Database 101 –  
The Strategic Build of a Marketing Database

by Pam Crumpler.

Pam Crumpler has a long history of data and direct marketing experience within the publishing and telecom industries.  Her publishing experience includes leadership positions with Meredith, Advanstar Communications and Medical Economics.  She may be reached at

Do you need a marketing database?  How in the world do you even exist without one?  While all major publishers maintain large marketing databases, it is just as important for small publishers to also invest in this arena.  In fact, with all of the multiple contact channels used today, I would argue it’s more important than ever to maintain a database as a tool for identifying, developing and implementing strategy.  It becomes the foundation on which to test, analyze and understand the unique ways to manage customers and prospects.  Beyond this, it can also be a tool for optimizing your advertisers’ relationships with the company.
But – Where do you start? 

The first step is simple: Define your Requirements

Sounds intimidating, but basically, gathering your requirements includes:

  • Identifying key stakeholders and what, in a perfect world, these individuals would want to see or know which is not available today.

  • Identifying all information and reporting currently being provided and used.

  • If you maintain information in disparate systems, determining what behavioral information needs to be consolidated in one spot so that you have a view of the customer/prospect – not just the specific channel.  The goal is to have a holistic view of your audience so you know how to act and react to individual vs. channel activity. And done correctly – that reporting which may be manually kluged together today, becomes automated tomorrow.

One final comment on building requirements:  Collecting the information above is the first step. Unless you have someone on staff that has expertise in building requirements, my recommendation is to bring in someone who has this expertise.  Having done this step accurately and thoroughly ensures you will have an accurate estimate on costs -- and a final outcome, which reflects the capabilities you expect.

Step Two:  Establish/Refine your budget, based on requirements

Understanding your requirements prepares you to begin discussions with potential vendors – whether internal IT or through an external source.  Reviewing your requirements, these vendors will be able to provide you a cost estimate to reach your objectives.

However, you may need to have discussions around costs with your management to obtain their buy-in prior to speaking with vendors.   Assuming you’re working with a circ base of 25 – 150m, it appears you should be able to build and run your database for $25- $65k annually. 

Often, you’re asked to put together an ROI to go along with this – and I’ve found that usually takes some creative thinking along with associated SWAGs.  What do you think you will be able to achieve after the build of your database? 

  • Increased renewals and/or cross selling with your improved targeting capabilities?  At what rate and with what associated revenue? 

  • What type savings do you envision with the ability to optimize touch points?

  • What do you realize in cost savings with automated vs. manual reporting and analysis?

  • Revenue opportunities with your advertisers?  What does that look like, how many advertisers will bite and how does that translate in associated revenue? 

The bottom line is all those requirements mentioned at the beginning of this article should translate into opportunities for you to better run your business.  Understanding the value of those opportunities prepares you to gain funding and take the next step.

The third step:  Who will build your database?

Dependent on the type organization you work within, you may be required to work with your IT department to build your system.  If so, make sure you have someone who clearly understands the requirements you’ve identified, including service level agreements, to meet the demands of your business.

If you have the flexibility to reach outside your organization, check out vendors who scale appropriately to the size database you need.  As a smaller publisher (again using 25-150m subscribers), my general recommendation is to avoid the large well-known database companies.  Their costs are usually not geared for small databases, and as a smaller client, you may not receive the attention you need.  If possible, find someone who has experience working within the publishing industry – someone that understands your business. (Although if requirements are done correctly, you don’t necessarily need this expertise.)

Regardless of whether you build your database internally or externally, make sure you have a scalable database.  This ensures that your database will continue to take care of your marketing, analysis and reporting needs as business needs grow.  Beyond this, as technology or strategy drive your activity in new channels; you will want to be able to include those channels and efforts in touching customers/prospects.

And finally, because you probably have data sitting within other systems, make sure you build an open system vs. developing reliance on a custom system that some providers recommend.  The open system allows you the critical ability to connect and integrate data that already exist within other systems.

#4:  Identify Key Stakeholders and establish Routine Meetings

Although this may seem like extra work, efforts in communications are essential.  Hold standing meetings with your group of key stakeholders to update these individuals on development status.  Even with well written requirements, people make unintentional assumptions they will have capabilities that are not necessarily included in those you’ve put together.  (You hear what you want to hear.)  This forum allows for open discussion and questions so that everyone – at the very highest level – understands exactly what your database will and will not provide. 

I’ve found identifying stakeholders at the highest level of your department or company, makes a difference.  You’re probably investing a significant piece of change in this build, which should entice your senior leadership to be involved.  That being said, senior leaders can often become distracted with other priorities.  I’ve found these teams work best if a “no stand-in” policy is instituted.  If the leader doesn’t show up, they’ve given up the responsibility of ensuring their investment results in the outcomes they expect. 

As an aside:  As you developed your requirements, and as you begin digging into the data, you might discover information to further prove the value of your database initiative.  Granted, you have obtained funding -- but by beginning to demonstrate value prior to completion, you can use this as a tool to gain trust and additional buy-in for your project.  It may be a matter of manually creating a report or analysis – but the information may be valuable enough to give leadership the warm fuzzies about their investment, or you might create an ally within the business in proving the value of your project before it’s even complete.

#5:  Work Closely with those Building Your Database

If you’ve chosen the right vendor, they will be working closely with you in the build of your database.  Bottom line:  Just make sure there is constant communication and updates on efforts so there are no surprises.
This may be entirely new territory for you.  If that’s the case – educate yourself.  A good vendor will educate you as you work with them.  Otherwise, consultants are available, you can network with industry peers who have already traveled your journey or reach out to groups such as Data University.  For very reasonable fees, Data University provides you online access to specific information provided by various leaders in the world of database marketing.

#6:  One final recommendation

Your database is up and running.  Things are humming and life is good.  But – people have opinions.  And perception often becomes reality.  It’s often worth the time to conduct research with your users to determine a pre-build evaluation and benchmark of your team or capabilities.

After your database is built and business is moving forward with your new level of involvement, conduct follow-up research.  Whatever your benchmark was, your numbers should improve.  If not – it’s time to step back and determine what needs to be done in order to improve the evaluation given by your internal clients.  Maybe its just processes that need to be fixed – but a focus on continuous improvement will ensure ongoing investment and value in data driven marketing/CRM.