Put to good use

Nifty palm-top gadgets and experienced field operators may well be speeding up the acquisition of in-store data, but confident, targeted analysis remains the real currency.

Field marketers are becoming increasingly adept at gathering and storing vital retail data for their clients. The ability to mine this data for trends and clues to customer behaviour is good news for those who commission the field marketers, but they risk being overwhelmed by pages and pages of intelligence unless the package includes skilful and targeted analysis.

Good analysis has more to do with gut instinct than companies like to think, claims Paul Narraway, managing director of MDI.

“With the evolution of data and the comfort factor that it provides, people have lost sight of the fact that marketing is an art, not a science. It is good to use as much data as you possibly can, but the key to successful marketing and great brand development is being able to break new ground. It’s about interpretation of the data and having the confidence in the offering to jump into the dark,” he says.

As clients have begun to demand more data, Narraway believes there has been a corresponding drop in the analysis and the creative use of what is gleaned.

“You never see clients ditch data, but I think that the focus on computer hardware and software has overlooked the soft machine, which is the person who uses it all. We’ve got all this kit around us but Einstein didn’t have massive computers, nor did some of the great marketers. Sometimes, quick anecdotal analysis before you’ve even captured the daily figures is much more relevant than loads of data a week later.”

Properly targeted data-capturing techniques reduce the margin for error, says Steve Smith of Quest Field Marketing, which has equipped its field force with WAP phones.

“We had to invest a fair amount in training our field teams to use the mobile phone technology which links the data to an intranet site. We ran a pilot programme for a number of weeks to make sure that the data was accurate. This was important because the information comes through in real time and there is no opportunity for people to query it.”

The system has been tested on Quest client Nestlé’s vending machine network.

Smith says, “From Nestlé’s point of view, it takes about two minutes to complete the in-store audit, whereas previously it would have had to wait a couple of weeks to build up a picture. It’s just a slightly enhanced method of data collection. The real benefit is speed.”

Unless data gathering technology makes the sales person’s life simpler, it is not worth the investment, says GSD Momentum manager Derek Noakes.

“Any technology must save time against paper or other reporting methods. The real value to us comes when the data hits the central server and we can process it more quickly. Our sales people need to be able to turn their palm-sized PC on in the morning and pick up enough historical data to be able to set their objectives when they go into the next call. They should not become bogged down with data and analysis, otherwise data gathering becomes more than ten or 15 per cent of the cost of the visit, which is too high.”

Good support

Noakes points out that the volume of data gathered is not really the issue, because data can be stored at no cost.

“The real pressure comes with using the data to its best effect. For example, we can demonstrate on a daily basis how we are running against the ratio agreed with the client. The problem is that it’s difficult to measure ongoing volume that you may create through distribution. You have to estimate it, using data to support your conclusions.”

It is important to have a strong link between data and analysis, says Richard Thompson, chairman of Mosaic Technology, which has a system of intranets that allows clients to browse through a list of reports that they can generate at their discretion.

This new system has led to a greater demand for trained analysts who can ask the right questions to elicit the information clients are looking for, says Thompson. He sees no problem in the ever-proliferating pools of data that accompany the wider choice that the intranets offer.

“The client is never confronted by the data, only by a choice of reports. We may offer 100 possible reports, but they might only ever ask for three or four. It’s just reassuring for them to be able to audit us. You never know when they might need to lay their hands on extra data. It acts as insurance and with the ever lower cost of data collection, it’s not costing the client any more to collect it. Even with all this capacity, we still only employ three analysts, although considering the amount of data we churn through, that may grow.”

Investment in systems and data is clearly one of field marketing’s big selling points, says Alison Williams, group managing director of FDS Field Marketing.

“Field marketing is totally accountable because people know exactly how we spend their budget and the results they get from it. The collection of data is extremely important in this regard, and we spend a lot of time analysing it.”

The need for analytical skills is not restricted to back office staff, says Williams.

“We need skilled technical people to be able to capture the real-time data and cope with any issues that this process throws up. They also need to be able to write the reports in the format that the client wants them.”

Although the volume of data collected is greater than ever, she says a great deal of effort goes into deciding what is shown to the client.

“It’s important to give clients the information they want, but in bite-sized chunks. This is where it is important to have a very clear understanding of the account and the client’s objectives. Otherwise, you could be looking at data for a long time and be thoroughly bogged down with the figures.”

Field marketing companies add a great deal of value to their service by thorough analysis of the information they gather, says CPM managing director Tom Preece.

“Through our analytical system, we enable clients to decide where to put their next pound of resource. We can identify which retailers are meeting their targets and which ones aren’t and also try to show which offer the best potential for a particular client.”

To add value in this way, he says field marketing staff need increasingly to have analytical minds.

Analytical minds

“We have found that the market research sector is a reasonably good area to recruit people with the ability to take information and turn it into actionable data, rather than leaving it in piles of information which the client doesn’t have time to sort through. It’s more related to business expertise, to understanding what the client is trying to do and how to help. With good analysis, less data is produced but it is more useful.”

Data sharing is an attractive option to companies that want to devote more attention to analysis than to the mechanics of information gathering, says David Craft, managing director of The Knowledge Store.

“There are questions about return on investment with any field sales activity, because field forces cost an enormous amount of money.

“It is a problem for any manufacturer in the UK to keep a database up to date on the 65,000 outlets in a market where there is a great deal of churn in ownership and a very high store closure rate. No single company can do that particularly well.”

The Knowledge Store offers a system of sharing non-sensitive information among its subscribers, with data from one company often benefiting others in the pool.

“Companies buy our data to get the freshest information available in the market. We might send a field force out for one company one week and for another four weeks later. The second will benefit from knowing whether any stores called on for the first company were closed, for example. Our aim is to enable companies to use data effectively.”

With this type of facility available to companies, the traditional door-to-door model of field marketing looks woefully obsolete, even now that most of the major field forces carry the latest palm-top technology with them. With good in-store data increasingly available at the click of a mouse, high-quality targeted analysis is likely to make the crucial difference for clients deciding between competing field marketing services.

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