Thursday, August 30, 2007

Marketing Performance Involves More than Ad Placement

I received a thoughtful e-mail the other day suggesting that my discussion of marketing performance measurement had been limited to advertising effectiveness, thereby ignoring the other important marketing functions of pricing, distribution and product development. For once, I’m not guilty as charged. At a minimum, a balanced scorecard would include measures related to those areas when they were highlighted as strategic. I’d further suggest that many standard marketing measures, such as margin analysis, cross-sell ratios, and retail coverage, address those areas directly.

Perhaps the problem is that so many marketing projects are embedded in advertising campaigns. For example, the way you test pricing strategies is to offer different prices in the marketplace and see how customers react. Same for product testing and cross-sales promotions. Even efforts to improve distribution are likely to boil down to campaigns to sign up new dealers, training existing ones, distribute point of sale materials, and so on. The results will nearly always be measured in terms of sales results, exactly as you measure advertising effectiveness.

In fact, since everything is measured through advertising it and recording the results, the real problem may be how to distinguish “advertising” from the other components of the marketing mix. In classic marketing mix statistical models, the advertising component is representing by ad spend, or some proxy such as gross rating points or market coverage. At a more tactical level, the question is the most cost-effective way to reach the target audience, independent of the message content (which includes price, product and perhaps distribution elements, in addition to classic positioning). So it does make sense to measure advertising effectiveness (or, more precisely, advertising placement effectiveness) as a distinct topic.

Of course, marketing does participate in activities that are not embodied directly in advertising or cannot be tested directly in the market. Early-stage product development is driven by market research, for example. Marketing performance measurement systems do need to indicate performance in these sorts of tasks. The challenge here isn’t finding measures—things like percentage of sales from new products and number of research studies completed (lagging and leading indicators, respectively) are easily available. Rather, the difficulty is isolating the contribution of “marketing” from the contribution of other departments that also participate in these projects. I’m not sure this has a solution or even needs one: maybe you just recognize that these are interdisciplinary teams and evaluate them as such. Ultimately we all work for the same company, eh? Now let’s sing Kumbaya.

In any event, I don’t see a problem using standard MPM techniques to measure more than advertising effectiveness. But it’s still worth considering the non-advertising elements explicitly to ensure they are not overlooked.

Monday, August 06, 2007

What Makes QlikTech So Good: A Concrete Example

Continuing with Friday’s thought, it’s worth giving a concrete example of what QlikTech makes easy. Let’s look at the cross-sell report I mentioned on Thursday.

This report answers a common marketing question: which products do customers tend to purchase together, and how do customers who purchase particular combinations of products behave? (Ok, two questions.)

The report this begins with a set of transaction records coded with a Customer ID, Product ID, and Revenue. The trick is to identify all pairs among these records that have the same Customer ID. Physically, the resulting report is a matrix with products both as column and row headings. Each cell will report on customers who purchased the pair of products indicated by the row and column headers. Cell contents will be the number of customers, number of purchases of the product in the column header, and revenue of those purchases. (We also want row and column totals, but that’s a little complicated so let’s get back to that later.)

Since each record relates to the purchase of a single product, a simple cross tab of the input data won’t provide the information we want. Rather, we need to first identify all customers who purchased a particular product and group them on the same row. Columns will then report on all the other products they purchased.

Conceptually, Qlikview and SQL do this in roughly the same way: build a list of existing Customer ID / Product ID combinations, use this list to select customers for each row, and then find all transactions associated with those customers. But the mechanics are quite different.

In QlikView, all that’s required is to extract a copy of the original records. This keeps the same field name for Customer ID so it can act as a key relating to the original data, but renames Product ID as Master Product so it can treated as an independent dimension. The extract is done in a brief script that loads the original data and creates the other table from it:

Columns: // this is the table name
from input_data.csv (ansi, txt, delimiter is ',', embedded labels); // this code will be generated by a wizard

Rows: // this is the table name
Product_ID as Master_Product
resident Columns;

After that, all that’s needed is to create a pivot table report in the QlikView interface by specifying the two dimensions and defining expressions for the cell contents: count (distinct Customer ID); count (Product ID), and sum(Revenue). QlikView automatically limits the counts to the records qualified for each cell by the dimension definitions.

SQL takes substantially more work. The original extract is similar, creating a table with Customer ID and Master Product. But more technical skill is needed: the user must know to use a “select distinct” command to avoid creating multiple records with the same Customer ID / Product ID combination. Multiple records would result in duplicate rows, and thus double-counting, when the list is later joined back to the original transactions. (QlikView gives the same, non-double-counted results whether or not “select distinct” is used to create its extract.)

Once the extract is created, SQL requires the user to create a table with records for the report. This must contain two records for each transaction: one where the original product is the Master Product, and other where it is the Product ID. This requires a left join (I think) of the extract table against the original transaction table: again, the user needs enough SQL skill to know which kind of join is needed and how to set it up.

Next, the SQL user must create the report values themselves. We’ve now reached the limits of my own SQL skills, but I think you need two selections. The first is a “group by” on the Master Product, Product ID and Customer ID fields for the customer counts. The second is another “group by” on just the Master Product and Product ID for the product counts and revenue. Then you need to join the customer counts back to the more summarized records. Perhaps this could all be done in a single pass, but, either way, it’s pretty trickly.

Finally, the SQL user must display the final results in a report. Presumably this would be done in a report writer that hides the technical details from the user. But somebody skilled will still need to set things up the first time around.

I trust it’s clear how much easier it will be to create this report in QlikView than SQL. QlikView required one table load and one extract. SQL required one table load, one extract, one join to create the report records, and one to three additional selects to create the final summaries. Anybody wanna race?

But this is a very simple example that barely scratches the surface of what users really want. For example, they’ll almost certainly ask to calculate Revenue per Customer. This will be simple for QlikTech: just add a report expression of sum(Revenue) / count(distinct Customer_ID). (Actually, since QlikView lets you name the expressions and then use the names in other expressions, the formula would probably be something simpler still, like “Revenue / CustomerCount”.) SQL will probably need another data pass after the totals are created to do the calculation. Perhaps a good reporting tool will avoid this or at least hide it from the user. But the point is that QlikTech lets you add calculations without any changes to the files, and thus without any advance planning.

Another thing users are likely to want is row and column totals. These are conceptually tricky because you can’t simply add up the cell values. For the row totals, the same customer may appear in multiple columns, so you need to eliminate those duplicates to get correct values for customer count and revenue per customer. For the column totals, you need to remove transactions that appear on two rows (one where they are the Master Product, and other where they are the Product_ID). QlikTech automatically handles both situations because it is dynamically calculating the totals from the original data. But SQL created several intermediate tables, so the connection to the original data is lost. Most likely, SQL will need another set of selections and joins to get the correct totals.

QlikTech’s approach becomes even more of an advantage when users start drilling into the data. For example, they’re likely to select transactions related to particular products or on unrelated dimensions such as customer type. Again, since it works directly from the transaction details, QlikVeiw will instantly give correct values (including totals) for these subsets. SQL must rerun at least some of its selections and aggregations.

But there’s more. When we built the cross sell report for our client, we split results based on the number of total purchases made by each customer. We did this without any file manipulation, by adding a “calculated dimension” to the report: aggr(count (Product ID), Customer ID). Admittedly, this isn’t something you’d expect a casual user to know, but I personally figured it out just looking at the help files. It’s certainly simpler than how you’d do it in SQL, which is probably to count the transactions for each customer, post the resulting value on the transaction records or a customer-level extract file, and rebuild the report.

I could go on, but hope I’ve made the point: the more you want to do, the greater the advantage of doing it in QlikView. Since people in the real world want to do lots of things, the real world advantage of QlikTech is tremendous. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

(disclaimer: although Client X Client is a QlikTech reseller, contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author.)

Friday, August 03, 2007

What Makes QlikTech So Good?

To carry on a bit with yesterday’s topic—QlikTech fascinates me on two levels: first, because it is such a powerful technology, and second because it’s a real-time case study in how a superior technology penetrates an established market. The general topic of diffusion of innovation has always intrigued me, and it would be fun to map QlikView against the usual models (hype curve, chasm crossing, tipping point, etc.) in a future post. Perhaps I shall.

But I think it’s important to first explain exactly just what makes QlikView so good. General statements about speed and ease of development are discounted by most IT professionals because they’ve heard them all before. Benchmark tests, while slightly more concrete, are also suspect because they can be designed to favor whoever sponsors them. User case studies may be most convincing evidence, but resemble the testimonials for weight-loss programs: they are obviously selected by the vendor and may represent atypical cases. Plus, you don’t know what else was going on that contributed to the results.

QlikTech itself has recognized all this and adopted “seeing is believing” as their strategy: rather than try to convince people how good they are, they show them with Webinars, pre-built demonstrations, detailed tutorials, documentation, and, most important, a fully-functional trial version. What they barely do is discuss the technology itself.

This is an effective strategy with early adopters, who like to get their hands dirty and are seeking a “game changing” improvement in capabilities. But while it creates evangelists, it doesn’t give them anything beyond than own personal experience to testify to the product’s value. So most QlikTech users find themselves making exactly the sort of generic claims about speed and ease of use that are so easily discounted by those unfamiliar with the product. If the individual making the claims has personal credibility, or better still independent decision-making authority, this is good enough to sell the product. But if QlikTech is competing against other solutions that are better known and perhaps more compatible with existing staff skills, a single enthusiastic advocate may not win out—even though they happen to be backed by the truth.

What they need is a story: a convincing explanation of WHY QlikTech is better. Maybe this is only important for certain types of decision-makers—call them skeptics or analytical or rationalists or whatever. But this is a pretty common sort of person in IT departments. Some of them are almost physically uncomfortable with the raving enthusiasm that QlikView can produce.

So let me try to articulate exactly what makes QlikView so good. The underlying technology is what QlikTech calls an “associative” database, meaning data values are directly linked with related values, rather than using the traditional table-and-row organization of a relational database. (Yes, that’s pretty vague—as I say, the company doesn’t explain it in detail. Perhaps their U.S. Patent [number 6,236,986 B1, issued in 2001] would help but I haven’t looked. I don’t think QlikTech uses “associative” in the same way as Simon Williams of LazySoft, which is where Google and Wikipedia point go when you query the term.)

Whatever the technical details, the result of QlikTech’s method is that users can select any value of any data element and get a list of all other values on records associated with that element. So, to take a trivial example, selecting a date could give a list of products ordered on that date. You could do that in SQL too, but let’s say the date is on a header record while the product ID is in a detail record. You’d have to set up a join between the two—easy if you know SQL, but otherwise inaccessible. And if you had a longer trail of relations the SQL gets uglier: let’s say the order headers were linked to customer IDs which were linked to customer accounts which were linked to addresses, and you wanted to find products sold in New Jersey. That’s a whole lot of joining going on. Or if you wanted to go the other way: find people in New Jersey who bought a particular product. In QlikTech, you simply select the state or the product ID, and that’s that.

Why is this a big deal? After all, plenty of SQL-based tools can generate that query for non-technical users who don’t know SQL. But those tools have to be set up by somebody, who has to design the database tables, define the joins, and very likely specify which data elements are available and how they’re presented. That somebody is a skilled technician, or probably several technicians (data architects, database administrators, query builders, etc.). QlikTech needs none of that because it’s not generating SQL code to begin with. Instead, users just load the data and the system automatically (and immediately) makes it available. Where multiple tables are involved, the system automatically joins them on fields with matching names. So, okay, someobody does need to know enough to name the fields correctly – but that’s just all the skill required..

The advantages really become apparent when you think about the work needed to set up a serious business intelligence system. The real work in deploying a Cognos or BusinessObjects is defining the dimensions, measures, drill paths, and so on, so the system can generate SQL queries or the prebuilt cubes needed to avoid those queries. Even minor changes like adding a new dimension are a big deal. All that effort simply goes away in QlikTech. Basically, you load the raw data and start building reports, drawing graphs, or doing whatever you need to extract the information you want. This is why development time is cut so dramatically and why developers need so little training.

Of course, QlikView’s tools for building reports and charts are important, and they’re very easy to use as well (basically all point-and-click). But that’s just icing on the cake—they’re not really so different from similar tools that sit on top of SQL or multi-dimensional databases.

The other advantages cited by QlikTech users are speed and scalability. These are simpler to explain: the database sits in memory. The associative approach provides some help here, too, since it reducing storage requirements by removing redundant occurrences of each data value and by storing the data as binary codes. But the main reason QlikView is incredibly fast is that the data is held in memory. The scalability part comes in with 64 bit processors, which can address pretty much any amount of memory. It’s still necessary to stress that QlikView isn’t just putting SQL tables into memory: it’s storing the associative structures, with all their ease of use advantages. This is an important distinction between QlikTech and other in-memory systems.

I’ve skipped over other benefits of QlikView; it really is a very rich and well thought out system. Perhaps I’ll write about them some other time. The key point for now is that people need to understand QlikView using a fundamentally different database technology, one that hugely simplifies application development by making the normal database design tasks unnecessary. The fantastic claims for QlikTech only become plausible once you recognize that this difference is what makes them possible.

(disclaimer: although Client X Client is a QlikTech reseller, they have no responsibility for the contents of this blog.)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Notes from the QlikTech Underground

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting recently. The reason is almost silly: I got to thinking about the suggestion in The Power Performance Grid that each person should identify a single measure most important to their success, and recognized that the number of blog posts certainly isn’t mine. (That may actually be a misinterpretation of the book’s message, but the damage is done.)

Plus, I’ve been busy with other things—in particular, a pilot QlikTech implementation at a Very Large Company that shall remain nameless. Results have been astonishing—we were able to deliver a cross sell analysis in hours that the client had been working on for years using conventional business intelligence technology. A client analyst, with no training beyond a written tutorial, was then able to extend that analysis with new reports, data views and drill-downs in an afternoon. Of course, it helped that the source data itself was already available, but QlikTech still removes a huge amount of effort from the delivery part of the process.

The IT world hasn’t quite recognized how revolutionary QlikTech is, but it’s starting to see the light: Gartner has begun covering them and there was a recent piece in InformationWeek. I’ll brag a bit and point out that my own coverage began much sooner: see my DM News review of July 2005 (written before we became resellers).

It will be interesting to watch the QlikTech story play out. There’s a theory that the big system integration consultancies won’t adopt QlikTech because it is too efficient: since projects that would have involved hundreds of billable hours can be completed in a day or two, the integrators won’t want to give up all that revenue. But I disagree for a couple of reasons: first of all, competitors (including internal IT) will start using QlikTech and the big firms will have to do the same to compete. Second, there is such a huge backlog of unmet needs for reporting systems that companies will still buy hundreds of hours of time; they’ll just get a lot more done for their money. Third, QlikTech will drive demand for technically-demanding data integration project to feed it information, and distribution infrastructures to use the results. These will still be big revenue generators for the integrators. So while the big integrators first reaction may be that QlikTech is a threat to their revenue, I’m pretty confident they’ll eventually see it gives them a way to deliver greater value to their clients and thus ultimately maintain or increase business volume.

I might post again tomorrow, but then I’ll be on vacation for two weeks. Enjoy the rest of the summer.