Consumer interactions with brands are constantly evolving and the data trails they leave behind are growing longer and longer. As such, data management technology is now a requirement for most businesses. But how do marketers ensure their data management systems and processes are led by business needs, rather than technology dictating their customer strategy?

It comes as no surprise that data factors heavily in Royal Mail’s business plans. The company delivers 13 billion letters and 1 billion parcels to 29 million addresses annually. The mailing company’s continuing use of data has led it to develop a large and ongoing transformation programme.

“Through our management of the ‘Postcode Address File’, we were operating with the principles of big data before it had even been named as such,” says Ben Rhodes, director of customer marketing at Royal Mail. “So we have always had a healthy approach to business needs driving technology requirements, rather than the other way round.”

In order to ensure its business is agile and able to respond to present and emerging customer trends, Royal Mail continues to invest significantly in data-driven transformation.

“We see effective data management as increasingly important to the business as we look to deliver a faster and more personalised experience for the customer,” says Rhodes. “Our strategic priorities are being a successful parcels business, putting value back into letters and being customer-focused, so our IT colleagues are firmly focused on delivering these outcomes by using technology.”

Linking up channels

In the digital age, most brands rely more heavily on email than printed letters. Much of hotel brand Best Western’s marketing activity from a retention and growth perspective uses its customer relationship management (CRM) database and email as a channel to drive incremental revenue. Despite its reliance on data management technology, the brand says that in an ideal world, some aspects would be different.

“The technology we have in terms of a database and the email platform does what we need,” explains Jim Muir, head of marketing at Best Western GB. “However, we have constraints on how it integrates with the website and we’re not as advanced as we would like to be in terms of linking all the channels up.”

Muir hopes that the brand will overcome these obstacles over the next 12 months and is building a plan to achieve this. He advocates a method of working backwards: first, asking how technology can help with a particular challenge, relating that to where the brand is on its roadmap; and then determining which valuable changes can be made to its data management systems and processes without significant investment.

This pragmatic approach might also mean challenging technology vendors, which Kenneth Cukier, co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, believes is necessary. “It takes a lot of self-confidence as a business to stand up to your technology vendor and say ‘wait, this isn’t right for us’,” suggests Cukier. “It may also be expensive to do: adapting technology kit to one’s specific needs means a lot of customisation, and that isn’t cheap but the payback in performance is usually worth it.”

Giffgaff’s 2015 student campaign by Big DB. The brand aims to send the right message when the consumer has the right intent

The topic is close to Gatwick Airport’s heart. In a bid to be ‘London’s Airport of Choice’, Gatwick is focused on how data can improve a customer’s journey at every stage. Airports in particular need to have the correct data systems in place in order to tailor services to their consumer needs.

For Gatwick, this translates into being able to identify its passengers as individuals and then overlay its operational data in order to move from a generic to a customised experience. That might mean information specific to each person’s flight or food and drink options.

“We are undertaking a business-wide audit of our data management systems to ensure they meet our business needs,” says Jo Patterson, head of marketing at Gatwick Airport. “Data management systems are the missing link in connecting individuals to broader systems of communication.”

Solving business challenges

Alison Esposti, head of acquisition at giffgaff, believes technology linking to a brand’s business needs is about ‘the art of the possible’. Giffgaff is not as advanced in its data journey as it would like to be but believes it has all the ingredients ready. “It is about how much data you can get hold of and what you plan to do with it,” she explains. “We have the technology and the data, we just need to leverage it.”

Giffgaff works closely with Google using the Google Stack, including DoubleClick products and Google Tag Manager. Its programmatic vision is to go to market with the right message to the right person at the right time and place and, critically, when that consumer has the right intent. “What you have to plug into that system is crucial,” says Esposti. “That is why the big data environment we are building will offer really targeted and relevant communications to members and potential members.”

Intelligent use of CRM data has been instrumental in ITV moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach for products and services, as well as being able to deliver relevant targeted advertising. “I get invited to big data conferences every day and there is no shortage of people who can help solve your business challenges,” says Steve Forde, director of marketing and experience for online at ITV. “The key thing is being clear about what your business challenges are.”

ITV’s primary business objective is to get people to spend more time on the channel. Data is invaluable in ensuring the brand can understand its viewers better, and it uses this to connect viewers to programmes that they know about or do not know well, and to sell relevant advertising around them. Developing a deep understanding of its customer and a sophisticated, agile approach to connecting with them requires more than a little thought.

Forde believes CRM programmes are more accessible now because current data storage and usage technology is robust and, compared to even five years ago, good value. However, obstacles remain: “Part of the  challenge is processing the data, asking the right questions, getting the right outputs to communicate the right messages and making sure everything is plugged into each other,” notes Forde.

“The other is data storytelling. We need to get the data out and visualise it in the right way so people throughout the business can understand it. We can then delve deeper into other things.”

The old adage ‘knowledge is power’ has never been truer. For marketers, gaining the edge on the competition comes from harnessing the technology available to extract, interpret and act on that knowledge.

What marketing applications does Guardian News & Media use its customer data for?

We recently created a detailed segmentation to understand our existing customer base (likely buyers) and our newer online audience (new potentials). Armed with that data, we have been able to build propensity models to help us prioritise the marketing order of our products and services. As a result, our unique click-throughs on emails have increased by 50%, and email marketing revenue has increased by 100%.

We used this approach when we launched the new Guardian Bookshop, which has been built to target our book-buying audience. Across our key performance statistics, we saw gross revenues up by 60%, unique purchases increase by over 130% and the mobile conversion rate rise by 137%.

How important is it to ensure data management systems and processes are led by business needs?

It is critical that business needs are taken into account when building data management systems. Such projects are complex and expensive at the best of times, so having a clear purpose and set of realistic outcomes is paramount.

Are there any particular challenges to making sure your strategy dictates how you use technology, rather than the capabilities of technology dictating strategy?

Having a strategy is important – that may sound obvious, but not everyone thinks through what outcomes they want to deliver. As a business person, you need to familiarise yourself with what the technology can do. That may involve asking endless questions but you need to understand what the technology can and cannot deliver.

What are your key principles for getting this right?

First, get back to basics and understand what outcomes you want to deliver. Second, don’t try  to do too much: keep your requirements based on what you need to do, rather than what you would like to do. Third, make sure you have a coherent business case for the investment in technology. Fourth, ask as many questions as you need to in order to understand each element of the technology. Fifth, make sure you speak to your network and benchmark what is being suggested against what other people have achieved.

Last of all, if no one else is doing what your technology team is proposing, be afraid. Are you sure that you are not asking for the impossible?

Every day of their lives consumers are creating data points with brands – be it through clicking on an ad while browsing their preferred social network or using a loyalty card in-store. As the digital world expands, data sets become broader and present a bigger challenge. The goal for every marketer today is to gather the most useful and valuable insights from the mass of data available and translate that into a rewarding and consistent experience for their customers. Below are five principles for getting data management platforms to meet your needs.

1. Marketers should opt for technology that is friendly to their existing ecosystem of vendors and systems; ideally, an agnostic plug-and-play data management platform that can accommodate and connect with your current marketing technology choices. This way they are able to create a single customer view from multiple data sources and deliver a personalised, relevant message at the right time, at the right dosage, on all touchpoints.

2. If you choose marketing technology, it is important that it allows you to own all your data. You should be the owner instead of the tenant. Buy technology separately from media to ensure ownership. Also, consider choosing technology that can access and retrieve data from ‘walled gardens’, such as Google and Facebook. The technology also needs to put you in the driver’s seat, feeding back the filtered data only to you. There is no need to be overly generous by sharing your data with the likes of Google and Facebook.

3. Embrace a truly data-driven approach to business. Technology is only step one. The next steps are equally important. What will your company process look like? How will your team operate? Being data-driven entails a wholly different approach – going far beyond the choice of technology stack.

4. Make technology, especially data management, a cross-channel responsibility. Do not tie it to a single channel or team. Data management delivers the most value to your business when it is used across all marketing channels. Consumers will get a much more relevant and consistent experience this way and a unified approach will allow you the possibility of being hyper-personalised with them.

5. Choose technology that is future-proof. You may not have an internet of things strategy yet or make use of beacons for your business, but your technology should be ready for it when you are.