Thursday, November 09, 2006

Selecting Square Pegs for Round Holes

Why is marketing analytics a struggle?

One of the underlying reasons for the frustration rests on the fact that technology and software in particular is extremely biased. It is (was) developed with a particular objective or goal in mind. If the current need has a different goal then trouble will emerge, usually sooner rather than later.

Consider the case of the marketing database. Today most systems are built on some form of relational database and usually have a 'customer table.' When drawn on the blackboard customers appear as rows and their attributes appear as columns. There is no bias in favor of rows or columns at this point - I should be able to add a new attribute just as easily as adding a new customer. However, when this logic was first implemented the designers focused on transactional applications where there were lots of rows coming and going, each with a stable set of attributes - think credit card transactions, reservations, retail sales, phone logs, etc. These systems optimized manipulating a row at a time for both speed and audit reasons. So it is easy to insert, update or delete a single customer record. This legacy still exists in nearly all commercial products.

But, and here comes the effect of that bias, marketing analysis is about comparing and contrasting groups of customers. How do responders differ from non-responders? What is the appropriate contact strategy? Who should we target? etc. This style of work tends to focus on the attributes of the entire customer base rather than a single customer at a time. As a result, marketing analytics needs an entirely different set of database functions.

In the language of database developers the commands for manipulating rows are generally much more powerful and flexible. The ability to add, amend, or drop a column (particularly by a user) is nascent at best.

I'd like to be able to add columns (propensity scores, various segmentation schemes, current and future life-time value, etc.) with the same ease that I can add another customer record.

Disclosure: I used to work for a firm that works on solving this problem and know what is possible when the emphasis is turned 90-degrees. There is also a start-up focusing on part of this topic as well.

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