Whether gathered from social networks, online transactions or sensored equipment, companies today have access to an unprecedented amount of data regarding their customers’ behavior. And before any of this information can serve business objectives, the real challenge for companies is identifying and developing the tools and methods to decipher it.
Of course, many academics make data analytics their research focus, developing new and cutting edge modeling, forecasting and analysis methods. However, many business professionals continue to see academics as out of touch with the practical needs of a business. Plus, the technical knowhow and steep learning curve required to apply many of these methods can sometimes deter business analysts from approaching the issue from an academic perspective. Why this disconnect?
“When we first started working with academic consultants, it quickly became clear that these worlds were hardly compatible,” explainsYassine El Ouarzazi, Marketing Sciences Manager at Mars Inc. “The objectives, rewards systems and business models were just entirely different: Most businesses are under pressure to achieve relatively short-term objectives and they simply don’t have the time to develop the right tools. These short term goals really make most businesses very impatient.”
“On the other hand, Academics are encouraged to publish, which both puts them in a longer term mindset and makes "publishability" a dominant criterion over business relevance or applicability. But if we can get Professors (and academic journals?) worried about applicability together with businesses who are flexible with their time constraints, we can find things that work to bridge the disconnect.”
“A first important step towards building a bridge is fostering dialogue. Although attitudes are slowly starting to change, right now these two groups just aren’t talking enough,” adds Nicolas Glady. “Yes, their objectives are different in several ways but I don’t think it’s that one group has qualities that the other is missing. I think there is a way to create better collaboration, and in the best interests of all.”
With this aim, professor Glady and Yassine El Ouarzazi, along withother colleagues, launched BARI, a free, multidisciplinary professional network that brings together academic researchers and business researchers. The idea behind this initiative was to create a common ground where these two groups could work together on joint projects to mutually beneficial ends. The initiative fits well within a broader trend for researchers, more and more conscious of the relevance of their work.
This initiative brought professor Glady and Yassine El Ouarzazi to look for new ways to measure the impact of Mars’ social media campaigns.
The challenge: distinguishing between the impact of social marketing and the impact of other marketing tools
“Businesses like Mars Inc. have data assets that we just don’t have in academia,” explains professor Glady. “For instance, they have household-level panel data that captures for each brand both household daily purchases and daily exposure to TV advertising, online display and online social networks eWOM. The challenge for Mars is distinguishing between each of these elements to establish the true effectiveness of social media marketing, or electronic word of mouth campaigns. These are very complex phenomena to approach, and state-of-the-art techniques are needed to measure these effects accurately. This is where collaboration between our academic researchers and Mars’ team of business analysts is really yielding some positive results. Our researchers work on the company premises, guaranteeing the security of the data, while the development and validation of the methodology benefit to both parties. ”
In brief, the objective of this joint project was to look at user-generated, brand-related content on social networks, and measures its impact on consumer purchase behavior. They had to therefore successfully measure this impact, aside from other advertising vehicles, including TV and online display. The business analyst team used household-level panels to capture for each brand both household daily purchases and daily exposure to TV advertising, online display and online social networks. And today, both the academic and business research teams are working to develop a model in order to estimate the contribution of each advertising channel and the potential synergies between them.
“Many companies decide to invest in a social media vehicle, without a clue about its expected return,” adds professor Glady. “Proposing a reliable way to estimate the impact of social media, would be a significant break-through in advertising effectiveness measurement and would allow the advertiser to adapt its communication strategy and better allocate resources across channels.”
The true success of this collaboration is that it sets itself apart from the traditional consultant-client type relationship. Both parties are working here towards a mutually beneficial end. In practical terms, this means that the data is being provided by the company and the methodology is being proposed by the academic team. But it’s also much more than this, and a lot hinges on changing attitudes.
“Data is normally very expensive for an academic. We have a theory, but we need to test it and to do this, we need access to real data – herein explains the benefits for the academic in this kind of relationship,” adds professors Glady. “But there are also real benefits for businesses who often struggle to differentiate and understand the pros and cons of solutions that are presented to them in the context of consulting.”
“Or, if they read an article about a new method, it’s difficult for them to assess the quality of the approach. If you’re not an expert in forecasting or modeling, it can be difficult to understand if you don’t go deep into the methodology. Here, academic and business interests converge: where a consulting firm may be suspected to mainly focus on generating as much business as possible, researchers genuinely want to develop the most accurate methodologies and tools. And the company is guaranteed that the outcome will be clearly documented and explained as the purpose of research is to be exposed to the broadest audience possible.”
Will these types of initiatives develop further? The good news is that ’Big Data’ and ‘Business Analytics’ are today’s buzzwords. And, as these topics are usually very technical and advanced, it’s getting more and more popular for business professionals to attend research seminars and to attempt to find state-of-the-art solutions to their big data dilemmas. The desire is there for business professionals to better understand the latest analytic tools. That said, in reality, a relatively small number of companies are actually able to apply what they learn to achieve practical business goals. While signs point to a slow change in attitudes, for the time being, there is appetite but a low level of conversion.