Insights on Gleaning Insights

  |  April 18, 2011   |  Comments

A marketing department that understands and optimizes processes and data utilization can significantly outperform one that does not.

If business success is built on learning from experience, then there is no better place for it than in the marketing department. Automation technology can accelerate, integrate, organize, and analyze the utilization of data to impact results, and as such is a great starting point for learning. However, I find that few marketing organizations have any KPIs or goals around learning or innovation.

These goals could be structured along these lines:

  • Documentation of processes and marketing operations.
  • Improvements in efficiency of processes for operations and spend management.
  • Optimization of results (leads, revenue, conversions, etc.) from testing programs.
  • Role definition and shedding of unprofitable tasks and activities.

The first step is to have some discipline on your own data management, integration of channels, processes, and analysis of results. Once you know why you do what you do as a team (and who does what to whom), then, the testing of marketing campaigns helps improve those processes in order to focus more resources on the things that contribute to KPIs and ROMI.

It's always helpful to get data points from other marketers, even if they are not in the same industry. However, when you go outside to get insights, it can be frustrating. What someone did is usually an interesting story, but it can be hard to glean real value when a) you know that your own market or department structure is different and b) when you don't really know the back end that generated the results. This is the classic problem with case studies or many panels at industry events – they never seem to answer that one burning question that you really wanted to know. It's also the problem with best practices. I can tell you the "best" practices all day long, or you could read a good book. But they offer you little value if you can't apply those practices to your own business.

The trick may be to try to understand the approach and thought process driving the program, not just the results. Sure, it's great to know that a travel company got a 40 percent lift by doing subject line testing, but if I'm in the technology business and don't have e-commerce, then those results alone don't tell me anything helpful. However, if I understand that the subject line analysis was done with particular objectives; quarterly; by comparing keywords and length to open, click, and conversion analysis; and that it was part of a larger effort to optimize open rates…now I can start to apply that to my own business.

Applying the learnings (or best practices – which in an ideal world are just the aggregate learnings from a lot of different companies) is the fun part. This is where marketers get to be marketers – reviewing data, testing, poking holes in all theories, and expanding the scope of current programs.

"Most marketers want senior management to define the WHAT (objectives) and then allow the marketing team to manage the HOW (strategy and tactics)," says Ryan Sagan, solutions consultant for StrongMail. "This allows the marketing team to be creative in approach and to learn from data."

Ryan speaks from his own experience running the marketing database operations for a major hospitality company, as well as what he sees with marketer customers of the firm. As he and I were exploring this idea recently, we discussed a number of ways that marketers can glean insight from others in order to improve their marketing operations and data utilization. If the marketing department can be a strategic partner with the business unit, and not just a list taker, it allows the learning and optimization to happen in a more productive and meaningful way.

The basic way to assess your learning opportunity is to follow these basic steps:

  1. Understand the objectives. Stay focused on the prize.
  2. Understand what data you have, and from what source. Not all data is equally valuable, or relevant for reaching the key objectives.
  3. Develop testing hypotheses that support the business objectives. Be sure to measure what you can track and test business drivers that you control. For example, it would not take you very far to test to find out if red performs better than blue without understanding if either color impacts the business driver, say, of increasing average order size. Instead, review data to see if higher order size is driven by type of item (red or blue), unit price, or number of items. Then, test to see how you can improve the key metric.
  4. Analyze the data into learnings that are reliable (as in, you got the same results more than once) and support the KPIs.
  5. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

That brings us back to learning from experience. A marketing department that understands and optimizes processes and data utilization can significantly outperform one that does not. What are you doing to generate and absorb learnings? How is your department structured to achieve success? Please share in the comments field below.

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Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable online experiences. A digital marketing expert, she helps responsible data-driven marketers connect with the people, resources, and ideas they need to optimize response and revenue. She speaks and writes regularly and leads many industry initiatives as VP, Member Relations and Chief Listening Officer at the Direct Marketing Association ( Feedback and column ideas most welcome, to smiller AT the-dma DOT org or @stephanieSAM.

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