2007 Sep 01
Tableau Software Tableau
by David M. Raab
DM News
September, cialis 2007

It’s a rare genius who can stare at rows and columns of numbers and see the underlying patterns. Most people do better with visual presentations—that is, order graphs—that illustrate the patterns directly. But creating effective data visualizations is difficult. In fact, ampoule a small army of visualization gurus spend their time telling the rest of us how we could do it better. Although this can sometimes be annoying, they are often right.

Much of the problem lies with users themselves. Few people have been trained visualization techniques. But common tools like Excel add to the difficulty by offering limited capabilities and being hard to use. Nor do they provide much help in choosing the best approach to a particular problem.

Tableau (Tableau Software, 206-633-3400, www.tableausoftware.com) addresses both software and user skills. It provides a rich set of visualization features, makes them easy to use, and offers automated guidance in selecting techniques. The system is intended primarily for data exploration rather than formal presentations, although it can handle both.

Users begin a Tableau session by connecting to a data source. Unlike many analysis tools, which export the data into specialized structures, Tableau leaves the data in the original source system. This eliminates the need to run file extracts or create predefined data structures, which may not include all the needed information. But it also means that performance depends on the source data engine. Technically, Tableau issues queries against the source data and stores the result in memory. It then works with the data in memory as long as it can, only issuing a new query if the user requests new information. This means that redrawing the currently-loaded data is very fast, but adding a new element may take considerable time if the underlying source is large or runs slowly. Users can also save a copy of the loaded data, so they can return to an analysis without requerying the source.

Tableau issues queries that are beyond the capabilities of standard connectors like ODBC, so it must write its own connectors for each data source. Available sources are Microsoft Excel, Access, and Analysis Services; relational databases Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, MySQL, PostgreSQL and Firebird; multidimensional DB2 OLAP Server (formerly Hyperion Essbase); and comma-delimited text files. A Netezza connector is under development. Each analysis can work with only one data connection at a time, so it’s not possible for the system to combine, say, an Excel spreadsheet with an Oracle table, or even two Excel spreadsheets. It does let users join tables within a single source. These could be database tables or several worksheets (tabs) within an Excel spreadsheet.

Once it connects with a data source, Tableau displays the list of available elements. It automatically classifies numeric elements as measures and everything else as dimensions. Users can reassign elements if they are misclassified. Users can also create calculated elements and define filters to control the data used in an analysis.

Preparing an actual analysis simply requires dragging the elements onto slots, called “shelves”, for rows, columns, and measures. Tableau does everything else to build the chart, using its own rules to determine the format. Again, users can override its choices if they wish. Additional shelves let users specify how the measure values will be displayed, with options including text, color, size and shape. Different measures can be shown with different attributes: for example, size might indicate the number of customers in a given category while color indicates their profitability. The system allows any number of row and column dimensions, so the ultimate result of a complex analysis if often a multi-level cross tabulation where each cell contains a multi-element chart.

Personally, I find these charts-within-crosstabs difficult to read, even though they are much loved by visualization experts. (The formal name, coined by visualization super-guru Edward Tufte, is “small multiples”.) But Tableau is less intended to produce one all-encompassing image of a data set than to support step-by-step exploration through a sequence of much simpler charts. The developers’ stated goal is to create a new graph with one click, which is exactly what happens each time you move a data element or change a display method. This means users can view an image, formulate the next logical question, and then answer that question by making a simple change. Since some paths will lead to dead ends, the system provides unlimited levels of “undo” to back up in their analysis. It also lets them bookmark a particular configuration to use as a later starting point or display in a presentation.

Tableau shares many features with conventional business intelligence systems, such as drill-down via filters, selection by highlighting cells within a chart; calculated measures or dimensions, annotations; cut-and-paste into Excel, and combining multiple charts on a single “dashboard”. Even the drag-and-drop method of building multi-dimensional reports is fairly common. What sets Tableau apart is its simple creation of graphical, as opposed to tabular, reports, combined with built-in intelligence to recommend the most effective formats for those reports. These recommendations, available at any point through a “Show Me!” button, were consistently effective—and sometimes quite unexpected. Naturally, they follow the best practices defined by the visualization gurus.

The other attribute that sets Tableau apart from most business intelligence software is its price. Many of the major systems like Cognos and Hyperion are aimed at enterprise deployments and charge accordingly. Without a database of its own, Tableau is a tool for individual users, and it is priced like other personal productivity software: $999 to $1,799 for a single copy (higher prices allow access to relational databases). There are discounts for bulk purchases. The software runs on Windows 2000, XP and Vista.

Tableau was based on data visualization research at Stanford University and released the 1.0 version of its product in 2005. It has been licensed to about 10,000 users, including copies sold through an arrangement with Hyperion as “Visual Explorer”. The company says most users are general knowledge workers such as marketing managers, while about one-third are data analysis specialists.

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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.

2007 Aug 01
Applied PC Systems Strategy Map
by David M. Raab
DM News
August, tadalafil 2007

Among the many kinds of reporting systems, the grandest of all are “balanced scorecard” projects to measure compliance with business strategy. These have evolved over the years to combine strategy maps with balanced scorecards. Strategy maps define relationships among key business objectives, while scorecards that measure progress towards meeting those objectives.

The technology needed to build such systems is quite simple. Even extending the scorecards to show how specific projects and individuals support strategic goals isn’t very hard. As a result, there are dozens of products that support balanced scorecard projects. In practice, any decent reporting software can do the work.

What has this to do with you as a direct marketer? It’s true that few companies will ask the direct marketing department to pick the software for their enterprise balanced scorecard project. But the balanced scorecard approach is now so common that there’s a good chance somebody within marketing will propose a scorecard system for internal use, or to show how marketing has aligned itself with corporate objectives. That somebody might even be you. If this happens, you’ll need software to do the job.

Of course, you could build something using your existing reporting systems or, heaven forbid, Excel. But the costs of doing this and then running a cobbled-together solution make it a poor alternative to software designed for the task, if you can find something at a reasonable price.

Strategy Map (Applied PC Systems Pty Ltd., www.strategymap.com.au) offers a balanced scorecard system that’s free in its personal version (limited to one user and one small project) and costs under $500 for unlimited enterprise use. The company provides extensive documentation and free technical support. (Important note: Applied PC Systems is an Australian company, not related to the Chicago-based firm with Web address of www.strategymap.com.)

Clearly the price is right. But, more important, Strategy Map includes all the functionality you need for a balanced scorecard project.

Users begin by naming their plan and defining static components such as company name, vision, mission statement, and elements of a SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. These are simple text fields, but can be linked to external documents or Web addresses.

The next step is to create the strategy map itself. This is done by placing boxes on a virtual canvas and linking them with arrows. In proper strategy map fashion, the boxes are aligned on rows that reflect different types of objectives (called “perspectives”). The software lets you call these anything, but the standard groups are financial, customer, internal processes and organizational capacity building. The lines indicate causal relationships, such as “reduced turnaround time [an internal process] leads to on-time flights [a customer goal]”.

Objectives created on the map are used in building the balanced scorecards themselves. This is the critical link between the two concepts. Strategy Map enforces a tight connection by storing the strategy map objectives in a list and then linking them to goals defined on scorecards for individual employees. These personal goals are themselves then linked with measures and scores. Each measure in turn can be associated with one or more activities (more often called “initiatives” in balanced scorecard-speak). Activities are where real work gets done: each has detailed attributes including date ranges and multiple budget lines. The next version of the software, due this fall, adds monthly buckets for planned and actual income and expense for each activity. It automatically uses these to calculate planned and actual profit.

Strategy Map’s bottom-up approach of assigning goals to individuals is a departure from usual balanced scorecard practice, which starts with enterprise-level goals and “cascades” them downwards through the organizational hierarchy. Assigning goals directly to individuals makes it easy to respond to any change in organization: goals automatically follow individuals when they are moved from one unit to another, or when the structure itself is reorganized (say, a branch office moved from one region to another). Strategy Map supports two levels of units within an organization and can aggregate individual goals and measures upward along the unit hierarchy. The system can also display scorecards for all employees within a particular organizational unit.

As with objectives, Strategy Map maintains lists of user-defined values for scorecard categories such as personal goals, measures, and scores. This ensures consistency across scorecards, lets users change value names without editing each scorecard individually, and enables drill-down and cross reference reports that show all instances of a particular value. Although the three categories of goals, measures and scores would be a typical, the 3.0 version of the system allows up to six categories. These are arranged hierarchically within the scorecard—so, for example, several scores could be assigned to one measure, and several measures assigned to one goal. There are no constraints on the values across categories, however, so any type of score could be assigned to any measure. It’s up to the user to ensure the assignments make sense.

The system can display the scorecard in tree, Gantt chart or table formats. This makes the relationships among category values easily visible, particularly in the table format, which automatically merges cells where appropriate. In addition to the six list-based categories, users can add fields for text notes, document references, and gauges. The system can export scorecards in Word, Excel, XML, HTML and several other formats.

This is a remarkably broad set of functions at a price that can’t be beat. Unfortunately, the user interface is somewhat idiosyncratic. Instead of the standard menu bars, icons and methods familiar to Windows users, Strategy Map employs alternatives that seem arbitrary and, in some cases, distinctly inferior. For example, instead of pop-up labels appearing when the mouse hovers over an icon, the system displays instructions in a box placed elsewhere on the screen—forcing a shift in focus. Still, the interface is usable once you get the hang of it, so this is a speed bump, not a barricade. Given the over-all value of the product, it’s worth the effort to learn a few quirks.

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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.

2007 Jul 01
Manticore Technology Virtual Touchstone
by David M. Raab
DM News
July, pilule 2007

The division of labor between marketing and sales used to be quite clear: marketing sent campaigns to customer and prospect lists, rx and handed the resulting leads to sales for follow up. The technical distinction was similarly sharp: marketing systems were designed for mass queries while sales systems were built to process individual transactions. An aggressive sales person might maintain her own customer list and send an occasional mailing, but she’d do it with whatever technology she had available.

Today, both the organizational and technical boundaries have crumbled. Sales departments conduct sophisticated direct marketing programs, delivering multi-step streams of targeted mail, email and Web pages. And they’re doing this directly within their sales systems, not in a separate marketing database. (The change goes the other way too—today’s customized, event-triggered marketing campaigns mimic the communications of a good sales person. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Virtual Touchstone (Manticore Technology, 512-241-3780, www.manticoretechnology.com) represents a logical extension of the marketing-within-sales trend: it adds serious marketing campaign capabilities to the leading hosted sales software system, salesforce.com. Technically, the software is hosted by Manticore and runs outside of the salesforce.com infrastructure. In fact, about 30% of the current installations run without a salesforce.com connection. But in most cases, the sales software provides the foundation, including the customer database. Virtual Touchstone appears as a tab on the salesforce.com interface.

Few people outside of the technology department will care that Manticore takes this approach. What matters to end-users, both in sales and marketing, is what the system lets them do. Manticore provides a range of capabilities that should be more than adequate for most companies’ needs.

As with any marketing system, the core functionality is creating lists and assigning them to campaigns. Lists are built by defining criteria for up to five data elements on the customer record. These can include custom elements created in either salesforce.com or Manticore itself. Users can view the names on a list and drill down to see the related salesforce.com and Manticore data for an individual. They can create multiple lists and can replace or append one list with another. Once a list is created, its membership will be updated automatically as changes in the underlying data result in different people meeting the list criteria.

Lists are attached to campaigns. These are created as a flow chart by connecting decisions and processes. When users set up a campaign in Manticore, the system automatically adds a corresponding campaign in salesforce.com.

“Decisions” check for user behavior such as having opened an email, visited a Web site, or filled out a registration form. Manticore provides only about ten decisions and does not let users create their own. But decisions can check for a specified value in any custom data field. Since this encompasses just about any behavior a user can define, the limitation is not as painful as it sounds.

“Processes” are actions taken by the system, such as sending an email, scheduling a task in a salesforce.com, sending an alert to a salesperson, adding or removing the customer from a list, or sending the customer to another process. Processes can also specify a waiting period for multi-step marketing programs with a delay between each message.

Even though processes can adjust list membership of an individual, the initial step of attaching a list to a campaign must be taken manually. Users can also add individual customers to a process from within salesforce.com, without using lists at all. The system automatically checks submitted records against people currently active in a given process, and will not add someone who is already present. Users can also create a list of people who cannot be added to any process. But the system cannot exclude members of specific lists from specific processes. This reflects a more general limitation: list membership cannot be an element in system queries.

Manticore campaigns run as batch processes, reexecuting every 15 minutes to check for new data. The system also supports rules, which execute immediately when a specified event takes place. Rules can manage real-time interactions such as opening a popup window when a visitor reaches a particular Web page.

The system provides some content management. Users can import HTML pages for Web forms and emails, and then insert data fields for personalization, form elements for data capture, and links to other Web pages. Users can edit the text on these pages but not change the graphics or create a new page from scratch. Personalized landing pages can be created this way and attached to emails sent by the system.

Email execution includes common features such as previews, transmission scheduling, bounce processing, and delivery reports. The system can customize an email so it looks like it came from the salesperson associated with the recipient’s account in salesforce.com.

Behavior tracking is fairly robust, reflecting Manticore’s origins as a Web analytics vendor. The system can place a tracking tag on a Web page or email. This will notify Manticore when the item has been opened and can be used to trigger other events within the system. Manticore can automatically look up the company associated with a visitor’s IP address and build a history file of that address’s behavior. Campaign processes and rules can then access this history to customize Web page treatments for the address. The system can also deposit cookies on visitor computers to track behavior over time.

Additional functions help to manage pay per click campaigns in Google Adwords. For each keyword, Manticore reports the number of clicks, initial and return visits, and user-specified goals such as submitting a registration form or reaching a checkout page. The system does not import costs or perform related financial calculations.

Pricing is based on email volume and starts at $3,000 per month for 10,000 emails. All modules are included in the base price, which also includes online training and technical support. According the vendor, salesforce.com integration takes less than one hour. Manticore was founded in 2001 and has about 45 current installations of Virtual Touchstone.

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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.