The monitor wizards

Technology has made the implementation of field marketing campaigns far more dynamic, now that clients and agencies can keep an eye on the progress of the job and make adjustments based on up-to-the-minute information. By Steve Hemsley

Predicting sales levels for an animated video featuring a sloth, a mammoth and a sabre-toothed tiger that club together to rescue a toddler after his mother drowns in a river was always going to be a challenge.

Ice Age was a flagship Christmas release for Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. And with up to 50 per cent of sales for any new video or DVD taking place in the first week of release – and about 18 per cent usually secured on day one – the pressure was on its agency Sure Field Marketing.

Gone are the days when clients were prepared to wait for days or even weeks for news on the best-performing stores, updates on compliance levels for point-of-purchase (PoP) material or information on where stock problems might have cost sales.

The introduction of new field marketing technology in the past two years means clients can now demand real-time information so they can make strategic decisions and liaise with retailers as a campaign progresses.

Sure used PDAs connected to Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones to transmit data to a dedicated website after every store visit. The constantly updated reports could be accessed at any time by Twentieth Century Fox trade marketing controller David Stevens and his team.

Digital cameras can be attached to the PDAs, so clients can view their own PoP displays and those of their competitors. A barcode scanner can also be added to recognise products and count units, reducing the length – and therefore the cost – of each retail call.

Stevens says: “By noon on the first day, we had pictures of the displays, compliance data and early sales results from the stores we had identified as crucial, as well as information on how our competitors’ titles were performing.”

Ice Age went on to achieve first-week sales of more than 280,000 (source: The Official UK Charts Company) and by Christmas it had passed the million-unit mark, finishing 2002 as the year’s sixth-most successful video and DVD title.

Revolution in the field

Few areas of the marketing industry have been transformed by new technology as much as field marketing. Agencies such as Sure have invested in bespoke systems that provide impressive data analysis for clients whose own IT teams do not have the resources or budgets to compete.

The reports, made available via password-secure websites or intranet services, can be tailored to match a company’s existing reporting style or set up to meet the specific requirements of a particular decision-maker.

“Any company involved in the business of outsourced sales and merchandising is really out of the game if they do not have the technology to provide fast data analysis. Field marketing agencies have to be the eyes and ears of their clients in store,” says Mike Hughes, managing director of field marketing agency CPM.

The information gathered using this technology is increasingly being used to plan future direct marketing and sales promotion campaigns.

FDS Field Marketing managing director James Moyies says: “Clients have far more control nowadays. They now have the power to alter the direction of a promotion or product launch on a daily basis. They can modify the questions being asked in store and put changes into action immediately.”

LoewyBe is one of a number of companies using journey-planning software devised by California-based CACI. The agency identifies which stores are the most relevant to a campaign and the software then chooses which shops individual field staff should visit based on how close outlets are to each other. CACI’s research has shown that field sales staff can spend more than 40 per cent of their working day driving. “Clients can add or delete a visit at the last minute without too much disruption, because the drive-times and mileage are revised automatically,” says managing director Sharon Richey.

Preventing alcohol abuse

During a promotion to raise the in-store profile of its drinks brands, Allied Domecq contracted PMI FM to use an internet-based reporting system to ensure display units were erected and correctly positioned in 900 stores, to monitor stock levels and to make sure retail staff were aware of price promotions. More than 100 field merchandisers were recruited to provide account and brand-specific results within 24 hours.

Allied Domecq sales director Steve Howard shared information with retail managers as the campaign went on. “We were able to keep a close eye on what was happening in all the stores and resolve any issues,” he says.

PDA reporting is not as cost-effective as using interactive voice recognition (IVR) telephone data collection or SMS messaging. With IVR, feedback is less immediate and the system does require more input from people in the field, but clients can still receive reports within 48 hours. PMI FM says its telephone hotlines, where field staff key in information via an automated call centre, is particularly popular for tactical campaigns.

Cellular success

The possibilities offered by the mobile phone, however, are exciting field marketers. SMS has emerged as a reliable medium for collecting and reporting data, with field staff sending information to a processing centre or a dedicated client website where it is translated into spreadsheet reports.

Promostaff is one agency which has increased its use of SMS in recent months. Clients can monitor activity in multiple locations around the country throughout the day, but costs are kept down because field staff are told to text information at specific times.

An SMS reporting system was central to Promostaff’s involvement in the launch of the Nectar loyalty card. In the first few weeks of the campaign, SMS data enabled Nectar to monitor stock levels of sign-up packs at different stores.

When the Nectar website suffered problems during the launch, Promostaff sent out text messages to its field staff telling them how to deal with consumer enquiries about the internet site and to encourage people to sign up using the packs instead.

The success of the mobile phone in delivering data quickly and effectively has encouraged a number of agencies to test more advanced GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) technology. GPRS offers a faster service than traditional GSM phones and means a greater volume of data can be sent at once, so clients receive the information they need quicker.

Sure director Richard Finch says: “We are test marketing GPRS. The early indications are that data transfer is faster and our costs are lower. When we originally specified our hardware, we ensured it could be transferred from standard mobiles and PDAs to GPRS at little extra cost.”

Traditional field marketers warn, however, that IT is there to support campaigns and that a promotion should never revolve around new technology.

Don’t lose sight of the objective

Headcount Worldwide Field Marketing has invested significantly in IT in recent years but managing director Mike Garnham says that despite the obvious opportunities for data collection, agencies and clients must remember that field marketing is about increasing sales.

He says: “Technology is useful if it tells us which stores are not worth visiting or which outlets we should be investing more time in, but there is a danger clients will want information collected for the sake of it.”

Technology has given clients immediate results they can act upon and at the same time has provided agencies with efficiency savings. It means area managers can monitor the performance of individuals within their field sales team more closely.

Yet as the sloth, mammoth and the sabre-toothed tiger discovered when they overcame treacherous ice tunnels and boiling lava pits in their Ice Age adventure: tools are useful, but creative thinking and quick-wittedness are invaluable.

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