Six Great Marketing Hacks For Startups on a Shoestring Budget

 

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Startups are built around the idea of a product, with entire teams focused on crafting the perfect app experience. But once a product is built and ready for an audience, or if it needs enough traction to secure a round of funding, what should happen next?  The era of “build it and they will come” is over –  to spread the word about the product and harness an audience, marketing is key. Venture capitalists usually look for functional products that customers are already using and a plan to continue growing before investing. Whether your goal is to bootstrap or to raise venture capital for your startup, you won’t get anywhere if you can’t both build it and sell it.

In order to secure funding, startups are required to boast a substantial customer base and in order to be able to acquire customers, marketing is essential. But the good news is that marketing is not all about expensive marketing automation tools and hiring digital marketing specialists. Not only is social media marketing a boon for startups, there are a few more hacks to market the frugal way!

Let’s get started with some of the ways to get the word out about a startup product:

1. A picture is worth a thousand words

Pictures tell a story that are otherwise difficult to articulate.  When it comes to customer engagement, Instagram rules. People sharing the same interest connect through hashtags. Using catchy feel-good hashtags that are associated with the product give a boost to the promotion. For example, if promoting the launch of a toothpaste a peppy hashtag like #Riseandshine will win the toothpaste company many followers as it strikes a chord. Posting often and relevant images — not just about the product but images of related events, products and emotions — will keep the customer engaged and interested. Posting on Instagram does not of course involve money.

French photo printing company Cheerz lets customers easily print their mobile phone pictures from Instagram or Facebook in formats such as Posters, or Magnets. Cheerz use creative and feel good campaigns on Instagram targeting holiday seasons or festivities, to promote their product to print personal images meanwhile inspiring and offering inspiration about home decor with the pictures involved.

Engaging with customers to make them feel part of the product is a sure shot way to win some accolades and loyalty. Starbucks has implemented customer engagement on Instagram by resharing images posted by its fans, earning them goodwill. Here’s an example of Starbucks reaching out to an Instagram user, asking permission to use a great shot of its classic red holiday mug next to a Christmas tree as its Facebook cover image.

A big brand like Mercedes Benz has also turned to Instagram to attract potential customers through a brilliant Instagram campaign to promote the GLA sports utility vehicle by letting the targeted segment of consumers customise and design their new car. The Instagram campaign #gla_build_your_own allows the customers to create their own version of their coveted new car by choosing colour, wheels and roofs. The campaign resulted in increasing the site visits and brand awareness, manifold.

  1. Social Media Marketing

Facebook and twitter are powerful mediums of marketing. Getting customers engaged is the key, by replying to their comments and retweeting. It is, however, imperative to analyze traffic generated by Facebook and twitter to get to know the audience that is interested in the product.

Creating Facebook ads using Ads Manager to target the right audience using parameters to define the appropriate age, demographics, interests and behaviors is quite a low cost marketing gimmick. Facebook also provides an easy way to retarget customers who have abandoned shopping carts or have shown an interest in a product but have not taken the leap to purchase, this post elaborates the steps involved in retargeting customers.

Facebook for Businesses provides many easy to use features for marketing, at pretty low costs. Facebook marketing enables startups to target the right audience by creating custom audiences and boosting posts to increase outreach, geo targeting by promoting products using location based marketing and Facebook also provides insights to be able to measure campaign effectiveness. Here are some great success stories that have been able to create brand awareness and generate revenue using Facebook marketing.

Youtube video advertising is again a great way to spread the word about your product at low costs and it includes features like targeting through customer segmentation and analytics to measure and analyze the traffic..

Analyzing Facebook and Twitter data generates great insights about consumer demographics and sentiments. In order to analyze Facebook and Twitter, open source code like R and Python are freely available on the internet, which when connected to Facebook and Twitter APIs can extract and analyze data regarding customer names, age, geographic location, number of likes, shares , comments, popular hashtags associated with the tweets. One does not have to be an ace programmer to be able to connect to these APIs using R and Python, there are numerous blogs and websites, stating step by step code snippets to connect to Facebook and Twitter APIs to extract and analyze data. Here is an example of steps to connect, fetch data from Facebook and analyze it.

Not only can the Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Twitter APIs be used to generate online customer behavior and help target the befitting audience, the APIs can also be used to conduct competitive analysis by analyzing hashtags that are associated with a competitor’s products.

Social media management product Hootsuite offers a free version to manage up to 3 social networks from a single easy-to-use interface. Basic Analytics, Reports and basic scheduling capabilities that make the life easier for a marketeer, at no cost. Hootsuite also makes it easier to use influencer marketing to promote products by tracking online conversations for hashtags or keywords to spot influencers. Influencers could be buyers themselves but could also very well be bloggers or writers with social influence. When influencers express an interest in a product the outreach is impactful.

3. Utilising trial versions of marketing tools

Trial versions of most marketing tools, are available free of cost for customers, for a limited period. This is not a long term arrangement but while the startup is struggling to get itself noticed, at the same time trying to keep the costs low, it is a blessing. Marketing tools like Marketo, Hubspot, Adobe, Tableau all have trial versions of their tools that can be downloaded for free for a period of 15-30 days, not to forget the free version of Google Analytics. Utilizing the trial version tools also serve as an opportunity to evaluate marketing tools available in the market, that are most suited for the job at hand.

Webhose provides access to data from several sources such as news sites, social sites, blogs and from several different technical platforms with quick integration capabilities, requisites that expedite the new age data driven marketer’s job. Webhose comes with a free trial period which can be utilised to analyze multichannel data sources.

4. Free Market Survey tools

Launching a new product entails verifying that a potential market for the product exists. And if similar products already exist in the market, then it is worth checking information used to identify potential customer segments, opportunities and problems faced to further optimize marketing efforts. Free market survey products such as SurveyMonkey help startups to gather consumer insights and feedback  to optimize their product.

San Francisco based Happy Goat Caramel gained insights about which factors of their product mattered most to their customers by using information gathered through SurveyMonkey. The feedback gathered also helped Happy Goat make strategic decisions about their product and pricing in order to accomplish their growth aspirations.

Market research data that can be fetched from web crawlers or market research companies helps companies gather information about marketing campaigns designed by their competitors. Data regarding the competitor’s ad spend, methods used, SEO techniques can be helpful in creating ad copy optimization.

While working for a media giant, I was involved in a marketing effort where the aim was to increase the market share for the company in regards to online advertising. We gathered data about the big buyers and their ad spend behavior for example if they invested mostly in mobile advertising or print, the kind of advertising – native or branded video, if the method used for ad buying was programmatic or through media agencies, from Market Research companies. This information about customer ad spend gave us an edge over the competitors by being able to target the big spenders in a much more personalised manner through marketing campaigns, thereby increasing the share of wallet. This example can be used for any business case, using market research data to figure out ways to have an edge over competitors marketing strategy can yield only good results.

Data regarding consumer behaviour, preferences, trends, interesting segments are gathered by market research companies, which are usually available, on purchase. But a few government agencies, websites and nonprofit organizations make their market research data open to the general public, enabling SWOT analysis (analysis of Strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for a business) saving startups, on meagre budgets, additional expenses.

5. Crowdsourcing content and outreach

Improbable as it may seem but it is very much happening. Startups can engage customers by running contests for the wittiest hashtag and then getting the winner featured on their social media channels. Who does not like fame? Similarly, startup organizations can conduct surveys on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to gain insights about the general opinion about the product. As far as advertising is concerned, customers would feel empowered and a part of the product development journey if they contribute to social media advertising. Considering the toothpaste launching company as an example, starting a campaign by asking customers to post pictures that they can associate with #riseandshine will not only drive more web traffic and create brand awareness, but also contribute to great brand storytelling.

Chaordix Crowd Intelligence process and platform facilitates hundreds of thousands of high-value customer submissions, comments from social media platforms to gather feedback on new products, services and marketing campaigns. Chaordix’s small-business-centric Pro plan costs only $99 per month.

This marketing gig by Unilever to promote Magnum ice creams by letting customers design their own ice creams was a huge hit with customers posting images on social media with a hashtag #magnumstockholm, acting as brand ambassadors.

When it comes to crowdsourcing content marketing – there are numerous talented bloggers and writers that wish for nothing more than a platform to showcase their writing skills, liasoning with such skillful writers to roll out great content on the sites is a win-win situation for all parties involved.

Refuga, a travelpreneur site has a team of crowdsourced writers spread across the globe, writing content for them, not only to showcase their writing to a worldwide audience of entrepreneurs but also winning a free trip per year for adequate amount of high quality articles in return. It is a mutually beneficial collaboration and has worked out well for me, personally.

  1. Marketing swag

To create brand familiarity, giving away branded merchandise at events or as contest prizes or as an incentive is a great idea. But again, it does not necessarily imply a huge cost. Surely there exist startup companies that have tote bags, personalised mugs or USB sticks as their products. Collaborating with such companies to co-sponsor advertising and promote brand awareness, while sharing costs, is a wise thing to do.

New Relic is a SaaS (Software as a Service) application performance management that provides comprehensive, real time visibility into web and mobile applications. New Relic uses marketing swag in the form of their Data Nerd t-shirt which acts as a motivator for their buyers to try the software and deploy it. And of course the subsequent tweets and Instagram images of the t shirts only add to the website traffic volume and brand awareness.

There could be countless other ways to market products on a shoestring that I will add to the list as and when I get brainwaves. Please feel free to share your ideas, views or tips about marketing on a limited budget.

AARRR Metrics for a Fintech

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 Lets assume this is a case study for a Fintech company’s KPI definition.

Company X is a Fin Tech company providing payment solutions to SME and small businesses via mobile app, card reader and NFC. Company X solutions provide bookkeeping and analytics features to its customers by means of tracking its product usage and events.

Tracking mobile app usage and web sites are done by using web and mobile analytics tools such as Localytics, Flurry, Google Analytics, Tealium, Xiti etc. But in some cases the data from the analytics tools are not enough to deduce conclusions and hence require additional data from various systems such as CRM, Financial transaction systems, CMS and inventory control systems. Due to the need for blending data from disparate systems, a data strategy needs to be defined and a robust and scalable data architecture needs to be in place.

I would like to provide two relevant blog posts from my own blog that point to the concepts of growth hacking and data blending.

Data Value Chain

Growth Hacking

KPIs

Data monetization for the growth of businesses, entails tracking user behavior both online and offline to optimize products and processes. A list of KPIs or metrics to measure product usage and means of revenue generation are used as a guideline for data monetization efforts. Whether it is to assess global performance of a site, measure the impact of a specific campaign or product feature change, a set of indicators will be needed to focus on the changing parameters.

There are 5 metrics defined by Dave McClure : Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referrals, Revenues or AARRR also known as the pirate metrics that serve as a good indicator of business growth.

For each of the metric area there are several KPIs defined. For each of the KPIs there are again 4 essential components or ways of analyzing:

  • Data points – Data points are the points in the app or site that generate interesting insights about the business in question. It could be individual features in the product or events.
  • Funnels – Setting up funnels ensures tracking all the steps that lead to completion of a particular process on the site or app like tracking steps that lead to an online payment page or the steps that lead to a signing up for a newsletter.
  • Segmentation – Segmenting the potential and existing customer base to be able to understand their wants and needs in order to be able to serve them better, which is a means of revenue generation. Segmentation can be
  • Behavioral – Users who spend lot of time on the site or app, frequently login or rarely login, browsers, visitors that leave without making purchases or visitors that make purchases
  • Technical – The browsers used, the OS versions, devices used and if the users have saved the site as a bookmark or enter the site through search engines or social networks
  • Demographics – Clustering users based on their age, gender, location etc.
  • Cohorts – Cohorts are also a type of segmentation but more from a time series perspective to be able to compare data sets at different points of time. For example checking trends or shopping behaviors at different points in time.

The pirate metrics for product usage can be broadly classified as below:

Acquisition

The process of acquiring customers, which would mean tracking new customers that visit the site or download the app or search the product. The KPIs for acquisition would include all the metrics that indicate a growth or changing trends:

  • Number of unique visitors
  • %mobile traffic
  • %web traffic
  • % traffic from social networks
  • % traffic from search engines
  • Number of app downloads
  • Visit trends
  • Page view trends
  • App Download trends
  • New User Account Creation Rate
  • Bounce Rate
  • Funnel analysis for conversion
  • Number of new customers in the last Month/Quarter
  • Number of new customers YoY growth
  • Campaign effectiveness – measuring the number of customers signing up or deregistering

 

Activation

When the users have logged in and have started using the product, the usage needs to be tracked to be able to further develop the product for better customer experience.

  • Page views
  • Time spent on the site
  • Hourly traffic
  • Seasonal traffic
  • Monthly Active Users
  • Number of paying customers in the last Month/Quarter
  • Number of paying customers YoY growth
  • Type of payments
  • Types of Merchants (small/SME/seasonal)
  • Types of businesses/industry
  • Type of most sold items
  • Customer Segmentation (Technical, Demographics, Behavioral) to understand customer’s need to use the product to improve product development

 

Retention

Retention is the process of retaining existing customers by continued service leading to customer satisfaction. Measuring the factors that lead to retaining customers is a good indicator.

  • Number of returning customers
  • Average time for transaction
  • of transactions
  • Transaction failure rate
  • Number of transaction per payment type
  • Peak hour
  • Peak Season
  • Types of Merchants
  • Average revenue per Merchant
  • Average Revenue per Merchant per branch/Industry type
  • Average time taken for deposit to merchants
  • Competitor Analysis through web/Facebook crawling
  • FaceBook engagement (Likes, Shares, Comments) per Month/week
  • Number of Complaints per category of complaint type
  • App Store Ratings/Review trends
  • Text Analysis for tweets/ Facebook comments
  • Number of cash payments Vs Card payments

 

Referrals

When the customer satisfaction index is high, the customers refer the products to others thereby acting as brand ambassadors. Referrals are a means to measure customer satisfaction because customers refer the product only when they are themselves happy with the product usage.

  • Number of visits coming from social media
  • Number of site entry from Facebook ads
  • Number of shares on Facebook
  • Text analysis of tweets and Facebook messages

Revenue

One of the most important part of a business is revenue generation as revenue is not only the sustenance factor but an indicator of growth.

  • Total Payment Volume
  • Total Net Revenues
  • Transaction losses
  • Net revenue YoY growth
  • Net revenue YoY growth per type of business
  • Net Revenue per type of card (Master/Visa)
  • Sales turnover of customers
  • Number of transactions per Month/Quarter
  • Number of transactions per type of business
  • Number of transactions per Location
  • Net revenue per platform (mobile app {ios/Android/ipad}/ card reader/NFC)
  • Net revenue per type of merchant
  • Average revenue per client
  • Average value per transaction
  • Peak volume of transactions per hour
  • Peak volume of transactions per hour per location per type of business (to be able to suggest to similar merchants about the optimum time and hour of transaction)
  • %churn
  • %churn per type of merchant/type of business/Month/Quarter
  • Average Selling price per type of Merchant per type of business
  • Average Selling price per type of Merchant per type of business trends – Monthly/Quarterly/Seasonal
  • Number of customers that have applied for loan
  • Type of customers (business/demographics) that have applied for loan via Company X

 

Conclusion

Product usage tracking to improve the overall product features and outreach is an iterative process involving several processes like continuous A/B testing, UX strategy, Analytics, ideation and product development. In order to create state of the art products, Company X needs to know who their audience is and how the product will make it easy for businesses to sell. By tracking product usage, the aim should be to learn deeply about the customers’ needs and behaviors to be able to generate great solutions, proactively. Iterating towards the solution that creates the most value by collecting and analyzing data is the key.

Growth Hacker’s Marketing

growth_hackingMarketing is being disrupted and no more run by only traditional non-technical marketeers. Marketing is supported by a wide range of – call it reporting, dashboarding, marketing analytics, marketing automation processes. Moreover, the startup scene is very exciting and a hot bed for innovation. Most startups spring into action sans a huge funding. The startups will have to grow exponentially, boasting a substantial customer base to be able to entice investors. Enter the growth hacker – with a single minded goal, growth!

Typically, the UX team designs the UX strategy, the product team develops the product, the coder codes in order to deliver the product and the marketeer tries selling the product. But with the new age disruptive marketing, the UX team, product team, code development team and the marketing team will have to work very closely, trying and testing every trick in the book to elevate growth. A growth hacker is a bit of all the above.

A growth hacker is more of a full stack employee armed with Swiss knife like multiple skill sets, analytical abilities being top rated. Growth hacking is primarily a focus within the startups, the budget being a constraint, lesser number of employees expected to contribute more. But with time, enterprise companies will adapt to growth hacking means of increasing revenue generation. Growth hacking is based on data, analyzing data to improve the business processes, to sell more, to convert more, to gain new customers and retain existing customers. Growth hacking does not entail data reporting only for the purpose of data visualization, it uses data to derive at hypotheses and reasoning to better understand and improve internet marketing.

So what’s growth hacking all about? Growth hacking is about

  • Improving user experince by A/B testing to reduce bounce rate
  • Content Marketing
  • Designing, implementing and analyzing sales funnel to reduce drop rates
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Channelizing all it takes to increase conversion rate
  • Using analytics to track click stream data about consumer’s online behavior
  • Analyzing past online or shopping behavior to be able to predict consumer’s probable behavior at the next visit
  • Social Media marketing – paramount for startups on shoe string budgets. Using Facebook, Twitter APIs to analyze the demographics of consumers sharing and liking the products, consumer opinion in social media and competitor analysis
  • Being able to analyze consumers that are likely to churn and the reasons behind, which can be addressed. Analyzing the response data from campaigns targeted at reducing churn, to measure campaign effectiveness.
  • Improving omnichannel advertising and using analytics to analyze data to conclude the channel that yields most and finding potential market opportunities

From the above list, growth, data and analytics are evidently the point of convergence for growth hacking. Growth hackers have to be inherently curious, tenacious, analytical and above all innovative. Growth hacking is an an art, not just number crunching or coding. It is the ability to see beyond code, to be able to analyze the implications of new features or every change in any part of the business processes that drive growth.

As Sean Ellis says, a “growth hacker’s true compass is north.

Marketer’s guide to Private Marketplace

PMP (private marketplace) is basically a way of buying inventory via programmatic. In other words, audience buying by an automated process where the advertiser gets value due to reachability, top-drawer service or premium placement.  Audience buying is determined by analyzing behavioral data, location data and device data which aids in targeting a specific group of audience. A private marketplace is an invite only exchange that allows publishers to whitelist specific advertisers based on mutual interests, reserve an inventory for them at relatively high valuation.

If premium is defined as well targeted, less crowded inventory, premium programmatic is a means of automating much of the ad exchange process, allowing advertisers to purchase impressions in real time (RTB, real time bidding) while maintaining the high cost and edge of premium inventory.

Factors that make PMP advatageous are

  •  PMPs can offer less competition for the advertisers as the inventory is usually open for premium clientele
  •  Helps reaching out to a targeted audience
  • Targeted ads lead to higher conversions even if the CPM is high in some cases. It is however, essential to understand the pricing models – CPC, CPA, CPL etc. that maybe more appropriate in certain cases, based on the campaign type

To establish the automated buy/sell process in real time, a unique Deal ID takes care of the required correspondence between publisher and advertiser in order to replace the traditional IO (insertion order). The deal id allows an advertiser to recognize the seller/publisher and the accompaying pre-decided agreements that come with it and vice versa, in a real time automated exchange. The moment a user visits a site,the publisher sends a bid request to the ad exchange, after having determined the user’s location, online behaviour, previous browsing history and device. The advertisers bid on impressions and the highest bidder wins the impression. The deal id is the parameter being sent into bid requests and recieved from the bidders, which is then sent ahead to the DSP (Demand side platform). Deal IDs are very important from a measurement point of view, both for publishers and advertisers to measure the effectivenesss of inventories, campaigns, impressions and conversions.

Thus, the rise of PMP has lead to the media planners taking on more of an analyst role, analyzing data to find the source of traffic, understanding the ad tech eco system and geting innovative with the latest tools and products like native advertising, content sponsorship and targeted audience buying. Ultimately private marketplaces work the same way as traditional open exchanges, both requiring to evolve with time and technology!

Programmatic Conversion

Programmatic marketing involves data driven insights to convert prospects into customers. There is more than meets the eye in the case of conversion rate optimization. Some of the deciding factors for conversion are UX design, the landing page, the source of web traffic, content, competitive price of products, good will, social media marketing, effective campaigns and customer engagement. Programmatic marketing entails analsying data at every customer touch point and targeting the consumer with compelling, preferably  personalised, offers. Conversion is not necessarily making a customer shell out money, it could be interpreted as winning customer loyalty by means of signing up for newsletter, downloading whitepapers or trial versions of the product or spending considerable time on the site. This loyalty, in the long run, could result in big wins through persuasion in the form of emails, SMSs, direct contact and targeted recommendations.

Channelizing data about prospects – online behaviour, previous shopping, socio-economic segmentation, online-search, products saved in the online basket, in other words getting to know the customer better to be able to suggest meaningful differences in people’s lives through the products on offer, results in higher conversion rates. It is here that digital convergence is of paramount importance. Digital convergence blends online and offline consumer tracking data over multiple channels to come up with targeted campaigns. Offline tracking through beacon technology is catching up. It is a win-win solution for both the retailer and the consumer providing each with useful information, the consumer, with an enabled smartphone app within a certain distance from the beacon, recieves useful and targeted information about products and campaigns and the retailer gathers data about consumer shopping habbit.

The online experience can be enhanced to reduce the bounce rate by incorporating some of the following design thoughts:

  1. Associative content targeting: The web content is modified based on information gathered about the visitor’s search criteria, demographic information, source of traffic, the more you know about the prospect, the better you can target.
  2. Predictive targeting: Using predictive analytics and machine learning, recommendations are pushed to consumers based on their previous purchase history, segment they belong to and search criteria.
  3. Consumer directed targeting: The consumer is presented with sales, promotions, reviews and ratings prior to purchase.

Programmatic offers the ability to constantly compare and optimize ROI and profitability across mulitple marketing channels. Data about consumer behaviour, both offline and online, cookie data, segmentation data are algorithmically analyzed, to re-evaluate the impact of all media strategies on the performance of consumer segments. Analyzing consumer insights, testing in iterations, using A/B testing contributes to a higher conversion rate. Using data driven methods to gain a higher conversion rate is programmatic conversion and it’s here to stay.

Intelligence Of Things

IoT
IoT

IoT – Internet of things, is the science of an interconnected everyday life through devices communicating over WiFi, cellular, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and other wireless, wired protocols, RFID (radio frequency identification), sensors and smartphones. Data monetization has lead to generating revenue by gathering, analyzing customer data, industrial data, web logs from traditional IT systems, online stream, mobile devices and sensors and an interconnection of them all, in other words, IoT. IoT is hailed as the new way to transform  the education sector, retail, customer care, logistics, supply chain and health care. IoT and data monetization have a domino effect on each other which generate actionable insights for business metrics, transformation and further innovation.

The wearable devices are a great way to keep tab on patient heart rates, step counts, calories consumed and burnt. The data gathered from such devices are not only beneficial for checking vital signs but also can be used to scrutinize effectiveness of drug trials, analyzing the causes behind the way body reacts to different stimulus. IoT in logistics, by reading the bar codes at every touch point that track the delivery of products, comparing the estimated with the actual time of delivery, analyzing the reasons causing the difference can help businesses bolster better processes. In Smart buildings, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), electric meters, security alarm data are integrated, analyzed to monitor building security, improve operational efficiencies, reducing energy consumption and improving occupant experiences.

IoT is expected to generate large amounts of data from varied sources  with a high volume and very high-velocity, thereby increasing the need to better index, store and process such data. Earlier the data gathered from each of the sources was analyzed in a central hub and communicated to other devices, but the IoT brings a new dimension called the M2M (machine to machine) communication. The highlights of such M2M platforms are

  • Improved device connectivity
  • API, JSON, RDF/XML integration availability for data exchange
  • Flexible to be able to capture all formats of data
  • Data Scalability
  • Data security across multiple protocols
  • Real-time data management – On premise, cloud or hybrid platforms
  • Low TCO (total cost of ownership)

The data flow for an end-to-end IoT usecase entails capturing sensor-based data using SPARQL for RDF encoded data from different devices, wearables into a common data platform to be standardised, processed, analyzed and communicated further as dashboards, insights, as input to some other device or for continuous business growth and transformation. Splunk, Amazon, Axeda are some of the M2M platform vendors that provide end to end connectivity of multiple devices, data security and realtime data storage and mining advantages. Data security is another important aspect of IoT, adhering to data retention policies. As IoT evolves, so will the interconnectivity of machine-to-machine platforms, exciting times ahead!

Recommendation Systems

Recommendation systems have changed the way people shop online, find books, movies or music, news articles go viral or find friends and work mates on Linkedin. The recommendation systems analyze the browsing patterns on websites, ratings or most popular items at that point of time or the products saved in ones virtual basket to recommend products. Similarly, the common interests, work skills or common geographical locations are used to predict people, that you might want to connect with on social media sites.

Behind such personalized recommendation systems lie big data platforms including software, hardware and algorithms that analyze customer behavior and push recommended products, in real time. The big data platforms handle both data and event data distribution and computation. Data can pertain to how customers or customers similar to the one in question, have rated products in the past while event data could be tracking mouse clicks that trigger events for example viewing a product and sometimes both of the above need to be combined to be able to predict a customer’s choice. Hence, the recommendation system architecture caters to data storage for offline analysis as well as low latency computational needs and a combination of the two.

The data platform architecture needs to be robust enough to ingest continuous real time data streams into scalable systems like Hadoop HBASE or any other big data data storage infrastructure like AWS Redshift. Apache Kafka is usually used as the messaging system for the real time data stream in combination with Apache Storm. Due to high throughput data redundancy needs to be taken care of, in case of failures. If the real time computation needs to take into account customer data like previous purchase history, preferences, products already bought , segmentation based on socio economic demographics or data from ERP, CRM, in that case either all the systems have to be available online to be able to blend the data in real time or the customer detail data could be mashed up, offline to create Single Customer View and queried in combination with the real time event data.

The valueable assests of any organisation are customers,products and now, data. Machine learning algorithms combine the three assets together to leverage business gains and predictive analytics is imperative in being proactive to customer needs. Some of the algorithms used for recommendation engines are content-based filtering, collaborative filtering, dimensionality reduction, Kmeans and matrix factorization techniques. The challenge is not the data storage, with wide availability of highly scalable data storage platforms, but the speed with which the data needs to be analyzed in case of recommendation systems. The best approach is to combine mostly precomputed data with fresh event data using pre modelled algorithms to push personalised recommendations to the customer interface.

The data value chain

lifecycle
The Consumer Lifecycle

The terms “Data driven” and “Big Data” are the buzz words of today, hyped definitely, but the implications and potential are real and huge! Tapping into the enormous amount of data and associating this data from multiple sources creates a data chain, proving valueable for any organisation. Creating a data value chain consists of four parts: collection, storage, analysis, and implementation. With data storage getting cheaper, the volume and variety of data available to be exploited is increasing exponentially. But unless businesses ask the right questions and better understand the value that the data brings in and be sufficiently informed to make the right decisions, it does not help storing the data. For example, in marketing, organisations can gather data from multiple sources about acquiring a customer, about the customer’s purchasing behaviour, customer feedback on different social media, about the company’s inventory and logistics of product delivery. Analyzing this stored data can lead to substantial number of customers being retained.

A few of the actionable insights can be as follows:
  • Improving SEO (search engine optimization), increasing the visibility of the product site and attracting more customers
  • CRO (Conversion rate optimization) i.e. converting prospects into sales, by analzying the sales funnel. A typical sales funnel is Home page > search results page > product page > proposal generation and delivery > negotiation > checkout
  • Better inventory control systems, resulting in faster deliveries
  • Predicting products that a consumer might be interested in, from the vast inventory, by implementing good recommendation algorithms that scan through the consumer behaviour and can predict their preferences
  • If some of the above points are taken care of, customer loyalty can increase manifold, based on the overall experience during the entire consumer lifecycle.
actionable
Data blending which leads to a Single Customer View and Actionable Insights

Often the focus lies on the Big data technology rather than the business value of implementing big data projects. Data is revolutionising the way we do business. Organisations, today, are inundated with data. To be able to make sense of the data and create a value chain, there has to be starting point and the customer is a good starting point. The customer’s lifecycle with experiences at every touch point defines business growth, innovation and product development. The big data implementations allow blending data from multiple sources leading to a holistic single view of customer, which in turn gives rise to enlightening insights. The data pretaining to customer, from multiple sources, like CRM/ERP/Order Management/Logitics/Social/cookie trackers/Click traffic etc., should be stored, blended and analysed to gain useful actionable insights.

In order to be able to store the gigantic amount of data, organisations have to invest in robust big data technologies. The earlier BI technologies that we had do not support the new forms of data sources such as unstructured data and the huge volumes, variety & velocity of data. The big data architecture consists of the integration from the data sources, the data storage layer, the data processing layer where data exploration can be performed and/or topped with a data visualization layer. Both structured and unstructured data from various sources can be ingested into the big data platform, using Apache Sqoop or Apache Flume, real-time interactive analyses can be performed on massive data sets stored in HDFS or HBase using SQL with Impala, HIVE or using statistical programming language such as R. There are very good visualization tools, such as Pentaho, Datameer, Jaspersoft that can be integrated into the Hadoop ecosystem to get visual insights. Organisations can offload expensive datawarehouses to low cost and high storage enterprise big data technology.

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Edited image from Hortonworks

Irrespective of the technical implementation, business metrics such as increasing revenue, reducing operational costs and improving customer experience, should always be kept in mind. The manner in which the data is analyzed could create new business opportunites and transform businesses. Data is an asset and investing in a value chain, from gathering to analyzing, implementing, analyzing the implementations and evolving continuously, will result in huge business gains.

Streamlining the process of processing

simplifyThe customer expectations are very different, now. Decisions need to be taken in real time, to convert a prospective customer into committing. In an age, where customer seeks instant gratification, organisations that have a longer time-to-market due to cumbersome internal processes, customer loyalty is hard to win. For example, a customer visits your physical store, if you offer a discount at the very first visit, the chances that the customer will revisit your store are high. On the other hand, if you are merely noting customer behaviour which then has to pass through unwieldy processes, later, to mete out a discount coupon, the second time the customer visits your store… if at all, is a thing of the past. The advanced analytics systems now, are able to handle data influx from multiple disparate systems, cleanse and house in the dmp (data management platforms), ready to be queried in real time to cater to predictive and actionable insights, on the fly.

However, if the business methodologies used are not complimenting this speed of data processing, the business will still suffer. The widely used, Lean methodology preaches creating more value for customers with fewer resources. Anything that does not yield value should be eliminated. But organisations need to adapt to only the best of the best practices. Following methodologies by the book, on the contrary, causes bottlenecks. To be able to leverage more out of the Business Analytics systems and solutions, the processes and tools, both, need to be streamlined to create customer satisfaction. A lot of the business intelligence projects take too long to deliver and are inflexible, resulting in the functional business teams procuring BI tools which promise quick wins. The problem with such data discovery tools, apart from creating data silos, are that they lack data governance, hinder data sharing at an enterprise level and increase licensing costs.

It is not a solution to have no business process at all. There needs to be accountability and that comes from business processes. It is a continuous iterative process to find the right balance between processes and the speed of delivering value to keep the costs low and increase the profitability of any business. One size does not fit all and it applies to organisations, as well. Methodologies/processes need to be tweaked, tuned and tailor made for each company. Organisations that try to implement Lean/Agile/Scrum but fail are because they lose the customer focus, some companies do not have a clear strategy in place with employees being assigned foggy responsibilities and lack of communication and this in turn results in the focus shifting from the task at hand to the nitty gritties of such project management methods.

To avoid pitfalls, a clear business strategy needs to be defined specifying business goals in order to maximise gains. The next step is to trim all the processes that lead to this gain.

The bridge between Business and Analytics – Business Data Analyst

The terms business analysis and data analysis have traditionally seemed different. With the increasing amount of data available, stored and the need to analyse that data and gain business insights out of it, a new role, Business Data Analyst is critical. Companies lacking the business data analysis talent pool have a lower ROI and will lose out to companies hiring analytics talent.

Most companies, even today,  have the two competencies separate. Business analysts analyze functional requirements and help translate the same to technical specifications while data analysts are more technical, gathering, cleansing and analyzing data. To increase the analytic throughput of a company it is vital to combine the business and analytic competencies to be able to analyze the data from a business aspect, being able to draw conclusions about consumer behaviour, find trends and accordingly make business decisions with targeted marketing campaigns.

As this is an emerging field, it can be challenging to find right people with both the business acumen as well as analytics skillset. There can be myriad ways to bridge this gap. One strategy can be to create teams of people with direct marketing roles along with data analysts and data scientists to utilise the combined specialised competencies. Another strategy can be to train the management team’s analytical skills or beefing up the business knowledge of data analysts.

No matter which strategies are adapted, the new role of Business Data Analyst is paramount for enabling a company to make the right investments at the right time to yield an ROI. Building a data driven company is more than identifying the right BI tools, it’s about driving business through customer behaviour feedback by analyzing data.