Category Archives: Database Marketing

Using the power of computing to draw a straighter line between a business and its customers, to the benefit of each

Financial services marketers lean heavily on direct response and email tactics

A new report by the Direct Marketing Association reveals that marketers in the financial services sector are relying heavily on direct marketing and email, and showing an impressive ROI for these tactics. Here are two particularly impressive findings from this research of U.S. banks and credit institutions:

  • They invested $13.4 billion in direct marketing advertising, which produced $178.8 billion in sales, or $13.34 returned for every dollar spent
  • Growth in email marketing within financial services companies is expected to be the greatest of all media types used in the next four years, for a compound annual growth of 22.5%

The report also showed a very small reduction in print advertising over the next four years.

What can account for this? Aside from the arguably better overall effectiveness of these media, they are also tactics more suitable to centralized control. As financial institutions continue to consolidate, these tactics become even more appealing.

B-to-B Viral Marketing Case: Powerboat sales as a window to our current economic squall

Let’s say you’re a company that mines data in a quiet niche — one not known for analytic vigor. You’ve been doing it for years and do it wonderfully. For clients who appreciate your chops, you’re a godsend. But these clients are exceptional in the traditional retail business sector you serve.

How, how do you spread the word about your super-segmented lists and dead-on business intelligence services? Intuition says you find something to “go viral” around. But that requires some degree of topical relevance, if not outright sensationalism. How do you enliven something as dry as, say, boat purchase behavior (pun intended), to give it the life necessary to grab headlines?

The answer is what Info-Link does. They periodically publish one of the more pedestrian metrics they track: Quarterly sales in bellwether states. Below is their latest Bellwether Report, available on their site and distributed via a simple but effective opt-in email:

Info-Link Bellwether Report

You can explore various sales statistics by quarter (use the pull-down). Yes, the news is depressing. But it’s undeniably informative. And share-able. What information can your business repackage in such a way that people will want to share it?

Follow-through is crucial to higher search conversion rates

Yesterday I sent a results report to a client for a pay-per-click (PPC) search  lead generation campaign that my team managed. It showed a performance that was five times higher, in terms of cost-per-lead, than a traditional direct mail campaign. That’s pretty cool. But as I sent the report, I was reminded of this recent report from eMarketer:

eMarketer summary of favored direct response media

It shows how a majority of marketers favor direct mail for lead generation versus search marketing. Scott Brinker was rightly puzzled by this, in a recent post. I agree with Scott that a chief reason for this strong preference for direct mail over search engine marketing (34% versus 8%), when it comes to customer acquisition, is the difficulty many marketers face in getting search prospects to convert.

Indeed, if the lead acquisition campaign my team was leading was instead a customer acquisition campaign, the results would likely have been closer to a dead heat with direct mail in terms of ROI.

But what does that mean? Just that we’re not trying hard enough. As marketers, I feel we cannot allow so many opportunities for conversion to click away from landing pages. There are many tested techniques for improving conversions (new offers, testimonials, guarantees, Web 2.0 landing page design). There are also spectacular new tools to do multivariate testing of these techniques.

Let’s take direct mail for what it should be. It is (usually) the customer acquisition benchmark. Now let’s shift more resources online, but apply them where it really counts: To create campaigns that actually surpass the mail in delivering a strong ROI.

PRISM, a bricks and mortar store analytics effort, takes its cue from e-stores

It seems improbable that there was ever a time when skilled marketers didn’t use at least some traffic data to make improvements to their sites. The availability of this data, no matter how flawed, has been a chief impetus for the growth of web marketing as a discipline. The comparison was always with the dearth of similar data from bricks and mortar stores. Here are a few specifics:

Stage of Purchase Web Metric Store Metric
Initiation Unique Visits Foot Traffic Counts
Consideration Page Views None Available
Completion Transactional Data Transactional Data

This list is over-simplified, but it makes a point. In the Consideration Stage — between the time when the door store swings open and the time the purchase is rung up — there is little to help the bricks and mortar marketer understand the motivation of the customer.

By comparison, a web marketer has a full toolkit of metrics. There are page views to show visits to specific product pages and web site sections, exit pages to show when a consumer decides to leave without buying, and shopping cart abandonment metrics to show exactly when a consumer decided to stop his or her purchase.

This stark difference is changing fast.

PRISM (short for “Pioneering Research for an In-Store Metric”), is a Nielsen Media / In-store Marketing Institute co-production. Working with a consortium of retailers and consumer-goods manufacturers, the duo completed a test recently using sensors placed at key points in over 160 stores around the country. These sensors monitored the entrances and exits, as well as some store aisles, composing data sets and even heat maps of customer-traffic patterns.

In a way that is uncannily similar to web analytics, the PRISM system combined these traffic data with transactional information. The end game is to achieve greater insight into consumer behavior.

A chart from the videoAs you can imagine, the potential for improving the in-store experience is huge. Just as web marketers have walked away with significant improvements to their sites through web analytics, these marketers are nearly giddy with new-found knowledge. At least, that’s the impression I’ve received by press accounts of PRISM. This piece in In-Store Marketing Institute’s site is characteristic of that excitement, particularly in this accompanying Flash and Quicktime video. (Warning: The video is all talking heads. Sadly, demonstrations of the system at work are being held closely under wraps.)

Here is a typical insight, disclosed in the video by David Calhoun, CEO of the Nielsen Company:

“In some food stores, the heaviest traffic flow is not through the carbonated beverage and snack aisles — which might be the conventional wisdom based on sales rates — but through the yogurt and eggs section of the store.”

The chart above shows this (but not very well — it was captured from the video and only Calhoun’s narrative can identify the categories), with the two circled categories being the Yogurt and the Eggs sections.

Since the advent of web analytics, physical world marketers have looked at us web marketers with envy. It appears their time to play next to us, in the sandbox of database marketing, is just around the corner.

Gamers in the ivory towers

A recent survey of 7,100 executives revealed a secret C-level indulgence: video games. PopCap Games conducted the survey, and here is a summary of their findings:

This representative sample suggests that as many as 80 million white collar workers play casual games. Of those white collar workers surveyed, nearly a quarter (24%) said they play “at work” — with fully 35% of CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives saying they play at work.

Tameka Kee of MediaPost points out the most promising implication for business-to-business (B2B) marketers: “These ad-supported games reach their targets on an unexpected, but increasingly popular medium.” In other words, they reach the men and women who screen their calls, have someone else sort through their mail and block unknown emails.

At last we know what they’re doing behind those closed doors.

Growth of out of home ads reflects our fragmented media consumption

Physicists tell us the universe is ever-expanding, a concept that can make the mind reel. Advertisers trying to reach their target audience know this feeling well, as media alternatives continually fragment and multiply. One solution: Forget about media as we would ordinarily think about them and look to the places your market congregates as the medium itself.

I’m only a recent convert to the power of out of home advertising, but that only seems to make me more of a zealot. Here are three examples worth filing away in your new media mental database:

  • Billboards that greet you by name — Tested last year and rolled out in the April of 2007, the Mini Cooper Motorby program is ingenious. Have owners register online, and receive a free key fob. When that key fob gets within 500 feet of a billboard, it triggers a personalized message. The billboard is 5 feet tall and 33 feet wide. My only questions: What are the results? And how are they translated to a true ROI?
  • Virtual billboards, Second Life-style — If an ad is on the side of a building, but that building is on Second Life, is that an interactive ad or out of home? A little of both, because it is far more interactive (try clicking through the side of a real building without getting injured or arrested), but has the same ambient quality of the real world. The biggest down-side: Ads are everywhere in Second Life.
  • Literally touch your consumers as they drink their coffee — Coffee cup sleeves have come of age. According to BriteVision, an industry leader in their production and distribution (they have their own ad network of coffee shops), the average consumer spends 49 minutes with their “Ad-Sleeve,” what an average recall of the ad at two-thirds (65%). The biggest up-side: Since many cafes offer WiFi, providing a URL can help measure effectiveness and reach an upscale segment of consumers. You can also include a phone number or short code for a mobile marketing play.

The reach and creative potential with out of home are a couple of reasons it is growing when other media types are stagnant or shrinking. According to the OAAA, revenue for out-of-home advertising so far this year has increased by 7.9% (within a rounding error of the growth seen last year, and the year before). This projection for 2007 is based on spending in the first six months of the year. The graphic below shows prior growth.

Growth of out of home this year is projected again at roughly 8 percent

All of this is great news for brands that want to make a difference. There are many ways to truly involve consumers — some quite high tech, some that are extremely “out there,” and some that are frankly both. It all makes for an interesting ride with plenty to see and do.

Serving SUPERVALU customers one niche at a time

I really like the direction that Kevin Hillstrom’s One Positive Day blogging concept is taking. While I used the occasion this month to share a favorite work tool, Kevin was inviting many of his social networking and database colleagues to speculate on how to improve the online presence of SUPERVALU, a grocery and pharmaceutical retail and supply chain company.

I’ve had the luxury of a week since that July 1 post to think about my response. I started with the question of corporate mission. There are many ways to drive consumers to your site, such as an online version of the old “Green Stamps” promotion, but as Kevin states at the end of his post, you ultimately have to show something beyond raw page views. You have to add to the stores’ bottom lines, either by saving money by automating something that is now labor-intensive, or generating greater sales totals, or both.

In the comments, Ron Shevlin and another contributor mentioned how helpful it would be to create an aisle-by-aisle shopping list of items. I can understand the logistical challenge of this, since every store floor plan seems to be at least a little different, something exacerbated by the thousands of new products introduced (and pulled!) every year. This last point was made another contributor to the dialog — 10-year food business veteran Harry Joiner.

A Store-generated Shopping List

I had even wondered if something could be done with a mobile-enabled service. For instance, from your cell phone, you call or text a list to a SUPERVALU short code. Then, either through voice recognition (in the case of a voice call) or standard database look-up, you get back a list in your email box, ordered in the walking pattern of the store and complete with related specials and exclusive couponing.

Perhaps something could even be done with a WiFi-enabled version of this voice-activated shopping list device. This device would take your family’s accumulated voice lists of groceries, digitize the list into text using its native voice-recognition system, and — after it is sent via a wireless internet connection to SUPERVALU computers — the device receives and prints the final list with coupons.

This certainly would align itself with SUPERVALU’s Mission  Statement: “To serve our customers better than anyone else … provide our customers with value through our products and services, committing ourselves to providing the quality, variety and convenience they expect.” The mission statement goes on to talk about building strong communities surrounding its stores, which is the other theme of how to help this web site become a greater contributor to the store’s success.

Harry Joiner mentioned creating Ning-like online communities surrounding each of the most significant lifestyle and demographic categories. He gave some examples of how other product marketers have succeeded with this tactic.

A few community examples for SUPERVALU that spring to mind are the following: Young, growing families, single adults looking for tips on cooking for one (and perhaps even place-based events specifically for singles), and of course cooking enthusiasts.

Some value-creating tactics could be things like product-related cooking demonstrations or give-aways, or tie-ins with non-profits that the SUPERVALU business supports through its foundation. Only online community members would be privy to them, of course. One thing is clear. These communities would need to find a great deal of value on the sites.

Many companies have tried to build a critical mass among their “wired niches.” Most have failed.

And speaking of long tale strategies, here’s one that my friend Steve Ward had cooked up well over 10 years ago, and I think still has promise: An online database of all nutritional information for every product on the shelves (or as many as possible)!

Those who are striving to reduce their sodium or fat consumption, or improve their nutrient intake, could create shopping lists that tell them the exact nutritional values of what they eat.

Would this, or any of the above ideas, fundamentally change the way SUPERVALU returns shareholder value? No. Would it help the company fulfill its mission? Absolutely. But like so many online endeavors, this would be accomplished slowly and at a significant investment, one niche at a time.

Can negative reviews of your product actually help you?

Earlier I had talked about Hosted Conversations, a hybrid online ad and portal to content. All content is about your product … generated by (gasp!) the unwashed masses. Okay, that’s harsh, but sometimes clients look at user generated content that way.

Fellow blogger Chris Brown, and others, were sceptical that the ad unit would represent good cross-sections of opinion. In other words, criticisms would be mild and rare, thus destroying any credibility.

So here are three questions:

  1. If you truly opened conversations up, would you get seriously flamed, and have way more negative than positive opinions voiced?
  2. If the answer to the above is no, would the relatively rare damning reviews hurt your brand and a decision to purchase from you?
  3. Is the risk worth it? In other words, do people trust online reviews in the first place?

I found one person’s opinion on all three. That person is Sam Decker, VP of Marketing and Products at Bazaar Voice. In a report he presented back in September, he provided some clarity to Question #3, when he showed how there is a strong correlation between online and offline reviews. In other words, experience should demonstrate to most consumers that there is reliability in online reviews.

I can also speak for myself and say that my online research has been at least as helpful in purchase behavior and satisfaction than have the opinions of friends and associates. He also quotes a familiar source for a theory on how and why trust can be developed online:

The Edelman group found that ‘trust in someone like me’ has tripled over the last two years. The key phrase here is ‘someone like me.’ Shoppers identify with the reviewer based on the content of the review, user attributes, and product attribute ratings.

For answers to Questions #1 and 2, I refer you to Sam’s contribution to a recent Forrester Research podcast, called Word-of-Mouth (third one down in this list):

We’re finding across our clients that with online reviews, [they] are 8-to-1 positive to negative.

Products with mixed reviews actually drive conversion, because that’s what we as consumers are looking for. We’re looking for that negative review that can give us the right information we need in order to get out of decision paralysis and make a decision. It also drives authenticity, which is what this is about in the first place.

The Take-aways:

If you have a good product, it will get mostly good reviews. And even the bad ones may cause people to buy your product if (a) They don’t relate to the reviewer, or (b) They don’t look at the complaint as a big negative.

As you can tell, I feel that with proper precautions, the risk is ultimately worth it. Be honest, be open, and — oh, yes — be prepared to step into the conversation to add your brand’s perspective to the negative comments.

In a product review I talked about in my previous post, the first (and as of this writing, the only) person responding to a slam on the Hosted Conversations concept was none other than Rick Murray, of … Edelman!

To the 2006 ROI Award winner: Your trophy is in the mail

This year, ROI (return on investment) has become a battle cry for marketers in every industry. On this, the last day of the year, I’d like to present a Digital Solid award to the marketing medium that has shown the best overall ROI in 2006.

And the award goes to … the envelope please? [sound of ripping paper] Well, no surprise here. Once again it’s that marketing workhorse, direct mail.

Yes, with all of the marketing technology tactics going — including those with incremental costs in the pennies (e.g., email marketing) and precision targeting that is a direct marketer’s dream (e.g., search engine marketing) — the trophy goes to the grand dad of them all.

Direct mail marketing continues to generate returns averaging between 13 and 16 times original investments, as measured by Direct Marketing Association research. This is as reported by The Winterberry Group, in its December, 2006, white paper on vertical marketing trends in direct mail. Professional associations have been known to puff up their numbers, but these don’t particularly surprise me.

I have several friends who manage multi-million dollar annual direct mail budgets. Each is in a different business category. None of them likes what they have to spend on the medium (postage, printing and lists are all going up faster than inflation), but they all report results that far, far outpace this spending.

What does this tell us about the future of marketing technology? Do we abandon online and mobile techniques and begin (or resume) pouring resources into direct mail? No way. The same Winterberry study emphasizes diversification of techniques and their careful integration. I and my friends agree with this recommendation: Direct mail yields the best ROI when complemented and supported by other media.

It’s also no accident that direct mail marketing is the most mature of measurable marketing technologies.

As other techniques “grow up,” we’ll see them morph and focus, just as direct mail has. Guided by smart marketers and the feedback loop of a well-designed CRM database, other media will evolve to be as effective as direct mail. With lower incremental costs, other media will quickly surpass direct mail in terms of ROI.

Watch this blog in 2007 for up-to-the-minute news on how other media are faring in their progress at delivering improved ROI. It will be an exciting race to the 2007 award, with many promising contenders.

With frienemies like this, who needs eneriends?

Woody Allen famously wrote, “And lo, the lion will lay down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep.” A similar arrangement has led to the coinage of the word “frienemy,” to describe magazine and newspaper publishers that have entered into an agreement with their online nemesis Google. In this agreement, Google is auctioning unsold print ad inventory to select AdWords clients. The arrangement seems to be benefiting both parties more than they expected.

According to a MediaPost report, the sales of print advertising through Google has far outpaced expectations:

Google plans to expand its pilot program next year. The system, which Google has been testing since November, allows advertisers to bid online for daily newspapers’ remnant print ad inventory.

During initial testing with 100 advertisers and 66 newspapers, the volume of ad sales tripled Google’s expectations, according to a story first appearing Wednesday in The Washington Post. That report echoed comments made earlier this month, at the UBS global media conference, by James Conaghan, the Newspaper Association of America vice president for business analysis and research. Conaghan told analysts and media at the conference that Google had sold in three weeks all inventory it expected to sell in the program’s first three months.

Plan on seeing more examples where online marketplaces broker print media space. What this unlikely collaboration means for the ink-and-paper industry is anyone’s guess. Got any ideas?


The Metaphysics of Netflix

Ever since Netflix announced that they would pay a million dollars to anyone who could significantly improve their recommendation engine, I’ve wondered what it would take. Now I think I know: a philosopher.

For those of you who have been wondering, dozens of individuals and teams have taken the challenge. They’ve downloaded the 10 million-record preference dataset from Netflix and crunched the numbers earnestly, with varying results. As of this writing, NIPS Reject is in the lead, with a lift over the Netflix algorithm of 6.13 percent. (Tough luck, WXYZ Consulting – you’ve been in the lead for nearly a month, but your 6.11 percent just got topped.)

With an additional 3.87 percentage points yet to be racked up, the road to victory is long — possibly impassable. If I understand my statistical modeling correctly, every unit of progress to that 10 percent goal will be a far tougher slog than the one before it. There clearly needs to be a breakthrough in how the problem is approached if anyone has a chance of winning. A couple of days ago, it occurred to me that the source of this breakthrough might be a better ontology.

Ontology is the study of logically structured categorical models. It helps us understand a particular domain of reality by looking at its essential elements, and especially, how they are interconnected. Because ontology proposes to explain big complicated things, this discipline was honed first by philosophers. More conventional scientists took a little longer to catch up. And as I learned earlier this week, philosophers seem to still have the upper hand. At least, that’s the case with my friend.

A university professor and doctor of philosophy, my friend was filling me in on his latest, fascinating endeavors, as we chatted over Christmas cookies and good Scotch.

When he isn’t teaching at an East Coast university, my friend is doing lucrative consulting work. The computer science company we works with is tapping into a huge demand among Fortune 100 companies for his brand of categorization. They combine this new way of seeing the data with the datamining muscle of leading-edge computer modeling.

He explained that these clients are drowning in data, but these data are in silos that imprison them. It’s hard to tease out the stories they have to tell, and impossible to combine them to make a more complete model of that industry’s “reality.”

My friend has an apparent talent for getting to the essential reality of his clients’ domains. And yes, as you can imagine, he’s doing very well for himself.

I won’t disclose the latest industry with whom he’s involved, but let’s say it’s water desalination. He described how engineers have fed their databases with terabytes of facts, but given little thought, beyond their initial purpose, to the structure of their databases. He helps remedy that with his brand of philosophy.

In a proof of concept meeting with the company, my friend announced to them what he proposed. Ever the showman, he said, “Gentlemen, what we’ll deliver to you is the Metaphysics of Desalination!”

They signed the next day.

Now I wonder if his skills couldn’t be put to this Netflix challenge. I suspect the first question he’d ask is, Why is it so tough? After all, prediction engines for other products, such as books and music, are fairly reliable.

The answer, I suspect, is that films appeal to us on so many more dimensions than songs or written stories. In a cinematic experience, there is just so much information to take in. What’s more, the alchemy of that information — those flickering images projected to give the illusion of movement — seems to take place uniquely in each of our heads.

In order to parse out movies into logical categories, I suspect that the first thing my friend would do is call of more input — perhaps appending data from a rich, relatively impartial source such as the Internet Movie Database. In other words, he’d ask for a second silo to “fuse” with the first.

He would then look at the elements and properties of the films without regard to the reviews of viewers. He would sort out those things that are merely a part of the film, without influence on the viewer, while taking special notice of the items that would likely cause a change in how the other elements are perceived.

It wouldn’t be easy, and it may not be possible. But the reward would be significant. It would also result in a new movie ontology, which is something I and other movie buffs would find endlessly fascinating, the way baseball fans pore over box scores.

As soon as my friend returns with his family to their New England home, I’m going to send this to him, as my own million dollar challenge. Although I’m going to have to scale it back a bit. Maybe another bottle of Scotch.