Marketers to HQ: 'We Have a Problem'

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If you think more data is always better, just ask NASA.


In 1997, NASA upgraded the display consoles in the mission control room of the Johnson Space Center. Supported by cutting-edge software, the new consoles were designed to provide an unprecedented level of data and flexibility to NASA's flight controllers.


Unexpectedly, the result was more "Houston, we have a problem" than "Mission accomplished." The new displays introduced a level of complexity that effectively negated the benefits of the new information they were delivering.


Data overload and flaws in the design and use of mission-critical decision-support systems extend far beyond the lofty environs of Houston's mission control. The problem is pandemic.


Marketers are among the hardest hit. Marketers collect data to provide clarity and confidence in deciding how to build their brands. Unfortunately, the data they collect often confuse more than clarify. By every account, marketing data is out of control.


For marketers, three data problems stand above the rest.


The first is unmanageable volume. As with their NASA counterparts, the issue for marketers is not too little data, but too much. Most marketers lack the time or inclination to process, analyze and leverage the plethora of information to their advantage. And every day the quantity and sophistication of data increase.


Data overload is a roadblock to marketing effectiveness. It promotes paralysis, not analysis. Data overload also promotes waste. It undermines the marketing management process - resulting in gross inefficiencies in the marketing plan - and motivates many marketers to simply ignore much of the potentially insightful and often expensive data they buy.


The second problem is not knowing what data to factor in and what to filter out, what data will help in allocating marketing investments and what will hinder. This distinction is not readily apparent, and culling bad data from good demands, once again, time and expertise.


That many of the data streams contradict one another only exacerbates matters. Data providers don't need (or offer) to reconcile their data with data from other sources. Reconciliation - and all the headaches it inspires - falls to marketers. But without an objective tool or system in place, marketers are frequently flummoxed by the weighing and weeding process. Consequently, critical decisions can be made based on data that is incomplete, poor or outright wrong.


The third problem is that data are siloed. Data are cut into narrowly focused, vertical slices. Marketers must integrate not one but at least three distinct data streams - media, channel and customer data - each coming from multiple sources. Unless data are integrated, marketers lack the complete, seamless understanding necessary to decide how to allocate marketing resources.


Compounding the data challenges are radical changes in both consumers (who are savvier and more empowered than ever and who now consume 24/7) and marketing/media vehicles (which have ballooned into a broad spectrum of print and electronic options). Together, all these factors make it more difficult and more crucial than ever for marketers to determine how best to allocate marketing investments.


As was the case at NASA, overcoming these vexing challenges requires a technology-based solution. Only a technology-based solution can account for the sheer volume of data and the speed at which it's replenished.


This solution must fulfill four objectives. First, it must filter out the 10 percent to 20 percent of the data necessary to proactively manage sound marketing performance investments. Second, the solution must integrate these relevant pieces of data to form a complete composite picture on which marketers can act. Third, it must use this filtered data to measure and identify quickly what components of the marketing plan mix are working and which are not. Fourth, it must provide insights on why certain elements are working and others are not.


Beyond the obvious benefits, a technology-based solution such as this would fundamentally change the marketing management process. Marketing would evolve from a cyclical, reactive process to a process in which improvements would be made continuously, in real time, each step of the way.


By taking a new view and approach to managing data, marketers will be able to focus on strategizing and making sound marketing investments, not on wrestling with reams of data. n


• Don White is chief marketing officer and head of client services at Veridiem Inc., Maynard, MA.

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