Analysis and the Internet: Caveat emptor

Colin Tener is president of Tener Solutions Group, a customer relationship management consultancy based in Toronto....

Colin Tener is president of Tener Solutions Group, a customer relationship management consultancy based in Toronto.

One of the more powerful aspects of the Internet is the ability to customize a truly one-to-one message for each prospect or customer who visits your Web site. The technical ability to push back Web content in the form of banner ads or a customized home page has revolutionized the way organizations think about the messages they can send. But if the technological problem is solved, the bigger challenge remains. Exactly what should the message be?

There are a number of software products that are designed to analyze clickstream data and match appropriate Web content to observed interests. These solutions are driven by the Web pages you’ve visited as well as the way you navigate around a site, coupled with whatever personal information you have provided about yourself in the process. By analyzing this information, patterns are identified that indicate what types of messages will be most relevant. And since these messages are more relevant, they lead to repeat visits and higher sales.

At least that’s the story the vendors tell.

As we’ve seen with other so-called software revolutions, however, caveat emptor should prevail. Many of us went through the "neural net" period a few years ago, where vendors essentially told us not to worry our little heads about hidden layers and other complicated matters and just focus on lift. The problem is that marketers actually do want to know why a particular action is recommended.

Unfortunately, many vendors of Internet analytics are reluctant to reveal the engine behind their selections. What’s behind the black box? Is it a predictive model? A neural network? Using what measure of success? If you don’t know what the process is trying to predict, how do you know if you’ve got the right decision rule? Should we be predicting banner ads that are clicked, selections that are placed in the online shopping basket or only those items that are actually purchased? How do we know that the algorithm worked if we don’t match Web-page selections back to transactions with the proper test and control protocols?

Of course, lots of low-hanging-fruit opportunities exist without getting into sophisticated statistical analysis. If someone just purchased a book on Italian cooking from your site, then maybe they would be interested in another one. Or perhaps they might like a book on Italian wine. How about travel books on Italy? And what about information on an online grocer that guarantees next day delivery of fresh, gourmet ingredients? At some point in this sequence we move from the obvious to the not so obvious, at least in terms of likelihood to buy. And at that point, the need for analytical rigour arises.

Faced with potentially thousands of choices of messages to send, we need an analytical process that will identify those with the highest potential for success, whatever that may be. Because that raises another issue altogether. What if the key message we want to send isn’t cross-sell at all? What if we suspect that this customer is planning to switch to a competitive Web site? This situation is no different than our "old economy" banking clients, for example. They want to have the results of predictive algorithms loaded into call centres so that when a customer calls in, the most likely products are displayed along with supporting scripts. But if the customer is showing signs of cancelling either specific products or their entire relationship, then they want that information highlighted to the customer service rep and appropriate dialogue initiated.

Because of this need to both tailor and control the message, I am convinced that black box Internet solutions will have a limited lifespan in the marketplace. Users will want to be able to develop their own algorithms and decision rules, since that is part of their sustainable competitive advantage. If they can’t open it up and see how it works, they will not be able to tailor it to their needs. Sooner or later, they’ll look for a solution that is more open.

Stay tuned. Next month we’ll discuss the Holy Grail: combining real-time clickstream data with offline data captured in the data warehouse.

Colin Tener can be reached at (416) 585-2900 or by e-mail at

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group