Monday, March 29, 2010

thinkAnalytics Helps Marketers Optimize Customer Treatments

Summary: thinkAnalytics provides a robust decision engine to help make optimal recommendations across channels. Too bad more people don't use it.

As I mentioned in my post on PegaSystems’ acquisition of Chordiant, I’ve been planning for months to write about the thinkAnalytics recommendation system. The delay had nothing to do with any reservations about the product, which I find extremely impressive. It was more because I've been giving the topic low priority because the market for such systems seems to be moving slowly despite the clear benefits they provide.

The history of thinkAnalytics itself illustrates my point nicely. The company was founded in 1996 to offer K.wiz data mining software and had reached pretty much its current form by the early 2000’s. Indeed, the briefing slides the company showed me in mid-2009 were nearly identical its slides from 2007. The company also reported about twenty installations in both sessions. This isn’t to say that product itself has not evolved: it’s now up to version 8.0 and release notes on the company Web site show a steady stream of enhancements. But the fundamental approach has not changed.

This approach uses an “Intelligent Enterprise Server” to connect company touchpoints and data sources to thinkAnalytics’ data mining, recommendations and business rules engines. That is, thinkAnalytics sits outside of the individual touchpoint systems, allowing it to deliver consistent recommendations across all channels. These recommendations in turn are based information from on all data sources, not only those captured within a particular touchpoint system.

The advantages of consistent treatment and access to all company are self-evident. Of course, they do require identifying individuals across channels, so that, say, behavior during Web visits is linked to behavior at a call center. thinkAnalytics doesn’t directly solve this problem, but can make use of whatever linkages the company has built elsewhere. Its most common applications, churn reduction for telecommuncations companies and content recommendations for video-on-demand services, are in situations where customers explicitly identify themselves, so this is not an issue.

The technical hub of thinkAnalytics is the enterprise server, which needs to handle traffic among touchpoints, data sources, and the analytical components. The main issues with such servers are flexibility and scalability. thinkAnalytics addresses these by deploying a component-based architecture that lets it connect with virtually any external systems and can easily be distributed across platforms and servers to scale as necessary. The company says existing installations have scaled to thousands of decisions per second. Its client list is weighted towards very large firms – Vodafone, Virgin Media, Sky, orange, Lloyds TSB, and Alcatel-Lucent among them – who require this sort of volume.

But while the server may be the technical hub of the system, its heart is the analytic components: data mining, recommendations and rules engines. Data mining includes a wide variety of predictive modeling and data visualization capabilities, some fully automated, which feed into the recommendations themselves. The system can also import external predictive models from vendors such as SAS and SPSS. The system includes several specialized capabilities related to video content selection, including automated text analysis to create metadata and classify new content; capture of user preference ratings; handling of social recommendations; maintenance of personal profiles; and user-initiated search. The component-based architecture makes it relatively easy for thinkAnalytics to add specialized features in general, so the system could be adopted to other applications fairly easily.

The rules engine complements the recommendation rankings by letting managers apply constraints such as limiting the number of recommendations within any particular category. However, the system doesn’t provide sophisticated optimization tools, so it’s still up to marketers to manually discover the most effective rule sets.

Although the multi-channel capability of thinkAnalytics is highly impressive, the vendor says that most clients start using it in a single channel and add others a year or two later. This suggests that clients are primarily interested in the quality of the recommendations, and just secondarily in the cross-channel treatment coordination. thinkAnalytics reports that its telecommuncations clients have seen churn rates of 20% drop to 12%, while video-on-demand clients have increased sales between 30% and 55%.

Pricing for thinkAnalytics real-time components depends on the nature of the application. Factors can include the channels and applications, number of data mining users, and customer volume. A minimum installation for the recommendation engine starts around $250,000. The system is licensed for on-premise operation by the client.

The four components of thinkAnalytics (predictive modeling, recommendations, rules and a server to connect with the outside world) make it the very model of what is sometimes called a “decision engine”. As I noted in the Chordiant post mentioned earlier, most companies use the decisioning capabilities built into their touchpoint systems rather than buying a stand-alone product. But it’s still worth keeping the model in mind when assessing whether your touchpoint systems’ capabilities are truly adequate.

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