Database Revamp Speeds ICOM Query Turnaround, List Output

A database marketing system helped ICOM Information and Communications Inc. raise its list output and revenue 40 percent with no increase in staff.

ICOM, Toronto, provides customer acquisition and retention solutions through its consumer response surveys, lists, research and analysis, modeled data and e-mail and direct mail delivery services. Its clients, mainly consumer packaged goods, pharmaceutical and direct mail marketers in the United States and Canada, rely on it as a source of consumer data, from existing prospecting lists to custom data gathering via ICOM's millions of surveys issued yearly.

In ICOM TargetSource, ICOM has compiled North America's largest self-reported consumer marketing database, which includes information about 28 million consumers and 17 million households collected in the past 24 months.

The company's ability to develop customized complex database queries to generate the best-performing marketing lists is essential to its success. But in 2003, ICOM realized it had outgrown its in-house database querying system and began to look for a better one.

“Our legacy system had become cumbersome and slow,” said Christy DeMont, ICOM chief information officer. “[Our] customers were demanding quicker turnaround,” and ICOM was concerned about losing competitive advantage.

ICOM needed speed, but sourcing increasingly complex customer orders from the company's consumer database also demanded more flexibility. ICOM faced a critical challenge because of constant revisions to its consumer surveys via new questions added, modifications to answer choices and limited-time sponsored questions.

The project's objective was to give ICOM list professionals fast, flexible query execution and the ability to create targeting strategies in less time. With the existing solution, orders typically were fulfilled within three days. ICOM needed to fulfill orders in a matter of hours.

ICOM first formed a team of business and technology users to build a set of requirements. The new database system would need to handle large data volumes, process queries swiftly to increase order turnaround and accommodate data complexity. ICOM also sought intuitive user tools and scalability in a client/server application environment.

The company evaluated in-house development and outside providers. It chose Alterian, a database marketing provider based in Britain with offices in North America. Alterian and ICOM built a high-performance database system. Alterian provided the data warehouse and the database engine as well as advanced tools. ICOM designed a user interface and several list creation processes that provide a seamless end-to-end tool for analysis, identification and extraction of consumer data and lists.

The team overcame numerous technical challenges. For example, the data's size and dynamic nature demanded the ability to rebuild and update a very large database in narrow processing windows. This was done through the development of a multistage data loading process that extended the existing Alterian iLoader tool. The solution also had to provide flexibility to query different survey questions in different ways.

But the biggest challenge “was to increase query speed without losing flexibility,” DeMont said.

The new system has made database queries more intuitive.

“Whereas once ICOM list professionals needed to intimately learn the structure and location of specific data fields and values on TargetSource, they now query against a master list or use keywords to optimize list targeting and counts for their clients,” DeMont said. “ICOM staff did not need to master advanced technology even though the database itself supported new complexities of data analysis.”

Besides increasing list output and revenue, more than 80 percent of ICOM's database queries now run in less than 2 minutes.

“These same queries used to take several hours, resulting in a lengthy order fulfillment process,” DeMont said.

The Alterian database capabilities let ICOM accommodate custom requests and ongoing product opportunities and improvements. For example, based on the success of this solution, the company introduced ICOM TargetSource Refreshed in 2004, which gives clients access to information on another 34 million consumers and 23 million households collected before the most recent 24 months. The introduction of this new product took the organization only eight weeks to complete, DeMont said.

ICOM was founded in 1985 and expanded into the U.S. market in 1994. It has 250 employees in North America.

Melissa Campanelli covers postal news, CRM and database marketing for DM News and To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting

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