Sunday, October 22, 2017

When to Use a Proof of Concept in Marketing Software Selection -- And When Not

“I used to hate POCs (Proof of Concepts) but now I love them,” a Customer Data Platform vendor told me recently. “We do POCs all the time,” another said when I raised the possibility on behalf of a client.

Two comments could be a coincidence.  (Three make a Trend.)  But, as the first vendor indicated, POCs have traditionally been something vendors really disliked. So even the possibility that they’ve become more tolerable is worth exploring.

We should start by defining the term.  Proof of Concept is a demonstration that something is possible. In technology in general, the POC is usually an experimental system that performs a critical function that had not previously been achieved.  A similar definition applies to software development. In the context of marketing systems, though, a POC is usually not so much an experiment as a partial implementation of an existing product.  What's being proven is the system's ability to execute key functions on the buyer's own data and/or systems. The distinction is subtle but important because it puts the focus on meeting the client's needs.  

Of course, software buyers have always watched system demonstrations.  Savvy buyers have insisted that demonstrations execute scenarios based on their own business processes.  A carefully crafted set of scenarios can give a clear picture of how well a system does what the client wants.  Scenarios are especially instructive if the user can operate the system herself instead of just watching a salesperson.  What scenarios don’t illustrate is loading a buyer’s data into the system or the preparation needed to make that data usable. That’s where the POC comes in.

The cost of loading client data was the reason most vendors disliked POCs. Back in the day, it required detailed analysis of the source data and hand-tuning of the transformation processes to put the data into the vendor’s database.  Today this is much easier because source systems are usually more accessible and marketing systems – at least if they’re Customer Data Platforms – have features that make transformation and mapping much more efficient.

The ultimate example of easier data loads is the one-click connection between many marketing automation and CRM “platforms” and applications that are pre-integrated with those platforms. The simplicity is possible because the platforms and the apps are cloud-based, Software as a Service products.  This means there are no custom implementations or client-run systems to connect. Effortless connections let many vendors to offer free trials, since little or no vendor labor is involved in loading a client’s data. 

In fact, free trials are problematic precisely because so little work goes into setting them up. Some buyers are diligent about testing their free trial system and get real value from the experience. But many set up a free trial and then don't use it, or use it briefly without putting in the effort to learn how the system works.  This means that all but the simplest products don’t get a meaningful test and users often underestimate the value of a system because they haven’t learned what it can do.

POCs are not quite the same as free trials because they require more effort from the vendor to set up.  In return, most vendors will require a corresponding effort from the buyer to test the POC system.  On balance that’s a good thing since it ensures that both parties will learn from the project.

Should a POC be part of every vendor selection process? Not at all.  POCs answer some important questions, including how easily the vendor can load source data and what it’s like to use the system with your own data.  A POC makes sense when those are critical uncertainties.  But it’s also possible to answer some of those questions without a POC, based on reviews of system documentation, demonstrations, and scenarios. If a POC can’t add significant new information, it’s not worth the time and trouble.

Also remember that the POC loads only a subset of the buyer’s data. This means it won't show how the system handles other important tasks including  matching customer identities across systems, resolving conflicts between data from different sources, and aggregating data from multiple systems. Nor will working with sample data resolve questions about scalability, speed, and change management. The POC probably won’t include fine-tuning of data structures such as summary views and derived variables, even though these can greatly impact performance. Nor will it test advanced features related to data access by external systems.

Answering those sorts of questions requires a more extensive implementation.  This can be done with a pilot project or during initial phases of a production installation. Buyers with serious concerns about such requirements should insist on this sort of testing or negotiate contracts with performance guarantees to ensure they’re not stuck with an inadequate solution.

POCs have their downsides as well. They require time and effort from buyers, extend the purchasing process, and may limit how many systems are considered in depth.  They also favor systems that are easy to deploy and learn, even though such systems might lack the sophistication or depth of features that will ultimately be more important for success.

In short, POCs are not right for everyone. But it’s good to know they’re more available than before. Keep them in mind as an option when you have questions that a POC is equipped to answer.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Wizaly Offers a New Option for Algorithmic Attribution

Wizaly is a relatively new entrant in the field of algorithmic revenue attribution – a function that will be essential for guiding artificial-intelligence-driven marketing of the future. Let’s take a look at what they do.

First a bit of background: Wizaly is a spin-off of Paris-based performance marketing agency ESV Digital (formerly eSearchVision). The agency’s performance-based perspective meant it needed to optimize spend across the entire customer journey, not simply use first- or last-click attribution approaches which ignore intermediate steps on the path to purchase. Wizaly grew out of this need.

Wizaly’s basic approach to attribution is to assemble a history of all messages seen by each customer, classify customers based on the channels they saw, compare results of customers whose experience differs by just one channel, and attribute any difference in results to that channel   For example, one group of customers might have seen messages in paid search, organic search, and social; another might have seen messages in those channels plus display retargeting. Any difference in performance would be attributed to display retargeting.

This is a simplified description; Wizaly is also aware of other attributes such as the profiles of different customers, traffic sources, Web site engagement, location, browser type, etc. It apparently factors some or all of these into its analysis to ensure it is comparing performance of otherwise-similar customers. It definitely lets users analyze results based on these variables so they can form their own judgements.

Wizaly gets its data primarily from pixels it places on ads and Web pages. These drop cookies to track customers over time and can track ads that are seen, even if they’re not clicked, as well as detailed Web site behaviors. The system can incorporate television through an integration with Realytics, which correlates Web traffic with when TV ads are shown. It can import ad costs and ingest offline purchases to use in measuring results. The system can stitch together customer identities using known identifiers. It can also do some probabilistic matching based on behaviors and connection data and will supplement this with data from third-party cross device matching specialists.

Reports include detailed traffic analysis, based on the various attributes the system collects; estimates of the importance and effectiveness of each channel; and recommended media allocations to maximize the value from ad spending.  The system doesn't analyze the impact of message or channel sequence, compare the effectiveness of different messages, or estimate the impact of messages on long-term customer outcomes. As previously mentioned, it has a partial blindspot for mobile – a major concern, given how important mobile has become – and other gaps for offline channels and results. These are problems for most algorithmic attribution products, not just Wizaly.

One definite advantage of Wizaly is price: at $5,000 to $15,000 per month, it is generally cheaper than better-known competitors. Pricing is based on traffic monitored and data stored. The company was spun off from ESV Digital in 2016 and currently has close to 50 clients worldwide.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Attribution Will Be Critical for AI-Based Marketing Success


I gave my presentation on Self-Driving Marketing Campaigns at the MarTech conference last week. Most of the content followed the arguments I made here a couple of weeks ago, about the challenges of coordinating multiple specialist AI systems. But prepping for the conference led me to refine my thoughts, so there are a couple of points I think are worth revisiting.

The first is the distinction between replacing human specialists with AI specialists, and replacing human managers with AI managers. Visually, the first progression looks like this as AI gradually takes over specialized tasks in the marketing department:



The insight here is that while each machine presumably does its job much better than the human it replaces,* the output of the team as a whole can’t fundamentally change because of the bottleneck created by the human manager overseeing the process. That is, work is still organized into campaigns that deal with customer segments because the human manager needs to think in those terms. It’s true that the segments will keep getting smaller, the content within each segment more personalized, and more tests will yield faster learning. But the human manager can only make a relatively small number of decisions about what the robots should do, and that puts severe limits on how complicated the marketing process can become.

The really big change happens when that human manager herself is replaced by a robot:



Now, the manager can also deal with more-or-less infinite complexity. This means we no longer need campaigns and segments and can truly orchestrate treatments for each customer as an individual. In theory, the robot manager could order her robot assistants to create custom messages and offers in each situation, based on the current context and past behaviors of the individual human involved. In essence, each customer has a personal robot following her around, figuring out what’s best for her alone, and then calling on the other robots to make it happen. Whether that's a paradise or nightmare is beyond the scope of this discussion.

In my post a few weeks ago, I was very skeptical that manager robots would be able to coordinate the specialist systems any time soon.  That now strikes me as less of a barrier.  Among other reasons, I’ve seen vendors including Jivox and RevJet introduce systems that integrate large portions of the content creation and delivery workflows, potentially or actually coordinating the efforts of multiple AI agents within the process. I also had an interesting chat with the folks at Albert.ai, who have addressed some of the knottier problems about coordinating the entire campaign process. These vendors are still working with campaigns, not individual-level journey orchestration. But they are definitely showing progress.

As I've become less concerned about the challenges of robot communication, I've grown more concerned about robots making the right decisions.  In other words, the manager robot needs a way to choose what the specialist robots will work on so they are doing the most productive tasks. The choices must be based on estimating the value of different options.  Creating such estimates is the job of revenue attribution.  So it turns out that accurate attribution is a critical requirement for AI-based orchestration.

That’s an important insight.  All marketers acknowledge that attribution is important but most have focused their attention on other tasks in recent years.  Even vendors that do attribution often limit themselves to assigning user-selected fractions of value to different channels or touches, replacing the obviously-incorrect first- and last-touch models with less-obviously-but-still-incorrect models such as “U-shaped”, “W-shaped”,  and “time decay”.  All these approaches are based on assumptions, not actual data.  This means they don’t adjust the weights assigned to different marketing messages based on experience. That means the AI can’t use them to improve its choices over time.

There are a handful of attribution vendors who do use data-driven approaches, usually referred to as “algorithmic”. These include VisualIQ (just bought by Nielsen), MarketShare Partners (owned by Neustar since 2015) Convertro (bought in 2014 by AOL, now Verizon), Adometry (bought in 2014 by Google and now part of Google Analytics), Conversion Logic, C3 Metrics, and (a relatively new entrant) Wizaly. Each has its own techniques but the general approach is to compare results for buyers who take similar paths, and attribute differences in results to the differences between their paths. For example: one group of customers might have interacted in three channels and another interacted in the same three channels plus a fourth. Any difference in results would be attributed to the fourth channel.

Truth be told, I don’t love this approach.  The different paths could themselves the result of differences between customers, which means exposure to a particular path isn’t necessarily the reason for different results. (For example, if good buyers naturally visit your Web site while poor prospects do not, then the Web site isn’t really “causing” people to buy more.  This means driving more people to the Web site won’t improve results because the new visitors are poor prospects.) 

Moreover, this type of attribution applies primarily to near-term events such as purchases or some other easily measured conversion.  Guiding lifetime journey orchestration requires something more subtle.  This will almost surely be based on a simulation model or state-based framework describing influences on buyer behavior over time. 

But whatever the weaknesses of current algorithmic attribution methods, they are at least based on actual behaviors and can be improved over time.  And even if they're not dead-on accurate, they should be directionally  correct. That’s good enough to give the AI manager something to work with as it tells the specialist AIs what to do next.  Indeed, an AI manager that's orchestrating contacts for each individual will have many opportunities to conduct rigorous attribution experiments, potentially improving attribution accuracy by a huge factor.

And that's exactly the point.  AI managers will rely on attribution to measure the success of their efforts and thus to drive future decisions.  This changes attribution from an esoteric specialty to a core enabling technology for AI-driven marketing.  Given the current state of attribution, there's an urgent need for marketers to pay more attention and for vendors to improve their techniques. So if you haven’t given attribution much thought recently, it’s a good time to start.

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* or augments, if you want to be optimistic.