1997 May 01

MicroMass Communications Inc. MicroMass Studio
David M. Raab
DM News
May, 1997

Segmentation has always been a part of direct marketing, but until recently it was largely aimed at determining who would receive a given promotion. A really sophisticated system might try to find the best promotion for a given customer from a handful of choices. Either way, the number of options was severely limited by the cost and operational difficulties of producing many different versions of a promotion.

Today, highly customized promotions are much easier to execute. This is obviously true for the Internet and other electronic media such as fax and telemarketing, where physical constraints are largely absent. Even in print, advances in personalized output and inserting make customization more practical. Suddenly, there is an opportunity for vastly more detailed segmentation than ever before.

But this type of segmentation brings its own challenges. When the number of possible outputs was relatively small, segmentations could be defined through a largely manual process that involved plotting the characteristics of records that belonged in each group. This might be represented as a table, a tree or a flow chart. But today, a near-infinite number of potential combinations would yield trees of near-infinite complexity, which is neither practical nor meaningful. So to take full advantage of the new technologies, alternative methods are needed.

MicroMass Studio (MicroMass Communications Inc., 919-851-3182) is designed to manage the complexity of today’s promotional programs. The product is the second from MicroMass, which in January released a personalized Web page generator called IntelliWeb. IntelliWeb allows its users to insert decision rules at key points in a Web page, which would then generate different versions of the page depending on information provided by the current viewer. (A demonstration version is available at www.micromass.com.) Inserting the decision rules is a more or less manual process of adding custom HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) tags to the Web page text.

Studio provides a tool to simplify and manage this process and to apply it to media other than the Web. In fact, MicroMass will release IntelliPrint, which executes customized print promotions, at the same time as Studio. Both are due by early June.

Studio promotions are built with a specialized text editor that creates something similar to the template used with a mail-merge program. At points where a mail-merge variable might be inserted, users instead define rules that select the exact contents to generate.

The power of the system lies in these rules, which are based on the Clips artificial intelligence programming language and can draw on data about the customer currently being processed. This data is defined to the system in a dictionary which can reference either a flat ASCII file for batch processes such as print production or a user profile for interactive applications.

Rules can include calculations and complex logic, can be nested inside each other, and can generate data that it itself read by later rules. In interactive situations, rules can also accept and store new user input. IntelliWeb provides the ability to store user input on the individual’s PC, although most marketers will prefer to capture it on their own server instead. Studio has Wizards to help users generate complex rules, which Clip programmers can also edit by hand. Rules reside in a database beyond the specific promotion, so they can be shared and reused across projects if desired.

Because a Web page is itself ultimately a piece of text with HTML tags, Studio’s approach lends itself nicely to Web as well as print output. Conventional HTML links allow the Web site to contain alternative paths. These links can also be governed by Studio rules, so path taken at a particular junction can be controlled by Studio as well as the user.

Although some rules may point to other rules, ultimately a rule will specify a piece of “content” that will be produced by the system. This content may be text, graphics or a page layout in a print application, and could also include video, sound or animation for a Web page. Bits of content are stored in an object oriented database that makes them available to Studio. When the user calls up a piece of content, Studio automatically loads the application program–such as the Quark layout program for a page layout–needed to edit it. Studio contains extensions to products like Quark that let users embed rules within a piece of content when appropriate. For example, a page layout might contain blocks whose contents are selected by Studio rules.

Once a project is fully constructed, users can test it against a set of sample data, stepping through each case to make sure the results are satisfactory. Studio will also check that all the required rules, contents and layouts are available and will then create a self-contained file to execute the project using the output medium, source files and hardware/software platform specified by the user. This file, really an object oriented database that the vendor describes as a data “soup”, is then copied to the target platform and fed data for actual production.

Studio runs on Microsoft Windows 95 or Windows NT, with a MacIntosh version due in July or August. Web and print projects can be executed on these platforms plus Sun OS, Sun Solaris and Silicon Graphics servers. IntelliPrint generates Postscript output files which can feed nearly any printer.

Studio is priced at $2,500 per seat, with discounts for multiple copies. Several users can work on the same project simultaneously, although the vendor has not yet added formal version control capabilities. The system is written in C/C++ using Microsoft Foundation Class libraries, which means the interface resembles standard Windows applications. The vendor provides a one day training course in the mechanics of operating the software and plans more extensive training in how to use it effectively from a marketing standpoint. IntelliWeb is priced at $15,000 for a single-processor server while IntelliPrint costs $5,000 to $25,000 depending on the server platform.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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