It may well be true that brands cannot move for customer data, which is flooding in from digital and social-media channels. Nonetheless, real-time information from stores in the field also remains vital, and can often be the difference between success and failure. In recent years field marketing agencies have been able to provide even more powerful insights by combining their own data with that of their clients.
However the advantages of speed and immediacy are lost if field information is simply fed into a central database, becoming lost amid the noise from other channels. So what should marketers do to ensure that field intelligence is effectively integrated into its main data streams and acted upon in a timely manner?
The key, say agencies, is to ensure that the brand communicates its overall objectives, so that they can adapt their implementation and reporting accordingly.
'Brands need to share with us the central requirement, rather than just asking us to produce a response to a particular question,' says James Martin, new business and key account director at GfK Field Marketing. 'If we understand what the client wants to know, we can build the question-set to feed directly into their central hub, without someone at their end having to interpret it first. That makes it easier to tie it all together.'
Marketers are becoming better educated about integrating field data, believes Martin. 'Five years ago they were already looking at true real-time information, but without always being able to analyse it and identify important trends. Now we are often able to act on the data the moment we get it,' he adds.
At REL Field Marketing, managing director Laurence Clube agrees that, once the full commercial priorities are understood, the breadth of data required to support them through field marketing also becomes clear. In most cases, he points out, it is not just about increasing turnover from sales, but also supporting promotion and new product development.
'To support this process it's critical that there is good integration with our clients' businesses, so that we gain access to the customer insight and segmentation data they use internally,' says Clube.
Different sources of data, such as geo-demographic profiling and propensity to purchase, are now being combined to make accurate predictions and reduce the need for store visits. However, properly analysed, this more diverse data set can also produce other insights that can be acted on, raising the value of agencies working in the field and helping to shape the client's strategy.
Cosine this year achieved impressive success for a long-term FMCG client by combining its own data with the brand's. It segmented stores across the country in different categories, ranging from 'very bad' to 'good' in terms of compliance, and then looked for ways that the levels could be raised.
Consequently the number of 'very bad' stores was reduced from over 8% of the total down to under 2%, while the 'good' stores were raised from 45% to 67%. 'This enabled us to really micromanage the call file on a store-by-store basis, tailoring call frequency, time and tasks, and making it work much harder,' says Jacqui Sheldon, chief commercial officer at Cosine (right).
The greater depth and timeliness of data available to field marketers also enables them to bring what they do to life for brand and campaign managers.
A recent development at CPM has been to capture data about the longevity of incremental activity. Managing director Martin Ryan says: 'It allows us to do things we could never measure before because we were only ever calling at a particular stage of the promotion. Now we get live feeds throughout, so we know how long our extra displays stay up, just through the clever use of electronic point-of-sale (EPOS) data.'
Just how effective the rapid interchange of information between agency and client can be was shown earlier this year when CPM field teams in Tesco identified an issue with a Disney point-of-sale promotion. The product was on offer at two for £15, but scanned at the checkout at two for £20.
The problem was resolved within two hours of the promotion going live.
The timeliness of such interventions is further underlined by the agency's activity on behalf of technology brand HP in Dixons Group and John Lewis stores, where staff engage with consumers and make them aware of the brand's products. HP is able to tweak its deals to make them more competitive even at weekends, based on the live stream of data that CPM field staff provides on Saturday mornings.
Technology is a key aid in getting the most from field marketing data. Together with Retail Insight, REL has developed a bespoke tool called Snapshot that provides detailed analysis down to individual stock-keeping unit (SKU) level. Now used by several manufacturers, this requires only short visits to capture digital images, which are then uploaded and analysed. The result is a stream of fast and accurate answers that gives field staff greater credibility with store managers and buyers and optimises compliance and share of space.
Good communications have been speeded by the use of Chatter, which enables sales teams to text openly throughout the day and many field marketers agencies have taken to enthusiastically. 'It's good for spotting things, and is also a tool for genuine engagement,' says CPM's Ryan. 'We use text-mining tools to uncover issues as they emerge in stores, and then talk to the client to get them resolved at once.'
Chatter is also popular at Cosine, where clients credit it with helping to improve performance. Britvic's national sales manager, Matt Collins, says: 'The live visibility of results provides instant information from the field and gives us greatly improved insight, which in turn feeds into better strategic decision-making.'
He adds: 'It also gives us fantastic anecdotal feedback and live-streaming of photos, which helps us to see what is happening on the ground as it happens.'
Few manufacturers still need to be persuaded of the value of field marketing data, but there remains room for improvement in the way in which they integrate with agencies. Sharing strategic goals can translate into more effective intelligence that can be acted on, and ensure that they get the best results.
EPSON AND GEKKO
Sales teams handled by Gekko on behalf of Epson visit PC World, Staples and other retailers to merchandise stock, train sales assistants and collect data. This information is uploaded at the end of each day and used by Epson to check stock levels and product availability, and ensure that stores are compliant with promotional activity.
To ensure that only relevant data is collected, Gekko invested in Opus, a comprehensive multi-platform data-collection tool accessed via iPads.
Gekko staff also work in designated stores at peak shopping periods to demonstrate and sell Epson hardware, collecting data in the process.
This is used to check that the promotion is being communicated in-store and that the corresponding point-of-sale material is being displayed. The marketing team will assess the take-up rates and use of promotional material when creating future campaigns.
Epson's consumer sales manager, Tim Bedward, says: 'We place great value on field-marketing data, which is used both by our sales and marketing teams. Effective data management enables us to monitor stock levels, promotions and merchandising compliance nationwide, and optimise sales accordingly.
'However, it's important to keep a strong focus with regards to what you want to achieve, and work backward,' he adds. 'Great emphasis can be put on data collection and reporting systems both by agencies and clients, but unless the output is used effectively, then the effort and investment often goes to waste. Opus helps us meet that challenge.'
Auto Trader uses field marketing to maintain regular contact with its dealer customer base and ensure that dealers get good value from its products and services. These are based largely on the preferences shown by its website's users, which have proved an accurate barometer of car-buying trends in different areas.
A random sample of 200 dealers, from small independents to big groups and franchises, is called each month and asked to complete a 40-question survey. The data is fed back to the executive board, which comprises 100 senior managers. Each receives a monthly score card that rates the levels of customer satisfaction on the brand's products and services, and the effectiveness of its sales team. The scores can directly affect how products and services are modified and developed.
'This programme has been running for a couple of years and helps drive the strategy behind everything we do,' says Nick King, market research director at Trader Media Group. 'It tells our marketing and finance teams where customers find value for money and gives the sales and customer-service teams insights into how they are performing. Even better, it has helped us develop a customer value promise, based on key areas our customers want help with.'
The activity has, for example, revealed a need for improvements in the way in which dealers respond to customer enquiries. This has led Auto Trader to create an educational programme, holding regular seminars for dealers around the country. 'The aim is to help them develop best practice and improve their response, and has proved very successful,' says King.