Don't Fear the Data

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Marketing strategies that integrate Big Data, email, and cross-channel campaigns can reap big rewards. Among them are heightened brand awareness, upped conversion rates, and deeper customer satisfaction. Wrangling all those terabytes takes some work, but it's work worth doing now more than ever, because what were once “new” communications, such as tweets, texts, and clickstreams, have become influential business resources.

The overall challenge for successful marketing campaigns is to pull it all together.

Direct Marketing News teamed up with sponsor email and cross-channel marketing solutions provider StrongMail in April to co-host a conversation among eight senior marketing professionals to explore Big Data and its challenges, opportunities, and paybacks. Among other issues, the roundtable examined such topics as detecting which email, cross-channel, and social marketing strategies drive business up or down; which lifetime data models do or don't work for customer retention; transactional versus demographic data usage; and inhibitors to data access or analysis.

Editor-in-Chief Ginger Conlon, Direct Marketing News: Welcome to the StrongMail and Direct Marketing News roundtable on Big Data, multichannel, and email. I'll begin with a big question:

What does Big Data mean in your company, what opportunities do you see for it in email and multichannel marketing?

Chad Ghastin (The New York Times): For our email programs it's primarily two things: driving advertising revenue for our website and driving our subscription business. We look at behavioral data, and try to find relevant ways to target people with the right message to sign up for our emails. But let me just say…I think the term Big Data is a little bit of a misnomer—a bit consultant-speak, in some ways.

Ilana Rabinowitz (Lion Brand Yarn Company): We're a small, family-owned business with a 135-year-old brand. I started our website and some email marketing 18 years ago, and now we're heavily into social media and video marketing—we've just added some StrongMail modules for targeting people's behavior. The website is about to be replatformed, but one of the nice things about it is that we know every move that everybody has made everywhere, everything they've ever done, every email they've sent, what they've said. We send a newsletter to something like 60, 65 million people a year, and we have crazy open rates, double and triple industry averages for the content. I really wanted to know from our Big Data, “What do we know?” When I started hearing some of what we know, I was amazed. Until you know what kind of information you have, you can't even think about what could be in there.

Phil Thorn (Hiscox USA): We're a business insurance company, and in terms of data we do a fair amount of acquisition, so we're using data to deliver customized experiences online, and we're starting to do a bit with email. But we're not aggregating all that data and putting it into lifetime value models or really looking at the kind of retention piece and how we can use data to drive that. I'm interested in that particular piece of the puzzle.

Doug Jensen (Avon): We're still a door-to-door, direct-selling company. Nineteen times a year—26 times a year in the United States—6.5 million representatives around the world place an order with us, and that order can contain data [of] up to 50 customers. The volume of data is quite big. Right now we have a pretty strong data mart. We're looking at very top-level insights, in terms of what drives our business up and down and what the paybacks are for the things we do. But what we're not really doing is using it for retention or churn analysis. We're still [figuring] that out.

Like Chad, I also think Big Data's a misnomer. I think it's simply, we have data, and we have either predictive analytics or research.

Chris Loll (Wunderman): We're part of WPP's communications group, and focus heavily on data, direct, and digital. I would probably agree with the terminology the media and industry is adopting. There are so many forms of structured and unstructured data that are coming at us that it's paralyzing people when they're decision making. We own our own databases that [include] demographic, transactional, and behavioral data. We're trying to understand how to match these things together to be more informed, to help us inform our strategies and our communications. And each of those things may be different by client.

Rafael Cardoso (Business & Legal Resources): I was brought on to launch a new initiative for…online media content. A large percentage of our business is still print subscribers to books, print newsletters. Over the past [few] years we've gone online with our subscription base, collecting a lot of data. Gathering all that data and using it to predict what our lifetime value would be online is where we're having trouble. We silo decision making and the gathering of that data.

Michael Kildale (FreshDirect): My role is largely around marketing communications to customers—I'm in the integrated marketing group. We try to figure out [the] best ways to communicate to our customers. That's what we're really trying to tackle at FreshDirect. People come to us frequently, [but] we want to get people there more often. And when they are there, how do we get the best success figure? It's a big challenge every one of us [here] has. There are a number of different ways to tackle it. We do offsite customer surveys to find out not just what customers purchase, but also to know why they're not purchasing more, why they're not purchasing at all, why they're not purchasing a specific product.

Kara Trivunovic (StrongMail): I'm vice president of marketing services at StrongMail, responsible for the agency side of the business, the creative, production, strategy, and project management….

Regarding the conversation so far, it's about finding the balance between how you want to take the data that you have and apply it to what you're trying to accomplish, like using the behavioral data necessary to prove out your theory.

And I would argue that we're not ready for Big Data. [Marketers] have a lot more information available to them today, and they feel like they have to use it. First you want to do the fundamentals right; make sure you have the right positioning, the right website, the right [customer] experience.

DMN: What opportunities do you see for integrating structured and unstructured data, what do you see as benefits and challenges, and what outcomes do you envision in your organization?

Thorn: We can combine research, analytics, and transactions data, and pool that to produce more tailored, personalized experiences. But for me, there are so many fundamentals that should come first: Have you got the right product? Have you got a compelling insight that's really driving your customer communications? Is your website delivering a great user experience for everybody? Not just these micro segments that you might want to boil down to. All the basics should come first, before anybody even starts thinking about Big Data and all these very sexy, sophisticated algorithm and personalization platforms.

Rabinowitz: What's fascinating to me about Big Data is that it's actual [customer] behavior. I think that for most small and midsize companies Big Data is irrelevant. It's like the Wild, Wild West of information. You can't use it, you don't have people who can analyze it, and if it's there, you don't know how to get to it. We [are] fortunate, because I have one person who's got access to it who has a huge mind and who can really give us some answers from it. It's unusual for a company our size.

Cardoso: If we had the data and an understanding of what customer segments we need to target and what that behavior looks like, we could invest more and we could really pull business from there. What we're finding trouble with is that our close—from acquisition online to close—is anywhere from 90 to 120 days. In the meantime, there are a lot of untapped multichannel touchpoints: telesales, direct salespeople who are following up on email, events that we hold across the country.

Jensen: Instead of getting granular…we look holistically [for] everything that our data tells us. And, for me, multivariate regression does the best job of parsing through. If you have 100 variables going on, what things are driving sales up and down? When you stay at that high level, you're basically saying, “Here's what's driving the business”—then you position yourself as a strategic partner.

So, we're not into reporting. We collaborate with the different areas of marketing so we find things that they might not have asked for. We expect everyone in marketing to be able to report on their own data from their own system…. I think that's something for people to think about when they're structuring this.

Kildale: To me it's about access. As an example, we used data last year to launch a same-day delivery service. We did it on a small scale. It was through research and anecdotal phone conversations from customer service and comments made through the email tool, response tools, and things like that where the same-day concept…kept coming up.

Trivunovic: Companies want to be able to look at what the behavioral data is saying to partner it with the information that they have about their customers already, the demographics. They've got background [information]. A lot of the challenge is in deciding what questions marketers want to answer first. The reality is that it doesn't necessarily all have to culminate in one place at one moment in time. It informs different decisions.

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