Monday, December 19, 2016

The World May Be Ending But, If Not: 3 Tips To Be a Better Marketer in 2017

About eighteen months ago I started presenting a scenario of a woman named Jane riding in a self-driving car, unaware that her smart devices were debating whether to stop for gas and let her buy a donut. The point of the scenario was that future marketing would be focused on convincing consumers to trust the marketer’s system to make day-to-day purchasing decisions. This is a huge change from marketing today, which aims mainly to sell individual products. In the future, those product decisions will be handled by algorithms that consumers cannot understand in detail. So consumers’ only real choices will be which systems to trust. We can expect the world to divide itself into tribes of consumers who rely on companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, or Facebook and who ultimately end up making similar purchases to everyone else in their tribe.

The presentation has been quite popular – especially the part about the donut. So far the world is tracking my predictions quite closely. To take one example, the script says that wireless connections to automobiles were banned after "the Minneapolis Incident of 2018". Details aren’t specified but presumably the Incident was a cyberattack that took over cars remotely. Subsequent reports of remote Jeep hacking hacking fit the scenario almost exactly and the recent take-down of the DYN DNS server by a botnet of nanny cams and smart printers was an even more prominent illustration of the danger. The resulting, and long overdue, concern about security on Internet of Things devices is just what I predicted from Minneapolis Incident.

Fond as I am of that scenario, enough has happened to justify a new one. Two particular milestones were last summer’s mass adoption of augmented reality in the form of Pok√©mon Go and this autumn’s sudden awareness of reality bubbles created by social media and fake news.

The new scenario describes another woman, Sue, walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago. She’s wearing augmented reality equipment – let’s say from RoseColoredGlasses.Me, a real Web site* – that presents shows her preferred reality: one with trash removed from the street and weather changed from cloudy to sunshine. She’s also receiving her preferred stream of news (the stock market is up and the Cubs won third straight World Series). Now she gets a message that her husband just sent flowers to her office. She checks her hair in the virtual mirror – she looks marvelous, as always – and walks into a store to find her favorite brand of shoes are on sale. Et cetera.

There’s a lot going on here. We have visual alterations (invisible trash and shining sun), facts that may or may not be true (stock market and baseball scores), events with uncertain causes (did her husband send those flowers or did his computer agent?), possible self-delusion (her hair might not look so great), and commercial machinations (is that really a sale price for those shoes?). It's complicated but the net result is that Sue lives in a much nicer world than the real one. Many people would gladly pay for a similar experience. It’s the voluntary nature of this purchase that makes RoseColoredGlasses.Me nearly inevitable: there will definitely be a market. Let’s call it “personal reality”.

We have to work out some safeguards so Sue doesn’t trip over a pile of invisible trash or get run over by a truck she has chosen not to see. Those are easy to imagine. Maybe she gets BubbleBurstTM reality alerts that issue warnings when necessary.  Or, less jarringly, the system might substitute things like flower beds for trash piles. Maybe the street traffic is replaced by herds of brightly colored unicorns.

If we really want things to get interesting, we can have Sue meet a friend. Is her friend experiencing the same weather, same baseball season, same unicorns? If she isn’t, how can they effectively communicate? Maybe they can switch views, perhaps as easily as trading glasses: literally seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That could be quite a shock. Maybe Sue’s friend is the fearful type and has set her glasses to show every possible threat; not only are the trash piles highlighted but strangers look frightening and every product has a consumer warning label attached. A less disruptive approach could be some external signifier to show her friend’s current state: perhaps her glasses are tinted gray, not rose colored, or Sue sees worried-face emoticon on her forehead.

The communication problems are challenging but solvable. Still, we can expect people with similar views to gravitate towards each other. They would simply find it easier and more pleasant to interact with people sharing their views. Of course, this type of sorting happens already. That’s what makes the RoseColoredGlasses.Me scenario so intriguing: it describes highly-feasible technical developments that are entirely compatible with larger social trends and, perhaps, human nature itself. Many forces push in this direction and there’s really nothing to stop it. I have seen the futures and they work.

Maybe you’re not quite ready to give up on the notion of objective reality. If I can screen out global warming, homeless people, immigrants, Republicans, Democrats, or anything else I dislike, then what’s to motivate me to fix the actual underlying problems? Conversely, if people’s true preferences are known do they justify real-world action: say, to remove actual homeless people from the streets if no one wants to see them. That sounds ugly but maybe a market mechanism could turn it to advantage: if enough people pay RoseColoredGlasses.Me to remove the homeless people from their virtual world, then some of that money could fund programs to help the actual homeless people. Maybe that’s still immoral when people are involved but what if we’re talking about better street signs? Replacing virtual street signs for RoseColoredGlasses.Me subscribers with actual street signs visible to everyone sounds like a winner. It would even mean less work for the computers and thus save money for RoseColoredGlasses.Me.

Another wrinkle: if the owners of RoseColoredGlasses.Me are really smart (and they will be), won't they manipulate customers’ virtual reality in ways that lead the city to put up better street signs with its own money?  Maybe there will be a virtual mass movement on the topic, complete with artificial-but-realistic social media posts, videos of street demonstrations, and heart-rending reports of tragic accidents that could have been avoided with better signage. Customers would have no way to know which parts were real. Then again, they can’t tell today, either.

The border between virtual and actual reality is where the really knotty problems appear. One is the fate of people who can’t afford to pay for a private reality: as we already noted, they get stuck in a world where problems don’t get solved because richer people literally don’t see them. Again, this isn’t so different from today’s world, so it may not raise any new questions (although it does make the old questions more urgent). Today’s world also hints at the likely resolution: people living in different realities will be physically segregated. Wealthier people will pay to have nicer environments and will exclude others who can’t afford the same level of service. They will avoid public spaces where different groups mix and will pay for physical and virtual buffers to manage any mixing that does occur.

Another problem is the cost of altering reality for paying customers. It’s probably cheap to insert better street signs.  But masking the impact of global warming could get expensive. On a technical level, bigger changes require more processing power for the computer and better cocoons for the customers.  To fix global warming they’d need something that changes the apparent temperature, precipitation, and eventually the shoreline and sea level. It’s possible to imagine RoseColoredGlasses.Me customers wearing portable shells that create artificial environments as they move about. But it's more efficient for the computer if people to stay inside and simulate the entire experience. Like most of the other things I’ve suggested here, this sounds stupid and crazy but, as anyone who has used a video conference room already knows, it’s also not so far from today’s reality. If you think I’m blurring the border between augmented and virtual reality, it’s not because I’m unaware of the distinction. It’s because the distinction is increasingly blurry.

I do think, though, that the increasing cost of having the computer generate greater deviations from physical reality will have an important impact on how things turn out. So let's pivot from discussing ever-greater personalization (the ultimate endpoint of which is personal reality) to discussing the role of computers in it all.

To start once more with the obvious, personal reality takes a lot of computer power. Beyond whatever hyperrealistic rendering is needed, the system needs vast artificial intelligence to present the reality each customer has specified. After all, the customer will only define a relatively small number of preferences, such as “there is no such thing as global warming”. It’s then up to the computer to create a plausible environment that matches that preference (to the degree possible, of course; some preferences may simply be illogical or self-contradictory). The computer also probably has to modify news feeds, historical data, research results, and other aspects of experience to match the customer’s choice.

The computer must deliver these changes as efficiently as possible – after all, RoseColoredGlasses.Me wants to make a profit. This means the computer may make choices that minimize its cost even when those choices are not in the interest of the customer. For example, if going outdoors requires hugely expensive processing to hide the actual weather, the computer might start generating realities that lead the customer to stay inside. This could be as innocent as suggesting they order in rather than visit a restaurant (especially if delivery services allow the customer to eat the same food either way). Or it could deter travel with fake news reports about bad weather, transit breakdowns, or riots. As various kinds of telepresence technology improve, keeping customers indoors will become more possible and, from the customer’s standpoint, actually a better option.

This all happens without any malevolence by the computer or its operator. It certainly doesn't matter whether the computer is self-aware.  The computer is simply be optimizing results for all concerned. In practice, each personal reality involves vastly more choices than anyone can monitor, so the computer will be left to its own devices. No one will understand what the computer is doing or why. Theoretically customers could reject the service if they find the computer is making sub-optimal choices.  But if the computer is controlling their entire reality, customers will have no way to know that something better is possible. Friends or news reports who tried to warn them would literally never be heard – their words would be altered to something positive. If they persisted, they would probably be blocked out entirely.

I know this all sounds horribly dystopian. It is. My problem is there’s no clear boundary between the attractive but safe applications – many of which exist today – and the more dangerous ones that could easily follow. Many people would argue that systems like Facebook have already created a primitive personal reality that is harmful to the individuals involved (and to the larger social good, if they believe that such a thing exists). So we’ve already started down the slippery slope and there’s no obvious fence to stop our fall.

Or maybe there is. It’s possible that multiple realities will prove untenable. Maybe the computers themselves will decide it’s more efficient to maintain a single reality and force everyone to accept it (but I suspect customers would rebel). Maybe social cohesion will be so damaged that a society with multiple realities cannot function (although so far that hasn’t happened). Maybe governments will decide to require degree of shared reality and limit the amount of permitted diversity (already happens in authoritarian regimes but not yet in Western democracies). Or maybe societies with a unified reality will be more effective and ultimately outcompete more fractured societies (possible and perhaps likely, but not right away). In short, the future is far from clear.

And what does all this mean for marketing? Maybe that’s a silly question when reality itself is at stake. But assuming that society doesn’t fall apart entirely, you’ll still need to make a living. Some less extreme version of what I’ve described will almost surely come to pass. Let's say it boils down to increasingly diverse personal realities as computers control larger portions of everyone’s experience. What would that imply?

One implication is the number of entities with direct access to any particular individual will decrease. Instead of dealing with Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon for different purposes, individuals will get a more coherent experience by selecting one gatekeeper for just about everything. This will give gatekeepers more complete information for each customer, which will let the gatekeepers drive better-tailored experiences. Marketing at gatekeepers will therefore focus on gathering as much information as possible, using it to understand customer preferences, and delivering experiences that match those preferences. Competition will be based on insights, scope of services, and efficient execution. The winners will be companies who can guide consumers to enjoy experiences that are cost-effective to deliver.

Gatekeeper marketers will still have to build trusted brands, but this will become less important. Different gatekeeping companies will probably align with different social groups or attitudes, so most people will have a natural fit with one gatekeeper or another. This social positioning will be even more important as gatekeepers provide an ever-broader range of services, making it harder to find specific points of differentiation. Diminished competition, ability to block messages from other gatekeepers, and the high cost of switching will mean customers tend to stick after their initial choice. People who do make a switch can expect great inconvenience as the new gatekeeper assembles information to provide tailored services. Switchers might even lose touch with old friends as they vanish from communication channels controlled by their former gatekeeper. In the RoseColoredGlasses.Me scenario, they could become literally invisible as they’re blocked from sight in friends' augmented realities.

Marketers who work outside the gatekeepers will face different challenges. Brand reputation and trust will again be less important since gatekeepers make most choices for consumers. In an ideal world the gatekeepers would constantly scan the market to find the best products for each customer. This would open every market to new suppliers, putting a premium on superior value and meeting customer needs. But in the real world, gatekeepers could easily get lazy.  They'd offer less selection and favor suppliers who give the best deal to the gatekeeper itself.  The risk is low, since customers will rarely be aware of alternatives the gatekeeper doesn’t present. New brands will pay a premium to hire the rare guerilla marketers who can circumvent the gatekeepers to reach new customers directly.

Jane in her self-driving car and Sue walking down Michigan Avenue are both headed in the same direction: they are delegating decisions to machines. But Jane is at an earlier stage in the journey, where she’s still working with different machines simultaneously – and therefore has to decide repeatedly which machines to trust. Paradoxically, Sue makes fewer choices even though she has more control over her ultimate experience. Marketers play important roles in both worlds but their tasks are slightly different. The best you can do is an eye out for signs that show where your business is now and where it’s headed.  Then adjust your actions so you arrive safely at your final destination.  .

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*The site's a joke. But I do own the domain if you'd like to buy it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

BlueVenn Bundles Omnichannel Journey Management, Personalization, and Single Customer View

BlueVenn has only been active in the U.S. market only since March 2016, although many U.S. marketers will recall its previous incarnation as SmartFocus.* The company offers what it calls an omnichannel marketing platform that builds a unified customer database, manages marketing campaigns, and generates personalized Web and email messages.

The Venn in BlueVenn

The unified database process, a.k.a. single customer view, has rich functionality to load data from multiple sources and do standardization, validation, enhancement, hygiene, matching, deduplication, governance and auditing. These were standard functions for traditional marketing databases, which needed them to match direct mail names and addresses, but are not always found in modern customer data platforms. BlueVenn also supports current identity linking techniques such as storing associations among cookies, email addresses, form submits, and devices. This sort of identity resolution is a batch process that runs overnight.  The system can also look up information about a specific customer in real time if an ID is provided. This lets BlueVenn support real time interactions in Web and call center channels.

Users can enhance imported data by defining derived elements with functions similar to Excel formulas. These let non-technical users put data into formats they need without the help of technical staff. Derived fields can be used in queries and reports, embedded in other derived fields, and shared among users. To avoid nasty accidents, BlueVenn blocks changes in a field definition if the field is used elsewhere. Data can be read by Tableau and other third-party tools for analysis and reporting.

BlueVenn offers several options for defining customer segments, including cross tabs, geographic map overlays, and flow charts that merge and split different groups.  But BlueVenn's signature selection tool has always the Venn diagram (intersecting circles).  This is made possible by a columnar database engine that is extremely fast at finding records with shared data elements. Clients could also use other databases including SQL Server, Amazon Redshift (also columnar), or MongoDB, although BlueVenn says nearly all its clients use the BlueVenn engine for its combination of high speed and low cost.

Customer journeys - formerly known as campaigns - are set up by connecting icons on a flow chart. The flow can be split based on yes/no critiera, field values, query results, or random groups. Records in each branch can be sent a communication, assigned to seed lists or control groups, deduplicated, tagged, held for a wait period or until they respond, merged with other branches, or exit the flow. The “merge” feature is especially important because it allows journeys to cycle indefinitely rather than ending after a sequence of steps. Merge also simplifies journey design since paths can be reunified after a split. Even today, most campaign flow charts don’t do merges.

BlueVenn Journey Flow

Tagging is also important because it lets marketers flag customers based on a combination of behaviors and data attributes. Tags can be used to control subsequent flow steps. Because tags are attached to the customer record, they can be used to coordinate journeys: one application cited by BlueVenn is to tag customers for future messages in multiple journeys and then periodically compare the tags to decide which message should actually be delivered.

Communications are handled by something called BlueRelevance. This puts a line of code on client Web sites to gather click stream data, manage first party cookies, and deliver personalized messages. The messages can include different forms of dynamic content including recommendations, coupons, and banners. In addition to Web pages, BlueVenn can send batch and triggered emails, text messages, file transfers, and direct messages in Twitter and Facebook. Next year it will add display ad audiences and Facebook Custom Audiences. The vendor is also integrating with the R statistical system for predictive models and scoring. BlueVenn has 23 API integrations with delivery systems such as specific email providers and builds new integrations as clients need them.

All BlueVenn features are delivered as part of a single package. Pricing is based on the number of sources and contacts, starting at $3,000 per month for two sources and 100,000 contacts. There is a separate fee for setting up the unified database, which can range from $50,000 to $300,000 or more depending on complexity. Clients can purchase the configured database management system if they want to run it for themselves. The company also offers a Software-as-a-Service version or hybrid system that is managed by BlueVenn on the client's own computers.  BluyeVenn has about 400 total clients of which about two dozen run the latest version of its system. It sells primarily to mid-size companies, which it defines as $25 million to $1 billion in revenue.

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*The original SmartFocus was purchased in 2011 by Emailvision, which changed its own name to SmartFocus in 2013 and then sold the business (technology, clients, etc.) but kept the name for itself. If you’re really into trivia, SmartFocus began life in 1995 as Brann Viper, and BlueVenn is part of Blue Group Inc. which also owns a database marketing services agency called Blue Sheep. The good news is: this won't be on the final.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Can Customer Data Platforms Make Decisions? Discuss.

I’ve had at four conversations in the past twenty four hours with vendors who build a unified customer database and use it to guide customer treatments. The immediate topic has been whether they should be considered Customer Data Platforms but the underlying question is whether Customer Data Platforms should include customer management features.

That may seem pretty abstract but bear with me because this isn’t really about definitions. It’s about what systems do and how they’re built.  To clear the ground a bit, the definition of CDP, per the CDP Institute, is “a marketer-managed system that creates a persistent, unified customer database that is accessible to other systems". Other people have other definitions but they are pretty similar. You’ll note there’s nothing in that definition about doing anything with data beyond making it available.  So, no, a CDP doesn’t need to have customer management features.

But there’s nothing in the definition to prohibit those features, either. So a CDP could certainly be part of a larger system, in the same way that a motor is part of a farm tractor. But most farmers would call what they’re buying a tractor, not a motor. For the same reasons, I generally don’t to refer to systems as CDPs if their primary purpose is to deliver an application, even though they may build a unified customer database to support that application.

The boundary gets a little fuzzier when the system makes that unified database available to external systems – which, you’ll recall, is part of the CDP definition. Those systems could be used as CDPs, in exactly the same way that farm tractors have “power take off” devices that use their motor to run other machinery.  But unless you’re buying that tractor primarily as a power source, you’re still going to think of it as a tractor. The motor and power take off will simply be among the features you consider when making a choice.*

So much for definitions. The vastly more important question is SHOULD people buy "pure" CDPs or systems that contain a CDP plus applications. At the risk of overworking our poor little tractor, the answer is the same as the farmer’s: it depends it on how you’ll use it. If a particular system offers the only application you need, you can buy it without worrying about access by other applications. At the other extreme, if you have many external applications to connect, then it almost doesn’t matter whether the CDP has applications of its own. In between – which is where most people live – the integrated application is likely add value but you also want to with connect other systems. So, as a practical matter, we find that many buyers pick CDPs based on both integrated applications and external access.  From the CDP vendor’s viewpoint, this connectivity is helpful because it makes their system more important to their clients.

The tractor analogy also helps show why data-only CDPs have been sold almost exclusively to large enterprises. Those companies have many existing systems that can all benefit from a better database.  In tractor terms, they need the best motor possible for power applications and have other machines for tasks like pulling a plow. A smaller farm needs one tractor that can do many different tasks.

I may have driven the tractor metaphor into a ditch.  Regardless, the important point is that a system optimized for a single task – whether it’s sharing customer data or powering farm equipment – is designed differently from a system that’s designed to do several things. I’m not at all opposed to systems that combine customer data assembly with applications.  In fact, I think Journey Orchestration Engines (JOEs), which often combine customer data with journey orchestration, make a huge amount of sense. But most JOE databases are not designed with external access in mind.  A JOE database designed for open access would be even better -- although maybe we shouldn't call it a CDP.

To put this in my more usual terms of Data, Decision, and Delivery layers: a CDP creates a unified Data layer, while most JOEs create a unified Data and Decision layer. There’s a clear benefit to unifying decisions when our goal is a consistent customer treatment across all delivery systems. What’s less clear is the benefit of having the same system combine the data and decision functions. The combination avoids integration issues.  But it also means the buyer must use both components, even though she might prefer a different tool for one or the other.

Remember that there’s nothing inherent in JOEs that requires them to provide both layers. A JOE could have only the decision function and connect to a separate CDP. The fact that most JOEs create a database is just the matter of necessity: most companies don’t have a database in place, so the JOE must build one in order to do the fun stuff (orchestration).  Many other tools, such as B2B predictive analytics and customer success systems, create their own database for exactly the same reason. In fact, I originally classified those systems as CDPs although I’ve now narrowed my definition since the database is not their focus.

So I hope this clarifies things: CDPs can have decision functions but if decisions are the main purpose of the system, it’s confusing to call it a CDP.  And CDPs are certainly not required to have decision functions, although many do include them to give buyers a quick return on their investment. If that seems like waffling, then so be it: what matters is helping marketers to understand what they’re getting so they get what they really need.


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*I’ll guess few of my readers are very familiar with farm tractors. Maybe the more modern analogy is powering apps with your smartphone. For the record, I did work on a farm when I was a lad, and drove a tractor.