By Simone Barratt
As someone who's watched the evolution of the digital marketing space for some time now, I'm often asked: what are the biggest challenges that brands face when it comes to implementing effective campaigns. Of course, there are many and varied hurdles that have to be overcome, depending on both the type of company you are and the type of campaign you want to implement but, if I had to choose one, it would be that of inflexible IT infrastructures - what you might describe as the pain in the back-end.
In the vast majority of cases, brands know where they want to be, they know their position in the market place and they know where they want to get to but many are constricted by the foundations on which their technology and data is built, as well as a chequered past when it comes to the collection and storage of data. Match this to the fact that for many, e-mail is still not a major priority at board level - or even in the marketing department compared to traditional channels -and the extent of the e-mail marketer's problem becomes clear.
Everyone assumes that everyone else is doing it bigger and better but very few actually are.
Pureplay online retailers, that have built their infrastructure with the bigger picture in mind and without the burden of years of historical data, can be considered the exception but, in the main, traditional bricks and mortar companies with multiple databases are faced with a highly complicated proposition in changing their processes to give a single view of the customer.
Companies which have a purely online presence don't have any stores to worry about - everything is focused on online and, naturally, e-mail features much higher up the marketing pecking order. These companies were developed at the same time as e-mail and e-mail marketing itself and consequently, their internal structures and databases have been built with the channel in mind.
Compare this to a multichannel retailer, a travel agent is a good example, where customers have so many different ways to book a holiday - in store, from a catalogue, over the phone, through the post and online - the prospect of tying up the data from all those different touch points to create a genuinely personalised customer e-mail can be nightmarish. One company I know that simply wanted to integrate data gathered from the newsletter sign-up on their homepage with a new preference centre database had to go through a process lasting two years. This situation is not as unusual as you might think.
For most major organisations, e-mail is typically the marketing channel that produces the most revenue for the least cost and effort - the highest ROI and lowest cost per acquisition. Unfortunately this often means that it's a victim of its success with many senior staff taking an 'if it aint broke don't fix it' attitude. Of course one part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the mechanics of end-to-end e-mail campaigns.
If your organisation only thinks of e-mail as a message that lands in a customer's inbox, it has very little hope of appreciating the complexities of data gathering behind the scenes that allow your brand to deliver, relevant, effective communications. But if e-mail programmes based on limited or inefficient data streams are left to run unchecked, not only will they not achieve their potential but, over time, the effectiveness, value and revenues generated will decline steadily. Most senior management will understand that language well.
The sheer amount of data involved in multichannel organisations mean that old style, catalogue-based processes and technologies will be unable to provide actionable insights and interpretations for an effective and time-efficient campaign. Make no mistake, honing and automating data gathering and analysis is a multi-faceted process requiring careful planning. If you don't take the time to set an efficient framework in place, as more data accrues over time, so will layer upon layer of infrastructural and interdepartmental complexity.
In short, even if it ain't currently 'broke', to compete with their pure play rivals, it's imperative that multichannel companies continually plan technological improvements and innovations to their existing and future e-mail programmes. To increase the timeliness and relevance of e-mail, data needs to be pulled from as close to the source of the original transaction, original moment of data capture or original recording of an event as possible. That data then needs to be automatically matched and merged with data from other available data sources seamlessly and made available in a data mart designed specifically for digital channels.
Dealing with real time data or the vast amounts of transactional and event data is impossible to do manually and delaying the provision of this data, even by a few hours, into the highly targeted and speed obsessed world of e-mail can be a lost opportunity.
One of our clients that recently took the decision to automate the process for matching its data to e-mail content was able to reduce the time it took to send a live e-mail, based on a customer's most immediate purchase history or behaviour, from five days to 20 minutes. As you might imagine, this brand immediately saw dramatically improved revenues from the channel.
IT infrastructure and databases may not be the sexiest of topics for senior retail executives but, if multichannel players bury their heads in the sand and don't make plans to integrate their data, a pain in the back-end will ultimately lead to a pain in the wallet... or share price.
Simone Barratt is managing director of e-Dialog International.