big data elephant

“Big Data.” It’s a thing. In fact, it’s become such a thing that the term boasts the capitalization of a proper noun. It’s also been invoked by pundits and marketers so often that it’s become one of those buzzwords that come to mean everything and nothing at once.

If you’re anything like me, it’s tempting as a marketer to be a little blasé. After all, we know how the sausage is made, right?  We’re database people. We track offers, response rates, and calculate ROI. We get the importance of empirical decision-making. So, what’s new about big data, besides a new label?

For sure, databases aren’t new. They’ve been a key component of the business tech toolbox since the dawn of computing. But technology changes (spoiler: the Internet, virtualization in the cloud, and cheap storage) changed the data game completely. A decade ago, technology analyst Doug Laney was studying the use of data in business decision-making and marketing. He saw that the use of data was exploding, and he coined the term “big data” to describe this shift. Laney suggested that the challenges and opportunities around data encompass three key dimensions:

  • Volume. Data is the lifeblood of modern businesses. It doesn’t matter where the data comes from—business transactions, public information, Internet and social media activity, and all manner of automated systems—the bottom line is that there’s a lot of it. Businesses now hoard almost every scrap of information that crosses their wires. To quote an old spaghetti sauce TV commercial, “it’s in there.”
  • Velocity. Business are not just saving lots of data, but they’re generating and capturing it faster than ever before. Proximity and location data, app and web site clickstreams, point of sale systems, sensors and smart meters all generate torrents of data in near-real time.
  • Variety. Data comes in all flavors. Not just the structured records used in traditional databases, big data also includes freeform text documents and email, logfiles, API transactions and webhooks, social media posts, photos and videos, DNA sequences, and more. In short: big data encompasses anything that can be digitized. Today, that means nearly anything that exists in the world.

In the past, the cost of storing all of this data and the difficulty of accessing it meant that businesses needed to be stingy with what was recorded, but cheap storage and new technologies have eased the burden to nearly nothing. In short, the amount of data that’s being created and stored on a global level is almost inconceivable, and it just keeps growing.

But what do businesses actually do with all of this information? The truth is, sometimes nothing. But some companies have figured out how to sip from the data firehose to gain a strategic advantage in their business operations or in their marketing and customer relationships.

Their experiences tell us that the strategic value of big data isn’t how much of it there is, but rather how it’s used. Here are some of the real-world use cases:

  • Monitoring production or logistics, detecting problems and defects in near-real time, and taking action before a problem grows.
  • Personalizing customer service or generating offers in real time that reflect the “perishable moments” that combine external triggers and an individual customer’s habits or value to the business.
  • Making financial decisions, optimizing supply chain futures, or recalculating risk exposure in real-time.
  • Detecting fraudulent behavior or risky patterns before they become a liability.

My colleague Rob Marchi helped explain the impact of big data in his talk at SparkPost’s recent Insight user conference. Rob did a great job talking about what it takes to make big data a reality from a systems perspective. And it got me thinking about what big data means for email marketers.

Nearly any business can collect data. Making sense of it is a lot harder. Specialized tools help find patterns in data, but it actually takes the human expertise of data scientists and business and marketing strategists to figure out unique, competitive leverage—and it takes systems that can act on data to achieve it.

But until we break outside a static, list-based approach to defining offers, generating messages, and measuring performance, big data might as well be a hypothetical future rather than a contemporary reality. Until we think about generating messages on demand, measuring individual customer engagement as it happens, and changing offers or messages in real time, most of the benefits of big data will be inaccessible to us.

So, food for thought: how does a world of big data change what you could do with your own email marketing? And what are the capabilities your email infrastructure would need to get there? Let me know—I’d love to hear what you think about big data and email marketing.


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At one of the most anticipated sessions of our annual Insight user conference, SparkPost CMO Steve Dille was joined by a panel of SparkPost customers—all savvy email marketers—to discuss how they are using big data, transactional and triggered email, and SparkPost to reimagine how email drives the entire lifecycle of individual customer engagement with businesses like Zillow, Etsy, and CareerBuilder. Here are some highlights from the discussion of “A Segment of One.”

A Segment of One

Data-Driven Email Marketing and User Engagement

Right out of the gate, it was clear that these data-driven marketers approach email a little differently than more traditional, campaign-focused organizations might. CareerBuilder’s Scott Burdsall noted that his team thinks about email from the perspective of the customer’s inbox. That point of view is crucial, he said, because customers don’t react to discrete marketing programs in isolation from one another; rather, their experience is the sum of all messages he or she receives. For his business, email is the primary source of user traffic, and it’s driven by job seekers wanting to find the right job, right now. By combining information about job openings, individual user interaction patterns, and third-party economic and other data, the company seeks to get that right message in front of the right customer at the right time.

Zillow’s Tara Clark agreed that email is her most important driver of bringing people back and driving reengagement with the site. And, like CareerBuilder, Zillow relies heavily upon a combination of proprietary and third-party data to trigger messages at key points in the home-buying lifecycle. She also sees significant opportunity in identifying what data indicators reveal when a potential seller is about to become active on the site and to use that information to develop a seller-specific messaging strategy.

At Etsy, email marketer Matt Sperling looks at site and transaction behaviors, email engagement patterns, as well as interactions with mobile app push messages to guide his strategy. One challenge for his business is the global nature of the Etsy marketplace—data signals and contextual cues aren’t necessarily the same in every part of the world.

Personalization or Segmentation?

All of this data-driven email led SparkPost’s Steve Dille to ask if one-to-one personalization was necessary, or if more classic segmentation was enough to be successful. At CareerBuilder, Scott Burdsall noted that one-to-one is the nature of the job-seeking business, but that broader segmentation can be an effective approximation for identifying factors like message frequency and content that might be relevant when a user is no longer an active job seeker, for example. Zillow’s Tara Clark pointed out that the very best email programs have room for all types of content: one-to-one, segmented, and bulk marketing, and Matt Sperling of Etsy observed that using segmentation as a means of testing is also an important building block for true one-to-one personalization.

Do You Need Big Data?

As all three marketers noted: data helps! Big data science can lead to unexpected learnings. But, they also reminded us that even the “small data” of listening to individual customers and knowing your audience can be a very good beginning of that road.

What Metrics Are Important?

Although these three businesses are in very different markets, they each reflect variations on a marketplace business model. That commonality leads to some shared metrics for measuring the success of their email programs: revenue, of course, but also crucially bringing buyers and sellers to the table; by driving buyer/user engagement, they create demand for the seller or professional side of the transaction. As such, key metrics for all three include engagement, frequency, conversion on various steps in the lifecycle, and so on—and which in turn help to tune the email cadence, content, and calls to action. (By the way, that virtuous cycle of data, email, and user engagement is something that stands out in most of the successful data-driven marketing examples we’ve seen repeatedly among our customers.)

Challenges, and Looking Ahead

Etsy’s Matt Sperling observed that getting message frequency right is one of the most challenging things for marketers, and that identifying what signals the right frequency for each member has a very large impact on the lifetime value of that customer. And, as both Zillow’s Tara Clark and CareerBuilder’s Scott Burdsall noted, there can be points in the customer lifecycle where the metrics “go dark.” Getting explicit as well as inferred insight into those moments is a key challenge going forward for their businesses, and data-driven marketers in general.

It’s no wonder the ballroom at the conference hotel was jam-packed for this Insight session. The audience was treated to an eye-opening discussion that showed just how far the state of the art has evolved from old-school, bulk email marketing. Plus, it’s clear that the sophistication and respect for their customers’ needs these experts conveyed set a high bar for marketers in every industry.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be digging deeper into the intersection of data-driven marketing and email. Until then, what’s worked (and what hasn’t) for your business when it comes to data-driven marketing? I’d like to hear from you.




Personalization at Every Digital Touchpoint

15984246967_da3cb52c76_zIn the spirit of the title, and because I’m at the Marketing Sherpa Email Summit in rainy Las Vegas, this will be a short post. Ok so reach in your pocket and pull out your mobile phone. Now unlock it and tell me if email is one of the apps on your 1st (home) screen. I bet it is. If the average adult smart phone user has around 80 some odd apps, then email is always on the home screen.

Great, now that we settled that, let’s get onto the meat of this—the perishable moment. Earlier today I saw a great study from Localytics; if you don’t know them, and you have an app, then you should check out what they can do for your mobile initiatives. Turns out that as the snows on the East Coast have fallen, app usage has gone through the roof. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise—quite the contrary it’s completely understandable given that mobile devices are filling in the moments of boredom we experience during the day. The more snow that falls, the more people are stuck at home watching the bleak winter and occupying their time by checking the weather, shopping, checking out photos, checking the weather to see if its safe to go outside, looking at more photos, back to the weather, then maybe some news or reading books, and then back to the weather. See a trend?


So I’m just going to throw this out there: snow days are perishable moments—they represent a distinct moment in time when a specific, regionally isolated event, creates a unique segment of users that should be marketed to differently than everyone else. What, if anything did you do during the snow-pocalypse of 2015? Did you promote snowblowers and warm booties instead of sending the routine 20% off discount that some retailers send with frustrating regularity to everyone, every week, sometimes 3x a week? If you did, then bravo! If you didn’t, then consider yourself on notice.

Perishable moments require data, a sense of creativity, the ability to quickly execute and a measure of ‘carpe diem!’ Email marketers should take a page out of the play books of the mobile crowd and realize that their recipients are more fluid than a defined segment based on age, zip code and gender. Recipients can move in and out of segments quickly based on not just the weather, but recent clicks, opens, browsing history, web activity, purchases or events that transpired the day that someone signed up. These are all defining criteria for micro-segmentation that begins to feel like a personalized approach. Think small, be light on your feet and take advantage of the moment by ensuring you can turn a snow day into a captive audience day.

Headlining the last day of the Interact 2013 conference was the Sponsor Panel by ReturnPath, mBlox, and Liveclicker. While one might see few stragglers wandering in to attend morning sessions on the last day of other conferences, the Sponsor Panel was almost as well attended as the ISP Panel and yielded just as many insights.  Here are some of the highlights from the panel.


Kent Ragen, Vice President, Channels, ReturnPath on Big Data

Kent observed that marketers were spending more on the content side and trying to expand data sources to make better decisions that would move email programs in the right direction. Increasingly, ReturnPath has been telling clients to send more to people who are engaged with the brand so as to maximize mindshare. The most effective marketers are using multi-channel and real-time data sets, as well as implementing well thought out streams that are based on buyer personas. In fact, there are thousands of successful and unsuccessful loyalty programs to look at and learn from. Kent also brought up the problem of phishing as a marketing problem that affects deliverability adversely. The solution? Team up with the IT team and ensure the DMARC standard is in place.

Stacy Adams, VP of Marketing, mBlox on Mobile & Push Messaging

Stacy observed that the issue with big data is siloed marketing organizations where different people own different parts of the puzzle. It is difficult to get all the data into backend systems for all the different departments to utilize, which is critical to get a complete picture of the mobile ecosystem in large brands.

Stacy suggested using email to get to people on a different device such as through a call-to-action to sign up for SMS alerts. SMS is the lowest common denominator as all phones can use SMS. Aside from one’s wallet, the most important personal item for most people is the phone. Only 56% of the population has smart phones at present – so for the other 44%, mobile messaging is exclusively about text messaging. Not surprisingly, there has been enormous growth in transactional notification through SMS. Additionally, consumers are very open to receiving SMS and push messages if the content is relevant and personalized. With push, the consumer has downloaded the app and indicated that they want push notifications ­– they are an opted-in user. It is rare for someone to delete an app because they receive too many push notifications. On the other hand, apps lacking push capabilities register far lower engagement rates than those that do. Ultimately, Stacy advised marketers not to give up on mobile if it does not work at first – just keep using the channel to see what works best.

Justin Foster, Co-founder of Liveclicker on Video in Email

Justin talked about how reducing friction between the content that people want to see and what they have to do to get it is important. Mobile devices do not allow videos to play automatically, and there are many buttons to press.

However, 30-40% more people watch videos if they are embedded, and this is something that can be achieved with the right tools and the right technique. Embedded videos play with a single tap. Shorter clips work better and the best video length is 23 seconds. Currently, there is a content production roadblock, and a need to provide enough relevant content. Marketers can engage with their database by providing advice on best practices with video, subject lines etc.

While the panelists each had specific areas of expertise which they spoke about at length during the panel discussions and debate, they all agreed on one point: responsive design is the next big thing.

Message Systems would like to thank all our Interact 2013 sponsors!

What do we at Message Systems think the next big thing is? Why ensuring that you have a unified messaging platform in place for an effective and cost-efficient mobile engagement strategy of course! Find out more in our webinar, Your Mobile Customer Is Ready To Engage. Are You?


Are you able to define big data? What do you understand about large data sets and big data analysis? And more importantly, how do you work with big data?

These are pertinent questions that most C-level executives are concerned with in an age of big data.  The definition of big data aside, both big data applications and big data analytics are issues that many businesses are grappling with. Dan Bolland, Global Head of Retail Analytics, Barclays, and the first speaker for the Best Practices Track for Interact 2013, provided some key insights for consideration in his session that outlined a pragmatic, incremental approach to big data. Dan drilled down to the operational basics of big data, providing a starting point for businesses wishing to delve deeper into their big data sets.

The 4 Vs of Data – Value, Volume, Variety, Velocity

The value of big data is derived from being able to capture and manage the data. Data can come from different sources and there are different aspects of it to deal with:

  • Volume: Records, transactions, multi-source queries
  • Variety : Channel, internal and external data, structured and unstructured data
  • Velocity: Real time, batch

There are multiple sources of data and they can be quantitative and structured, or qualitative and unstructured, such as in the case of social media. Here are some examples:

  • Social Media
  • Call Centre
  • Direct Mail
  • Online
  • Mobile ATM

How Do You Use Big Data?

Big data can enrich current reports or improve management. Known metrics can be updated on a given frequency, or businesses can allow exploratory analysis to create insight. Here’s the simple three-step process:

  1. Collate multi-source data
  2. Find trends and outliers
  3. Create test to validate discovery

The results can be fed into regular reports or used as the basis to take management action, or insight-driven action.  Think about the actions that enhance relationships with the client or customer… must they be the end result of information collected?

It All Goes Back To Manageability

The world is changing so quickly that what may be true this year, is no longer true a couple of years down the road. It is important to test and learn – consider data visualization. When it comes to testing the art of question creation is key. Clear questions allow you to ascertain customer needs as such it crucial to be clear on what you are trying to test, be it frequency, geography, channel, products or patterns. Specific exam questions are required to set up pragmatically achievable results.

While you can choose to work with big data inhouse or outsource it, both approaches comes with their own set of problems – when it comes to outsourcing, your vendor might not understand your business – it all goes back to manageability.

Working in the finance industry? Check out our webinar on Cross-Channel Banking presented by Forrester Research!

Cross Channel Banking Webinar

Weekly Email Marketing News Digest

In this week’s news, consumer dependence on email is seen through mobile behavior as determined by two separate studies. We also take a look at the missing link in big data strategy and  email marketing best practices that every marketer should take note of before launching a campaign. Oh, and DMARC continues to be in the spotlight! Now that the preview’s over let’s dive in!

Why (And How) Marketers Should Follow DMARC

The DMARC standard now protects almost two-thirds of the world’s 3.3 billion consumer mailboxes worldwide, and was responsible for blocking 325 million unauthenticated messages in November and December 2012 alone. Message Systems Chief Revenue Officer Ralph Lentz dives into the reasons why it’s going to be the industry standard going forward.

Big Data’s Big Omission

Customer identity management is crucial to big data strategy. Customer identity and relationship management is built upon the foundation from three pieces of data: email addresses, postal addresses, and phone numbers. While cookies are important, they are not the be-all and end-all in big data. The crux?

When it comes to big data strategy, email is a necessary component.

85% of Smartphone Users Would Rather Give up Water Than Mobile Apps

Give up mobile apps? Not a chance. 82% of respondents in a mobile app survey say there are critical apps they can’t go without — not even for one day. Those include email (57%), Facebook (41%) and alarm clock apps (31%).


7 Don’ts for Email Marketers

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But you can teach email marketers to optimize their campaigns according to these best practice guidelines:

  • Don’t forget the channel changers. Help your customers send information to another device, set reminders, or use email content while in your store. Cross-channel messaging anyone?
  • Don’t drop the data. Collect device usage data and develop a plan to associate opens, clicks, and conversions to specific mobile devices.
  • Don’t write a book: You can’t expect subscribers to consume massive amounts of text on their mobile devices.
  • Don’t overlook transactional messages: Order and shipping confirmations are sent during a peak engagement period of the customer life cycle. These are highly personal. Consumers are excited over their purchases and open these emails.
  • Don’t short the shortcuts: Test your messages to confirm that mobile subscribers can easily click through to track their orders, call customer service, or get directions to your nearest store.
  • Don’t put prices in pictures: Putting essential information such as pricing, deadlines, and calls-to-action inside images is a big mistake in the mobile age.
  • Don’t say the word ‘blast’ in regard to email marketing.

68% of people use their smartphone for email, 26% for shopping

Want to see how smartphone usage in the US and UK differs? The Nielsen Mobile Consumer Survey has the answer.

In US, the percentage of people who use their phones for:

  • Text – 86%
  • Mobile web – 82%
  • Email – 75%
  • Social networking – 63%

In UK, the percentage of people who use their phones for:

  • Text – 92%
  • Mobile web – 66%
  • Email – 75%
  • Social networking – 63%

As you can see the biggest gap lies in the use of mobile web, where common use is higher by 16% in the US. Text messaging in UK is higher than in the US by 6%.

nielsen-devices-we-use     nielsen-apps-we-use

What do you use your smartphone for? Let us know in the comments below! And if your business is embarking upon a mobile-centric drive to attract new customers, we’d encourage you to have a look at our white paper on mobile messaging – it brings up points of consideration to make your mobile marketing strategy a success.

The New Communications Standard