John Leonard

There is much being written around Big Data. It can all seem very daunting for those working with it and appear ominous for the public. In many organizations these are real issues about a great deal of personal information, security and privacy. Make no doubt about it, sensitivity to our personal information is critical for customers, businesses and ultimately to build trust between the two. Data is being collected on every one of us faster than we sometimes realize. This sensitive and some of it regulated data is useful for a variety of reasons, some of which are administrative or government related.

A portion of the work we perform for clients is transactional, working with communications such as bills and invoices. However, a larger percentage of our business is working with clients promoting products, services or fundraising activities. We will sometimes differentiate between administrative data – those critical identifiers required by entities such as government, healthcare or financial institutions for transactions – and historical or preferential data. For marketers it is this preferential data that they can utilize to extract the best value.

There will undoubtedly be a chorus of “ah-ha! Collecting my preferential data is to extract value for the company”. The value of this preferential data should be viewed as being for the recipient. For each individual recipient their perception of value can be different based upon their own wants, desires and needs at a given time. Using this data in communicating with customers or prospects can take different forms. Once collected, extractingvalue from the investments made on data by executing effective communication can sometimes be the next hurdle marketers (or IT departments) face.

The idea of listening to the customer is something that’s been around for a long time. Collecting data about customers in one form or another has been a staple of administration for as long. Large companies have created databases and the extremely small companies tend to be very hands-on and personal in their approach to retaining data. Today many mid-sized companies can now collect and use this preferential data to their clients’ benefit as well. While many do, I often wonder if they give the preferential data the same resources as the administrative data and what the pitfalls and opportunities might be in executing communication with this data. Although off-line data still has an edge today as far as depth and being more robust, companies should be paying attention to both types of data collection and stay focused on what clients prefer both individually and as groups.

First do you explain to clients or prospects why you want to collect data? In recent years while visiting retailers websites I’ve noticed screens that ask if they can capture information so the next visit is more personalized. Should we as marketers be more direct about what we’re asking for and the value to the consumer? I think there is room for improvement and I think this concept should be considered across any media that a customer or even prospect is willing to engage with us. When asked for financial information I can become cautious, but when I am asked about preferences I tend to be more understanding and subsequently willing to provide it, especially in the right context. There is a disconnect though, and maybe it’s training or compensation, maybe it’s the overall concept a company is trying to deploy, but I often perceive the person at the cash to have limited interest in obtaining the best possible (or accurate) information.

Inaccuracy in source data can foil the entire database and every communication afterwards. Conceptually we all understand that if there is a sound foundation of understanding about preferences, marketers can create content and messages that are meaningful and even helpful to consumers, resulting in better relationships. However, if the data is not accurate the effect of the communication for the recipient is greatly diminished. Today in a world where data is everywhere the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out” couldn’t be truer. The multitude of messages consumers view each and every day makes our creating communication that is relevant more important than ever before.

A great example is a nameless sports store I go to about 4 – 6 times each year. It’s about an hour away and I drive there with two buddies or ride the on my motorcycle with my wife. As you may guess, I go for the motorcycle stuff and my neighbors go for the snowmobile stuff. You probably couldn’t guess that because you don’t have any data on them. But the company does. Every single item my buddies have purchased is focused on snowmobiles. Every single item I have purchased is motorcycle related (cruiser specifically). It’s funny when we enter the store how we split up for 45 minutes.Yet the company treats us exactly the same. Catalogues are the same. Of the 48 pages they send me in the fall, pretty much 44 pages hold no real value. Worse, they also communicate with me via e-mail and they appear to have invested in the format of the e-mail with flip pages etc. But they send them often and many are not relevant to me – unfortunately their e-mails have become part of the message clutter I receive. More targeted catalogues could help them save money and fewer, but targeted e-mails, with relevant information could make their communication to me relevant (and out of the junk-mail folder).

We’re developing a product with some other long standing experts in the industry that takes the idea of relevant messaging to the outside of a package. Historically recipients have to get inside a package to begin to view imagery that is meaningful or speaks to them directly. What we’re working on is a patent pending process that could bring full colour personalization to tried and true package formats like #10s and 6 X 9s at reasonable price points. Statistics indicate that this level of relevance on the exterior of the envelope increases open rates which in turn increases response.

Part of the current challenge is that there exists so much data in so many formats that sifting through it all can be difficult. Validating data correctness (and freshness) is a critical component to developing your database into a useful tool, but this can take time to achieve. How many times might we be on a database due to sloppy keying on our part, clerically or intentionally? Administrative data can be intricate and changing what may be perceived as a duplicate can be a risky endeavor. When working on a promotional campaign there are ways to minimize duplicates and there may even be opportunities to capture additional information and complete more clean-up. Sending out an entire database without thoughtful cleansing is probably a waste of some advertising dollars and won’t necessarily endear you to customers or prospects.

In the last 20 years there have been a variety of data processing programs that have migrated to the PC platform. Some were originally mainframe applications and some were born on the PC. The price range can vary from hundreds of dollars to the tens of thousands of dollars. There is merit to the concept about getting what you pay for and typically the higher the price tag, the more complex situations software can handle. But there are also cases where one tool might perform certain specialized tasks better than another. As an example, Cover-All uses three different software applications, of varying costs, to manage and report duplicates. Depending on the input files and the clients desired output we may employ one solution and in some cases multiple solutions to achieve the desired results. Some might consider this overkill, but it speaks to a commitment and fundamental belief that accurate data is the most important part, and the starting point, of all effective communication.

Another way of going beyond is in the area of accenting. Software packages allow for the searching and the applying of French language accents. Cover-All has taken that a step further and over the years added scenarios to create what we believe to a very complete method of applying accents to data.

Some of the standard procedures have become matter of fact and marketers should be asking themselves how they can use the processes to improve their data, not just to be run as a matter of course. Though it’s required in order to take advantage of postal savings for most incentive mail products Address Accuracy can be used before a duplicate elimination to improve the accuracy of the output. NCOA data (on your current customers) can be back-fed to your database.

Focus on data processing appears to be cyclical. The industry is very focused on collecting this data. Were there was once a great deal of attention on (the accuracy) of data it has almost taken a back seat to volume of data. Maybe it’s due to the low-cost applications to parse, purge or sort, or possibly it’s just that as an industry there’s a perception that “it’s just data” and more is better as opposed to better is worth more. Though data accuracy and cleanliness is a pretty dry topic, it’s an important component that some companies may undervalue and treat as a cost centre as opposed to a way of creating value. Unfortunately we sometimes see requests for data processing with little detail on what the expected outcome is intended to be and the business rules to get there. Investing an hour with marketing, internal database programmers and the (internal or external) supplier can provide substantial dividends in cost savings, effectiveness and (end) client satisfaction.

The preferential data an organization collects can be very powerful and the creative options to execute relevant communications can be amazing. Extrapolating prospect data also becomes more effective if the initial database is accurate and the result will be better relating to acquisition. If customers, or potential customers, understood the value of providing valid feedback many (not all) might be more apt to provide it. From personal experience I have yet to meet an individual who, after a careful 5 minute explanation around data and preferences, does not see the value in collecting and using data to create relevant communication, a few still prefer to opt-out, but all understand the value. On the contrary, there seems to be some backlash about organizations (and even more sensitive when its third party) collecting information without the consumer realizing its being collected. Transparency in messaging, short and succinct, is paramount to gaining access to information.

Once collected data must be carefully secured, maintained, managed and then it should be used effectively in subsequent efforts to provide more value back to clients for furthering an existing relationships and with new prospects to nurture and cement new relationships.

For further media information please contact John Leonard 416.354.4210