The Biggest Challenges in Database Marketing Remain as Human as Ever

/ 8 September 2020

35+ Years in Database Marketing and the Biggest Challenges Remain as Human as Ever

Bernice Grossman is president of DMRS Group. Since 1983 she, and her group of architects & consultants, have been helping major brands succeed in their data strategy, vendor selection, and legally permissible use of data to meet their business objectives. Like Bernice, we at 3radical agree that brands need to take better control of their data strategies. Here’s her perspective.

By Bernice Grossman, ‘The Data Therapist’

For over 35 years I’ve helped companies overcome their Database Marketing challenges. There isn’t much I haven’t seen and tackled over that time and although much has changed, the fear and paranoia surrounding data has largely remained the same.

Why is that?

In my experience, the fear is of the unknown. The very term ‘data’ can provoke connotations of complexity, of being the sole realm of cold, hard ‘specialists’. It can be anxiety inducing.

Sure, marketers want the insights data can bring, but often prefer data collection and management to be taken care of by somebody else. And they definitely want someone else to figure out how to use it properly. If only there was a magic wand. 

No one likes to be feel stupid. To the contrary, we’re constantly looking for affirmation of our own competence, so much so that personality psychologist Robert White believed competence could be thought of as a ‘fundamental human need”.

The problem is that data isn’t easily siloed, nor can it be simply outsourced without instructions as to how to manage it. Instead, it needs to be a fundamental part of business operations and involve a variety of stakeholders if it’s to be effective. The first challenge has always been about getting marketers to a position where they can confidently discuss data, where they can ask questions and genuinely feel comfortable when doing so. It’s about helping companies understand their issues and seeing a way forward, as opposed to simply ‘diagnosing’ a problem, prescribing a course of action and hoping.

An exercise that works well is gathering everyone together and handing out index cards while instructing attendees to write down their contact ‘information’. Once everyone sees how others interpret the same task, and the different ways people provide their data, they’ve grasped a baseline understanding from which to build on. Over my many years in the business, the index cards get bigger (representing the greater amount of data being gathered) but the underlying principles remain the same.

When broken down into small chunks, everyone gets it. Data is ultimately no different than the combustion engine; the complete item may be complex, but once broken down into little pieces, everyone can understand the various elements.

Working knowledge and fostering confidence around the subject is hugely beneficial, particularly because of what famed psychology professor Edward L. Deci termed ‘behavior-outcome linkages’. Behavior-outcome linkages are incredibly important to motivation and increasing people’s willingness to get involved. Once marketers see that their input ultimately influences the outcome of the data strategy, they’re much more motivated to contribute, which fosters all important collaboration and snowballs the positives.

I often find one of my first roles as a consultant is as a translator between marketers and the ‘data people’. The classic scenario involves marketers requesting certain information, only to be asked how they plan to use it. From there they become somewhat defensive, reacting along the lines of, “don’t ask me why I want it, just get it to me!” Next thing you know, the relationship is strained as the data suppliers fail to ‘correctly’ interpret the request.

The art of communication in such scenarios (the marketer’s very arena) is very important. A technique that works well here, especially when marketers are looking for the help of a vendor in solving a data challenge, is visualization. I set ‘homework’ for the companies (which they hate the idea of at first). Each person has to come up with five questions they’d like answered about the issues they’re having. Bringing everyone together, we then literally illustrate what the solution needs to look like. The result is something that vendors can work from to address the challenge and to propose solutions. Over time, this becomes natural, removing the need for a translator and everyone begins speaking a common language.

The human aspect of data management has always been of great importance, but has remained so often overlooked. That needs to change as it plays such an important role in so many aspects of data. For example; the urge to ‘rip and replace’ complete data solutions and to start over when something isn’t working. Once people learn about the parts and processes of data collection and management, they can better address issues from a modular perspective, and work on the bits that need attention, rather than ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. Likewise, it’s very natural and understandable for marketers to have loyalties to certain vendors; an appreciation for how things fit together better enables them to bring in what they’ve had good experiences with before, while keeping aspects that are already working suitably well.

I’ve seen and tackled pretty much every data problem imaginable. The big issues that frighten corporations today remain human at their core and often involve fear and paranoia. Yet marketers do have an enormous interest in data, it’s just that they get in the way of themselves.

I was recently asked whether companies are ever ‘beyond help’. In terms of the data challenges, I do not believe anyone is beyond help. In terms of attitudes to data, then perhaps some people could be classed as such. Sometimes fear and lack of knowledge can just be too great and prevent people moving forward, and hence make them appear ‘beyond help’. Luckily, I‘ve met many more people that have put their egos aside, embraced help and achieved remarkable things.

To marketers, I say that there are people that can handle the ‘hard bit’ for you. You just need to know what you want and understand how to get it in a way that’s understandable and useful.

How that data is acted upon, is another question entirely of course!

About the Author

“Data Therapist” Bernice Grossman is principal consultant and founder of DMRS Group and a DMCNY Silver Apple Award honoree. She is a noted database marketing expert and has spoken on the subject at numerous Direct Marketing Association, National Center for Database Marketing, and Direct Marketing Business conferences. Additionally, Grossman has taught at NYU’s Direct Marketing Program. She is frequently quoted in such leading trade publications as Business MarketingDIRECTTheCustomerForbesDirect Marketing News, and Target Marketing.

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