Data Again?

Data again? Don’t run away. Come back here… I know it’s not always a favorite topic for creative types, but believe me — there is creativity in knowing what data you have and how to properly use it to accomplish marketing goals.

As I’ve said in previous articles, it’s an important piece of email marketing. This article will hopefully get you thinking about how to work around an obstacle that I encountered early in my email marketing career: the single data source.

For example: You are a marketer in a publishing company that has an existing subscription and service database, and you are in the process of building a relational database to consolidate mailing history, subscription data, and so on. You want to start email marketing, but the operations folks are holding off because they want this new relational database to be complete first, so that all the data is in a single source. Great idea, except that those bases can take years to build or become functional enough for you to make use of as a marketer.

So how might you be able to work around this?

Ultimately, you want a single source for your customer information and data in total — but the purists will want to hold off on trying to do any new things (email, for instance) until the base is complete. However, you may not need to actually transfer all data into that source, and it really may not make sense to invest your money there until you know what the return on the resource investment requires. You may be able to share bits and pieces that will allow you to report on campaigns or customer lifetime value, for example, without having to actually pull (or share) all the cumbersome data on site pathing or click-throughs or even survey data captured through the Web or your email campaigns. Think about what data you use where and how you use it.

Begin by working with your database administrator (DBA) or IT folks to figure out what data is critical to identify a unique customer, such as account numbers or ID numbers in your existing base. Generally, if you can pass and keep that information intact between databases, you will be able to update the various places the customer information is used. For instance, our email provider uses a tool that allows me to upload and download files. I can include or exclude data, allowing me to transfer to and from sources. Clients can provide me a new list each time, or updates only, or an entirely new list. Our email tool, for example, assumes the email address as the “unique identifier” (meaning that the database will not add a new record to the file if the email address already exists). Clients that have a database of their customer information have some sort of unique identifier already (such as an account number or ID number). I import that information and use it to provide information back and forth to them about their customers. That number is what allows the matching of new data back to the existing records in their database.

To start, choose a simple method of passing a file. This can help you get started with a robust email campaign. For example, many email systems (or even simple software) allow you to transfer data via a text-based file; comma-separated value (or .csv) is a very common format (creating this format can be as easy as choosing “Save as type” in Excel). Generally, a database administrator will have preferences about file formats coming back to you but should be able to provide you files in the format required by your tools.

Note: This is an important place to remember that a small amount of information may make you (the marketer) seem dangerous to the data or IT people. Ask lots of questions, take notes, and learn from them — but remember that they will not be thinking like a marketer. You need to think about the future and what-if scenarios so that you are getting all the pertinent data you may want to use, even if that may be a bit further down the road. For example, with regard to USPS mailing addresses, you might think, “I don’t need that in my email efforts.” But did you stop and think that you may want to segment your list by ZIP code or provide geography-specific content in a message at some point? However, if you really are starting out simply, it may be best to leave that data in its original source until you know more about your plans. Talk this type of issue through with those data experts.

Once you determine what data is needed in exchange between systems, a clear set of rules and routines (either manual or automated) can be established to manage the processes. This may be a far better way to begin, and it will allow you to gauge what the investment might be to create more seamless ways of passing data back and forth — your ultimate goal. Just don’t be fooled into believing that the process will eliminate the need for a watchful eye. Technology is wonderful, but, when it comes to your customer data and your ability to report, you cannot let the guards sleep on the job.

You will need to periodically seed the list and test ways to break it. I say “you,” because once automated systems get set up, a human still needs to monitor what is happening. Your DBA or IT folks may not be looking for the same things that you as a marketer may look for. Yes, you can equip them, and you should teach them about what you are looking for, but that will take time as you all continue to learn those procedures; moreover, what is important may shift.

Thanks for reading, and happy September! It’s a great month, sometimes a bit melancholy with back to school and summer’s end, but it also marks the start of the direct marketing season. Bring it on!

That’s it from me this week.

–Jackie G.

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