Corporations learn about their offline customers from many sources, collecting data along the way. Everything from how a user initially inquired about a product to which retailer sold the product can be tracked – if there is some practical way to use that data profitably.
Many times traditional manufacturers and direct marketers consider building giant databases. But in the past, it was hard to justify the data collection as it was expensive and technically difficult to actually use the data to generate additional revenue.
Then came the web and its promise of putting databases under a web site to learn about visitors, make recommendations and, of course, use all that offline data we’ve wanted to collect.
For several years, there’s been an interest in using offline profile data in web personalization, but the technical challenges of identifying the offline customers who come to the company’s web site has slowed these efforts.
During the post-conference workshop at the recent ClickZ Effective Opt-In Email Marketing Strategies conference, it became very clear that companies see outbound email as a way to use much of the offline data they’ve been collecting. Both during the workshop and afterward in private conversations with members of the audience, many of the questions dealt with legacy data.
As you might imagine, many attendees at a workshop on personalized email wanted to use profile data in their existing legacy systems to feed their outbound email marketing in order to continue the customer relationship. Some companies had collected email addresses from customers without knowing what they would eventually do with them. Now, they want to start marketing to these people via email.
Some companies face a permission problem because they failed to get either opt-in or opt-out permission to send future email to these people. But a few of these companies planned ahead and used either an opt-out checkbox or an optional opt-in approach in their paper-based communications with customers.
Dana Blankenhorn recently gave good examples of what happens when companies take advantage of the customer trust by not paying attention to the need to have explicit permission to send them email.
The other big challenge to using legacy profile data is how to integrate the collection of offline profile data with outbound email activities.
In every case we’ve seen, the issues start with file formats but quickly progress to the difficult issues of the data itself. As you start to consider merging offline data with online marketing, you’ll probably find that several of these issues need to be resolved:
- What is the accuracy of offline collected data?
- How should offline customers be matched with their online activity?
- What is the usefulness of offline data in an online environment?
- How is the data coded (is “yes” represented by “yes,” “y,” “1,” etc.)?
- Which legacy database, data mart, or datawarehouse contains the data?
Since outbound email marketing is frequently outsourced, there is also the challenge of how to physically move data from the in-house systems to the outside vendor.
There are a number of highly sophisticated technical approaches to moving between servers at different locations. The use of a virtual private network (VPN) to connect an outsourced web hosting service to an in-house system has become popular with some large companies.
The ongoing expense and IT support of a VPN make this uneconomical for most sites, so traditional FTP procedures are used by many companies to upload and download data files. While this “batch” approach to moving data is cost effective, it eliminates the option for real-time integration of legacy databases with web and email personalization.
If your e-business depends on tightly integrated data that is updated in real-time, such as airline reservations or the use of live operators to help e-commerce customers, then a highly technical solution is required. On the other hand, the solution for many companies is to start small, perhaps with an outsourcing company that can help bring a corporation’s data together in a standardized format and location.
As customer data is centralized in an online profile database, it’s easier to use personalized email and web interaction to deliver better customer service. At the same time, we’ll be creating one more tool to paint a clearer picture of our customers’ needs and desires.