Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Holy Trinity of Marketing Automation Systems?

An old friend and fellow blogger Michael Fassnacht has an interesting blog post -- he advocates a concept of combining marketing resource management (MRM) systems with marketing analytics, the goal being optimization of marketing resource usage, in a fashion very similar to financial asset optimization.

While on surface, this may seem like a straight-up combination of MRM systems and marketing analytics systems, but a hidden yet crucial system to implement this concept is the one that does the marketing program execution. This is the system that uses different subset of marketing assets for each program and its various campaigns, and hopefully tracks the effectiveness of those assets in a full cycle, i.e. all the way to conversion (or non-conversion). In a typical marketing shop today, these are usually 3 different systems/vendors, with little or no integration between them.

Now, if you have a marketing program execution platform that is (a) in tune with all your assets in all different channels, and (b) tracks asset usage and effectiveness in different programs, and also publishes it to an analytics platform -- you are close to implementing the concept that Michael is advocating.

Is there a platform out there that does all this? Stay tuned :-) And I'll be also curious to hear your feedback on marketing automation platforms out there that come close to implementing this concept.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Multi-Lingual Keyboard - Lekhika 2007

I was very encouraged today to hear the announcement of Lekhika 2007 - a wordprocessing application that covers ten scripts and 3000 characters and supports Windows, MAC and Linux, with a unique way of converting regular keyboards into local language keyboards by creating a simulated keyboard on the bottom part of the screen. See a demo/clip here --

This summer when I was in Nepal, I was fortunate to connect with a group of people working on Open Learning Exchange Nepal (OLE Nepal) -- who are working to produce localized content and educational material aimed for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project. OLE Nepal is putting a lot of effort to produce Nepali-based content, but the XO laptop's board is still US English-based -- which stresses that a key obstacle for a truly localized computer is not having a local language-based keyboard.

There have been keyboards that support multiple languages (Japanese keyboards comes to mind), but just like any business, they are meant for languages that have a sizable market that wants to buy and use computers. But what about languages like Nepali for example? Being a developing country with no computer manufacturing facility, where can Nepal expect to get laptops that have a Nepali keyboard? And likewise, I'm sure there are so many other students that will be able to get much more usage out of a computer if they had one in their language.

So I hope software like Lekhika paves the way for a new line of innovations that make it easy to enable localized keyboards, and a truly localized computing experience. Sure, because of its origins, the dual nature of keyboard (i.e. local language + English) will still be needed for some time. But if projects like OLPC are truly aiming to have a laptop for every child (regardless of what language they speak and where in the world they live) -- then they must incorporate a solution for 100% localization which includes the keyboard.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Polarization of BI Solutions

It almost seems like the big BI companies figured out they had to be a part of something even bigger to justify their already sky-high license costs. Just within last 12 months, we've seen Hyperion get bought Oracle, Business Objects get bought by SAP, and now today Cognos got bought by IBM.

And I can't help but feel that Enterprise BI software has become a dying breed.

If you are a fortune 1000 type of organization, chances are you already have some sort of elaborate licensing agreement with at least one of these acquirers (Oracle, SAP, or IBM). So now, they have one more thing to sell you so that you can have a check mark for your BI initiatives without having to drive too far to a different vendor.

I guess I shouldn't be so cynical. As BI software, Hyperion, Business Objects, and Cognos are pretty feature-rich, and have many compelling qualities. My problem is with their complex enterprise deployment model, proprietary nature, and staggering cost of ownership that continues standing in the way of making BI available to the masses. And their recent acquisitions further polarizes the world of BI haves and have-nots.

Perhaps this is how corporate world will come to demand a new breed of BI solutions. Back in 2002, when we started our marketing analytics company, we thought (and still do) open source and software-as-a-service were going to drive this new trend. And it's good to see companies like JasperSoft, Pentaho, Swivel, and LucidEra lead the way in this direction. What's more important than just looking for open source and/or SaaS solutions to BI, is to demand "openness" -- openness in terms of architecture, sharing of insights, and just as importantly, openness about cost of ownership. How many times you have seen a BI initiative where the entire budget got spent just on data integration and/or cleansing? How about the cost of those special consultants who seemed to be the only earthlings that understood the esoteric workings of a popular yet proprietary BI software package?

Above all, one needs to keep in mind that BI is about leveraging all available data to get a clearer picture of what's going on in the business, be able to focus on the most relevant issues, and make better decisions. Instead of taking a centralized approach of one system doing it all, a good BI system today needs to act more like a network that can connect to various data sources, systems, API's, web services, etc. What if your BI system acted more like a mashup that lets you combine compatible information sources and cross-reference them as you please? Swivel has an approach close to this except that it expects all information to be uploaded by its users. It could be interesting if Swivel could connect to some common public data repositories (like geographical locations, weather, stock prices).

The key here is to have BI systems that enable mashup of information resources and analyses, a la web 2.0, as opposed to being traditional "enterprise" solutions that need your business to bend over backwards to fit into their proprietary framework and terminologies. Which to me conjures up images of Oracle, SAP, and IBM.

Maybe I liked them better when they were Hyperion, Business Objects, and Cognos. At least they didn't say -- "BTW, we also do BI".

Monday, November 05, 2007

Freeway to Yosemite

Freeways are ugly. After driving for a few hours, once I took the exit off Highway 99 to get on Hwy 140 towards Yosemite National Park -- I felt the 2-lane highways much more a part of the landscape than the concrete mesh work I'd just driven through that meandered through equally artificial and out-of-place looking subdivisions. But I digress..

On the way, a rock slide had closed a section of the highway. There was a detour that alternately stopped traffic for 15 minutes each way so vehicles can take turn on a single-lane highway. The geek in me kept wishing for sensors that optimized wait time on each end, but I told myself the whole point about being in Yosemite was to slow down.

More to reinforce rather than repeat something you may have have heard a thousand times -- Yosemite in fall is simply wonderful. Not crowded, the weather is sunny, nice, warm. Ok -- most of the waterfalls were dried up. But, would you consider the following images any less breathtaking?

Since we had our 2 little kids with us, we opted for a relatively short hike to Vernal Falls Bridge (categorized as "mildly strenuous"). We got around the park in these cool hybrid buses. The kids got real excited when we spotted a small bear strolling around the trees, and I was happy we weren't planning on camping out. The hike to Vernal Falls is a part of a much longer trek, most popular of which is the one that goes all the way to the top of the half dome. Maybe next time when we have some babysitting help (or if the kids are old enough to climb with us).

We learned that a few weeks earlier, a man in his 60s was on his way on the 211-mile trek to Mount Whitney. Apparently he'd made arrangements for food/supplies to be air-dropped via a plane or maybe a helicopter. Sounded like a cool (literally) adventure.

On our way back, it was close to 7:30 pm, both kids were asleep in their car seats, we drove up to Glacier Point (about a 20 mile detour) to watch the stars in the clear night sky. Living in the city, you tend to forget what they sky looks like at night without any artificial light. We even managed to see some shooting stars. Too bad my camera couldn't photograph that -- some things are just meant to be experienced.

Driving back on 120 towards 99, suddenly a deer crossed the road in front of me. Good thing I wasn't driving fast and was able to slow down in time, without waking up anyone inside either. Pretty soon, we got back on the concrete mesh work by way of Highway 99, making me even more certain -- freeways are really ugly.

Halloween Pumpkin Carving Contest

In the spirit of the day, we decided to have a little pumpkin carving contest at the office. Here're are the contestants:

Mine is the one on the right below:

And the winner is:

Monday, October 01, 2007

Commoditization of Business Intelligence

I received an email from Seth Grimes, a very familiar voice in the BI community, with an interesting question -- Do you now see BI as a commodity market?

He was referring to an earlier post about my open source BI project OpenI, where I'd mentioned:

The state of business intelligence software market has been very much controlled by a few big players. The situation is very similar to how the J2EE application server market was before JBoss, or how database server market used to be before MySQL and Postgres emerged as serious alternatives, or how OS market was before Linux. Pretty soon we will talk about the BI platform market in the same manner, because open source and open standards are driving the commoditization of BI as we speak. It is just a matter of time.

That was a few years ago. So, I asked myself -- well, how do I feel now? Have I learned anything?

The question is a tough one -- something I've always grappled with. Ultimately, it depends on what do we mean by "business intelligence". If we go by the current big commercial players' definition -- then BI is more about a software tool providing capabilities around data warehousing/ETL, OLAP, analytical modeling, and visualization. So by that account, I'd definitely stick to my original thoughts and say it's a commodity market.

However, a more relevant question might be -- does having these capabilities make a business intelligent? In reality, what I've seen is that it comes down to an analyst (or group of analysts) who (a) know how to work a "BI" tool, and (b) have some fundamental expertise in the business domain they are analyzing. So, the "BI" tool is more about facilitating the job of an analyst or a general business user. You could argue that by making performance metrics, etc. more easily accessible to a business user, the BI tool is helping them make more effective decisions, but it is making a big assumption that the user knows how relevant the performance metrics are for the business.

In the end, my take on this is that, the most effective BI tools are domain-centric, i.e. they embody some inherent knowledge about a particular business domain -- so, not only they are extremely efficient and accurate about compiling all the performance metrics and making them available, they also "understand" the applicability of those metrics and can almost act like expert systems in guiding crucial decisions. This, I don't think is a commodity market. It needs to be grounded into specific industry domains to be effective.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Conquerer of Crises

Prayer lamps @ Sankata Mandir - Kathmandu, Nepal

I've been on sort of a hiatus all summer (if you can't tell from the blog posts or lack thereof). Anyway, I worked from our Kathmandu (Nepal) office for almost all of July/August, and also spent quality time with the entire extended family.

It's one thing to read and hear about globalization, but utterly amazing when you are smack dab in the middle of it. Kathmandu is, well, increasingly chaotic. A coalition government is struggling to restore stability, while there are protests of all kinds happening on a daily basis, sometimes going to the extremes of calling a "bandh" (general strike), which mostly means no vehicles allowed on the streets (except for ambulances and tourist buses, after all the local economy badly needs the tourists).

Still, life goes on, people figure out a way to get their business done. For IT-based businesses, these "bandh"'s really don't matter a lot. "High-speed" (usually 128 kbps) connection literally provides the information superhighway to get past the "bandh". Let's just hope no one stops the traffic there.

For logical thinkers, it is hard to explain how the city/country functions at all -- but it does, and has been doing so for quite some time. The rate of technology adoption is just nuts. Entrepreneurship is on the rise. All the while an uncertain political climate looms, but perhaps people have figured out over time -- this too shall pass -- and carry a strange confidence that their families, jobs, businesses will somehow always find a way to survive.

The Sankata Mandir is an old temple right in the heart of old Kathmandu. We got there as I followed my family through lots of temples. I was mostly looking after the kids, not being much for organized religion myself, but hoping somehow this might help our young ones develop an appreciation for the higher powers. Most of these temple, I'm sorry to say, are uninspiring -- but something about Sankata felt different. Perhaps it's the name -- a loose translation will be "conquerer of crises" -- that symbolized the current state of Kathmandu and Nepal.

And so even after all the daily accounts of various "crises" -- I came back hopeful, for just like these prayer lamps in Sankata Mandir, there are enough souls in Nepal that carry a strong yet silent power inside them. While these people claim they don't know what's keeping the place together in midst of these chaos, they don't need to look any further, just need to look inside themselves. I truly hope they conquer all their crises.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We'll have more women employees, if we only had a separate restroom

Since my earlier post re men vs women engineers, I have had several discussion with our offshore counterparts on why they don't have as many female employees. Something they mentioned a week or so ago was particularly funny, but also a harsh reminder of some of the unusual (from a western point of view) infrastructural challenges:

Here's the issue: the office has only 1 restroom (for a staff of about 10). And women employees don't like that.

And they aren't unique in this challenge. Most of the office buildings have restrooms built as an afterthought, and even if they have multiple restrooms, even allocated as "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" (part of old colonial legacy) -- the allocations aren't honored all the time. So, a typical complaint across all women staff is the lack of clean, and more importantly, dedicated restroom facilities.

Now, I doubt if this is a key reason for the lack of female engineers -- but in a generally reserved culture, I'm bound to assume that the female employees don't discuss this issue as much with the management, and the management (usually male) doesn't think much of the issue either to actually take some actions. Maybe it's too trivial, not core to the business -- whatever, but it is an issue nevertheless. Maybe offshore locations plagued by high turnover problems can use this as a differentiator for retention.

I should point out that our offshore counterpart has a female president.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Email Marketing is about Engagement First, Revenue Second

For the last couple of months, I have been trying to get my head around the analytical nuances of email-centric marketing (as a part of my new gig with Responsys). At a first glance, there seems to be a plethora of metrics – some around deliverability, then open rates, click rates, conversion rates, etc, etc. Which ones of these are the true measures of success? To some extent, they all are – but I can’t help but look for a top-down hierarchy which looks at the bottom line first, and then delves into the various supporting factors.

The success of your email (or any other customer contact for that matter) depends on whether the email was successful in influencing a desired action on the recipient’s part -- Did they actually open the email? Did they actually click on any of the external links in the email? Did they actually perform the action that was the goal of the email – like making a purchase or signing up for a program? Measuring each one of these events and understanding how they are influenced by external factors are crucial to optimizing the success of your email campaigns.

A common misperception about emails is that they are more-or-less “free”. Compared to the cost of a direct mail piece or a telemarketing call, the physical cost of sending an email is definitely lower by several orders of magnitude. As a result, what is also common is that organizations get somewhat sloppy about measuring the cost and impact of their email campaigns, and they tend to measure email campaign effectiveness on a more general level.

Particularly important are the hidden costs of email campaigns. Since it is easier and cheaper to send several emails to a recipient, often “list fatigue” is realized much sooner in the email than in offline channels. This means people in the email lists opt out more quickly and the response rates decrease more sharply, indicating a more negative experience for the email recipients.

This breakdown in relationship manifests itself in the following email engagement metrics:

  • Decreasing click-through rates and conversion rates
  • Higher opt-out and spam-out rates

However, a common trap most email marketers fall in is to address the above issues by increasing the volume of emails. The thought pattern is something like this:

I am sending out 100,000 emails today, and I only get a 0.1% conversion rate. Since my target is to drive 10,000 new web sales by email this quarter, I must send out 10,000*100 / 0.1 = 10,000,000 emails this quarter. And because it costs me only a penny per email, I am basically spending $100,000. If the gross margin per sale is higher than $10, then I even have positive ROI.

While this calculation may be mathematically correct, the major flaw in this approach is that it evaluates email purely on short-term revenue potential, and does not consider the impact of email volume on the overall quality of customer engagement. In a way, it is very similar to the bad image telemarketing has gotten over the years because telemarketers have been entirely focused on making a large volume of calls without caring much how many people get infuriated in the process. The difference is that in the case of emails, people can easily unsubscribe with a click, tag you as a spammer, or simply hit delete any time they see an email from you. They can do a lot more damage to you in a much shorter amount of time.

So, it is essential to think of email as an engagement tool first, and revenue generator second. The primary goal of your email campaign should be engagement, which in turn drives value. It does not work the other way around.

In the coming days, I will post more of my thoughts around measuring engagement and its influencers. I will also like to hear from you – what are your thoughts around measuring engagement driven by email, and/or do you see the problem space differently? What should be the role of analytics in driving success of email campaigns?

The more I think about this, it seems that analyzing success of email campaigns is not just looking at one particular success outcome, or even looking at individual metrics like open rates or click rates -- the task seems more about developing some sort of "Email Engagement Index" (EEI -- do we really need another acronym?) that incorporates all the different manifestations of engagement that were influenced by the email (open, click, purchase, forum posts, calls to the call center, web site visit, etc.) with their appropriate "weights". Then we need to track the impact of our email campaigns with respect to this index. Else we run the danger of looking at this multi-dimensional issue in a more unary manner (such as looking at only revenue or open rate, one at a time), and thus, not realize the actual impact of the email campaign.

I'll have more on this soon, but thought I should at least get the dialog started.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Loyalty Matrix becoming a part of Responsys

Some of you may have seen the press release today -- Loyalty Matrix, the company I founded back in 2001, was acquired by Responsys earlier this month. We moved offices last week (it is only 3 blocks away in downtown San Francisco -- so wasn't that bad), and now a new phase begins for the Loyalty Matrix team (including myself).

Since I did become a parent during my tenure at Loyalty Matrix, interestingly I find a lot of parallels between founding a company and raising children. They both need a lot of nurturing at the beginning, many sacrifices, but it is your love/passion that keeps you going. And at some point, you realize that your child/company will need help from beyond the parental units to ensure proper growth. With children, it is the schools, the soccer coaches, friends, guidance counselor, etc. -- and with a company, it is the investors and/or an acquirer. In a way, I feel like we finally got Loyalty Matrix admitted into college where it will have the necessary infrastructure to flourish to its full potential.

So it was fortunate that (a) we as Loyalty Matrix finally recognized that we were ready for the next step in our evolution; and (b) Responsys got the big picture that combining analytics with execution is the next big thing in marketing automation.

Deals like these are always time consuming and intense, doesn't matter if you are a small company or big. Now that the deal is done, here comes the fun part -- we get to work! plus I get to blog when I want to!!

So friends -- a new journey begins. You will certainly hear more often from me. Let's keep the hope alive.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Do You Prefer Men or Women?... Engineers, That Is.

We have been offshoring for about 2 years now with a small firm in Nepal. Recently someone referred a different offshore firm and suggested I should check them out as a backup option.

The contact happened to be someone based out of the San Francisco bay area, but he travelled frequently to India and eastern Europe, where he managed different offshore teams. The meeting started cordially, with the person describing different areas of technical prowess, fat communication lines where we can call a local phone number which rings an IP phone in Mumbai next to our offshore developers. He also had pictures showing the office -- very similar to the cube farms one would find in silicon valley.

Then he started asking me about our particular technology needs, what type of work we were trying to support with offshore help.. and then, out of the blue -- he asked me:

"Now, Sandeep... do you prefer men or women?"

What?? What kind of question is that, I thought. "Excuse me..?" I said.

"Well, do you prefer male engineers in your team, or women? We can assign team members however you like."

I tried to explain that it didn't matter. Not just because we have equal opportunities law here, but more from a fundamental belief that what's important is that we have productive software engineers, and we could care less about their gender or any other demographic traits.

Yet this person asked again -- implying I shouldn't get hung up on equal opportunity law, since apparently they don't in India, and if I had any deep-rooted prejudices against women software developers, this was my chance to make that clear, and he'd be more than happy to make that happen. He presented it almost a big differentiator that set his offshoring practice apart from others.

Needless to say, we didn't do any business with this person. However, it brings back the issues with gender prejudices in software engineering. Granted that the number of women in software field is very low compared to men, and on top of that we have stereotypes about women not being as good in math and sciences -- but, is it as bad where an offshore company can get away with asking for gender preference for your offshore team's makeup?

I hope not.

I'm not sure if my or anyone's chastising this person on gender equality would make any big of a difference. But if enough people say No, and say that gender doesn't matter, maybe he'll get the message.

Still, how many times do you get asked by a consulting firm -- "do you prefer men or women for your projects?" I can't help but scratch my head every time I think about it.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

What do Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh Have in Common?

Apparently their birthday. Both were born on today's date -- according to the local public radio I was listening to this morning on my bus ride to work.

I thought that was funny -- polar opposites of talk radio born on the same day (I'm sure not the same year, although that would really be funny)