On Episode 58, we’re talking with Chris Clegg, president and research director of PortMA, which is short for Portland Marketing Analytics. His firm works with some of the world’s biggest brands on using data to drive communications strategies and make better marketing decisions. Chris posted on LinkedIn a while back about how to create stronger marketing with data—and that got my attention. So I asked him to come on the show to share his ideas with you.

Cover image from Flickr, public domain.

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Mark: Chris, welcome to Confessions of a Marketer.
Chris: Thanks for having me.
Mark: We had you on as one of the first guests on my other podcast with Garnet Heraman, The Innovation Podcast, and when I saw some of the posts of yours on LinkedIn recently, I knew I had to have you on here on Confessions of a Marketer.
Chris: Oh, that's so good to hear. I've been told I need to be more social so that's validating.
Mark: Oh, it's great having you here. Those posts were about data and experiential marketing, and they really intrigued me. You said that ad agencies and experiential marketers ask you this question pretty frequently, "How do we use the data we collect to generate insights?" So, what do you tell them?
Chris: That's a great question. Insights are relative, and that's the first thing to keep in mind is someone will find data to be insightful when it solves a problem for them, and in business, problems relate to decisions we have to make as managers, and so if I'm having to make a decision and avoid information, that's going to produce anxiety, and that's going to be a problem. If data can provide me information that will help me make a better decision, I will label that data as being insightful, and so it's very relative.
Chris: It has to do with who you're talking to, and when you're talking to people that are on the finance side, it has to do with dollars and cents, and return on investment. When you're talking to people that are on about logistics and the like, then they're more interested in catering, and event sign-ups, and the like. It really depends on where they're at. In the middle, you tend to have people that are all about education, and does this activity solve the problem that we were set out to solve? And so they care about education, internalization of information. Those things matter more.
Chris: Once you get that out of the way, then it really becomes a matter of organizing the information that you have into cause and effect buckets. It is so important to think that way, and it's ultimately the way any data scientist is going to think. They're going to look at ... What are the things that exist that define an activity, or an occurrence, or an event, and then what are the things that define outcomes from that? Then, we look to see, how do I align those things up causally? How do I know that when I do more of this, more of that, it's likely to happen? Causality is tricky. Causality is a lot of fun too. It's about ... There's academics. There are three things that we need to have in place to cause two things to be causal. We need to have the cause to happen before the effect. We call it temporal order.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: And so the thing that's creating the change needs to happen before the change, and then we need to make sure that they move in ways together that are more often that would otherwise be due to chance. If this happens, then that happens, and that pattern is frequent enough that it's something other than chance.
Chris: The third thing is you got to be able to have a theory that justifies it. They call it face validity in the textbooks, but you got to have a reason why it makes sense that this would cause that. There's a great story in Chicago in the '70s where there was a social scientist that did research on the link between auto theft and ice cream consumption, and everything led to that being a very clear causal relationship. The more often that there were auto thefts, the more ice cream was being eaten, and the trick in there was that there was no logical theory, and the trick in ... The problem that allowed that relationship to happen was that there was this intervening variable.
Chris: There was something happening in the middle that was allowing those two things to be related, and it had to do with weather. It had to do with heat, and when there was more ... When it was a hotter day, people were more likely to leave their windows down in their car, which made it easier for a car thief to steal the car, and also, people were eating more ice cream on a hot summer day, so it was that intervening variable, and because there was no theory, there was no face validity between the relationship, there needed to be something else that was causing it. It turned out to be the weather.
Chris: As data scientists, we call that spuriousness. We call that relationship to be dependent on something else, but those three things are what matters, and when you've got ... you got cause and effect as legitimate and it's ... your data is organized in that context and you're doing that in an area that is relevant for the person you're trying to create insights for, then it all comes together that it works very well.
Mark: Yeah. A friend of mine love saying correlation does not imply causation.
Chris: It does not. It'd be nice if it did.
Mark: Just because it's sunny at 3:06 p.m. on a Tuesday, it doesn't mean that that is causing it.
Chris: Absolutely.
Mark: You say the data can become insight when it helps decision-makers create stronger marketing. How can marketers get to that point? It feels like that point is almost nirvana.
Chris: Well, yeah. It is, but it's also the reason marketing works when it works.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: My approach has always leaned on the marketing theories of message to market match, and I think that's so critical. When I worked with advertising agencies and marketers who really understand that, I see beautiful marketing come out of it that has amazing performance metrics associated with it, and it always starts with, who are the people that have the values and beliefs, they have the problems, and they have the need that align with whatever the product or service is that's being marketed?
Chris: When you know who those people are, and what the nature of the problem is, and where the barrier has been that kept them from solving that problem before, you can put together messaging for those people that highlights the unique value proposition of the service or product that you're marketing so they can see how it aligns with their lifestyle that the people that buy this product are apart of their tribe, that it's the very viable solutions for them, and they will therefore act. There's this cycle of purchase that at a most simple level is this idea of need, awareness, trial, and purchase, and people are somewhere in that cycle. If they're not buying, it's because they're stuck somewhere in there.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: Simply, good marketing unsticks them, and so you need to be able to understand who they are, and then how to help them work through that process if that's going to be appropriate for them, that's going to help be relevant for them. Marketing is solid. Marketing that is good is going to be extremely relevant because it's talking to the right kinds people, and when they're in the early stages of the process, the marketing is going to be very education-based. When they're in the later stages of the purchase process, but they're stuck, the marketing is going to be more behavioral-based like coupons or education around usage scenarios, things that are going to help them get over the behavioral issues.
Chris: When that's all in alignment, things flow, and it boils down to this example of junk mail. We all hate junk mail. We hate the physical catalogs that come into our mailbox and fill up our recycling bins, but unless it's that furniture catalog that you get in the mail right about the time you're looking for a new couch, if it's highly relevant, then it seems being very valuable, and all of marketing is like that. It's about targeting people with a message that aligns with what they care about, and then offering up a solution in that context.
Chris: When you do that, it works. It works really well. When it's not working, it's because you're bleeding somewhere in that process. You're getting to the wrong people too frequently. You're not on message or you're not giving them the information they need to help them move through the purchase cycle, and so it's a matter of deconstructing that and using that to understand why certain things work better than other and/or design your strategy out of the gate with those types of approaches in mind.
Mark: I have a much bigger problem with direct mail that I get at home that sits on my front table. It's just inundates you, right?
Chris: Yeah.
Mark: You do wonder. I'm in the business, and I wonder what is the logic for some of these marketers to send out the volume of material that they send out. It's unreal.
Chris: Yeah. I think a lot of it is laziness. I think there ... I mean, there may be scenarios where the spray and pray is still relevant.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: But there's so much at our fingertips to target people with the right kind of information or information that's going to be relevant for them that is almost ... It's almost inexcusable when you get stuff that's so far irrelevant you don't care about it, and it's sad because it wastes a ton of money and really puts a bad spin on what marketing can be all about.
Mark: Yeah, and I understand a car dealer that I bought a car from three years ago, five years ago putting me on a tickler list and sending me mail. That makes sense.
Chris: Sure, sure.
Mark: But so much of it just isn't even relevant.
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Mark: Anyway, I'm on a list somewhere, right, that's then ... and I'm just getting [crosstalk 00:09:09].
Chris: We all are. I suspect more than one list.
Mark: So, tell me. In your writing, you write about two types of brand marketing decision-makers. Tell me about those.
Chris: Oh, that's great. That goes back to what we were saying earlier about who's going to find what's insightful and why.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: We do a lot of work in evaluating the performance of experiential marketing and the ROI of events, and what I found over the years is that on the brand side, there tend to be, more often than not, two types of people that we're delivering information to, and understanding which one I'm working with is going to directly impact how valuable the information I provide them is, and you have people that move up through an organization and come into a place of brand management because they've moved up through the media side of the business, and they've either been buying media, working with media, or creating media.
Chris: For them, their life has always been about impression. It's about, "How many people did I reach? What was the CPM, and what are my gross rating points? Is that hitting my targets for awareness?" For those people, if I'm not talking about awareness, if I'm not talking about impressions, if I'm not talking about the value of those impressions and the comps associated with them, then I'm missing the boat. When I focus too much on customer conversion or I focus too much on future purchase intention or behavioral changes, it's seen as important because that's ultimately what the business is about, but it's not relevant for them and how they think about the way they're managing the brands.
Chris: Then, on the other side of the house, I could just as likely be reporting to a stakeholder who has come up through the sales side of the business. Maybe they've worked in the channels. They could have been out through the distribution chain. They may have been directly in sales, but for them, they landed into a brand marketing role coming through that experience, and for them, if I open up talking to them about the value of impressions or CPMs, that's not how they think. That's not the way the business is for them. For them, the reality of business and success is the movement of skews and, "How many palettes did we sell?"
Mark: Right.
Chris: "How many new people do we have walking under the lot? What's the traffic in the store?" Those kinds of things are the things that matter, and so I need to make sure that I've got answers to that as well, and so when we're thinking about the process of collecting data and reporting on that data, and the analysis that we do on that information, we need to be thinking about those two stakeholders and make sure that we are providing both types of very legitimate perspectives on how you manage a brand, but both types of people are going to be able to get the information they need to understand where this particular type of marketing, in many occasions, experiential, fits within the marketing mix and fits within the larger scheme of things they are working with.
Chris: I find it very valuable to be able to make those distinctions, and in our notes early on, when we have a new relationship with somebody, to get a feel for that and understand where they're coming from because it helps me understand and the team here at PortMA understand what they're going to find helpful and actionable because it is relative. It's very relative.
Mark: Yeah, and one thing. People think that data that's generated say from a campaign is the end, right?
Chris: Yeah.
Mark: Really, it's kind of the beginning because we're inundated with data now. I think back to the early years of working on the web.
Chris: Yeah.
Mark: 20, 25 years ago, and there was maybe one guy in the marketing group who managed the website, the web master, and he'd have a connection to web trends.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah.
Mark: He'd be able to show you a report every week. Well, now, everybody goes into Google Analytics and combs through the data.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah.
Mark: How do we ensure that those mountains of data are being used effectively?
Chris: Well, I think it's ... At the end of the day, you need to be honest with yourself and ask yourself, "What did I do with this information to be smarter or better at my job?"
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: If you can't answer that, then it's not effective, and it doesn't matter how good or bad the data is intrinsically or whether it fits with a strategy that is smart. If you're not able to personally use it to make better decisions in what you're responsible for, then it's not effective, and so a lot of our work is as much education as it is getting good data and analyzing it correctly. It's helping people understand how do you use this to be smart or to make more money to reach the ends and the goals that you've been tasked with reaching.
Chris: That starts oftentimes with doing the mental work and the planning before any data is available. You really want to understand why you're collecting something and what you're going to do with it before you start spending money on collecting it because otherwise, you get into this trap of being stuck with this volume of information and no idea what it's good for, and what often happens is if that process is not done where you're trying to figure out what are the metrics that matter and why, if that's not done early on, the method that people tend to follow is they just figure, "Let's collect everything. Let's make sure we have all possible metrics we can imagine, and then when the time comes, I'll look back at it, and I'll find out where the meaning is and where the value is, and I'll weed through it all."
Chris: Oftentimes, that's the most expensive, most time-consuming, and least productive approach to any kind of project that involves data, and so a good team ... a good process is going to be one that starts with the end in mind. It starts with thinking through why you're doing this and what you're going to do with it, and then puts the process, the dashboard, data collection, the tasks in order to make sure that you're getting data that you know what you're going to do with before you're stuck with it.
Mark: Right. One of the things I love about following you on LinkedIn and Twitter is that at the beginning of each week and maybe at the end of each week, you say, "Hey, here's what we're working on," so is there anything really cool that you're working on right now that you'd like to share?
Chris: Oh, there's so much stuff that I get excited about. This week, there's a product that the client is the flagship of the industry, so I won't mention too much about the product.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: But the category ... It's a food product, and there's one city in the country that underindexes for this product more than anybody else. People are eating less of this than anywhere else in the country, and so they're going in there for six events to try and turn that around, and that's going to be fascinating because it's always fun when you're working from the bottom up, and you can start to figure out why that is.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: Yeah. We also recently got engaged with a musical act that is touring the country. They're filling smaller venues, and there's a company that's coming in as a strong sponsor, and I'm always ... I always love researching the halo effect, so how does fandom crossover into appreciation for what a brand has to offer, and so that's exciting, and that data just started coming in, and it's really interesting because it's ... The initial results are showing similarities to what we see in the industry elsewhere that has nothing to do with music, and so whether it's a trend for the category or whether it's a ... It's really going to vary by event. We'll see because we've got 24 more concerts to go before we start really diving in, so that stuff is exciting. That stuff is really fun. For a long time, we've been using the approach that I've talked about here for about 10 years now. We've done it for quickly approaching 200 brands.
Mark: Wow.
Chris: We are organizing that data into a benchmarking database that we have leaned on for quite a while, but some of the current theories around AI, and data lakes, and data warehousing, we're starting to modernize the way we approach that internally, and I'm really excited about the insights and trends that are going to be more readily at our fingertips, so we can speak to that. Not only continue to do the work that we do in the brand microcosms, but be able to at a higher level and more efficiently, bring in insights from across campaigns and across brands, and across different types of consumer segments to see how they act in a similar way. Does a millennial family ... Do they act the same way when talking about financial items as they do when they talk about ready-to-serve meals? Are they responding in the same way, or how do those categories differ?
Mark: Right.
Chris: I know that data is sitting at our fingertips. It's a matter of making them accessible, and we've been in the process for a few months now that I'm excited to bear the fruit from, so it's ... Yeah, there's all kinds of things that are happening. The industry is just getting smarter. Marketers are getting smarter.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: Marketers are understanding data, and how to use it, and how to apply technology to be relevant, and so stuff is getting cooler. Marketing is getting more awesome. It's enriching the experiences that we have at a higher level, and it's just exciting to see it and be a part of it.
Mark: Yeah. That experience that you're gathering in your database gets richer with each interaction you have with the client and with each event that you track.
Chris: It does. Yeah.
Mark: As you look back on 10 years of this, it must just give you a shiver in a way because that's so exciting to build that kind of knowledge base.
Chris: It is, and it's ... One thing we were talking about just the other day is ... So, the database is hundreds of thousands of records and hundreds of thousands of consumer interviews, and we've been talking about millennials so long, they've gotten older, and so we're going back to say, "Who is the definition of a millennial 10 years ago, and then what's that same person like now, that same age group like now? Are they acting differently?"
Mark: Right.
Chris: That longevity has allowed us to start to track these variations in consumer demographics that are exciting for somebody who lives in that social world of social behavior and how we engage brands in ways to make our life more fun and exciting. It's fascinating to see, "Are things changing, or are things the same?"
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: We're looking to be able to talk more about that, so stay tuned.
Mark: Yeah, and I would imagine millennials were cast in one way 10, 15 years ago, and they're growing up, and their tastes are changing, so they're not ... It's not something that's fixed. Right?
Chris: Yeah. No, absolutely. Absolutely, and on the other side, I think about those that are in the 60-plus category, those in their 50's and the like, and are those groups changing? As we see the generation X grow older and the greatest generation get more exposed to the world of marketing and technology as it's been more accessible, are we meeting in the middle somewhere? Are we sticking by our ways? It's always interesting. Yeah, it's fascinating.
Mark: One of the greatest Twitters out there is Carl Reiner who's 97, so he's caught on to social media in a big way.
Chris: Absolutely. That's great.
Mark: Are there any trends for the rest of 2019 and beyond that you're tracking?
Chris: It's a great question, and I am so engrossed in the kind of the day-to-day things that happen. It's hard for us to take the big step and spot the trends. There's stuff happening with technology and the way events are managed, and the way that impacts marketing that's so intense. There are things that ... because when someone buys a ticket to a show, they typically are buying two, four tickets. You know what I mean? They're buying multiple tickets to give to their friends or to have with their family, and as a marketer, with that sale, all I know about is the person that bought the four tickets. I don't know about the other three.
Mark: Right.
Chris: Just as an example. There were some work that I was listening to and looking at that is using blockchain technology to better understand that transfer of tickets and who the person is that's actually attending the show versus who was the one that made the purchase, and it's changing all kinds of things about the way we think about stuff and about what we've ... how we've leaned on data with lots of known problems with the data, but had to accept that there was no way to get better information. It was the best thing we could have, and the way that's being solved with technology and with the most cutting-edge tools, it's fascinating, and so the stuff that we had to work so hard to be good at and to get that predictive power out of, that's becoming more accessible. Therefore, it's being used in a wider array of things, and that's making stuff better, and so we go back to that discussion around the junk mail and how it piles up because people are being lazy.
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: That's becoming less acceptable because it's easier to do that segment. It's easier to diagnose who is going to find what's valuable, and they may not waste your time or my money to get that wrong anymore. As all this stuff becomes more accessible and easier, it's going to make things better, and that's ...
Mark: Yeah.
Chris: We sit back and watch that, and we see that in lots of little areas all the time, and it just seems to keep surprising us and getting cooler.
Mark: Lots of fun stuff happening.
Chris: Yeah.
Mark: Well, let's check back in again maybe in six months or so and see what's going on because this is a fast-changing area. I really appreciate you joining me, Chris. It was a fun chat.
Chris: No, absolutely. It's a pleasure. Anytime. Take care.