In the Sea of Analysis Tools, a Lifeboat?

  |  October 8, 2002   |  Comments

It's the perennial question: What reporting and analysis systems should I use?

I often get email from readers asking whether I have experience with or advice about any of the reporting tools that are available, and whether I can recommend one. And after 15 years, the answer is still no.

Some of you are struggling with log file data. Others have mastered the art of log file analysis but can't get reliable financial results. Or maybe you are having trouble sifting through mounds of email response data. The common thread is we all seem to be unhappy with the reporting tools we have (or don't have) at our disposal. Clearly we're all looking for better ways to evaluate our businesses, whether it's from a high-level financial perspective or down at the individual email level. And many of you are willing to spend money to do it, if you could only find the right tool.

We use the term "reporting tool" to cover numerous steps in the analysis process. Chances are you're actually using many tools, not just one. There's data collection, data cleansing and preparation, analysis (of many types of data at many levels of detail), modeling, forecasting.... And then, of course, there's financial or billing data, marketing data, customer profile data, customer behavioral information, online versus offline data... you get the picture. Some tools require a lot of setup and a big financial investment, others are quick, dirty, and seemingly free.

In my earliest days as an analyst, a billing programmer sent me a monthly text file that contained a copy of every customer invoice. It was the only information available to me -- financial, marketing, or otherwise. I used Lotus 1-2-3 macros to parse the text file into a monthly spreadsheet and more macros to compare data across months. Everything was done manually, with much sorting, sifting, and sighing involved.

Fast-forward to 2000. I had a lot more data and many more tools but longed for the simplicity of my Lotus 123 days. I had log file data that I used WebTrends to access, with varying degrees of success. An unfinished data warehouse captured email marketing and transactional data but could be accessed only by making special requests to the IT department. I had an Access database of customer invoice and financial data. Transaction tables in an Oracle database could be accessed using reporting software called Brio. Daily summary reports were calculated overnight and posted to an intranet. And, last but not least, I had dueling NetRatings and Media Metrix accounts, which were simultaneously a blessing and a curse.

So much data, so many tools, so little time. And so many departments involved in simply making the data available and keeping the various reporting tools operational!

I was happiest writing my own SQL code and pulling data myself because of the freedom it gave me. But it was time consuming and eventually inefficient as the size of the database grew. And I got really tired of arguing with database administrators about what data I could have access to.

And now in 2002, I'm asked for recommendations and feedback on the many tools out there. There are so many reporting tools in place in businesses today (predominantly homegrown) that wherever I go, I rarely encounter the same one twice.

So, I decided to turn this issue over to the readers. What tools do you use to access, manipulate, and interpret your data, so that it is useful for understanding your business and making decisions? I'd like to know. And I think our readers would, too, if my inbox is any indication (once I skip all the emails about how to earn a paycheck using my computer).

I want to hear from people who use the tools, not those who sell the tools. What has (or hasn't) worked for you? What are the pros and cons of the tools at your disposal? Winners and losers? Bargain workhorses and expensive mistakes? We want to know.

Let me know what tools you've tried and what kind of results you've achieved.

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Melaney Smith

Melaney Smith is a freelance marketer with more than ten years of experience in marketing, finance, and data mining. She evangelizes the need for businesses to mine their data and make it easily accessible for decision makers. She specializes in helping businesses utilize customer, transaction, and other data to improve or create sales and marketing programs.

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