Monday, May 19, 2014

A Signature Report and the Coming Primacy of Analytics

Each spring, an incredibly useful interagency report covering a comprehensive range of metrics and involving efforts all levels of government, including volunteer and non-profit efforts, is compiled and published regarding efforts to keep streams and roadways in North Carolina clean.

The heavy lifting is done each year by the the Beautification Office of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT,) which also keeps the reports from past years on its web page.

This office falls under the department’s acclaimed Roadside Environmental Unit, headed when I arrived in Durham twenty five years ago by a close friend, the legendary Bill Johnson who spearheaded the wildflower and the scenic byway programs to name a few.

To paraphrase something once written about Durham songwriter Don Schlitz, “there are millions of people who know Bill Johnson but have never heard of him.”

There is currently a lot of talk about North Carolina’s brand, but no one has done more than Bill to shape it, although some actually given that task have enabled desecration instead.

It was as Bill retired to the tiny crossroads of Sims, NC in 2001 after thirty years as an NCDOT engineer that lawmakers mandated the Interagency Report coordinated by an office in his former Unit.

Bill still champions the preservation of North Carolina’s scenic attributes.  He passionately believes in the words of a mutual friend that our state is a truly “unique collection of qualities and characteristics” including environmental.

He understands more about branding than most of those charged with doing it for North Carolina.  There are powerful forces wanting to take it back to an era of desecration a hundred years ago when forests were seas of stumps replaced by seas of billboards.

You see, no matter what we say North Carolina’s brand is, its brand is indelibly stamped first and last by the condition of its roadsides and green infrastructure as visitors, including site selection executives for expanding or relocating businesses, arrive and depart.

The interagency report dealing with aspects of scenic preservation and protection is produced now under the leadership of George Kapetanakis.  It is invaluable to residents and policy makers.

But most of all, it is invaluable to the hundreds of groups and agencies as well as thousands of volunteers who collectively work to clean up the incredible mess that research shows is deliberately caused by just 4-every-100 people, 17% if you include those who are just careless.

In my experience, many of these groups and volunteers, sensing how overwhelming it can seem to keep roadsides and streams and communities appealing, are vulnerable to activity traps instead of carefully measuring performance against annual metrics that can be found in this report.

I do my best in the groups with which I am involved to encourage a more sustainable, strategic and scalable approach, but I get far more blank stares than nods.

I’m used to it.  Being passionate but analytically-driven during my four decade career made me highly effective but a bit of an odd duck.  I would often overhear someone say, “I like him but I don’t get him.”

Even when I arrived in Durham for the last half of my career, a community whose largest employers are in the business of being research and data-driven, I would often get complaints from detractors delivered second hand bemoaning about why I did so much research.

Showing the power of information though, few realized that only a few percentage points of our budget was devoted to research.  For all but the last decade of my career, I had to do nearly all of the analysis to convert research into action.

It seemed like more because we widely distributed analysis in hopes it would be of use to others in community as well as reinforce that we weren’t just driving community marketing by the seat of our pants.

By far, it was the most difficult position to fill.  Even people good with numbers often struggled with how to make analysis relevant and to pin point it to strategic initiatives.

Most of my peers just filed the studies away as something to check off the list.  Many DMO execs today still do.

Data, and especially now with the advent of “big data,” is prevalent everywhere but still only 1-in-8 in a recent survey conducted for SAS Institute based in nearby Cary have become “analytic innovators,” which somehow came naturally to me and also to my successor.

According to the study conducted in conjunction with the MIT Management Review, six-in-ten professionals report now feeling pressure today to become more data-driven and analytical.

While two-thirds still sense that decisions are being made the old fashioned way, based on management opinion and experience, another survey of senior marketing leaders finds that “seat of the pants” approach is fading fast.

This study commissioned by executive search and succession giant Spencer Stuart shows that while 70% of chief marketing executives consider analytics and creativity to be equally important, three times as many now rank data analysis and orientation as a top-three expertise needed for future marketers compared to those feeling that way about creativity.

It’s no surprise to me that a “strategic mindset” transcends both.  To paraphrase a Spencer Stuart blog post, tomorrow’s CMO is more likely to be “chief logic officer” than “chief magic officer.”

If they haven’t already as Appalachian State University has, business schools training tomorrow’s community destination marketing execs should take very careful note.  This is also important information for anyone just pursuing this career because they “like to travel.”

Looking over the syllabus for the annual Brandworks University, an MBA-level event held each May in Madison, Wisconsin, there is no “flash and bang,” or “shock and awe” during this premiere of all marketing events which draws the top marketers in every field.

Instead, it is all about data, analytics and science.

That’s why you could find Durham’s chief marketing executive eating it up.  The organization embedded data and analytics in its DNA from the start.

This genetic sequence helped Durham’s destination marketing leapfrog more established competition where they are still fading in the “rear view mirror.”  I predict that in the future anyone hoping to move up in a DMO will need to learn how to understand, analyze and apply data as a pre-requisite.

Unfortunately, the Spencer Stuart study found that few are doing that, forcing organizations to look far more frequently to recruit people from places such as strategic consulting firms and startups.  Fewer than 1-in-10 find the necessary affinity for analytics necessary for executive succession on existing teams.

One respondent quipped that its like “finding a few needles in a haystack.”

When I started in community destination marketing in the early to mid 1970s, many executives came up through sales.  Eventually far more came from the marketing side of which sales is an element.

Judging by my succession, analytics will be the background for leading edge DMO execs.  And note this isn’t so much about math, although statistics is useful.

Keep in mind that the dominant organizations of the future according to one of the studies above will be “analytics innovators,” a culture that is driven by sophisticated data analysis and strategic application.

Being a data-geek isn’t required as much as the ability to see patterns in the data and then translate them quickly and consistently into strategy and action.

It came natural to me.  I was never successful at training it into someone.  But I could sure see it in someone when manifested.

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