December 25, 2006

Michael Gamma: Potentials And Pitfalls Of Database Marketing In 2007

Michael Gamma of Direct Marketing Solutions can be reached at Here is his Boxing Day submission to The MineThatData Blog.

It was in the early 1980s that I actually encountered a sophisticated form of what we have come to call database marketing. I attended a conference of some sort in Portland, Oregon and there was fortunate enough to hear a presentation delivered by the folks from Harry & David and Bear Creek catalogs fame.

Prior to this I had long wondered why – if the feds could “predict” all sorts of things such as the unemployment and inflation rates well into the future – why couldn’t I, as a direct marketer, also predict things such as response and conversion rates?

Well, by the end of the Harry & David presentation, I was convinced that even if I couldn’t, at least these guys from Bear Creek could! At the conclusion of the presentation, I ventured forward and inquired as to their “secret.” As I learned, their “secret” of all this was as unattainable for me as it was simple. Simply put, these two database-marketing pioneers had one PhD in statistics and MA in computer science and math between them and had painstakingly custom programmed their way to this Promised Land.

As such, entry into such lands for more pedestrian marketers such as myself was not to become possible until much later. And come it has, as we now can perform database marketing exploits from the desktop that these two early birds could only have main-frame dreams of in those days.

This said, the potentials of this database management, manipulation and marketing are now well known. And in some circles, even well used.

I would like to now propose two possible pitfalls of our newfound prowess. It would be good, I suspect, to be aware of and to therefore avoid these as we enter a new year. They are simple, and related.

First, we must work to avoid mistaking the technology for the “thing.” If we learned nothing from the dot-bomb experience, we should have at least learned this. Again, as wonderful as technological solutions (and capabilities) might be, we must always remember that technology is not the customer. Nor is it the relationship. And not the sale. And certainly isn’t the bottom line. At best, technology is a neutral facilitator, which may be used well or poorly used. I suspect it falls into the latter category when we mistake it for the central issue in the commercial exchange.

Related to this, the second pitfall we must avoid is that of doing something just because we can. Or simply because the technology enables it. Foremost in our minds at this point must be the centrality of our customer. Does this technological gizmo (or bauble) bring value to the customer? Or, are we simply doing something just because we can, hoping all the while that the customer will be “wowed” by our technical prowess and respond in the only fitting fashion – by heaping upon us his hard earned treasure.

Perhaps an antidote to each of the above pitfalls (to horribly mix metaphors not to mention splitting infinitives!) is to work hard to think of our customer first. Before we consider ourselves, before “sales” figures even, and certainly before our latest technologies. It seems that if we work hard to keep this focus, we will be more likely than not to successfully miss the twin pitfalls indicated above.

It’s not rocket science – thinking of others first – it’s just that it’s still among the most difficult things we may ever do, whether in our personal or business/commercial lives.

My suspicion, though, is that our success in both will likely be tied to our ability to do just that – think of others first. People – our clients included – know when we’re genuine and when we’re guilty of considering ourselves (our technologies, or profits or bottom lines) ahead of them. In other words, using them as ends.

Inasmuch as it is the holiday season, a thought from St. Augustine will make this business point. “Evil”, once said the saint, “is to use what we should love and to love what we should use.”

Reduced to its absolute bare metal minimum, heads-up database and successful marketing is simply – “simply” – one’s ability to marshal latest technologies in the quest to know and serve people (i.e., our clients) better. Keeping this focus, I suspect, will allow us to avoid the pitfalls outlined above.

Conversely, consistent self-focus will certainly land us in the above pitfalls, and perhaps even deeper ones. Making this mistake a few too many times could result in that dreary possibility of landing face down in such a pitfall with no one left to drag us out!

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