SMEs must embrace data for marketing decision making

June 2014

This is something I’ve written about before, but I’ve been prompted to revisit the subject because I still experience an almost constant reluctance by some SME owners to access, analyse and use readily-accessible data as a foundation for marketing decision making. And this despite the fact that, without it, marketing spend is often wasted because there’s no clear strategy in place and, even worse, without that clear strategy in place there’s a hotchpotch of tactics being implemented from untargeted press advertising to pointless social media posts.

Even just a decade or so ago high quality data was often only readily available to larger businesses with the resource and cash to access it, but now all business owners can do so and much of it is free and being collected whether you choose to see it or not.

But let’s be clear about the sort of data we’re talking about here. Firstly, there’s ‘owned data’ and this can come from a variety of sources such as Google Analytics (to measure your web metrics), a CRM (customer relationship management) system, plus various tools to measure social media – e.g. Facebook’s excellent ‘Insights’ tool. The CRM system is often the most valuable source of data (though I’ve recently been working with one new client who didn’t even have a CRM system in place – but that’s another story…) because, if setup and interrogated properly, it can reveal a wealth of information that drives strategy and tactics. For example, customer (B2B or B2C) order history allowing for an entirely personalised email campaign. The second main source of data is ‘third party’ and this, as the name suggests, is data sourced from outside the business – e.g. it might be a report on consumer shopping behaviour which is relevant to the markets you operate in.

There’s also ‘real-time’ data which is a product of the digital world we live in, with technology allowing for a constant stream of data to be accessed which tells us what customers and potential customers are doing right now. For example, a web page could be instantly (and, of course, automatically) personalised based on what a person was searching for. So suddenly what they see and experience is a whole lot more relevant to them and, therefore, they’re more likely to be engaged (and, if the site is ecommerce, make a purchase). But if you aren’t already routinely using owned data, then forget about third party and real-time – that’s for the future once you’ve cracked the first one.

So given that all large businesses now use data routinely (if they didn’t then they probably couldn’t survive), what are the barriers which prevent all SME owners, and key decision makers they employ, from also doing so? I think there are just two main reasons:

1. Don’t ‘do’ data or don’t have the time

You could argue, and I would, that there are few more important tasks for a business owner than getting their head around customer data. But if that business owner isn’t that way inclined – so perhaps less than apt at finding their way around a Google Analytics page – then it often doesn’t happen. And to their cost. A recent example would be the business owner I’ve been advising for some time to get his five divisional websites made responsive so customers and potential customers can actually access them via mobile (see my February comment from this year on responsive websites). He’s resisted this and instead put an emphasis on social media (which other than LinkedIn is fairly useless to him), but when I finally got access to his Google Analytics accounts it revealed that one of the divisions was losing over 1,000 potential customers per month. Why? Because 20% of visitors were using mobile phones to access the site and were then largely exiting straight away because it was unusable. Of course the other related issue is hours in the day, and most of the SME owners I know work their socks off – albeit, in this case, not always on the right things. So they might then delegate the task…

2. Sales folk don’t like data

It’s a very unfortunate fact of SME life that marketing is often controlled by a sales function. The two business disciplines should of course have synergies – and nearly always do in large businesses – but if it’s a sales person calling the shots in an SME then they rarely will. Sales folk typically don’t like data any more than they do a complex P&L spreadsheet. Data gets in the way of subjective decision making such as spending money on pointless local press ads or branded pens. Sales folk are typically self-assured and, in SMEs, apparently don’t need facts and figures to help them make decisions.

So what’s the answer? For any ambitious SME owner which isn’t yet using data to make business decisions, then get help. So if you have the time, or perhaps if you don’t a member of staff will, then get some training on the basics – e.g. Google Analytics, Facebook Insights and, most importantly, your own CRM system. And if you don’t have the time – and perhaps you are, anyway, a one-man-band – then outsource the work to a specialist. There are plenty of folk out there who will charge relatively little for running you a series of reports, perhaps each month, which will give you absolutely key insights and therefore allow you to make better decisions about your marketing strategy and tactics.

Just over two years ago I started work with a client who, historically, had no clear marketing strategy and simply threw money at untargeted activity – and in particular press advertising. Having used a wealth of owned and third party data to establish how potential customers were making purchase decisions in the key markets the business operates in (kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms), I’ve helped increase their sales and to a level which is currently outperforming the market – and significantly. This success has happened because I’ve used that data to shape a marketing strategy and plan which is aligned to consumer behaviour – not subjective opinion. A few of the sales boys are still arguing the toss, but the business owner is over the moon. He’s seen the data light.

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