn’t it?

What does all this mean for the marketers who are not necessarily masters of mathematics, statistics or theoretical physics? Plenty, actually. And the use of models in marketing goes way back to the days of punch cards and mainframes. If you are too young to know what those things are, well, congratulations on your youth, and let’s just say that it was around the time when humans first stepped on the moon using a crude rocket ship equipped with less computing power than an inexpensive passenger car of the modern days.

Anyhow, in that ancient time, some smart folks in the publishing industry figured that they would save tons of money if they could correctly “guess” who the potential buyers were “before” they dropped any expensive mail pieces. Even with basic regression models—and they only had one or two chances to get it right with glacially slow tools before the all-too-important Christmas season came around every year—they could safely cut the mail quantity by 80 percent to 90 percent. The savings added up really fast by not talking to everyone.

Fast-forward to the 21st Century. There is still a beauty of knowing who the potential buyers are before we start engaging anyone. As I wrote in my previous columns, analytics should answer:

1. To whom you should be talking; and
2. What you should offer once you’ve decided to engage someone.

At least the first part will be taken care of by knowing who is more likely to respond to you.

But in the days when the cost of contacting a person through various channels is dropping rapidly, deciding to whom to talk can’t be the only reason for all this statistical work. Of course not. There are plenty more reasons why being a statistician (or a data scientist, nowadays) is one of the best career choices in this century.

Here is a quick list of benefits of employing statistical models in marketing. Basically, models are constructed to:

  • Reduce cost by contacting prospects more wisely
  • Increase targeting accuracy
  • Maintain consistent results
  • Reveal hidden patterns in data
  • Automate marketing procedures by being more repeatable
  • Expand the prospect universe while minimizing the risk
  • Fill in the gaps and summarize complex data into an easy-to-use format—A must in the age of Big Data
  • Stay relevant to your customers and prospects

We talked enough about the first point, so let’s jump to the second one. It is hard to argue about the “targeting accuracy” part, though there still are plenty of non-believers in this day and age. Why are statistical models more accurate than someone’s gut feeling or sheer guesswork? Let’s just say that in my years of dealing with lots of smart people, I have not met anyone who can think about more than two to three variables at the same time, not to mention potential interactions among them. Maybe some are very experienced in using RFM and demographic data. Maybe they have been reasonably successful with choices of variables handed down to them by their predecessors. But can they really go head-to-head against carefully constructed statistical models?

What is a statistical model, and how is it built? In short, a model is a mathematical expression of “differences” between dichotomous groups. Too much of a mouthful? Just imagine two groups of people who do not overlap. They may be buyers vs. non-buyers; responders vs. non-responders; credit-worthy vs. not-credit-worthy; loyal customers vs. attrition-bound, etc. The first step in modeling is to define the target, and that is the most important step of all. If the target is hanging in the wrong place, you will be shooting at the wrong place, no matter how good your rifle is.

And the target should be expressed in mathematical terms, as computers can’t read our minds, not just yet. Defining the target is a job in itself:

  • If you’re going after frequent flyers, how frequent is frequent enough for you? Five times a year or 10 times a year? Or somewhere in between? Or should it remain continuous?
  • What if the target is too small or too large? What then?
  • If you are looking for more valuable prospects, how would you express that? In terms of average spending, lifetime spending or sheer number of transactions?
  • What if there is an inverse relationship between frequency and dollar spending (i.e., high spenders shopping infrequently)?
  • And what would be the borderline number to be “valuable” in all this?

Once the target is set, after much pondering, then the job is to select the variables that describe the “differences” between the two groups. For example, I know how much marketers love to use income variables in various situations. But if that popular variable does not explain the differences between the two groups (target and non-target), the mathematics will mercilessly throw it out. This rigorous exercise of examining hundreds or even thousands of variables is one of the most critical steps, during which many variables go through various types of transformations. Statisticians have different preferences in terms of ideal numbers of variables in a model, while non-statisticians like us don’t need to be too concerned, as long as the resultant model works. Who cares if a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice?

Not all selected variables are equally important in model algorithms, either. More powerful variables will be assigned with higher weight, and the sum of these weighted values is what we call model score. Now, non-statisticians who have been slightly allergic to math since the third grade only need to know that the higher the score, the more likely the record in question is to be like the target. To make the matter even simpler, let’s just say that you want higher scores over lower scores. If you are a salesperson, just call the high-score prospects first. And would you care how many variables are packed into that score, for as long as you get the good “Glengarry Glen Ross” leads on top?

So, let me ask again. Does this sound like something a rudimentary selection rule with two to three variables can beat when it comes to identifying the right target? Maybe someone can get lucky once or twice, but not consistently.

That leads to the next point, “consistency.” Because models do not rely on a few popular variables, they are far less volatile than simple selection rules or queries. In this age of Big Data, there are more transaction and behavioral data in the mix than ever, and they are far more volatile than demographic and geo-demographic data. Put simply, people’s purchasing behavior and preferences change much faster than family composition or their income, and that volatility factor calls for more statistical work. Plus, all facets of marketing are now more about measurable results (ah, that dreaded ROI, or “Roy,” the way I call it), and the businesses call for consistent hitters over one-hit wonders.

“Revealing hidden patterns in data” is my favorite. When marketers are presented with thousands of variables, I see a majority of them just sticking to a few popular ones all the time. Some basic recency and frequency data are there, and among hundreds of demographic variables, the list often stops after income, age, gender, presence of children, and some regional variables. But seriously, do you think that the difference between a luxury car buyer and an SUV buyer is just income and age? You see, these variables are just the ones that human minds are accustomed to. Mathematics do not have such preconceived notions. Sticking to a few popular variables is like children repeatedly using three favorite colors out of a whole box of crayons.

I once saw a neighborhood-level U.S. Census variable called “% Households with Septic Tanks” in a model built for a high-end furniture catalog. Really, the variable was “percentage of houses with septic tanks in the neighborhood.” Then I realized it made a lot of sense. That variable was revealing how far away that neighborhood was located in comparison to populous city centers. As the percentage of septic tanks increased, the further away the residents were from the city center. And maybe those folks who live in scarcely populated areas were more likely to shop for furniture through catalogs than the folks who live closer to commercial areas.

This is where we all have that “aha” moment. But you and I will never pick that variable in anything that we do, not in million years, no matter how effective it may be in finding the target prospects. The word “septic” may scare some people off at “hello.” In any case, modeling procedures reveal hidden connections like that all of the time, and that is a very important function in data-rich environments. Otherwise, we will not know what to throw out without fear, and the databases will continuously become larger and more unusable.

Moving on to the next points, “Repeatable” and “Expandable” are somewhat related. Let’s say a marketer has been using a very innovative selection logic that she came across almost by accident. In pursuing special types of wealthy people, she stumbled upon a piece of data called “owner of swimming pool.” Now, she may have even had a few good runs with it, too. But eventually, that success will lead to the question of:

1. Having to repeat that success again and again; and
2. Having to expand that universe, when the “known” universe of swimming pool owners become depleted or saturated.

Ah, the chagrin of a one-hit-wonder begins.

Use of statistical models, with help of multiple variables and scalable scoring, would avoid all of those issues. You want to expand the prospect universe? No trouble. Just dial down the scores on the scale a little further. We can even measure the risk of reaching into the lower-scoring groups. And you don’t have to worry about coverage issues related to a few variables, as those won’t be the only ones in the model. Want to automate the selection process? No problem there, as using a score, which is a summary of key predictors, is far simpler than having to carry a long list of data variables into any automated system.

Now, that leads to the next point, “Filling in the gaps and summarizing the complex data into an easy-to-use format.” In the age of ubiquitous and “Big” data, this is the single-most important point, way beyond the previous examples for traditional 1-to-1 marketing applications. We are definitely going through massive data overloads everywhere, and someone better refine the data and provide some usable answers.

As I mentioned earlier, we build models because we will never know the whole truth. I believe that the Big Data movement should be all about:

1. Filtering the noise from valuable information; and
2. Filling the gaps.

“Gaps,” you say? Believe me, there are plenty of gaps in any dataset, big or small.

When information continues to get piled on, the resultant database may look big. And they are physically large. But in marketing, as I repeatedly emphasized in my previous columns, the data must be realigned to “buyer-centric” formats, with every data point describing each individual, as marketing is all about people.

Sure, you may have tons of mobile phone-related data. In fact, it could be quite huge in size. But let me turn that upside down for you (more like sideways-up, in practice). Now, try to describe everyone in your footprint in terms of certain activities. Say, “every smart phone owner who used more than 80 percent of his or her monthly data allowance on the average for the past 12 months, regardless of the carrier.” Hey, don’t blame me for asking these questions just because it’s inconvenient for data handlers to answer them. Some marketers would certainly benefit from information like that, and no one cares about just bits and pieces of data, other than for some interesting tidbits at a party.

Here’s the main trouble when you start asking buyer-related questions like that. Once we try to look at the world from the “buyer-centric” point of view, we will realize there are tons of missing data (i.e., a whole bunch of people with not much information). It may be that you will never get this kind of data from all carriers. Maybe not everyone is tracked this way. In terms of individuals, you may end up with less than 10 percent in the database with mobile information attached to them. In fact, many interesting variables may have less than 1 percent coverage. Holes are everywhere in so-called Big Data.

Models can fill in those blanks for you. For all those data compilers who sell age and income data for every household in the country, do you believe that they really “know” everyone’s age and income? A good majority of the information is based on carefully constructed models. And there is nothing wrong with that.

If you don’t get to “know” something, we can get to a “likelihood” score—of “being like” that something. And in that world, every measurement is on a scale, with no missing values. For example, the higher the score of a model built for a telecommunication company, the more likely that the prospect is going to use a high-speed data plan, or the international long distance services, depending on the purpose of the model. Or the more likely the person will buy sports packages via cable or satellite. Or the person is more likely to subscribe to premium movie channels. Etc., etc. With scores like these, a marketer can initiate the conversation with—not just talking to—a particular prospect with customized product packages in his hand.

And that leads us to the final point in all this, “Staying relevant to your customers and prospects.” That is what Big Data should be all about—at least for us marketers. We know plenty about a lot of people. And they are asking us why we are still so random about marketing messages. With all these data that are literally floating around, marketers can do so much better. But not without statistical models that fill in the gaps and turn pieces of data into marketing-ready answers.

So, why model? Because a big pile of information doesn’t provide answers on its own, and that pile has more holes than Swiss cheese if you look closely. That’s my final answer.