Watson for i: IBM Watson Does Marketing, Too

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While most media attention is focused on IBM Watson's use in areas such as medicine, law, and weather forecasting, it's less well known how it can help even an SMB with marketing challenges.

The bedrock of a commercial relationship is the basic interaction between buyer and seller. A frequent goal of analyzing business data is to sustain and improve that basic relationship by learning how to anticipate what a customer might want in the future based on what their actions have been in the past. The daunting part is that there can be a lot of data to analyze to meet that goal, and the data to analyze is expanding almost exponentially on a daily basis.

A system with the computing power of IBM Watson can help. To that end, one of the Watson service areas is IBM Watson Customer Engagement, a group of marketing solutions that zero in on such areas as personalized marketing to customers, using data to gain insights into customer behavior, and learning how to improve each enterprise's digital interactions with past and potential customers.

Purple Square Consulting (PSC) is a U.K. consulting company specializing in helping organizations use the marketing tools IBM Watson Customer Engagement currently makes available. Tim Biddiscombe, PSC's professional services director, and Ben North, PSC's tactical services director, recently took some time to help explain how Watson's marketing services work from the point of view of their company.

"Watson Marketing is a division of IBM dedicated to helping organizations bring order to the chaos that is the modern world of marketing, brought about by the massive amounts of data now available to make decisions," Biddiscombe begins. "Watson Customer Engagement consists of Watson Marketing, Watson Commerce, and Watson Supply Chain (and represents the business unit that was formerly known as IBM Commerce). At PSC, we work exclusively with Watson Marketing, which encompasses the heritage technologies known as Unica, Silverpop, and Tealeaf."

"PSC was founded six years ago to meet a growing need in the market for experienced technical implementation consulting around what was then IBM’s Enterprise Marketing Management solution set, which at the time was centered around the acquisitions of Unica and Coremetrics," North explains. "Since then, we have expanded in a number of different directions as a direct result of the needs of our clients. Aside from calling on our deep implementation experience for project-based activities—such as new solution deployments, upgrades, or re-platforming—client requirements have driven our growth in areas such as learning (delivery of standard IBM training courses, PSC proprietary content, and custom learning programs), support (reactive technical support and proactive management and monitoring of IBM Watson Marketing solutions), and consulting (best-practices, health checks, and provision of interim user resources). A common theme to all these requirements has been our clients' desire to enable their marketing and IT teams, with the goal of achieving their return on investment goals in marketing technology."

"We can operate across a broad swath of market sectors, but in our recent projects, there's been a tendency toward online gaming, retail, and loyalty sectors," Biddiscombe adds.

Key personnel at PSC were originally involved with Unica before IBM acquired it. "You could say that IBM Campaign (formerly known as Affinium Campaign or Unica Campaign) is in our blood," Biddiscombe recalls. "We have a combined 70-plus years of experience implementing IBM Campaign, and in our experience, it’s often one of the first modules purchased by organizations when they start engaging with IBM Watson Marketing. The fact that a number of our people came from Unica themselves means that we have a very close relationship with IBM, since many of the key IBM contacts are ex-colleagues. This ‘special relationship’ means that our significant experience is recognized and valued. As well as the usual business partner privileges, we have been invited to contribute to design sessions as a ‘Sponsor User,’ discuss use cases, and participate in testing."

The Ubiquitous UBX

IBM Universal Behavior Exchange (UBX) is often a key feature of any Watson-based marketing campaign. UBX is an open exchange service, free of charge with IBM Watson Campaign Automation (WCA) and other Watson marketing offerings. It shares customer data between certified existing solutions, bypassing what would otherwise be extensive custom programming to put together personalized campaigns. (WCA was originally Silverpop Engage, to which has been added other IBM marketing solutions. WCA lets marketers start small with email and mobile engagements and expand them over time into automated cross-channel customer solutions.)

Biddiscombe summarizes UBX as being "both the mechanism that integrates the various capabilities of IBM’s new generation of marketing solutions and the open interface by which these solutions integrate with an ever-increasing number of non-IBM customer engagement technologies, summarized here. With more than five thousand marketing technologies now available, it's not realistic for companies to expect to meet all their marketing technology requirements through a single vendor, so integration through an open interface becomes increasingly important. UBX is IBM’s answer to that integration challenge."

"The automation in WCA takes a variety of different forms," he continues. "There are four key functions. Lead generation lets companies use progressive web forms to capture customer data and add it automatically to the WCA database. Scheduling lets users arrange their outbound (e.g., email, SMS, app push) communications to arrive in customers' inboxes when they need to be there. Send Time Optimization automatically tailors the delivery time of outbound communications to individual customers based on their previous open and click history. Finally, there are programs that let users design and build multi-wave customer journeys (e.g., welcome, retention, cross-sell) in which the trigger criteria for adding a customer to a particular program can be driven by a real-time event—for example, an API."

North points out how cognitive computing can help marketers cope with a sometimes overwhelming amount of data.

"In the context of WCA, the many cognitive capabilities of Watson (including natural language processing; learning, reasoning, and decisioning; tone and sentiment analysis) are being deployed across the portfolio in a variety of ways but always with a view to advising or assisting (rather than replacing) the marketer. The marketing challenge that can only be addressed by cognitive computing (rather than simply hiring more marketers or analysts) is the exponential rate at which data is now being generated and collected. Historically, marketing automation applications such as IBM Campaign have required marketers to know what customers they want to select and how they want to segment and communicate to them. Cognitive computing can surface actionable customer segments, highlight unexpected opportunities, and reveal valuable insights to marketing practitioners of which they would otherwise be blissfully unaware."

North goes on to describe some of the pitfalls PSC has seen their clients experience in trying to define the questions they want WCA to answer.

"The bulk of enterprise software implementation effort (and budget) is typically allocated to the technology purchase and its subsequent deployment, with ongoing support for marketing teams often an afterthought. However, truly successful implementations—that is, those that achieve their ROI and adoption objectives—require an appropriate level of investment in enablement as well."

"Enablement includes post-deployment initiatives such as best-practice consulting to get the most out of the solution, ongoing learning to up-skill and engage the user community, and technical support to ensure timely resolution of application questions and issues," he continues.

Data-Sharing Problems

Two other problems enterprises can face is resistance among internal stakeholders to sharing data outside their own silos and the risks of sharing so much customer data over the Internet.

North points out that the first problem, which is often political, at least isn't affected by the technology.

"One key advantage of IBM Campaign (and one of the reasons why it is particularly well suited to enterprise clients) is that, provided there is a common customer key across data sets (or at least a means of translating from one key to another), there is no prerequisite for all the data to reside in a single source. A single IBM Campaign flowchart (and by extension, Watson Campaign Automation as the delivery channel for digital communications) can combine selections from disparate relational data sources and even flat files. Although an end-goal of a client may be to create a Single Customer View (SCV), with all relevant data available to marketing in a single location, it is possible to implement (and get value from) IBM Campaign in parallel, while the SCV is still being developed. The reality is also that, almost as soon as an SCV is released, new data sets become available, either through organic growth, or acquisition, which means that any marketing solution needs to be flexible and capable of working with new data as and when it becomes available. With UBX, the need for all data to be resident in a single unified data source becomes even less relevant."

As for data security, Biddiscombe shows how that should also be a non-issue.

"All our clients are cognizant of data protection and personal privacy. We frequently work with data protection officers within organizations as part of a project to ensure that personally identifiable information is used only where necessary, and when it is used, it is held securely and with sufficient access controls to prohibit misuse. Most recently, the upcoming (European Union) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) changes to data protection are currently being analyzed to ensure that projects and clients we work with are constantly compliant with appropriate safeguards in place."

Can All This Apply to SMBs?

"We have engaged with customers of all sizes, although with many of the solutions being 'enterprise level' does indeed lead to dealing with larger organizations," Biddiscombe concludes. "However, the addition of Watson Campaign Automation to the suite as a standalone digital communications platform has opened up the SMB market, meaning we are comfortably and successfully engaging with smaller organizations than previously."

"Purple Square tends to support the technical implementation of projects rather than directly educate customers in targeted marketing. Most organizations when they purchase IBM technology tend to be of a certain level of marketing sophistication already," he adds. "We provide short- and long-term marketing user capability, typically around IBM Campaign, IBM Interact, or Watson Campaign Automation, and as part of that would include lifecycle management of a client’s marketing campaigns, always driven by a client’s overall marketing strategy."

While each enterprise's marketing savvy may vary, organizations looking to capitalize on technology advances to help with marketing their products and services have plenty to think about if they want to employ IBM Watson in that endeavor.

John Ghrist

John Ghrist has been a journalist, programmer, and systems manager in the computer industry since 1982. He has covered the market for IBM i servers and their predecessor platforms for more than a quarter century and has attended more than 25 COMMON conferences. A former editor-in-chief with Defense Computing and a senior editor with SystemiNEWS, John has written and edited hundreds of articles and blogs for more than a dozen print and electronic publications. You can reach him at

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