How Zoos and Museums Use Big Data to Refresh and Reset Visitor Experience

3-kids_mFor most of us, a trip to the zoo, museum or an aquarium is a fun and interesting way to learn about animals, history, art and other cultural experiences first hand. Behind the scenes, however, these organizations must work hard to create the engaging, interactive experiences that today’s visitors want, and successfully market that experience to the public.

This is especially true today, when these typically not-for-profit venues must compete with an expanding array of theme and amusement parks, live and digital entertainment events and sports attractions. To remain viable and vibrant, zoos and museums must continually fine-tune their vision and exhibits to grow visitor traffic and membership. They need to be creative with concessions, and optimize use of their meeting rooms and cafes.

In this post, I discuss how Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and History Colorado Museum are using analytics and big data to better understand what visitors want and to deliver it.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium Refreshes Visitor Engagement and Conservation Initiatives

polar-bear-003_sAt the 100-year old Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) in the Pacific Northwest, Manager Donna Powell oversees all business, budget and visitor services. The 29-acre combined zoo and aquarium promotes and practices wildlife and ecosystem conservation initiatives, and attracts more than 600,000 visitors a year.

PDZA generates millions of data records daily on attendance, exhibit and event preferences and participation in conservation initiatives—but didn’t have a good way to pull information out of it. As Powell explained, “Staff generated a SQL sales report from our point-of-sale (POS) system each morning but it only gave us turnstile sales and didn’t include online and reseller sales. So staff had to pull this all together manually, which took days.”

“It also couldn’t tell us what customers do while they visit, or what they’re saying about us on social media” adds Powell. “We need to know things like, which exhibits visitors prefer, and what conservation initiatives they’re participating in, what they liked and what they didn’t like.”

Powell knew that PDZA needed to better understand visitor trends and feedback, but had concerns that an analytics solution might be too difficult and/or expensive for an 80-person organization with 2 IT staff to deploy and use. Then she attended a presentation from the Cincinnati Zoo, and learned about the analytics system that they had deployed. “They were using the same POS as we use. They introduced us to BrightStar Partners an analytics solution provider that did their implementation that really understands zoos. The light bulb went on—if they could do it, so could we.”

PDZA went live withIBM Big Data Analytics in 2012. “Everyone immediately made the connection of how they could use this to help. We can strip things out, and see how things relate. Now we can pinpoint how different weather patterns will affect attendance and exhibits, and change scheduling as required. We can also use it for marketing. For example, after analyzing sales data and open rates, we sent a promotion to members whose membership was about expire and offered them a discount if they renewed before the end of the day. We had a 6% buy in on that campaign compared to the typical mail renewal rate of 3%.”

Other benefits Powell points to include:

  • A 700% rise in online ticket sales over the past year, with an expectation that online sales will go up another 25% by the end of this year.
  • The membership team can pull the data they need in minutes instead of waiting days for IT to extract data from the POS system to create a mailing list for campaigns.
  • PDZA also uses social media and analytics to more effectively engage millennial visitors in its conservation initiatives.

Zoo employees now use iPads to access financial, attendance, membership and retail information so they can make decisions anywhere anytime. Looking ahead, PDZA plans to introduce a mobile ticketing solution. In the future, visitors will be able to “check in” at different areas within the zoo, providing zoo managers with more data to better understand which exhibits are most popular and how much time visitors spend at them.

History Colorado Center Resets To Attract a New Target Audience

HistColorado_FrankOomsHistory Colorado Center likes to think of itself as a brand new 134 year-old museum. Founded in 1879, the museum had shared the same block with Colorado’s State Justice Center for more than 40 years. “The location wasn’t ideal, and the museum wasn’t as interactive or engaging as we would have liked,” as COO Kathryn Hill explained. “Most of our visitors were senior citizens and children on obligatory school field trips.”

In 2008, History Colorado had the opportunity to build new, state-of-the art museum–and to bring Colorado’s history alive through storytelling and interpretative exhibits. According to Hill, “We wanted to understand how we could bring history alive, attract more families, and best sustain our mission over time.”

In conjunction with planning and construction of the new building, History Colorado conducted extensive audience research to test design ideas and stories. During this process, Hill “stumbled on the story of how the Cincinnati Zoo was using analytics to drill down into all aspects of visitor behavior so they could continually improve the visitor experience.”

“As a non-profit, we don’t have a lot of money for marketing, so we needed to find a strategic way to keep a close pulse on how we can best engage families. We hadn’t budgeted for analytics, but once we learned about IBM’s BIg Data Analytics, it was a no-brainer for us,” according to Hill.

In collaboration with IBM Business partner BrightStar, History Colorado deployed IBM Big Data analytics simultaneously with their new POS system. “I’m not a tech person, but I can go in and look at admissions, programs, merchandise, food, and membership data in real-time,” notes Hill. “We have a single view of the data, and can see patterns now, such as when retail sales peak and what exhibits attract the most traffic.” This helps the Center’s 125 employees fine-tune exhibit and marketing strategies.

The museum is also developing more personalized experiences for its visitors by analyzing social media commentary, and expects that this will boost engagement and repeat visits.

“We have a unique mission to help visitors understand the present in the context of the past so Coloradans are better informed in making decisions for the future,” explains Hill. “To make this happen, we need to bring people in and provide a compelling experience. Analytics helps us do this.”

Perspective

Chances are that your organization isn’t a zoo or museum. But these stories underscore the fact that big data analytics solutions are within reach for organizations of all shapes and sizes.

However, these experiences also reveal some important pointers for getting successful outcomes from an analytics investment that other SMBs should keep in mind. First and foremost, PDZA and History Colorado had clearly articulated what information they needed, and how they would use it. In addition, both organizations:

  • Selected a solutions designed for SMB requirements and for limited IT and budgets.
  • Worked with a partner that had experience in your industry, and could tailor the solution to best meet their specific needs.
  • Had input and guidance from organizations with similar requirements.

Whether you need to know more about visitors or customers, exhibits or products, with a clear vision, solid planning, big data analytics can provide the insights your organization needs to thrive in an increasingly complex and competitive world.

This is a fourth, additional post in the blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. You can find the first three posts at these links:

Key Considerations: How SMBs Are Using Data and Insights to Get Ahead

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????In the first post in this series, Seeing the Light: How SMBs are Using Data and Insights to Get Ahead, I shared the motivations that prompted three SMBs (BGF Industries, Oberweis Dairy and Twiddy & Company) to replace spreadsheets and intuition with a more sophisticated, analytics-driven approach.

But what factors do you need to assess in order to select an analytics solution that will work best for your business? In this post, I examine the factors that these decision-makers view as make or break considerations to guide the analytics selection process and ultimately, drive successful outcomes.

What Information Do You Need to Understand and Measure?

As Albert Einstein, said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” After you’ve determined the business requirements you need to solve for, the next step is to identify the specific questions you need to answer to solve for these requirements. For instance:

  • Oberweis Dairy initially wanted to determine why customers were discontinuing home delivery service so it could get that business growing again. But the scope quickly broadened. According to Bruce Bedford, VP of Marketing, “We have three channels of business–home delivery, ice cream and dairy stores, and distribution partners. We realized we had to understand customer buying behaviors across these channels to answer questions such as, how do we increase revenue per transaction, improve customer retention, and increase market penetration.”
  • Twiddy & Co. needed to maximize occupancy and revenues for vacation homeowners while still providing an optimal vacation experience for its guests. As Clark Twiddy, Director of Operations explained, “We asked what do we want this solution to show us, and what would we do with it once we had it?” For instance, Twiddy wanted to be able to scan for safety related items so it could immediately dispatch resources to correct them. “We also wanted to track costs and performance in different vendor categories. “I wanted to know what the median cost is, for example, for carpet cleaning, what each vendor charges, and who does the best job–sort of like a private Angie’s list.”
  • BGF Industries had millions of lab testing records that it could use to improve quality control, but lacked an effective way to extract insights from them. Notes Bobby Hull, Corporate QA Manager,” We needed a system to quickly comb through all these records, generate control charts, and flag anything that might be an issue–before it becomes an issue for our customers. We also wanted to build a knowledge repository to make key findings readily available if an issue comes up again.’’

Where Will the Data Come From?

Most SMBs start with wanting to analyze internal company data. But odds are that corporate data is in different “silos,” such as an internal financials application and a cloud-based HR or CRM solution. Data silos are usually inconsistent, expensive to support and a source of contention in companies. Bringing siloed data together into an integrated data store is the foundation to build a “single version of the truth” to run reports, build dashboards, and create visual or mobile user interfaces.

BGF was fortunate. It had already built a data warehouse for its lab testing data when it decided it needed a more powerful analytics solution. But Twiddy and Oberweis faced a dilemma more common to SMBs. For example, “Our Ice Cream and Dairy Stores operate in a completely different IT environment than our Home Delivery and Wholesale businesses,” explained Bedford. “For timely, accurate reporting and analysis of cross-channel purchase behavior, we needed to start by bringing all of our consumer and inventory data together into a single data warehouse.”

Look for solution providers who can help consolidate and standardize data from different sources and formats to build an integrated, rationalized data store. This foundation will enable you to derive deeper insights, better metrics and the confidence you want from your data.

How Much Data Do You Need to Analyze?

Big data isn’t only applicable to large businesses. In fact, the “big” in big data is relative–relative to the amount of information that your organization needs to sift through to find the insights you need, when you need them.

BGF was storing over 5 million lab testing data points in a data warehouse. “Many of the solutions we looked at couldn’t handle the data volume, they would choke after a couple of million data points. We needed a solution to power through this with the speed we needed,” according to Hull.

Consider both current data volumes and what’s coming down the pike. Oberweis’ Bedford notes, “We wanted to start with market analysis, but knew that down the road that we would want also improve inventory management and gain more predictive inventory control, which would bring more data into the picture.”

It’s a safe bet that the volume and variety of digitized data relevant to your business will continue to rise exponentially. You may need to bring in new, unstructured data from company emails, from external sources such as social media, or machine generated data from processes that you automate.

Select a solution that will be ready when you need it to crunch through more data, from more places, more quickly. Analytics solutions that take advantage of new technologies, such as Hadoop and MapReduce make it possible to run analyses that used to take days or weeks in minutes, and to weave new, external data sources into your analysis as required.

How Do You Make Data Actionable?

To have value, data needs to be accessible, consumable and actionable. People must be able to interact with it, and get the information they need, when and how they need it, to perform their jobs most efficiently.

Consumability was top of mind for Twiddy & Co. “We wanted something that would not only help our executive team to make decisions, but also shape information that we could disseminate to front line managers and the field,” notes Twiddy. Executives needed planning and forecasting capabilities to help maximize occupancy for almost 1000 properties, and manage service costs among 1100 providers. “But we also needed to bring together information from different sources into one simple document for our cleaning crews who clean and inspect the homes. Our data challenges were often to make our complicated data systems clear, understandable, and most importantly actionable.”

BGF’s Hull required “a daily report of issues, divided by market segment, that segment managers could pull up and start taking actions on immediately.” BGF also wanted to augment control charts with commentary field to capture knowledge about how to resolve issues. “One of my mentors recently retired with 52 years of service. When someone like that logs something, you want to keep it and pass that knowledge on in case the issue comes up again.”

Get clarity around who needs to use the data and how. Is it executives, front line managers, people in the field–or all of the above? Business users may need visualization capabilities to make it easier to explore large amounts of data. Executives might want mobile solutions so that they have information at their fingertips at the airport. Get broad input from stakeholders upfront to deliver information in the most actionable format.

What Internal Capabilities Do You Have and What Help Will You Need?

Like most SMBs, these companies had small IT staffs, ranging from 2 to 4 full-time people. They had varying degrees of analytics expertise. Oberweis’ Bruce Bedford is a PhD and an analytics background. BGF’s Hull had experience with desktop analytics, but had to juggle his day job as Corporate Quality Assurance Manager while implementing a server-based solution. And Clark Twiddy had to help move the company off spreadsheets while fulfilling his duties as Director of Operations.

If you lack IT staff and/or in-house analytics expertise, select an experienced solution provider who can fill in the gaps with consulting, implementation, training and support services. Since analytics is major investment for most companies, and your requirements will evolve over time, look for a provider that will really listen to what you are trying to do, work with you to overcome internal challenges and constraints, and provide a solution that will grow with your business. “Don’t be over-confident about simply buying a solution…in hindsight, we should have purchased a training plan and initial setup consultant upfront. It would have saved a lot of time.”

Perspective

With all the hype surrounding analytics today, it’s easy to get derailed from your objectives by buzzwords and the next new feature. But you can stay on track if you remember that the end goal of all metrics, reports, dashboards, alerts or any other features that an analytics solution provides is to answer your business-critical questions.

Evaluating key questions at the front of the solution assessment cycle proved critical to enabling these SMBs to choose the analytics solutions and providers that would be the best fit for their companies.

If you take time upfront to lay the groundwork with a thorough internal assessment, you will dramatically increase the odds of selecting an analytics solution and solutions provider that will help you get the insights you need to grow the business and stay ahead of the competition.

In the third and final post of this series, I’ll look at how careful planning paid off for these three SMBs, and how they are using analytics to help their companies grow.

This is the second of a three-part blog series by SMB Group sponsored by SAS that examines why and how SMBs are moving from spreadsheets and intuition to a data-driven approach to grow their businesses.

Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs

info you need photoIn my previous post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?, I looked at the underlying trends driving the buzz around big data, and why big data is relevant for SMBs. I also discussed why “big” is a relative term–relative to the amount of information that your organization needs to sift through to find the insights you need, when you need them, and the widening performance gap between businesses that can find the right needles in the data haystack, and those that can’t.

But, charting the course from information overload to actionable business insights isn’t easy, especially for resource-constrained SMBs. In this post, I’ll draw on my conversations with three IBM business partners to discuss what they are seeing, and how they are helping SMB analytics novices chart a course to a successful big data landing. They include:

  • FYI Solutions is an IT consultancy based in Parisppany, NJ. FYI specializes in business analytics solutions for financial services, insurance, life sciences, media & publishing, and automotive companies. In business for 29 years, FYI Solutions takes pride in creating lasting value through lasting relationships–the average FYI Solutions client relationship is 15 years.
  • LPA Systems, Inc. is a business analytics and business intelligence company with deep roots in the healthcare, hospitality, finance and insurance industries. Founded in 2001, LPA’s main office is in Rochester, New York, with additional offices in Houston, Dallas and Cleveland.
  • Waypoint Consulting is a business analytics and financial performance management consultancy based in Newton Square, PA and a 2012 Philly 100 company. Waypoint combines proprietary methodologies, partner products and certified consultants to help customers deliver analytic solutions. Waypoint’s Project Management process provides clients with full transparency into a project while ensuring solutions are delivered on time and under budget.

Houston (or Parsippany, Rochester, Newtown Square), We Have A Problem

SMBs rarely seek out “big data” solutions. Instead, they’re looking to solve a business problem. They may need guidance to understand what data they need to solve the problem, where the data is that they need to use, and how to capture and use the data to address challenges and meet business goals.

Trying to solve business problems is nothing new. What’s changed is that they are dealing with more data, located in more places, and created in different formats. The other big thing that’s changed is that they need to get information and insights faster.

As Joe Rodriguez, Software Practice Leader, FYI Solutions states, “They can be coming at it from different angles. They may have delivery people in the field telling them that it’s too slow to do queries to check on inventory–they are waiting too long and losing money. Or their information is stuck in different silos, and it’s a time-consuming, laborious process to try to pull it into an enterprise wide view.” Or as Brendan McGuire, Managing Partner, WayPoint Consulting puts it, “With more external and internal data available, companies can no longer effectively leverage and use the data with the tools they’ve been using.”

The Right Stuff for Successful Outcomes

Most SMBs that come to these solution providers are just getting started down the analytics path. They come in frustrated with ever-more complicated Excel spreadsheets and pivot tables that take too much energy to create and update, and that propagate too many errors to trust.

Some are also coming from industries, such as healthcare, that have undergone a rapid transition to digital records due to new regulatory requirements. All of a sudden, they are swamped with data.

Few have in-house experts that are well-versed in analytic best practices and approaches, and many don’t even have business analysts. As Joe Rodriguez puts it, “We often have a brand new customer who will come to us because they have a problem to tackle. They may have limited knowledge about analytics, and need us to help them understand it and how it can help them.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So what does it take for these novices to successfully navigate up the curve? The solution providers I spoke with shared common views on the essentials for good outcomes.

  1. Start with smarter decision-making, not tools. Start with a close examination of the business drivers for a more advanced analytics approach–not with the tools. As Brendan McGuire noted, “The first and most important part of the conversation is working with the client to understand what processes do they have and what decisions do they need to make, and how can better data insights support this? Or as Barbara Schiffman, Director of Technology Solutions, FYI Solutions says, “We don’t start out by talking about the tools. In fact, the tools are incidental. We start with what business problems are you experiencing? Where do you really want to be instead of where you are today?”
  2. Get on the right entrance ramp. As mentioned above, many SMBs are just getting started up the analytics curve. With so many bright and shiny objects under the big data umbrella, it can be tempting to bite off more than you can chew. Jesse McNulty, Account Manager, LPA Systems summed it up this way: Most SMBs are just getting started and have enough to do with getting good basic functional reporting in place. They can get enormous benefits just from getting the foundation in place, then build on their analytics competency from there. But some are already farther along, and ready to move into location analytics, forecasting, predictive analytics or other more advanced things–like prescriptive analytics.” On the flip side, they may not have given much thought to mobile analytics right out the gate, but could benefit from it. According to Brendan McGuire, “Most SMBs don’t initially think about it. But once we end up talking about it, many of them realize that their executives and business users are using tablets and smartphones, and that mobile needs to be part of the plan upfront.”
  3. Create the right roadmap for your business. I know I just said to stay focused, but at the same time, you also need to create a roadmap that will serve your needs as things evolve in your business, the market and with the competition. As Barbara Schiffman advises, “You shouldn’t just put a tactical Band-Aid on the problem. You need enough detail to figure out the real problems, solve for those today, but also look ahead to the future, and the types of problems that could arise.” Keep in mind that this is your roadmap, for your business. Just as there are many different entry points, the roadmap for each business will be different. “At the end of the day, it’s all about what solution will deliver the best business ROI for your company,” notes Schiffman.
  4. Decode data requirements. Take time up front to think through what data your business needs to enable better decision-making. What data are you drawing on today for decision-making and business processes? Where is the data, and how can you make it more accurate and usable? What data are you missing that you need, and how can you get it? Once you have a clear picture of the key data sources you need to pull from, you can start to figure out which tools you’ll need for the job. If you’re like many SMBs, you probably have data in different “silos”, such as an internal financials application and a cloud-based HR or CRM solution. Integrating these data sources is likely an investment you’ll need to make. As Brendan McGuire advises, “Data silos are inconsistent, expensive to support, cause errors. When you have an integrated data store, and you use that for analytics, it doesn’t impact your transactional systems. You use that to do any level of reporting, build dashboards, create mobile interfaces.”
  5. Evaluate industry-specific solutions. While horizontal solutions may fit the bill in some cases, tailor-made, industry-specific solutions and a solution provider with expertise in your industry can often save time, money and a lot of aggravation. As Jesse McNulty explained, “There is tremendous change occurring in the healthcare industry as payment models shift from fee-for-service to pay-for-performance or full risk. There are many nuances, for instance, to areas such as managing chronic disease populations, and healthcare organizations have very specific metrics that they need to monitor to improve business performance against them.” Having a pre-configured solution that integrates the internal and external data, structured and unstructured, into one location, and addresses specific healthcare needs with healthcare terminology and business practices helps save clients time and money. According to McNulty, “This enables us to get a client’s electronic medical records (EMR) system connected to and running on our Chronic Disease Management analytics in as little as two weeks.”
  6. Find a partner that provides comprehensive services. Because most SMBs will take an incremental approach, it’s important to seek out comprehensive services in this rapidly evolving area. Look for solution providers that offer consulting, and implementation and support services, and demonstrate a deep commitment to establishing ongoing relationships with their customers. However, since no one provider is ever likely to be able to do it all, in this volatile space, selecting a vendor that’s part of a strong ecosystem is also important. Being part of a bigger ecosystem gives solution providers the knowledge and training they need to stay ahead of the big data learning curve, and improve the offerings and services they provide to you.

Perspective

As all investment literature warns, past performance in not a guarantee of future success. Just ask Blockbuster, which was blindsided by consumers’ shifting preferences for renting movies; RIM BlackBerry, which underestimated how much the bring your own device (BYOD) trend would impact its smartphone sales to businesses; or Energizer, which missed the boat on how fast the sales of single-use, disposable batteries was dropping.

For most SMBs, being able to mine untapped data for business benefits is still at the aspirational stage. But now is the time to seriously consider what impact big data and analytics will have for your business, your customers and your industry. Think about trends you see taking shape–and even about the ones that you can now only imagine. What information and insights would help you capitalize on these trends? Likewise, what information are you missing that puts the business at risk?

Clearly, the perfect storm is taking shape as data volume, variety and velocity continue to soar ahead, almost guaranteeing that the businesses that can harness it to their advantage will benefit, and those that don’t will be blindsided.

This is the second of a three-part blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. The first post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?, parses through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, and what is important and relevant for SMBs. In my next and final post in this series, I’ll talk about ways that you can get the conversation going and the questions you need to ask to help your business move ahead.


Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????There’s little doubt that “big data” is the latest “big thing” in the IT industry. But for many small and medium business (SMB) decision-makers, big data is a somewhat fuzzy term. Ask any number of them what big data means, and you’re likely to get different definitions. Making matters worse, the “big” in big data, along with endless discussions of petabytes and zettabytes, make many SMBs skeptical that big data is relevant for their businesses.

So it’s not hard to make the case that “big data” is has become an over-hyped and poorly understood catch-all phrase. What does big data really mean, and what are the implications for SMBs? When we parse through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, what’s left that is actually important and relevant for SMBs?

The Realities Driving Big Data Buzz

The big part of big data is easy to understand. Basically, the volume and variety of digitized data is increasing exponentially. Think about how much and how many kinds of information have moved from physical to digital form just over the last several years. Doctors have moved from paper charts to electronic medical records; merchants have moved from paper credit card imprinters to POS terminals to virtual terminals to mobile payment devices. Movies have moved from Blockbuster to Netflix; and photos have move from Kodak to Facebook and Instagram. “Smart” machines–from traffic sensors to seismographs–are creating entirely new digital data streams as well.

As a result, researchers report that we have already created 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, and that 90% of it has been generated in the last two years alone. While quintillions are hard to wrap your head around, these facts make the concept more accessible:

  • 150,000 new URLs are created each day.
  • Twitter sees roughly 58 million tweets every day, and has more than 554 million accounts.
  • 160 million emails are sent every 60 seconds.
  • Over 20 billion credit card payments are processed annually in the U.S.
  • Power companies are moving from physical meter to digital “smart” meter readings, and going from monthly reading to gathering meter information every 15 minutes. This adds up to 96 million reads per day for every million meters–or a 3,000-fold increase in data.

The term “big data” refers to having the ability to dig in to this growing data avalanche more effectively and quickly with tools that make it easier to store, manage, analyze and act on information.

Big is Relative When It Comes to Big Data

According to findings from the IBM Institute for Business Value and Said Business School, University of Oxford, most large enterprises define the “big” in big data as databases with more than 100 terabytes, while most midmarket companies (less than 1,000 employees) consider anything more than 1 terabyte as “big”.

The fact of the matter is, “big” is a relative term–relative to the amount of information that your organization needs to sift through to find the insights you need to operate the business more proactively and profitably. Basically, if the data set is too big for your company to effectively manage and get insights from, then you’re facing a big data challenge.

This isn’t just a large enterprise problem. In SMB Group studies, SMB decision-makers repeatedly cite “getting better insights from the data we already have” as a top business challenge. SMBs may not be dealing with terabytes of data, but many are finding that tools that used to suffice–such as Excel spreadsheets–fall short even when it comes to analyzing internal transactional databases.

Welcome to the Insight Economy

info you need photoWith the amount and variety of digitized growing exponentially, these challenges and requirements will only increase.

Business that can find the right needles in the data haystack more quickly, easily and reliably than competitors can reap enormous market advantages. SMB Group’s 2012 Routes to Market Study shows that SMBs that have deployed business intelligence and analytics solutions are 51% more likely than peers to expect revenues to rise. Likewise, in the IBM-Oxford University study, three out of five midmarket respondents using business and analytics solutions reported that they are realizing significant advantages, most notably to “identify new opportunities in the marketplace” and to “understand and respond to customers better.”

Take the example of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. With one of the lowest public subsidies in the U.S., the zoo needed to increase attendance and boost food and retail sales to operate profitably. But the zoo was unable to easily access the data–which resided on different systems–so it could plan how to do this. The zoo implemented a business intelligence solution to get better insight into customer trends and its own operations, and answer questions such as, “How many people spend money outside of admissions costs?” and “What time of day do ice cream sales peak?” By answering these questions and others, the zoo was able to increase retail and food sales by 35%, save more than $140,000 per year in marketing dollars through more targeted, successful campaigns, and increase overall zoo attendance by 50,000 in one year.

Unfortunately, many SMBs are lagging large enterprises in this area. The IBM-Oxford Study revealed that the gap between large enterprises and the midmarket is increasing, and the SMB Group 2012 Routes to Market Study shows that the smaller the company, the less likely they are to use or plan to use BI solutions.

Perspective

Businesses have always needed the ability to measure critical success metrics and make sound business decisions. Big data solutions are designed to help businesses to do this in a world where the volume and variety of data is growing at breakneck speed.

When you look at the realities that are driving the big data bandwagon, its clear that long after the buzz fades, these realities will have a long-lasting impact on how businesses of all sizes operate. Over time, the performance gap will widen between businesses that can readily get the insights they need, when they need them, and those that can’t.

That said, figuring out where and how to start isn’t easy, especially for SMBs who are often resource-constrained. The good news, however, is that this is definitely an area where you want to take small steps first. In the next blog of this series, we’ll draw on conversations with IBM business partners to learn how they are helping SMBs to chart the big data journey.

This is the first of a three-part blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. In the next post, I’ll discuss how IBM business partners are helping SMBs take practical steps to put big data to work for their businesses.

BI and Analytics for Mid-Market Businesses: My Podcast with SAP

I recently joined Paul Clark from SAP in a thought leadership podcast to discuss the topics of Business Intelligence (BI), Enterprise Performance Management (EPM), and Social Analytics for Mid-market companies.

In the podcast, we discuss the various aspects and uses of Enterprise Performance Management (EPM), Business Intelligence (BI), and Social Analytical tools within the dynamics of a mid-market business. We talk about how the proper use of EPM and BI tools and software by companies in the mid-market can achieve a higher level of corporate consistency and efficiency in performance management.
Our conversation also turned to a newer area of business intelligence–Social Analytics. Social Analytics tools monitor and analyze market and brand sentiment and the return on social engagement with consumers. They can help mid-market companies monitor and engage with customers in the areas of support, sales and ongoing relationship development.

We offer some final advice on the “first steps” towards achieving an improved level of performance management within the mid-market corporation.

I hope you enjoy the podcast!

Podcast Segments and Timeline:

00:00 – 01:10: Introductions and backgrounds

01:10 – 16:50: Enterprise Performance Management and Business Intelligence. Here’s what we covered:

  • Defining Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) and Business Intelligence (BI) and the role it can play in helping mid-market(*) companies and where
  • The rate of adoption of performance management practices and business intelligence in mid-market organizations
  • Key issues facing mid-market leadership teams when it comes to enterprise wide performance management practices
  • Some guidance for mid-market company leaders with respect to improving corporate performance and long-term success
  • What results are mid-market companies seeing from EPM and Business Intelligence solutions?

16:50 – 30:00: Social Analytics. What we covered:

  • Defining Social Analytics and the role it can play in helping mid-market companies and where
  • Whether mid-market companies are becoming interested in monitoring social networks and social media. If so, what they plan to do with this information and insight
  • Whether the data from social networks is an opportunity for mid-market companies
  • Final advice for CFO’s first steps to improve corporate performance management.

Thanks to Paul Clark and Chris Herbert (discussion moderator) for participating in this conversation. Below are their bios.

Paul Clark

Paul Clark is responsible for the messaging and deliverables that describe the business analytics solutions from SAP, from business intelligence and enterprise information management to enterprise performance management and governance, risk, and compliance. Paul has over 20 years’ experience in marketing, specializing in product and solution marketing. He holds a BSc from the University of Bristol, UK and a Management DESS from the Université de Savoie, France.

Chris Herbert

Chris Herbert is the manager of the CFO Intellectual Exchange Network which brings thought leaders together to share experiences and engage in conversations around the office of finance and the role technology is playing to improve business performance, compliance and overall success.

MSP Cloud Challenges in the Midmarket–and How IBM Helps Meet Them

In my recent post, A View From the MSP Trenches: Cloud Opportunities in the Midmarket, I examined how MSPs see the midmarket opportunity shaping up, and why they are partnering with IBM to capitalize on these opportunities. I discussed how MSPs are taking advantage of cloud-based technology solutions and IBM’s offerings to help their midmarket companies offload infrastructure management, deploy the leading-edge solutions, and achieve the performance, availability and security required for mission-critical applications.

I also wanted to learn more about the challenges that MSPs face, and how they work with IBM to surmount these hurdles. This post focuses on that side of my conversation with the same three MSPs, who I’ll reintroduce here:

  • Oxford Networks characterizes itself as “a 112 year-old start-up,” which began as a phone company and has since reinvented itself a couple of times over to become a high-end carrier’s carrier transport network. Oxford recently acquired an MSP and a data center, and is building on this to offer a spectrum of IT and telecom services to SMBs.
  • Perimeter E-Security delivers highly secure infrastructure protection and compliance solutions via its security-as-a-software platform, including: firewall management and monitoring, vulnerability scanning, intrusion detection and prevention, hosted email, hosted collaboration, email security, message archiving and mobile device management. Perimeter offers its services in the cloud, and on customer premises.  About two-thirds of its customers are small and midsize businesses (SMBs).
  • Velocity Technology Solutions provides virtual private cloud managed application and hosting services for its customers’ ERP solutions. It also hosts and manages connected applications, such as analytics and workforce automation; and complementary technical solutions, such as imaging. Velocity offers remote managed services for customers’ on premises applications, including a full replication service for disaster recovery.  Velocity’s customers range from businesses with about $50M in annual revenues to the Fortune 500.

MSPs must keep pace with a rapidly changing technology landscape and provide consistent, high performance cloud services. After all, that’s precisely why their customers are outsourcing infrastructure and application management to them in the first place. In their view, IBM provides them with the proven solutions and expertise that they need to deliver superior quality of service. As Tom Bruno, President & CEO, Velocity Technology Solutions, noted, “IBM has the most stable infrastructure. We can tap into the strength and girth of IBM to get the peace of mind that we need to deliver high-availability service.”

Some of the specific areas in which MSPs find strong value in the IBM partnership include:

  • Resources to scale and grow. By standardizing on IBM hardware and middleware, they are able to efficiently create and manage a high-availability environment. For instance, Velocity Technology Solutions works closely with IBM to identify and standardize the server, storage, and middleware stack to support “just about any application the customer wants,” according to Bruno.  “One of the biggest challenges is that ERP is advancing so fast–with a rush of analytics, mobile apps, collaboration and process flow. Customers want to upgrade, and with IBM, we can get these upgrades down to a science, and offer customers freedom of choice.” Or, as Craig Gunderson, President & CEO of Oxford Networks told me, “When we acquired the data center, it wasn’t up to snuff. IBM technologists helped us to reconfigure it and build for the future.”
  • Speed and agility. The bar to stay ahead of the technology curve is rising quickly, and MSPs must move at warp speed to stay ahead of it. While MSPs are often small or midmarket companies themselves, their IBM partnerships help give them the agility they need to take advantage of leading-edge technologies. “The IBM SmartCloud, DataFlex, V Systems and other IBM solutions are core to our PaaS and IaaS offerings. This means we can make more capabilities available more quickly to customers,” notes Gunderson.  MSPs need a stable but flexible technology foundation, says Perimeter E-Security’s Andrew Jacquith. “We add a terabyte of data per day to our cloud email and archiving platforms. IBM helps provide a secure, scalable cloud fabric to support our growth.”
  • End-to-end services. MSPs don’t want to or can’t provide everything a customer may need across the entire technology spectrum. But they are taking advantage of IBM’s ecosystem to broaden their service portfolios and give their customers a one-stop shopping experience. At Oxford Networks, for example, “Customers are asking us to be more of a business solutions provider. This wasn’t our core competency, but we can provide end-to-end solutions via IBM SaaS partners’ says Gunderson. “Partnering with other partners in the IBM ecosystem gives us the ability to meet the converging needs of our customers.”

In late September, IBM launched new global initiatives for MSPs, which provide additional resources to help them meet core technology challenges, including:

  • Access to four new Global Centers of Excellence (in addition to 40 existing IBM Innovation Centers). These centers provide MSPs with hands-on technical skills in technologies such asIBM SmartCloud, PureSystems, storage, security and collaboration.
  • A new virtual briefing center for MSPs to share ideas and knowledge about industry trends, customer requirements and best practices with their peers and with IBM experts.
  • PureSystems, which provides a new, integrated, by-design platform to tune hardware and software resources for data intensive workloads, and gain more flexibility to configure applications for either an on-premise or hosted environment.
  • More options for IBM SmartCloud, giving MSPs the choice to either integrate SmartCloud as an IBM-backed solution, or provide SmartCloud under their own brand.

Profitable business growth is another key challenge for all companies, and MSPs are no exception. The MSPs I spoke with believe that IBM sets itself apart with the quality of business planning and marketing support that it provides. “IBM partners with us to help us plan and capture more midmarket business,” states E-Perimeter’s Jacquith.  “The level of partnering is very deep.”

In the case of Oxford Networks, IBM and its advertising firm, Ogilivy and Mather, helped Oxford to determine which markets to focus on and how to grow intelligently. IBM also brings in Avnet personnel to help Oxford educate customers and prospects.  “IBM is very hands-on. We have never seen another company provide this level of support,” says Gunderson.

IBM new global initiatives for MSPs also offer more marketing and operational support. These included dedicated marketing and sales support, and a new program to help MSPs build a complete marketing plan. Other assistance includes a four-part education seminar to help MSPs use social media to grow their businesses, and IBM analytic capabilities to identify new customers and drive more repeat business.

IBM Global Financing (IGF) is stepping in with flexible, affordable financing options to help MSPs acquire the solutions and services they need to grow. Plans include 12-month, 0% loans for IBM Systems, Storage and Software. MSPs that select PureSystems platforms can also defer their first payment for 90 days.

All told, IBM’s focus on MSPs adds up to a tremendous value not only for MSPs, but for their customers. Instead of just throwing resources at them, IBM has put together an integrated program to address their technology and business challenges. In addition, IBM’s dedicated marketing and sales support provides MSPs with real people who get to know them and understand their individual goals and challenges. With this coordinated and personalized approach, IBM can to get the right resources to MSPs when and how they need it. In turn, these MSPs will be able acquire the skills and resources they need to help their midmarket customers achieve their goals.

This is the fourth of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs. In the next post, I’ll discuss upcoming IBM’s MSP program announcements slated for November.

A View From the MSP Trenches: Cloud Opportunities in the Midmarket

As discussed in my blog, IBM’s Managed Service Provider Initiatives for Midmarket: An Interview with Mike McClurg, IBM views MSPs as an increasingly critical channel for delivering cloud-based technology solutions to midmarket companies. Just a few days after I posted this interview, IBM announced that it would further strengthen its initiatives to help MSPs meet the growing midmarket demand for cloud services.

Now, all research (including SMB Group studies) points to a rise in midmarket adoption of cloud solutions. But, what do MSPs see as the key midmarket hotspots, how are they turning these into opportunities for their businesses, and how is IBM helping them? To help answer these questions, I spoke with three very different IBM MSP partners to find out their views on the cloud opportunity:

  • Oxford Networks characterizes itself as “a 112 year-old start-up,” which began as a phone company and has since reinvented itself a couple of times over to become a high-end carrier’s carrier transport network. Oxford recently acquired an MSP and is building on this to offer a spectrum of IT and telecom services SMBs.
  • Perimeter E-Security delivers highly secure infrastructure protection and compliance solutions via its security-as-a-software platform, including: firewall management and monitoring, vulnerability scanning, intrusion detection and prevention, hosted email, hosted collaboration, email security, message archiving and mobile device management. Perimeter offers its on demand in the cloud, and on customer premises.  About two-thirds of its customers are small and midsize businesses (SMBs).
  • Velocity Technology Solutions provides virtual private cloud managed application and hosting services for its customers’ ERP solutions. It also hosts and manages connected applications, such as analytics and workforce automation; and complementary technical solutions, such as imaging. In addition, Velocity offers remote managed services for customers’ on premises applications, including a full replication service for disaster recovery.  Velocity’s customers range from businesses with about $50M in annual revenues to the Fortune 500.

Despite different technology and market footprints, these MSPs share a similar view of the compelling opportunities to provide cloud services in the midmarket. They are zeroing in to meet  customers’ requirements in several key areas:

1. Offloadinfrastructure management. More midmarket companies want to outsource management of the “IT plumbing” that their businesses require—from infrastructure and telecom to middleware and applications. Demand for IaaS services is spiking as customers seek to move resources from IT to other, more strategic areas of the business. Often, the need for application upgrades trigger a move to an MSP. “Businesses have been there, done that and have little appetite to go through the headaches again”, according to Tom Bruno, President & CEO, Velocity Technology Solutions, “Our opportunity is to take software and turn it into a utility or dial tone for our customers.”But, says Bruno, “the most important thing we can have is our customers’ trust—trust translates into availability. Partnering with IBM gives us the peace of mind that we can deliver.”

Many companies aren’t ready to put all of their applications into the cloud, but still want to offload management. Offering remote managed services for customers’ on-premises applications gives MSPs with another healthy revenue opportunity in the near term.  And, as Bruno puts it, remote managed services also provide these customers with “an on ramp to the cloud.” Bruno envisions that IBM PureSystems will give Velocity even more flexibility to tailor offerings for either an on-premise or private cloud environment.

2. Implement the leading edge technology solutions necessary to grow their businesses. Midmarket businesses increasingly recognize that they need leading edge IT solutions to be competitive. But in most cases, they lack the IT skills and expertise to keep up with these technology changes. According to Craig Gunderson, President & CEO of Oxford Networks, “Our customers know that technology is moving very fast and disrupting the status quo. Moving to the cloud and outsourcing is often the only way that they can maintain a competitive position.” By providing customers with a fully managed data center, PaaS and IaaS solutions, Oxford can “give them far more capabilities than they could have on their own, with fewer limits, and at a lower cost.”

Mobile is a prime example of an area in which SMBs need to innovate, but struggle to keep pace. Perimeter recently rolled out a new mobile security offering that provides best practice guidance and services to help SMBs comply with privacy statutes in world in which “bring your own device” is becoming the norm.

Oxford’s Gunderson and Andrew Jaquith, Chief Technology Officer, Perimeter E-Security, both view new access to IBM’s four new Global Centers of Excellence as key to helping them keep up swiftly evolving market demands. By leveraging IBM’s technical and best practice expertise, they can develop the scalable and reliable new solutions that their clients will require.

3. Provide stronger security, availability and performance levels. Companies know that an IT outage or security breach can seriously compromised or even destroy their businesses. Jaquith asserts that as industries become more regulated, they are increasingly held to higher security standards, similar to what banks have become accustomed to. As a result, “Demand is rising for end-to-end security solutions for messaging—including mailboxes, archiving, encryption, control and reporting, content filtering and more. But the technology needed for this is getting very complicated.”

Jaquith sees IBM as “a technology leader that gets the cloud, and a partner to help us achieve our goal to provide instant-on, scalable and elastic cloud services.” IBM storage and security solutions underpin Perimeter’s current offerings. With IBM’s new MSP initiatives, Jaquith sees opportunities to develop new services built on IBM SmartCloud, which provides enterprise-class cloud computing technologies and services for securely building and using private, public and hybrid clouds.

 The demand for higher availability solutions is also rising. Velocity’s Bruno notes that “Midmarket businesses may have 5 to 20 applications in the back office alone. They want providers to get the formula down for higher availability.” Velocity does this by providing standardized virtualization solutions and a single source of support across applications—from break/fix to functional, “how do I do this” support.

One of the common threads I heard was that midmarket companies are looking for comprehensive services. Although they may want to tap into discrete services in an incremental way, they want them to integrate with each other in a Lego-like fashion. Since few MSPs can provide everything, those I spoke with emphasized the importance of being part of a strong ecosystem. For example, at Oxford Networks, the focus is IaaS and PaaS services. But Gunderson and team work with IBM and its ecosystem partners to also provide SaaS solutions to customers when they are a good fit. Meanwhile, as Velocity’s Bruno explained, “Everything is advancing so fast in the ERP world. There’s a rush of analytics, industry apps, mobile apps, collaboration requirements and more. This creates more complexity in the infrastructure.  We can tap into IBM and its expertise to provide new services more efficiently.”

Clearly, the rapid rate and pace of change in technology—and what it means for business—creates an enormous opportunity. MSPs can leverage economies of scale and skill to provide better-performing and more cost-effective IT solutions than midmarket companies can attain relying only on internal IT resources.

But capitalizing on this opportunity also presents challenges for MSPs, who need to keep ahead of the technology learning curve, improve their marketing skills and programs, and identify and enter new markets. In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss these challenges, and how these three MSPs work with IBM’s MSP program to help address them.

This is the third of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs. In the next post, I’ll look at what MSPs see as their top challenges, and the role IBM plays in helping them to meet them.

IBM’s Managed Service Provider Initiatives for Midmarket: An Interview with Mike McClurg

Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Mike McClurg, VP of Global Midmarket Sales for IBM. [If you’d like to listen to the recorded podcast, click on the orange circle below].

Laurie: Mike, thanks so much for joining us today. Before we dive into our conversation about IBM’s strategy and programs for managed service providers (MSPs), can you give us a big picture view of IBM’s midmarket strategy?

Mike: Sure. In IBM, we typically classify midmarket accounts as firms with 1000 or fewer employees. Our midmarket initiative is global, and midmarket is one of our fastest growing segments, including growth markets, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and Eastern Europe. We’re seeing real expansion of the midmarket and SMB client base in those geographies as they build out their infrastructure. We’re also seeing nice growth in traditional major markets.

Our products and services range from servers and storage that SMBs use to build their infrastructure, to business analytics tools such as IBM SPSS software and IBM Cognos software which are very popular to help create smarter approaches to manage data and knowledge. We also provide cloud capabilities and management and administrative services, to name a couple of the services we offer.

Trends show that midmarket customers are moving into some of IBM’s core strength areas—for instance, outsourcing through MSPs, business analytics and big data in the services area. So it’s an exciting time for us with the midmarket business.

Laurie: Can you tell us a bit about your background, Mike?

Mike: I have been with IBM for four years. I came from XIV, a storage company that IBM acquired in 2008. Prior to that, I ran channel and SMB businesses for EMC and Sun Microsystems. I’m fairly new in terms of my IBM tenure, but have long experience with the channel and SMBs.

Laurie: Thanks. So, turning to IBM’s MSP initiative, how do MSPs fit into the picture for IBM?

Mike: We look at it from a customer demand perspective. We see more interest from midmarket customers to leverage outsourced solutions. It is very appealing for them to roll out a new application and leverage standard solutions without expanding their IT organizations or building a lot of infrastructure. MSPs can help them do it quicker and with less upfront investment and risk. So outsourcing and MSPs are key trends.

Laurie: There are so many areas in which technology is evolving so quickly—cloud, and mobile, social, and analytics. Even if SMBs want to do some of this in-house, the pace of change is so rapid that they can’t get new solutions in place quickly enough with only in-house resources.

Mike: That is exactly right. Their IT organizations are working 9 to 6 five days a week, so it’s great to have a business partner that can provide a mission-critical applications such as email with a 24/7 service level. And they can leverage cloud capabilities for security monitoring.

Another benefit is that an MSP sees millions of intrusion detections a day, and can do statistical analysis to understand where the next one is likely to come from. That’s a level of sophistication that a midsized firm probably doesn’t have. But they can leverage that from an MSP partner.

Laurie: So MSPs can provide not only economies of scale, but economies of skill because of experience. But the MSP area can be very blurry, with a lot of definitions and overlap between MSPs and other partners like VARs or solution providers. How does IBM define MSP, and what type provides the best synergy with IBM?

Mike: We look at it from a few different perspectives. First, there is the traditional non-cloud MSP, which is what folks typically think of when they talk about an MSP: They provide network system management outsourced infrastructure management.

But we’re seeing real growth among cloud service providers, who fit into three categories: infrastructure as a service, platform as a service and software as a service. The best way to think of it is how much does that service provider provide as an outsource service to the end-user customer?

  • Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) providers are traditional MSPs that provide servers, storage and management capabilities such as security and backup.
  • Platform as a service (PaaS) providers provide infrastructure plus a development runtime environment.
  • Software as a service (SaaS) providers manage everything, including your application and data, for you.

IBM has programs for each type. IaaS MSPs are great partners for our Tivoli management tools, servers, storage and endpoint management tools for mobile applications. PaaS providers also use solutions such as Cognos, an analytics tool, SPSS and Rational development tools. SaaS providers may work with IBM partners who have built on IBM infrastructure or the IBM SmartCloud Enterprise.

Laurie: Several major IT vendors are courting MSPs. What differentiates IBM?

Mike: When we talk to MSPs, their needs focus on two areas. One is they’re looking for a full offering. Can I buy a platform, management tools, platform development tools and services? IBM has a really strong story to tell up and down the whole continuum of offerings—not only the products, but also the services.

We tune our offerings so that an MSP can plug-in anywhere. If they need a platform, we’ve got that. If they’re developing a vertical service that they’re rolling out and they would like to offer a managed backup or a managed security service as part of that, we have it and it’s available, priced and configured so that they can integrate it into their solution and sell it to their end-user customers. We’ve got a lot of flexible offerings and capabilities to address their needs.

Laurie: It sounds almost like they can get as many of the LEGO pieces as they want.

Mike: That’s the way we like to think of it. You define what your business is, and IBM will plug-in the areas that are not core to you or where you could use some help. If it’s another service that augments the business that you’re in, then that’s the way we’d like to work with you.

The other thing that’s really exciting is that IBM is very focused on how do we build a business relationship with an MSP? What do we do for joint marketing to drive demand for their services? We both have an interest in them being successful because the more they sell, the more they consume the technology we provide to them.

We focus on their people and capabilities, leveraging our background and business partner experience. We’ve done a lot in the last three years to assist with marketing support for our business partners to help them go to market as opposed to us just handing them a lead. We’re much more efficient if we put more money and investment and skills in their hands, supported with marketing investments and some other services that we can provide to them.

Sure, we’re a technology provider, we’ll hit all of your needs there, but we’re really focused on the business relationship and how we provide you the marketing support to drive demand, and how you can leverage the IBM brand and logo in the marketplace.

Laurie: What is the traction like with IBM for MSPs so far?

Mike: Explosive growth. We’ve gone from a couple hundred of MSPs to 1400 globally in just a few months since we’ve focused on bringing our message to them. We’ve kept it kind of a quiet secret; but since we’ve been starting to drive the discussion with partners, it’s starting to expand very rapidly.

Laurie: What are the best opportunities for MSPs in the midmarket to work with IBM on, if you had to pick a couple of sweet spots?

Mike: Most of our business today comes from the IaaS providers—the traditional hosters that are building out infrastructure. In major markets, they’re looking at systems like IBM PureSystems, which is an advanced fully functional platform. In growth markets, they’re saying come in and help us with our data center strategy and how we should build out these data centers.

But the other two areas, PaaS and SaaS, are ones that we’re really seeing explosive growth in. In PaaS, we’ve got partners developing environments based on IBM Rational software and IBM Cognos software, and some SaaS partners are using IBM SmartCloud Enterprise and Cognos tools. All three are great areas, and we’ve got a good story to tell for all of them.

Laurie: Can you give me an example of a specific MSP that’s really taken the bull by the horns and done a great job?

Mike: Yes. I’ll talk about one from Austria, a company called Pitagora. They developed a CFO dashboard around SmartCloud Enterprise in Cognos, which they host in our environment. They had been a traditional IBM Business Partner, so this was a great way for them to add significant value and launch a whole new services arm based on Cognos and their expertise in business analytics.

Laurie: What should an MSP know about the programmatic aspects of working with IBM?

Mike: Where to get information. Go to IBM PartnerWorld – Managed Service Providers, which is part of IBM’s global partner program. We’ve got information about the top offerings, depending on the type of business partner or service provider you are, and what would be the right way to engage with us from an offering perspective and from a business development perspective.

There’s a form you can fill out there, and we’ve got a business development team to understand your business and help you map IBM’s resources to your business. We’ve got folks that are really smart about this business. All they do is work with service providers to understand their needs and how to bring the full force of IBM to help them.

Laurie: How is the business model structured?

Mike: We’ve made it a lot easier to register, and the business development executive we assign will stay on and work with the MSP partner. Our business motto is that the partner will have an assigned person not just for the sign-up phase, but also once we’ve both decided this is the right partnership, getting those first few customers and starting to scale the business.

Laurie: Mike, I just have one more question to ask. What would be the most important takeaway you would want an MSP to have in terms of how they view IBM?

Mike: You know, it’s funny. I think when we have that conversation with MSPs, generally we’re not the first name that they think of in this space. But our team is focused on being an active participant in this marketplace. We’ve been listening, and what we’re hearing is that MSPs need a full set of offerings and somebody that really views this as a partnership and is willing to invest upfront in developing the business jointly.

Our key message to MSPs is that we are very interested in this business and in working with you. We’ve got a lot of very exciting things to offer, and there is a lot of leverage and benefit from being affiliated with IBM—so we would absolutely love to talk to them. The next step would be to take a look at IBM PartnerWorld – Managed Service Providers and get the ball rolling, and we’ll follow back up with them. We’re very committed to this business, and we would love to talk to them.

This is the second of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs. In the next post, we’ll look at the opportunities and challenges from an MSP perspective.

The Technology—Performance Connection for Midmarket Businesses

In today’s always-on, hyper-connected world, technology has become a critical lynchpin for business success. Increasingly, businesses of all sizes view technology as an essential to improving customer engagement, raising employee productivity, and creating innovation and differentiation—all vital ingredients for building economic value.

You don’t need to take my word for it. For the first time since IBM began conducting its Global CEO Study eight years ago, study respondents identified technology as “the most important external force impacting their organization” in the most recent 2012 IBM study.

It looks like these respondents are right. In the SMB Group’s 2011 SMB Routes to Market Study, we identified a distinct category of midmarket companies that we’ve termed “Progressive SMBs.” Despite or perhaps because of economic uncertainties, Progressive SMBs invest more in technology and have higher revenue expectations than peers whose tech investments are flat or declining.  For instance, 73% of midmarket companies (medium businesses with 100 – 999 employees) that plan to invest more in technology anticipate revenue increases in 2012, compared to just 17% among those planning to decrease IT spending. Progressive SMBs view technology as a vital tool for business transformation, a mechanism to create market advantage, and a way to level the playing field against bigger companies.

Figure 1: Increased IT Investments Pay Off For Midmarket Businesses

As a result, Progressive midmarket companies can leverage key technology trends to fuel better business returns. As they do, they make the case for the value of these technologies, and in turn, will spark broader adoption across the midmarket spectrum.

Cloud Computing and Virtualization Become the New Normal

The pace of technological change is in overdrive, and the requirement to harness technology-based solutions to gain market advantage is rising. As a result, demand for cloud-based solutions is accelerating (Figure 2).  The business application areas that show the strongest near-term potential for midmarket cloud growth are marketing automation, business intelligence/analytics, and collaboration.

Figure 2: Applications Moving to the Cloud

The promises of cloud computing—reduced capital costs, speed to deploy, real-time collaboration and data visibility—tap into key midmarket business needs and constraints. By offloading deployment, management and support to a cloud service provider, midmarket businesses can free up internal resources to focus on core business requirements. Users can reap the benefits of anytime, anywhere, any device access to applications. And, companies can achieve solution benefits more quickly than if they had to vet, buy, install and deploy a new solution in-house.

But that doesn’t mean everything will go to the public cloud; it will continue to be a hybrid world for a very long time. Many midmarket businesses will continue to choose on-premises apps as security, regulatory, customization or other needs dictate, but will turn to desktop and server virtualization solutions to gain benefits similar to the public cloud. With IT staffs stretched thin, midmarket businesses will turn to managed service providers (MSPs) to offload IT infrastructure planning, implementation and management more frequently.

Mobile Mania Accelerates

The growth of smart mobile devices and applications has been nothing short of spectacular. The SMB Group’s 2012 SMB Mobile Solutions Study shows that 81% of midmarket businesses already equip their employees with mobile devices and solutions–and the other 19% plan to do so within the next 12 months.

Midmarket businesses want to give employees more and better mobile solutions to boost productivity, streamline information access and improve customer service (Figure 3). With use of mobile collaboration apps (email, calendar, etc.) is already mainstream, these companies are now deploying customer relationship management, social media marketing, time management, and field service apps.

Figure 3: Top Drivers and Obstacles For Mobile Solutions

They are also ramping up external mobile application development to interact with customers, partners and suppliers. External-facing mobile apps in areas such as mobile marketing, payments, scheduling and customer service apps help businesses improve customer responsiveness, grow revenue and streamline service.

However, mobile apps also creates several challenges. With limited IT resources and mobile expertise, many midmarket businesses need outside help to ensure security, manage mobile applications and devices, and integrate new mobile apps with their existing business solutions.

The Social Imperative Grows

Social network-based technology has grown from curiosity to niche to new paradigm in a very short time, and is becoming indispensable to many midmarket businesses. According to our 2012 SMB Social Business Study, social media use among midmarket businesses increased to 63% in 2012–up from 52% in our 2011 study.

Use of social tools is already exceeding that of purpose-built software for functions such as to “connect with people who aren’t customers” “generate more web site traffic” “generate more/better interaction with customers/prospects” and “new employee recruitment,” as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Social Media Use Gaining Ground for Accomplishing Many Business Functions

But, while social media use is up, the percentage of midmarket businesses taking a planned, strategic approach has pretty much remain stuck. 51% of midmarket social media users still pretty much throwing the proverbial spaghetti on the Facebook wall—or into the Twitter stream. This is a critical distinction because strategic users are significantly more satisfied with the outcomes they get from their social efforts than counterparts with an ad hoc approach.

For instance:

  • 62% of strategic users, compared to 42% of informal users are very satisfied with social to “improve market awareness/reputation.”
  • 55% of strategic users, compared to 45% of informal users are very satisfied with social to help them “connect with people who aren’t customers.
  • 58% of strategic users, compared to 28% of informal users are very satisfied with social to help “generate more leads.”

As midmarket businesses invest more time and money into social efforts, the need to incorporate social into corporate planning in a more strategic way will increase. Midmarket businesses will need guidance to select the best tools for their requirements, train employees, integrate social with business solutions, monitoring social interaction, and measuring return on social initiatives.

Turning the Information Explosion into A Fountain of Wisdom

Many SMBs have plenty of data, but find it challenging to get the insights they need from it. The social-mobile-cloud triumvirate adds more fuel to the data explosion. In our 2011 SMB Routes to Market Study, respondents cited “getting better insights from the data we already have” as a top technology challenge.

To plow through the growing data avalanche, businesses are beefing up their intelligence investments. 29% of midmarket businesses purchased/upgraded a BI solution within the past 24 months, and 28% plan to do so in the next 12 months. The need will only grow as midmarket companies integrate new customer and prospect data from social media into the information flow of existing business solutions to bring market and individual customer trends, requirements and behavioral patterns into sharper focus.

Getting the Job Done

The ability to strategically apply cloud, mobile, social and business intelligence solutions to their businesses will increasingly distinguish high-performance midmarket businesses from lesser perfuming counterparts. But with an average full-time IT staff of eight, most midmarket businesses simply don’t have the staff, expertise or budget for do-it-yourself IT in these areas. These IT shops have their hands full simply grappling with the day-to-day problems of their current IT environment.

However, these midmarket challenges offer managed service providers (MSPs) and other solution providers with ample opportunity to provide these businesses with a broader portfolio of automated, integrated managed services for both infrastructure and business application requirements, along with professional services guidance and training. In our next post, I’ll explore some of these opportunities in more detail.

This is the first of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology trends and IBM’s Managed Service Provider channel programs. In the next post, we’ll look at the opportunities and challenges these trends create for MSPs to serve midmarket businesses as they navigate to these solution areas.

Is Your Midsize Business Ready to Change Before You Have To? Gearing Up for the New Marketing

In conjunction with IBM’s Smarter Commerce initiative, the SMB Group and CRM Essentials are working on a series of posts discussing how technology is empowering today’s customer, and why companies have to change their approach in order to build strong relationships with them. This is the sixth post in the series.

Very few marketers would deny that marketing is in the midst of a sea change. As we’ve been discussing throughout this series, many businesses are struggling to keep up in our increasingly connected world. This rise of social media, a growing avalanche of data, and 24/7 access to new channels and devices that customers can use to learn about, shop for and buy goods and services is radically and irreversibly changing the world of marketing and commerce.

Given this reality, the central question is whether your business is preparing to ride the new wave–or is in danger of getting caught up in the turbulent undertow? In other words, to quote former GE CEO Jack Welch, are you ready to “change before you have to”? And, just how feasible is it for a small or midsize business to get ahead of the curve?

IBM’s 2011 IBM CMO study, From Stretched to Strengthened, took an in-depth look at how 1,734 Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) (including a sample of midsize companies) are thinking about and dealing with these mega-changes.  It’s interesting to look at these results, and how one of the midsize companies that we spoke with recently is navigating through this transformation.

Top Market Forces and CMO Concerns and Readiness to Address Them

CMO study respondents of midsize companies are struggling with four major market forces: decreasing brand loyalty, the explosion of data, proliferation of channels and devices, and social media.

Unfortunately, change is difficult–and most CMOs feel ill-equipped to address these new requirements, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Percent of CMOs Reporting Underpreparedness

To me, this level of concern isn’t surprising. Social and technology changes are escalating at a breakneck pace, in an increasingly volatile world. Wrapping your head–let alone a marketing organization–around these rapid, often unpredictable changes isn’t for the faint of heart.

Charting a Course for Change

The good news is that the vast majority of CMOs see three key areas that they need to take action in to address theses challenges by:

  • Delivering value to empowered customers
  • Fostering lasting connections
  • Capturing value and measuring results

What does this really mean? Customers have always wanted companies to listen to them and to act on the input they provide. They’ve always wanted companies to value their time and their recommendations as well as their money. But today, technology gives customers better, faster access to information, people, products and services–giving them more control over the commerce process and enabling them to wield more influence with other buyers.

Customers increasingly expect anywhere, anytime, any-device access to information throughout the commerce cycle–from information gathering, evaluation and selection, to purchase and service. They expect vendors to do a better job of meeting–or even of anticipating–their needs. This means that vendors need to understand not only “the market” but individual customer requirements and preferences, and deliver solutions to attract, interact with, acquire and retain customers on a much more personal level.

In the digital age, this means that CMOs must develop automated processes to tap into multiple channels and customer touch points. And they need new analytics capabilities to gauge and tune marketing and commerce initiatives in an actionable way at a one-on-one level.

In a nutshell, CMOs and marketing organizations need to radically reinvent marketing with automated digital and analytical processes that help them to deliver more value to customers.

Taking a Proactive Approach

IBM’s study also revealed that CMOs in outperforming companies are more proactive than their peers in tackling these issues. These CMOs are investing now to better understand individual customers as well as markets, and using analytics to help them do a better job of zero in on customers’ needs to deliver a better experience and build customer loyalty.

For instance, CustomInk, a 300-employee custom t-shirt company, uses IBM Software for Enterprise Marketing Management, specifically IBM Coremetrics, to improve the customer experience and grow the business. CustomInk relies on a Coremetrics dashboard to monitor daily key performance indicators (KPIs), such as: What percentage of site visitors go to its Design Lab? How likely is a visitor to save a design? How do aesthetic changes improve conversion rates? CustomInk uses these metrics to determine what’s working and what isn’t. For example, if the percentage of customers who save a design is low, it may be because something is broken and the customer can’t load the design. Or there may be an overload of visitors from unqualified sources.

IBM software also provides CustomInk with the ability to monitor key paths through its site on a daily basis. This enables CustomInk to determine where people “fall off” on different paths. The company can see when changes it makes are beneficial, detrimental or neutral to customer behavior. For example, CustomInk has learned that small, aesthetic changes in color or type font, or changes in button styles or colors, can impact movement through the site and affect the drop-off rate.

Perspective

CustomInk drives home the point that a company doesn’t have to be part of the Fortune 500 to ride the waves that these social and technological changes are ushering in. In fact, because SMBs can often act in a more agile and nimble fashion than large companies, they may actually have an advantage over larger companies.

However, any business must start by making a conscious decision to transform their marketing team for this customer-centric world, and develop a strategy that revolves around customer engagement and interactions. Some key questions to get started include:

  • How can the business use customer interactions to better anticipate and respond to requirements, and improve the customer experience?
  • What are the different customer and prospect touch points in your organization, and how can they be strengthened?
  • Do we know where customers and prospects are talking about your products and services, competitive brands and related industry trends?
  • How do we best bring customer conversations into the company to help us better serve their needs?
  • How will we measure and analyze the results of what we’re doing?
  • How can we make the information and insights we get actionable?
  • What skills and solutions will we need to achieve our goals?

While each company will have different goals, metrics and requirements, one thing is crystal clear: the art and the science of marketing is undergoing a radical change. CMOs and marketing organizations need to take a proactive approach to use them to their advantage.

This is the sixth in a series of blogs by SMB Group and CRM Essentials that examines the evolution of the smarter customer and smarter commerce, and IBM’s Smarter Commerce solutions. For more information about CMO perspectives on several issues, see the full results of IBM’s 2011 IBM CMO study, From Stretched to Strengthened.

 

 

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