Monday, August 22, 2016

ABM Vendor Guide: What to Look for in External Data Sources

Last week’s posts introduced our new Raab Guide to ABM Vendors (buy it here) and introduced a framework four process ABM steps, six system functions, and six key sub-functions. The idea was that functions define major categories of systems, while the sub-functions differentiate systems within each category. The world isn’t really quite this simple, if only because many systems provide more than one function. But the sub-functions are still important for stack design and vendor selection.

My plan this week is to follow up with a sequence of posts that go through each sub-function in some depth.  Let’s start with the first sub-function, External Data. 

ABM Process
System Function
Number of Vendors
Identify Target Accounts
Assemble Data
External Data
Select Targets
Target Scoring
Plan Interactions
Assemble Messages
Customized Messages
Select Messages
State-Based Flows
Execute Interactions
Deliver Messages
Analyze Results
Result Analysis

Vendors that support this sub-function gather account and contact information from the Internet, private, and government sources and purchase it from other vendors. They may resell the data to marketers or use it themselves to support tasks such as account scoring or ad targeting. 

(To put things in a broader context, “external data” can be contrasted with “internal data”, which comes from a company’s own systems for CRM, marketing automation, Web analytics, order processing, customer support, etc. Internal data is most important later in the sales cycle, when prospects and customers are interacting with the company directly. External data is most important at the start, when the company hasn’t identified its target accounts or established direct relationships with them.)

External data may seem like a commodity – after all, all vendors have access to pretty much the same sources. Yet there’s probably more variety among the vendors in this category than any other. Some key differentiators identified in the ABM Guide include:

  • types of data provided (companies, contacts, events, intent, technology used)
  • number and types of data sources (company Web pages, publisher Web pages, ad exchanges and networks, job posting sites, social networks, IP directories, financial reports, government files, industry and professional directories, news feeds, etc.  Different sources provide different data types.)
  • depth of data (to measure this, get a list of data elements)
  • quality of data (harder to measure: review some sample records and have the vendor explain their quality methods)
  • coverage by region, company size, industry, etc. (depends heavily on data types and sources)
  • coverage by language (many systems extract data using natural language technology that can only read English)
  • how often data is refreshed (which involves two issues: how often are sources revisited and how quickly do changes get communicated to clients)
  • on-demand updates for individual accounts or contacts (to get up-to-the minute information on a new or existing account)
  • add new data sources to meet specific client needs (e.g., reports of new research contracts in the client's industry)
  • custom research to supplement public information (in particular, some vendors do custom research to identify the IP addresses used by target accounts)
  • custom taxonomies for intent analysis (because standard taxonomies may not be precise enough for specialized client needs)
  • maturity of data management processes (how long they’ve been evolving, size of team, etc.)
  • data verification methods (phone call, test for email bounces, compare against other sources, etc.)
  • special methods to associate personal and business emails, attach leads to accounts, find social media handles, etc. (vendors may do different kinds of “fuzzy” matching, machine learning, or natural language processing to uncover or infer relationships when exact matches are not available)
  • load client data and match against it for enhancement (most vendors will do this but some require the client to do its own matching)
  • continuous updates of client data (reporting on changes as the vendor learns about them; requires uploading a list of accounts or individuals to monitor)
  • provide personal identifiers on contact records (name, address, phone, email address, social media handle, etc.; not all vendors do this, especially in countries with strict privacy laws; different identifiers are also treated differently)
  • provide a complete universe of all companies in a target market (some vendors only enhance records already in the client database, others provide "net new" records as well.)
  • find social connections between company employees and target account employees (make sure this is done without violating the social network terms of service).
  • real-time processes to identify Web site visitors, auto-fill Web forms or verify form entries, show data to sales people, support ad targeting, etc.
  • add ownership relationships to accounts (headquarters/branch, parent/subsidiary, brand/franchisee, etc.) in general and to the D-U-N-S Number in particular
  • fee structure (most are vendors charge per record and/or based on the data types; some are performance-based)

Which of these are important will depend on your business needs and approach to ABM. For example, if you sell to small businesses, then coverage is critical because many vendors identify companies using IP address or Web domain – things many small businesses do not have. On the other hand, if you want to target Web messages to large enterprises, your critical need will be real-time identification of Web site visitors, something only a few vendors can support.

The issue hovering over all this is data quality. If quality is poor, then nothing else matters. Quality can be a somewhat tricky concept, since it’s not just accuracy or coverage or currency.  My personal favorite definition of quality is “fitness for purpose”, which makes the point that the quality of data (or anything else) is related to how you’re going to use it. But even assuming you know exactly what you need, you can’t predict quality based on a checklist of features or attributes. The only practical approach is to get some sample data and see how it performs, whether by comparing it to known correct data, testing it directly via phone calls or surveys, or using it in a marketing program and measuring the results. Experienced data-driven marketers have known this forever, but less experienced marketers may not realize that all data isn’t as good as they’d like to assume. There’s not much I can do in the ABM Guide to solve this issue, but smart marketers can use the Guide to identify data vendors who meet their other requirements, and then test those vendors' data to ensure the quality is what they need.

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