Y ou have mountains of data, both internal and clickstream, but is it helping you increase your customer base? You don't know. Your marketing plan is good, but is it making a sizeable dent? You don't know. Why? There's data escaping from the knowledge loop.

The traditional solutions such as slapping an OLAP system together or building a data warehouse in a vacuum don't work anymore. However, there are IT solutions that use these technologies, or nimble combinations of them, to effectively close the knowledge loop.

These closed-loop marketing solutions (CLSs) enable organizations to harness and organize the mass of accumulated marketing data in order to increase customer knowledge and data analysis capability. Closed-loop marketing applications enable customer-driven organizations to make the most of the e- business market and generate repeat business through targeted marketing efforts. In this environment, the process of mining data truly produces the gold it has always promised.

Though CLSs are powerful tools to help organizations achieve marketing success and boost ROI, they are not a panacea. There are specific problems ­ namely, turning raw data into powerful, usable information ­ that CLSs can solve. Closing the information loop can enable multiple-source data aggregation through extraction, transformation and loading (ETL) enhancements. Data cleansing and uniform formatting are also given a boost by some of the high-end, closed-loop packages.

Those solutions that offer a focused data warehouse or data mart as part of the total package can also provide convenient data storage for easy retrieval. The data warehousing capability forges a link, via a common database, between sales and marketing. This common data source removes the dissonance between the expectations of marketing and the reality of sales. Sales and marketing function as a team to bring the right product to the right customers at the right price and, most importantly, at the right time.

In conjunction with data warehouse/data mart functionality, those CLSs that use OLAP tools as their front end enable thorough analysis of customer transactions, buying patterns and demographics to give an integrated view of the customer and the business. OLAP front ends, especially when they are coupled with powerful reporting packages, enable users to mine and display data in novel ways. Users can create multidimensional data views and receive quick response to their questions, enabling in-depth market analysis and sales planning.

However, while it is true that CLSs facilitate timely and appropriate business action on market changes, they cannot substitute for bad legacy systems or uncollected, unknown data ­ even though they can help collect the data you need. You still need to know what data you should be collecting through the clickstream.

In addition to knowing what business issues CLSs can solve, it's critical to develop a system-functionality matrix to aid in product/vendor selection. Just as with data warehouse vendors, CLS application vendors are not all equal. Some simply have a better mousetrap. Others know the idiosyncrasies of the specific e-business marketplace ­ business to business or business to consumer ­ better than their competitors. The best do both ­ they have the product and the knowledge.

Some of the most critical issues are:

Data warehouse/data mart integration. Some vendors have their own focused, integrated warehouse as part of the package. Others use outside vendors, which could spell integration problems down the road.

Data dimensions and metrics. The number of data dimensions and metrics collections supported by the solution will directly determine its flexibility in allowing you to collect and organize information.

Scalability. It is absolutely critical that the CLS you choose today has the ability to easily expand with the business and still provide the same level of functionality.

Legacy systems integration. Look for broad data aggregation and strong ETL capabilities. Getting this information up front will likely save headaches and dollars down the road because of proprietary data or dis-integration problems.

Extensibility. Make sure that the system can change with organizational needs. The best CLSs offer both client and systems integrator capabilities.

Reporting capability. The number and types of predefined reports is an issue. Customizable reporting capability is also critical. Nobody knows your information needs like you do. You must be able to pull data from the system in a format you can understand.

OLAP capability. A powerful, intuitive interface is absolutely essential, along with the ability to perform flexible marketing segmentation. Also, the more forward-looking vendors are now beginning to integrate wireless application protocol capability with their CLSs. These vendors provide an exciting look into the future of e-business.

The bottom line, though, is not just to have new technology. It is to have an enterprise-encompassing e-business solution that will generate an increased revenue stream. In the end, ROI is still the best measuring stick for success.

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