Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Clarifying the Differences Between Database and Digital Marketing

Summary: Database and digital marketing are both data-driven. But they differ in plenty of other ways that make it hard for specialists in one to adapt smoothly to the other. Here's a detailed look at the differences.

Yesterday’s long (or merely long-winded?) post described the different mindsets of database and digital marketers but it was pretty short on differences between the two marketing methods themselves. Today I’ll try to be more concrete.

DB or Not DB

Database marketing is built around a marketing database that contains addressable, identifiable individuals. By “addressable”, I mean there is information such as a mailing address or phone number that lets the marketer contact the individual. By “identifiable”, I mean information is available to link data about the same individual from multiple sources. Addresses are the most common identifiable information, although there are also non-address identifiers such as Social Security Number. Addresses and identifiers are both required: a database without addresses couldn’t be used for most marketing, and a set of records that can’t be linked to other sources is just a list.

The consolidated database is the heart of the database marketing concept. Data from multiple sources lets database marketers make more effective predictions about the best treatments for each individual, and treatments across multiple channels are more effective when they are coordinated centrally. The marketing database contains attributes (age, income, location, etc.) and behaviors (promotion responses, purchases, customer service interactions, etc.). It can certainly include digital activities such as Web page views and social media comments, so long as these can be linked back to a known individual.

Digital marketing does not use a database of addressable, identifiable individuals. It may gather information from one source and even track it over time for the same entity. (Example: Web site behavior tied to a browser cookie.) But unless the entity can be linked to other sources through an identifier, the digital marketer can only make treatment decisions based on information captured in the source channel itself. This is far from useless – behavioral and contextual targeting can be quite powerful. But from a database marketing perspective, the data is frustratingly incomplete.

Addressable Media

Database marketing only works in addressable media: that is, where a message can sent to a specific individual. Addressable media include direct mail, email, outbound telemarketing, and customer service interactions. They can also include digital channels such as Web pages, mobile messages, kiosks and ATM machines, but ONLY where the recipient is known before a message is sent. Thus, a Web page that has identified me because I’ve registered and logged in (manually or via a cookie) is addressable; a Web page that I visit anonymously, even if it recognizes me as a previous visitor from a cookie, is not addressable.

Digital marketing includes many non-addressable media, including paid and organic search, Web banner advertising, social media, and anonymous forms of Web sites, kiosks, mobile (e.g., location-based messages), and the rest. These generate plenty of useful data, such as click through rates, search rankings, sentiment analysis, and page views. But this data and related analysis are quite different from what database marketers are used to.

Prediction vs Reaction

Database marketers have the rich information needed to accurately predict which offers are most appropriate for each customer. Combined with their access to customer addresses, this allows them to initiate effective outbound marketing campaigns and to define static rules for interactive dialogs. Note that in most addressable media (mail, email, outbound telemarketing), the offer must be selected before the customer is actually contacted, and making multiple offers often reduces response. So database marketers have strong reasons to work on making highly accurate predictions.

By definition, digital marketers cannot target outbound campaigns at individuals. They do have opportunities to manage interactions, but often know only what has happened during the current interaction itself. This greatly reduces their ability to make predictions. Instead, they present multiple options and react as people respond. Happily, most digital media are inherently interactive, so this is a practical approach. Since rule-based decision flows are less viable as the number of options increases, digital marketers lean more heavily on self-adjusting automated decision engines.

Message Control

Database marketers directly control the messages they send to each customer. This is yet another factor that helps to justify the costs of building a comprehensive database, running sophisticated predictive models and precisely customizing each message.

Digital marketers have vastly less control over who sees what. Much of their messaging is blind to the audience who will see it, or can only be targeted on limited information about behavior or context. Indeed, some of the most effective and intriguing digital marketing techniques, such as viral campaigns and shareable widgets, rely on distribution that's totally beyond the marketer's control. Social media provide even less control, since the messages themselves are composed outside the company. The net result of all this is to reduce the degree of individual targeting that digital marketers can execute.

Response Measurement

Database marketers can typically capture response to a promotion directly, with a coupon, telephone call or Web click. Even when they can’t, their database still ultimately tells them who bought what, so they can correlate the promotions they’ve addressed to an individual with that individual’s subsequent behavior. The ability to do precise response measurement is yet another factor that lets database marketers fine-tune their programs.

Digital marketers can also measure who clicks on a Web ad, and sometimes can track that person further into the buying cycle. But they don’t know what other promotions or social media that person saw, what else they purchased, who else saw the same promotion but didn’t respond, or who responded through some other channel. All these uncertainties leave digital marketers reliant on indirect measures, such as consumer panels and surveys, which are more typical of conventional mass media. These are approaches that most database marketers would find almost laughably imprecise.

What’s It All Mean?

Database marketers and digital marketers both have plenty of data and the good ones are highly analytical. Both can apply advanced statistical techniques and rigorous testing methods. Both can work to integrate their data and their customer strategies across channels. To some extent, they even work with the same media: in particular, a Web site can support both digital (anonymous) and database-driven (addressable) marketing programs.

Yet despite these similarities and interactions, the two groups work in largely different media, use different techniques and have different priorities. Database marketing is inherently more controlled and precise; digital marketing is more fluid. Good marketers will learn to apply both. But individuals who have specialized in any one area will find it hard to adjust to the other. At a minimum, they’ll need to be conscious that the old rules don’t apply.

Adjustment is even harder for organizations, who will have invested in specialized systems, processes and people to support one technique or the other. This, in my opinion, is why the leading database marketing vendors have not been the leading digital marketing vendors. Which, if you’ll recall, was where I started this discussion.

One final point: there's no reason the same organization or individual can't master both database and digital marketing. That is, although there are major differences between the two, there is no fundamental conflict. My point in these articles is simply that it will take conscious effort to address the differences and fill the gaps that they imply.


Marketing Insight Guy said...

I've read this series of posts with fascination David, and contrary to the comment yesterday's post received, I'm inclined to your point of view. What's less clear to me though is what this means? If database marketing is about capturing data and using it to drive subsequent interactions, then should "digital" marketing be another data source? As you say, "digital marketers...have opportunities to manage interactions, but often know only what has happened during the current interaction itself", which as you point out is certainly valuable. But if these interactions can be related back to an "addressable, identifiable" individual, can the baton then be passed to database marketers? Website behavior and even social media activity, if/once linked to an individual, can inform future engagement, even if this is what is presented at the next website visit (as opposed to an old-school "push" message, like email.)

Existing marketing automation platforms, such as Eloqua, already track anonymous visitors and tie them to an identity once it's established, of course. So perhaps this is where database and digital marketers need to engage each other, feeding from each other's ability to capture, store and react to prospect and customer engagement in a virtuous circle of every greater insight. And hopefully the individuals at the center of all this (let's not loose sight of them!) benefit from this, with relevant, timely communications. Which is surely what we're all trying to achieve?

David Raab said...

I totally agree. Digital interactions should be posted to a central database and linked to identifiable, addressable individuals whenever possible. This should be a major priority, and both the Coremetrics and Alterian surveys suggest that many marketers recognize this.

What prompted the posts is my belief that many marketers fail to recognize that the two groups of marketers are very different, which will lead them to underestimate the challenges in getting the two groups to cooperate. Specifically, there's a risk that digital marketers will discount the value of the central database, and that database marketers will discount the value of any data that can't be linked to an individual. Both errors would reduce the chances of companies investing in that central database, even if they recognize that a perfect one would be useful in theory.

The other point I was trying to make is that it's easier for marketers to work in both types of channels than it is for vendors: the marketers can just hire separate agencies for each, while a vendor must expand its capabilities into an unfamiliar area. The ExactTarget survey showed that very clearly. I'm not saying it's impossible for one vendor to do both, but, again, just trying to make people aware that it's not a natural extension of either business.