Shopping for a Software Solution, Part 2: Reporting

Marketers often spend way too much time trying to decide which analytical software to purchase. The time spent in the decision-making process is unfortunate but understandable. A vast array of available solutions, coupled with confusing claims from different vendors, makes deciding more complicated than necessary. Many marketers spend a substantial amount of time listening to vendor presentations and reviewing materials, then are still not comfortable making the decision about which software to use.

As I’ve sat through countless vendor presentations, and installed and tested numerous analytical and reporting packages, I’ll share some insights in the hope of helping make your decisions easier.

Most marketers can accomplish what they want and need with two or three categories of software. There’s reporting software, statistical software, and campaign management software. In part one, I discussed statistical analysis software. Now, let’s look at the most popular reporting software packages.

Reporting Software

The three best-known reporting packages are MicroStrategy, Cognos, and Business Objects. If you run any type of regularly scheduled campaigns, one of these packages can help with the reporting.

If you must track only one or two campaigns a year, you probably don’t need any of these reporting tools. Instead, you can produce basic reports simply by importing data into Microsoft Excel and using it as a reporting tool.

Reporting software reads data stored in a database. To take advantage of these programs, you’ll need someone to design, maintain, and operate a database or data warehouse that contains your data. A database program, such as Oracle or Microsoft Access, will actually create tables and store the data in them.

When reporting software runs a report, it’s as though it’s talking to the database software. The database says, “That data is stored in the XYZ table. I’ll get it for you.” The database software retrieves the data and hands it over to the reporting software. The reporting software then puts it into your desired format, the “report.”

Of the three best-know reporting packages (other than Excel), I’d recommend Business Objects for marketers, provided it’s running on a UNIX machine (more on that in a moment).

Two main reasons for this recommendation: Business Objects is easier to deploy than its two closest competitors. And it’s easier to use, especially for end users viewing the reports.

Many businesses successfully use Cognos as their reporting tool. Unfortunately, the manner in which Cognos evolved still haunts the product. A number of years ago, the application was formed by merging multiple products. That’s still affecting how tricky it is to install, learn, and use.

MicroStrategy is used successfully at many companies as well. It’s easier to install than Cognos, and it’s good for companies working with international data. MicroStrategy was the first of these software companies to make provisions for double-byte data. (For more on double-byte data, search “double byte data problems“).

A Caveat and a Conclusion

All three products accomplish pretty much the same thing, especially for the marketing/advertising industry. Personally, I find Business Objects easier to set up and use.

One serious caveat: I recommend using the UNIX version of Business Objects, not the Windows version (2000 or otherwise). I’ve had serious problems with the Windows version. It’s acceptable if the machine you access the reports on runs Windows (e.g., you’re on a Windows PC and access the reports from a Web interface). But the machine that runs the software and does all the mathematics to produce reports must run UNIX.

If your company already runs one of these reporting packages, there’s really no reason to switch, unless you’re running into a major problem, like the one mentioned above. Switching requires importing the data warehouse structure into the new reporting package and finding analysts who know the new package.

Though you can use any of the reporting packages successfully, if you’re setting up a new system in marketing and advertising, I recommend Business Objects — with reservations regarding platform compatibility.

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