Your Data Isn't Helping Your Marketers if They Can't Access It

This article originally appeared in HBR.org.

Marketers these days can capture and analyze sales patterns in minute detail. They can geolocate customers and mine transaction histories. They can see patterns emerge from wholly new information streams, such as what people are saying about the company on social media. Because much of the data flows into a company in real time, they can also see what their customers are up to right now.

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That’s the way it works in theory, anyway. In practice, all this data usually sits in different places—a company’s legacy CRM systems, its loyalty program databases, new cloud-based applications, third-party servers, and so on. That makes it hard to access. Sometimes marketers must wait in line to get the data they need served up to them by IT.

What’s the solution? A few companies have begun to integrate all those data flows into a single overall view of each customer. They update records immediately. Every additional transaction or datapoint is instantly accessible to anyone using the system, giving marketers and salespeople a remarkably full and intelligent view of their customers.

The Chinese cosmetics company Jahwa is a case in point. Jahwa provides reps on the sales floor with mobile devices that can tap into an integrated database. When the rep puts in the name of the customer she’s serving, the device provides data and recommendations tailored specifically to that customer—similar to the recommendation engine that consumers now experience on many digital sites. The information makes for a much more productive interaction.

The first step in creating such a system is organizational, not technical; it involves ending the traditional turf wars between marketing, IT, and other functions. People from each group need to come together to share priorities and develop an overall plan. Some companies have created the new position of chief marketing technology officer to oversee the collaboration. Others are sticking with the existing org chart, but are making changes to their operating model so that the functions work together rather than at cross purposes. They expect IT to become more of a business partner, developing a joint roadmap and investment plan with marketing as part of the annual resource planning cycle.

Only then should the company go about creating the new integrated customer records, which generally go by the name of master data management (MDM). An MDM system sits on top of existing databases, capturing everything from store traffic patterns and online behavior to comments on social media. Every interaction enters the system in real time. Like Jahwa’s sales reps, users of the system can tap into it from wherever they happen to be.

None of this is easy. Companies need to crawl before they can run, starting small and building from there. They have to invest, keeping the ultimate goal of actionable information in mind and not getting distracted by the long list of other data-related priorities. And they can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Many organizations have countless databases, some of them built many years ago. Integrating them all into a single MDM solution will almost always be cost prohibitive.

Instead, savvy marketers focus on the handful that matter most and concentrate on getting actionable data. One national retailer, for instance, integrated key databases and then pulled large samples of customers from different start years, analyzing how different segments behaved over the following years. That gave marketers detailed information they could immediately use—and contributed to the retailer’s recent outperformance vis-à-vis competitors.

Laura Beaudin is a partner at Bain & Company based in the San Francisco office. She is a leader in the Customer Strategy and Marketing Practice as well as the Telecom, Media, and Technology Practice. Mark Brinda is a partner at Bain & Company and is based in the New York offices. He is a senior member of the Telecom, Media, and Technology practice.