We’re all very hot on strategy these days.  It seems everyone is suddenly a strategist.  There’s also a lot of talk about data collection.  However, a problem I find on my travels around organisations is that too few organisations put the two concepts together. 

Every business needs a data strategy, if you don’t have one you’ll be wasting time and money.  The spectrum of data abusing businesses that I come across ranges from those that are drowning under a deluge of data that they can’t organise or analyse (trying to drink from the fire hose) or those which have big holes in their insights where they forgot to ask some of the key questions. 

The sobering thought is, if you are in the drowning category you will have paid for data that you can’t use.  If you have holes you’ll have paid for half the picture when the full picture would usually have cost you the same – either way, its inefficient and as we all know, these days you are either efficient or on the slippery slope to the trash bin.  Yet many organisation still just collect data piecemeal, as and when they feel they can, with no particular rhyme or reason.

There’s a third category of data abusers too, which is probably the biggest in terms their data use and that’s businesses that have data and have managed to turn it into insights, but are unable to act upon them.  Mostly this is because organisations that are heavily into data, like financial services groups, are using it for direct marketing and a lot of that is systematised and/or automated to such a degree that their structures and even their culture is bound up in the system.  Once you have a system like this its hard to change.  The bottom line there is that your scope for improvemrent is confined to, as a well-known data marketer friend of mine is renown for repeating, “polishing turds”.

Next time you get a presentation from a data management consultancy or analyst, stop them at the slide that lists the savings that they claim they helped their clients achieve.  There is always a slide like this and the wording if they are honest at all is a dead give-away.  Usually its something like “we showed so-and-so how they could save £20million on their DM investment”.  The weasels there are “showed” and “could” because the bane of most data consultancies lives is the fact that very little of the potential savings that they identify are ever achieved.

I spent a good part of last year working with one of our biggest data management consultancies to develop an end-to-end process for collecting analysing and acting on data and I can assure you that data takes on almost magical properties if its managed like this.  Rather than “polish turds”, or to put it more elegantly “refine tactical activity”, we created a model that applied carefully gathered and analysed data at both strategic and tactical level.  The end result was a data driven approach to marketing where marketing was where it should be, firmly in the driving seat of the business and the entire business was built around a brand community with a heart that beat in time to that of its customers.  The data drove the brand development, which in turn drove the internal marketing and therefore the “promise” delivery (including product and offer development), right through to the tactical communications and promotional initiatives.  And this is the way it works, from the top not as the in the case of the tactical application model, with the tail wagging the dog!

This kind of thing is only possible when you start with a clear vision of what you need to know, how data will contribute to that knowledge and how you are going to get that data – in other words a data strategy.  You’ll need the right tools for the job too of course.  I still see quite large firms who keep their data on an Excel spread sheet – it doesn’t work, get real!  You’ll also need to get used to the idea that you should collect data at every touch-point, which is perfectly feasible if you apply a little ingenuity.  Once you get your head around that things get a bit easier.  Then all you have to do is convince your marketing services partners that their initiatives need to contribute to data collection and that the data they collect will in turn influence their future initiatives (or as one agency bright-spark put it “anything it says may be used against them!”).  Too bloody right and about time I say!

Michael Weaver
February 29, 2008

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