How to Turn Your Audience Data into an Accessible Asset

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Marketing automation - the latest and greatest shiny object of technology - provides great appeal on the surface, but publishers may find that the ROI falls short due to poor planning and incomplete data. Without good data, automation technology may just make you more effective at executing bad strategies.

By Brett Keirstead

The promise of today’s great marketing automation — email and website personalization technology — is predicated on the ability to start with a complete, dynamic audience profile. Marketing automation provides great appeal on the surface, but publishers and marketers must understand the effort involved as well as the role data plays in making it truly effective. Without good data, automation may just make you more effective at executing bad strategies. Getting your data house in order is the precursor for personalization and automation.

When it comes to solutions for managing audience unification needs, publishers and media companies are presented with a myriad of different choices. Traditional point solutions such as email service providers, marketing automation tools, content management systems, and legacy circulation fulfillment vendors all portray the ability to create a unified marketing data platform that builds on their traditional technologies. Emerging data management platforms have good data processing capabilities, but often lack an understanding of the nuances of how a publisher operates and structures its business.

While very simple to state, the actual functional requirements, data processing needs, and strategic support required for the unique needs of the publishing industry are very hard to accomplish. Here are the five key points and related questions to consider when evaluating an integrated data platform.

1. Combining disparate originating data into a single profile. Publishers have a unique and powerful set of originating data sources in multiple systems and many different formats. Profile data has been collected from both online and offline sources over numerous years with many different attributes to the data. Today, those sources are even greater with the emergence of online data, transactional data, social information, behavioral information, and topical tracking. The complexity of the data is often overwhelming, and combining information to a single source can be daunting.

Similarly, original source data often falls short of being usable because it lacks the proper structure, hygiene, or data elements. The first process of going from a disparate database environment to a single unified audience database is paramount to making informed decisions.

When it comes to choosing a strategy in your initial efforts to unify your data, consider the following:

  • Does the system create a dynamic, consensus record that reconciles all profile data, across all sources into a single profile?
  • Can the platform process and normalize offline circulation data?
  • Does the platform conduct list hygiene on incoming files? Does it process merge/purge requests?
  • Can the system create and support a unified record that does not include an email address? How about a single record that has multiple email addresses?
  • Does the inbound data processing functionality provide data transformations and enhancements or is consumed, stored and presented in its original state?
  • Can the system have one individual with multiple statuses (prospect, reader, exhibitor, advertiser, attendee) — all at the same time?
  • Is the development and management of a publisher’s audience data a core competency or an add-on to a legacy solution?

2. Simplified segmentation, targeting, and list creation. Once the initial task of combining data into a useful, relational, dynamic database has been completed, the next step is making it available for automation and personalization. There is no efficiency gained or time and costs reduced when every request for information from the database requires IT resources or programming time. Similarly, publishers are running multiple email campaigns, conducting numerous sales calls, planning new events, and managing circulation and content distribution every day, leaving little time to wait for the results from a database request.

So, the second critical aspect of any audience data platform is the ability to render the data in a simple, easy-to-understand user interface that can be accessed in real-time by multiple users across the publishing enterprise.

As you determine how you will make your new data accessible to the organization, consider the following:

  • Can the system apply the necessary opt-out and suppression rules at all the required levels (product, channel, account, type)?
  • Does the platform have the ability to create custom views of the data that restrict access to a user based on specific brands or products?
  • Is there a simplified sales view for users who need limited access?
  • Does the web interface for the data segmentation tool allow for segmentation by all demographic, behavioral, and contextual data on an individual?
  • Does the user interface present data originally captured from a circulation file, email interaction, live event, and website in a single view?
  • Can the UI restrict individual users from downloading records?
  • Is there a graphical view that displays audience members geographically to aid with event planning?
  • Does the interface create venn diagrams that visually depict data overlaps?
  • Is the system intuitive enough for end users that don’t understand SQL programming?

3. Using the data to power your systems and processes. Many publishers have purchased numerous technologies in an effort to bring greater effectiveness and efficiency to their operations. This ranges from advanced email functionality, more robust content management systems, and marketing automation tools. Individually, these tools represent the opportunity to improve specific processes, but collectively, they often disappoint due to their lack of integration. Experience shows that when a publisher begins with the consolidation and unification of data, then adds an easy-­to-use segmentation and list creation interface, this foundation provides the core information needed to make all these advanced systems work.

The third important aspect of a publisher’s data platform is the ability to use the information seamlessly across all the critical systems within a publisher’s operations.

As you determine how you will make your new data accessible to the organization, consider the following:

  • Do the application programming interfaces (APIs) allow for real-time website personalization of content based on a current profile?
  • Can personalization instructions be sent to the ad server for custom ads?
  • Does the platform have open APIs that allow it to consume and distribute data to and from sources such as CRM, CMS, marketing automation, email marketing, circulations systems, and event registration platforms?
  • Is there an automated process to send scheduled updates from the data platform to third-party tools?
  • Does the platform require you to use pre-selected and configured email, circulation, and marketing automation, or is it an open API?

4. Completing the data loop. Now that you are using your data and tools in the most efficient and effective manner, it is important to keep the data faucet flowing. It is not enough to have the static, point-in-time data that is common among many legacy data platforms. Today, audience members are always engaging in your content and leaving clues about their interests that you can use for more effective initiatives. The constant email opens, clicks, website visits, downloads, and registrations generate valuable information that must make its way back to the unified database. Reporting, trend analysis, behavioral monitoring, list targeting, event planning, marketing automation, site personalization, and product research are uses of real-time data facilitated through this automated loop.

The fourth key consideration of a publisher’s data platform is its ability to receive data from various disparate sources and unify and append that information to historical information to create the most current profile possible.

As the amount of your audience interactions rise exponentially and you need to capture more data, be sure to consider the following:

  • Does the platform bring in topical data from email and websites and append to a single profile?
  • Does it have flexibility to capture and segment based on the URL, ad tags, and content tags?
  • What are the cost considerations for linking up multiple websites for behavioral tracking and topic capture?
  • Does the platform provide SMTP log files to assist in audit requirements for digital editions?

5. Ongoing strategies and support to drive real results. Often lost in any initiative is the difficulty in achieving organizational change. Many companies fall into the fallacy trap that by simply buying new technology they will achieve organizational change and the desired financial results. Many shiny-object technologies are purchased, only to underestimate the amount of work to set up and maintain the systems as well as the typical resistance to organizational change. This often leads to tools being underutilized and falling short of the pre­defined business goals.

Therefore, choose a partner with experience and a commitment to understanding you and the publishing industry. The right partner can help you manage the organizational and cultural change that results from a switch in strategy from being product and ad centric to being data and services focused.

Assess your partner’s commitment, experience, and understanding of the publishing industry as well as to your long-term success beyond the initial technology rollout.

Technology aside, when you think about the desirable attributes of a partner, consider the following:

  • Does the partner provide strategic support for monetization of data? Onsite training for end users and sales training?
  • Does the platform allow for direct data licensing for third parties and the ability for advertiser to purchase contact information in a shopping cart style format?
  • Does the platform allow you to bring in third-party client data and host and manage it on behalf of clients to create additional marketing services revenue?
  • Does the partner have a formal commitment to advancing the publishing community through content briefs, webinars, and sponsorships? Do they have a publishing client advisory board, user conference, and online learning center?

Publishers are looking for new technologies and partners to promote their growth. Marketing automation and other technologies are great, but they are falling short of potential ROI due to poor planning and incomplete data. The unification of a publisher’s data is the core building block for long-term success, and a publisher will best optimize their chance for success by following these ideas.

Brett Keirstead is vice president, sales, at Knowledge Marketing.

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