Marketing’s intersection of complexity and accountability

Jennifer Zeszut

While I don’t usually cover start-up launches on this blog — a space well-covered by TechCrunch and many others who are great at it — today’s Q&A with Jennifer Zeszut, CEO of Beckon, does correspond with the launch of their company yesterday out of “stealth mode.”

Jennifer and I connected around a piece I wrote last year, 14 rules for data-driven, not data-deluded, marketing. I then found a brilliant Venn diagram she had on her site at the time, with circles for “complexity” and “accountability” overlapping — with the intersection labeled “your sleepless nights” — and knew we had to chat.

She was kind enough to take some time from preparing for Beckon’s launch to share with me her perspective on the following questions. While her answers are through the lens of Beckon’s product vision, I think many of the points she raises are incredibly important for marketers to think about, independent of the specific technologies used to address them.

1. Can you share with us a bit about your background and what you did before founding Beckon?

I’ve been a marketer for a long time. I was a buyer for a national retailer, an assistant brand manager at a CPG company, and a VP of marketing in the e-commerce space. And I’ve also worked on the agency side, advising many of the world’s best brands on marketing strategy.

I’ve always been drawn to marketing because it’s the one business discipline that expects you to be both artist and scientist, intuitive and analytical, strategic and tactical, brazen experimenter and reliable accountant.

Marketing [is] the one business discipline that expects you to be both artist and scientist, intuitive and analytical, strategic and tactical, brazen experimenter and reliable accountant.

But by 2006, I’d become fed up with the lack of great tools to help us marketers do our jobs. I jumped from marketing to building software for marketers. I founded Scout Labs, and we built the leading social media analytics platform to help marketers glean insight from the ever-growing flood of social data. Scout Labs was acquired by Lithium in 2010, and now much of my original team is together again to build Beckon, including my co-founder Jochen Frey, who was my CTO at Scout Labs.

2. What was your inspiration for starting Beckon?

Marketers are swimming in data (drowning in it, you might even say). Yet NOT ONE readily available marketing metric — opens, clicks, likes, views, fans, TRPs, impressions, etc. — matters to a CMO. No standalone tactical metric tells us if marketing is working.

How fascinating is that! We marketers spend all our time and money executing in channels, and all those activity metrics mean nothing to the business. Marketing leaders are looking for strategic metrics, diagnostic measures and aggregate performance trends.

What we need is a translation layer that takes all the useless metrics and makes them useful. It’s like the difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics. GDP is a derived metric that we use to understand the economic health of a nation, but no one household actually has “a GDP.” If we could tackle the mess of siloed marketing data and normalize, standardize and categorize it — create a kind of macroeconomics for marketing — then marketers could see what’s working across channels and tell the marketing story in terms of business impact.

As soon as we conceived of the problem in this way, we knew our particular team had a great chance to solve it. With Scout Labs, we had already transformed social “big data” into insight for marketers — for example, taking the string of text “Dude, my N-kicks are phat!” and turning that into a positive mention for brand: Nike in category: Sneaker. Why couldn’t we tackle cross-channel marketing performance data? And in the process, we’d transform marketing from a chaotic, execution-focused mess to a strategic, analytical and intentional discipline.

3. Are there other important facets of marketing that are underrepresented in the data most marketers have? If so, how should we account for that in data-driven marketing?

Absolutely. In fact, the data underrepresents crucial facets of marketing by definition, given how the data is traditionally managed. To get a feel for what’s missing as far as true insight into what’s working best, imagine asking your analysts for a report that answers questions like these:

  • As we increased our marketing investment in Males 11-17, did we grow share and/or boost sales among that group?
  • Of all the things we tried last year, which were the most cost-effective for driving traffic to one particular brand’s website?
  • Which creative that we ran last year resonated most with consumers and inspired the most amplification?
  • Of all the agencies we use, which drives the most net new leads per $10,000 that we pay them in fees?
  • How do our funnel metrics (awareness, consideration and purchase) look, and what’s our conversion rate between each stage of the funnel. Are we improving? Getting worse? How much are we investing to deliver against the funnel? What’s our ROI?

These would be powerful insights to have. But if you ask questions like these, your analysts are going to look in the corporate data warehouse or into all the individual channel execution tools and not even know where to begin. That’s because we don’t append our data at the outset with the right brand-specific metadata. We don’t think up front about the ways we’re going to want to see our data later (by brand, product, segment, funnel category, primary intent, agency and so on).

Instead, marketers are scavengers, sifting through the rubble of data that comes back to us, in whatever format it comes back to us. But after-the-fact analysis is fatally flawed.

Marketers are scavengers, sifting through the rubble of data that comes back to us, in whatever format it comes back to us.

Contrast this with every other discipline in the enterprise. Finance, for example, insists that all expenses come together in one system (Expensify, say) and that each expense is tagged (that is, appended with metadata) according to the general ledger categories that were set up for the company at the outset.

The financial “Chart of Accounts” or general ledger categories resulted from a moment of intentionality when the head of finance said, “What reports am I going to want to have at my fingertips?” No matter where we spend money, no matter what our receipts look like, expense data comes together and is structured and tagged on the way in so that finance can have instantaneous visibility and accountability on the way out.

What about sales leaders? Every time someone gets a business card, do they just toss it onto a big stack at the office? Of course not. The cards all go into Salesforce, a system of record for contacts that stores the data in a common structure. And if the sales department knows they’re going to want to see the pipeline breakdown between B2B and B2C accounts, a drop-down menu is added to the contact record and contacts must be properly categorized as they’re entered.

Marketing needs to take control of its data. We need to be intentional and put in place a marketing “Chart of Accounts” up front: our regions, products, BUs, customer segments, marketing channels, agencies, funnel categories, primary intents, and so on. Then we make sure that all the data is tagged properly as it gets stored. Then (and only then) will we be masters of our data, have visibility and accountability into what’s working across it all, and have parity and respect within the enterprise.

Marketing needs to take control of its data. We need to be intentional and put in place a marketing “Chart of Accounts” up front.

4. You had this great Venn diagram on your website about the intersection of complexity and accountability. Where those two circles overlap, you’ve labeled it, “Your sleepless nights.” Can you elaborate?

Complexity and Accountability

I think that Venn diagram summarizes the pain that every marketing leader feels. With new channels, tools and tactics for reaching consumers appearing almost every day, there’s huge pressure to be trying new stuff, to be experimenting constantly. And at the same time, you must be delivering and delivering reliably. In other words, there have never been more ways to spend your company’s marketing dollars, and never more pressure to justify and account for the decisions you make.

There’s huge pressure to be trying new stuff, to be experimenting constantly. And at the same time, you must be delivering and delivering reliably.

That is the tension every marketer feels. And it’s not going to go away. Welcome the new world of modern, messy marketing. If you’re a marketing leader, you must embrace this tension, learn to become a more agile marketer, and make sure you have systems in place that allow you to experiment and know if that experiment is better or worse than the other ways you could have spent the money.

We need normalized language and metrics that allow us to compare the effectiveness of one activity versus another — even across channels. That’s the new-world language that marketers need to speak.

5. It sounds like you’re a strong advocate for finding the right visualizations for data to communicate insight. Can you share a couple of your ideas for better visualizations for marketing management?

That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, the right visualization is key to telling the story you want to tell. And marketing sure needs help telling the story of its own success in terms of business outcomes. Not delegating storytelling to IT. Not delegating storytelling to our agencies.

On the other hand, marketing isn’t suffering from a lack of pretty pictures. Marketing’s problem is data not coming together, data not being normalized and clean, data lacking metadata, and marketers not being intentional at the outset of campaigns.

Marketing isn’t suffering from a lack of pretty pictures. Marketing’s problem is data not coming together.

That’s why Tableau hasn’t made marketing’s problems go away. We don’t need flying, rotating-donut visualizations — with bad data, neither tagged nor organized the way marketing requires to tell its story, there’s not much your flying donut chart can do. So yes, data visualization matters, but only after the data is clean, tight and aligned to the business. Marketing already has plenty of sizzle. What it lacks is steak.

6. There’s been a perennial debate in marketing between “art vs. science,” sometimes framed as intuition vs. data or qualitative vs. quantitative. Are these opposing forces, or is that a false dichotomy? How should marketers balance the two?

I think it’s a false dichotomy and marketing needs to be fully both. No answers emerge from the data on their own. You need to “read” patterns, you need to intuit what analyses to run, what questions matter. The mere act of asking a question is artful. And the deeper you go into the numbers, the more you appreciate and understand the importance of intuition. It’s like the scientists who say the more they learn about the patterns in nature, the stronger their faith.

No answers emerge from the data on their own. You need to “read” patterns, you need to intuit what analyses to run, what questions matter. The mere act of asking a question is artful.

At the same time, people outside of marketing think marketers just love not being measurable, not being trackable. They think we long for the Mad Men days with their lack of accountability. There may be some of those marketers still floating around, but not many (and I meet a lot of CMOs).

Going into your CEO’s office and saying, “I want another $10 million, but I don’t know what I did with the last $10 million and I’m not sure what I’m going to deliver for this next $10 million” is NOT a fun place to be. In fact, that’s incredibly stressful. We marketers would love to be more accountable and data-driven, but we don’t have the tools to do it, tools that can keep up with the complexity of cross-channel, modern marketing.

7. It seems like a number of the major marketing platforms out there are moving towards a more open architecture, with well-defined APIs and even partner stores. Are you seeing that trend too? Does it make it easier for products like yours to provide more value-add across platforms?

There is absolutely a growing trend toward the use of more open architectures and APIs. The data is being liberated! Many channel managers, mostly digital, have pretty good access to their data. As I mentioned, it’s likely not tagged with the right metadata when it comes back, but what’s available is accessible in a structured format.

There is absolutely a growing trend toward the use of more open architectures and APIs. The data is being liberated!

But remember, senior marketing leaders aren’t interested in looking at dashboards showing the data that was easily available. They need the data that matters, and they need to see data across it all. There is no API to your PR firm, or your media agency, or your brand equity tracker, or the complex spreadsheets that come out of finance that hold your current numbers for planned, actual and committed spend. And even many digital tools still don’t have well-supported APIs, so you’re dealing with reports in Excel, PDF and PowerPoint more often than not.

Beckon decided on day one that in order to help senior leaders understand and communicate what’s working across it all, we needed to bring in all the data. All of it. APIs are easy. Structuring unstructured data is harder. But we looked at consumer apps like TripIt and business apps like Bill.com that allow you to simply email things in, and structure and insight pop out the other end, and we said, “Why not?” So, no matter what format your data is in, just cc: Beckon.

8. If you could offer one piece of advice to a CMO who is trying to get their arms around data-driven marketing, what would you tell them?

We get it. You’re frustrated that you don’t have your data together. That you don’t have a more buttoned-up story about what you’re spending and what’s working. That all you can report on is activity metrics, which you know isn’t cutting it.

It’s not your fault. Marketing is messier than it’s ever been and the problem is only growing. But understand that what you’re doing now — sifting through big data after the fact for nuggets of insight — will never ever, ever work.

Structuring your data up front is the only way to save marketing. You can’t spend all your time managing marketing execution. You need to manage marketing performance. Set up marketing’s “Chart of Accounts,“ pick goals and objectives, and tag everything on the way in so that you can tell the marketing story in terms of business impact. It’s marketing’s time to shine.

Thank you, Jennifer — best wishes with Beckon!

Buffer Share

Comments

  1. Great post! Would love to see a follow up with thoughts on clean ways to combine aggregate and customer-specific data. The best way to ask for $10M is to demonstrate a specific return on the last $10M, but to do that you need to tie upper-funnel metrics, which are often aggregate and anonymous, with actual customer actions.

    Re: #6, art vs science, I agree, it’s a false dichotomy. Examining the role of art in scientific inquiry has produced some great philosophy over the years. I’m personally a fan of Henri Poincare–more thoughts here: http://www.andrewszatan.com/stop-counting-ladybugs-creativity-science-new-marketing/

  2. Scott, thanks for “surfacing” Beckon – very interesting. I co-founded one the first ever ETL (extract, transform, load) platforms for large enterprises – eventually acquired by IBM. I understand data integration – working with disparate data has always been a key challenge for the enterprise. Most BI tools, like Tableau, as Jennifer says, look great, but what about the data! To have solved the data integration problem, AND in an agile way, with contemporary tools, AND to have produced a highly targeted (marketing in this case) analytical application on top – should be a recipe for great success!

Leave a Reply