In Perfect Harmony: Making the Big Data Advantage Work

Six tips for incorporating Big Data into your company. Data analytics is becoming an important component for sales and marketers in both large and small companies.


by Charles Luna

A few years ago, it was common for the retail sales force at MillerCoors to spend their Sundays pulling data from up to eight different Excel spreadsheets to build reports for their weekly sales visits.

But because the data was locked behind the company’s virtual private network, they could not export the reports to their laptops to share with customers during sales calls, which typically occurred while leaning over a bar and lasting just five minutes. 

Convinced it could boost sales if it could find a better way of sharing its insights with retailers, MillerCoors partnered with Tableau Software to roll out cloud-based analytics tools to its sales force. The project worked so well that the company moved from pilot stage to deploying the tool companywide within 90 days without having to make massive IT investments. 

Today, hundreds of the company’s sales reps routinely pull down sales reports from the field.

According to a case study published by Tableau, the MillerCoor’s team said, “In the parking lot, 15 minutes before their meeting, they can pull down the full sales report and pull together some key opportunities to help our retailer grow the size and value of their beer category.”  


What About the Little Guy?

That’s all fine and dandy for corporations with huge IT budgets, you say, but what about companies like mine that may lack such scale? When will we be able to gain access to that type of technology?

Probably sooner than you think, says Rita Sallam, Gartner Inc.’s Big Data guru. In a blog post last summer, Sallam argued that a decade-long migration away from IT-centric reporting platforms reached a tipping point last year as a critical mass of “high-performance” companies began pushing analytics tools out to their business units to empower brand, product, sales, marketing and other managers. 

Sallam says that of 180 people who attended an analytics webinar she hosted last summer, 53 percent planned to significantly expand such “self-service analytics” offerings in 2017. Another 37 percent said they were just starting to deploy such tools. She expects more will roll out data visualization tools and dashboards that translate natural language into the arcane structured query languages used to mine Access, Oracle, Sybase and other relational database management systems. 

People, regardless of their role, will be empowered to wear many hats, from consuming data on dashboards to performing their own ad hoc analysis, to sharing their findings with others, according to Tableau, whose tools can be used for analyzing and visualizing data and embedding analytics dashboards into third-party CRM, sales and marketing automation platforms such as


Heavy Lifting

For companies just beginning to use analytics, achieving that vision will require a lot of heavy lifting. In the last decade, global corporations have invested billions of dollars to make sales, marketing, customer service, warranty, financial and other data stored in separate silos accessible to the entire enterprise.

By and large, they remain convinced that harnessing Big Data is the key to their future.

IBM-sponsored surveys show the percentage of respondents who use data to gain a competitive advantage are on the rise. One survey showed that 91 percent of senior corporate marketers believe successful brands used customer data to drive marketing decisions.

Respondents also said a lack of sharing such data within their organizations made it difficult to measure return on marketing investments. In 2013, a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that 45 percent of executives view marketers’ limited competence in data analysis as a major obstacle to implementing more effective strategies. 

That same year, analytics entrepreneur Wes Nichols wrote an article published by Harvard Business Review that argued global brands still were misallocating millions of dollars by failing to recognize changing consumer behavior.

“The company hadn’t grasped the notion that ads increasingly interact,” says Nichols, a co-founder and then CEO of the analytics vendor Marketshare. “For instance, a TV spot can prompt a Google search that leads to a click-through on a display ad that, ultimately, ends in a sale.”


Aligning Sales and Marketing

“In the future, the real value of an organization will not necessarily lie in the products it sells, but rather in the data it collects,” says Dawn Edmiston, clinical associate professor of marketing at the Mason School of Business of The College of William & Mary. “So companies need to work to align sales and marketing to ensure that they understand the value of capturing such data and leveraging that data to deliver a truly omnichannel customer experience.”  

That realization is fueling a boom in spending on infrastructure, cloud-based solutions, training and talent that’s changing how the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) describes some marketing occupations.

In 2014, BLS forecasted that the number of “market research analysts and marketing specialists” working in U.S. business and financial operations – or outside of IT departments – will increase by 92,300, or 18.6 percent, to nearly half a million between 2014 and 2024. 

The field is growing so fast that the bureau will begin excluding web or digital interface designers, public relations specialists, art directors and graphic designers from the categories starting next year.

Going forward the category will refer exclusively to workers who gather information to determine potential sales of a product or service, or plan a marketing or advertising campaign. 

“They may gather information on competitors, prices, sales, and methods of marketing and distribution or employ research-marketing tactics, analyze web metrics and develop recommendations to increase search engine ranking and visibility to target markets,” according to the new description. 


The Training Boom

The growing role of Big Data is sending droves of sales and marketing professionals back to school to brush up on their computer skills, says Karla Shields, executive director of Computer Technology Institute for Central Piedmont Community College’s Corporate and Continuing Education (CCE) division.

Enrollment in technical courses that up-skill people in advanced Excel, SQL, and SAS has grown about 35 percent annually at Central Piedmont Community College since 2012, when it began offering them in response to huge demand from businesses. 

The curriculum includes instruction on how to retrieve, manipulate, and visualize data with tools such as Microsoft Power BI and Tableau. The college is seeing similar enrollment growth in their CCI Business Analysis certification course offered in partnership with a for-profit training company endorsed by the International Institute of Business Analysts. The curriculum includes instruction on how to use cloud-based tools such as Microsoft Power BI, Tableau, SQL and SAS programming.

“These are individuals who have degrees, what we call emerging professionals,” Shields says. “Their median age is 34 to 40.” Smaller companies are sending employees to learn how to use Microsoft’s Excel and Power BI. “A lot of smaller businesses are comfortable with Excel, which is a very powerful tool,” Shields says. “And when you partner that with Power BI, you can visualize data.”

CPCC’s Online Marketing Certified Professional certification program is particularly hot. The program offers certificates for social and mobile marketing, digital analytics and conversion, paid search and search marketing. 

“I think what’s happening, especially with cloud-based products, is that there is so much data we can gather that is now moving into marketing and sales,” Shields says. “The certification that is really big right now is Digital Analytics and Conversion Professional. The software tools are becoming easier and easier to use, but in order to be successful in your job today, you have to know technology.”

Tips for Big Data Harmony

1 Get buy-in from IT

It’s essential to get buy-in from IT and then empower them to reorganize how the organization collects, stores and governs access to data to ensure it’s accessible across the enterprise. 

2 Commit to creating a sharing culture

Develop an organizational culture that promotes the sharing of data. Data analysts want to work in an organization that recognizes the value of their efforts across the enterprise, and sales executives want to work in an organization where they have access to data that will support their success.

3 Anticipate disruption

Implementing a sharing culture is likely to ruffle some feathers given people’s tendency to hoard information. It also has the potential to create jurisdictional tensions between sales and marketing. Make sure your sales and marketing teams sit down with your IT lead to map out who will do what and how they’ll share business intelligence to avoid duplication of effort.  

4 Tinker

Most cloud-based analytics vendors offer free trial subscriptions and an abundance of online training. Ask your resident Excel gurus to sign up for a few and begin learning about what’s out there, what it can do and how much it costs. 

5 Recruit for the future

Regardless of where your company is with analytics, sales and marketing managers should expand their talent search to candidates with strong backgrounds in math, statistics and business analysis. 

6 Be ready to invest

For sales and marketing departments, harnessing Big Data is not about cutting costs through automation. It’s about making substantial investments in people and technology in a bid to keep up with or overtake the competition. It requires hiring analysts who can pull and organize data, write or use programs to analyze the data and create graphics to visualize the data so it can be shared. These analysts typically have backgrounds in mathematics, statistics and computer programming and they don’t come cheap. There also is the cost of training sales reps and other front-line employees on how to use whatever tools you deploy.

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