How A Hackathon Improves A Marketer’s Tech Skills

This image from Instagram (http://ift.tt/1WygAEL) is my team, Team Public Cry, which participated in the 2016 IoTCivicHack at LaunchFishers in Fishers Indiana @attdevelopers

We hear the phrase Mar-tech in webinars and see it in posts everyday. But how does a marketer gain an appreciation for Mar-tech, especially when training budget for any marketer has been exhausted for the year?

One way is through participating in a hackathon. I should know – I participated in one, the AT&T Hackathon in April 2016. Through it I learned how hackathons offer valuable education time that rival the best paid training sessions or bootcamps.

A little background about the AT&T Hackathon: It was a 24 hour affair hosted at Launch Fishers in Fishers, an affluent suburb of Indianapolis. Launch Fishers had been in operation for a few years, and expanded that year to accommodate more entrepreneurs and startups.

The challenge for participants was to address a civic challenge, outlined by civic and business mentors. The goals was to build creative tech solutions that could help lawmakers, law enforcement and emergency services better understand and solve Indiana’s heroin and methamphetamine problems. The State Police Drug Lab and Marion County Emergency Services provided data related to the civic needs and services mentioned in the opening presentations, but participants were free to use data from many sources.

I cover two main benefits in this CMSWire post on the hackathon – you can read my experience there. Many of the lesson apply to developing a coherent customer experience.

So what else makes a hackathon so valuable for marketers?

For one thing, hackathons nourish an environment where you can ask questions and experiment with solutions without fear of being wrong, or even worst, ruining a budget. Developers are used to working with different frame works and experimenting with functionality into a functioning tool is established. Web development and programming can be plagued with a lot of trial and error, just like any other engineered product.

Another benefit of a hackathon is the fact that you can work with teams with a wide array of experiences. For example in my team for the AT&T hackathon I work with students from various Indiana universities. Some were majoring in marketing and business and others in computer science. I also met a student who was completing a software course through one of the new bootcamp programs such as General Assembly.

That diversity bring up another benefit; The value of humility. You recognize in a hackathon that you can not assume that you must have all the answers going in. Sometimes having part of the answer is important. For example I have been working with Meteor.JS, a JavaScript framework which includes client and server-side code that allows for one page apps to built and incorporate data easily. I have worked with a IDE call Cloud 9, but really had not develop a deep proficiency with developer code at the time.

It turned out during the hackathon that this skill gap did not matter. I collaborated with the other developers in the group to help figure out how to get the programming code to work and function correctly within the IDE. At the end of the hackathon we had some missteps, but we still had a relatively functioning app that we could describe and demonstrate.

The collaboration taught me that although preparation is important, such as having a working knowledge of frameworks, the true value from hackathons is determining how to deploy frameworks, especially within a given deadline.

Another aspect to note was that I was also among the older participants overall, let alone in my group. I was 47 at that time. But my age gave me an advantage of offering perspective on decisions that had to be made when the team met periodically in the development time allotted.

Hackathons can also help marketers understand what goes into the development process a lot more clearly than any words could ever express. Learning to work with cross-functional teams. Learning to leverage skill set that you have balanced with a curiosity to learn more can go a long way to make the hackathon experience enjoyable.

One personal revelation was discovering how much experience I could bring to others. After so many years marketers forget how their experience can help others. Twice I was asked by my younger members about what my experiences were in running an analytics company.

There are plenty of hackathons available for users to jump into. A hackathon does not have to be from within a college setting. ChicagoHack offers a weekly hackathon every Tuesday, in which developers from across the city to work with interested persons as well as provide a platform for learning of the latest data sources. Chicago, like many other cities , are leveraging open data to encourage developers to come up with apps that improve the quality of life in their communities.

Participation in hackathons or other groups blended with technical professionals can help marketers understand what’s going on in the real world without a lot of expense or extensive effort.

Should Your Business Buy or Develop Analytics Capability? A look through the lens of the Amazon-Whole Foods deal

“It’s our recognition that if you go to bed as an industrial company, you’re going to wake up as a software company,” declared Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE) at a Gartner conference back in 2015. He was trying to note that companies should seek to disrupt themselves, making a nod to his own, GE.

Well, he certainly did not imagine making a nod to Amazon, but that comment is so apt given what Amazon did with its bid on  Whole Foods Markets.

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Markets represents an unprecedented technological investment in the grocery retail industry.  The milestone also signals an unprecedented moment for analytics being seen as a catalyst for long-term business value.

Whole Food Markets Chicago
This Whole Foods Market in Chicago is bustling with customers. The Amazon acquisition promises to help the chain refine its customer relationship through analytics.
A look at an industry and its margins

Grocers like Krogers and Safeway have sold food items and associated services with thin profit margins.  This meant goods would have to be sold at high volume for a grocery chain to be profitable.

When Whole Foods Market started, however, it developed and maintained a margin advantage over other grocery chains through its focus on offering organic foods.  Organic foods command higher prices; thus a high product margin is possible.  Whole Foods Market established a strategic advantage with its organic food focus.  In fact Whole Foods Market is the first grocer to certify its food as organic according to the Wikipedia page on the company.

In recent years, Wal-Mart and Target have begun to offer grocery, increasing competition against traditional grocery chains.  But the most striking tactic has been to offer organic foods alongside those .  Wal-Mart and other low-cost grocers drawing customers seeking bargains away from Whole Foods.

The plan has worked.  Whole Foods reported six quarters of declining sales as a result. Moreover, Whole Foods gained a consumer nick-name “Whole Paycheck”   that references the price concerns people have about its produce.

How Analytics Becomes Essential To Business Growth
Enter Amazon and its potential to give Whole Foods a leg up.

Amazon has a number of analytic solutions that benefit Amazon Web Services (AWS), a set of cloud and services for databases and hosting.  These cloud services have been geared towards either supporting Amazon services or for specific needs of the tech community.  But with the Whole Food acquisition, Amazon has an opportunity to demonstrate tangent value to a industry that consumers and Wall Street analysts naturally understand.  Consumers can see more personalized marketing, which will boost sales.

An effort to provide more value may even challenge that consumer nick-name “Whole Paycheck” nickname.

The Amazon-Whole Food deal creates a transformation for a retail business model: a retailer that has been regularly limited by margins suddenly can determine where to focus on growing customer experience and ultimately retain customers.  It can do so through applied machine learning.  A simple concept behind machine learning is applying computation software to a dataset and providing meaningful results such as personalized service for customers.  A complimentary predictive analytics model can be built to adjust operational support for that personalization service.  Ultimately Amazon can leverage discoveries from machine learning initiatives into meaningful customer and business value.

This scenario is an analytical environment that can benefit Whole Foods against fierce competitors like Target and Wal-Mart, which are already using analytic initiatives of their own.

Decide whether to build software or acquire another company’s 

The decision to acquire a company is no small feat – Amazon’s all-cash acquisition is its largest to date.   But this news places a strategy spotlight on the value of analytics.

Amazon’s growth, albeit with debate about its scale at its start, reflects a trend that scaling a business profitably is part of business growth.  Business leaders are beginning to understand analytics can become a factor for unlocking long term value.  More importantly, they are putting that understanding into action.

The growing appreciation also raises the question – should a business look to acquire a business with analytics capability or should it develop its own in-house analytic services? This dilemma is a significant twist from a classic business question – to develop in-house capability or to integrate another company capabilities that has been honed and refined.

So should companies build software as a response to competitive pressure, or should they acquire it?  There is no panacea for an answer.

Many business owners believe business growth means increasing in physical size.  But doing so increases the demand for capital, and can start a never-ending spiral to induce volume sales.

Analytics can provide the right approach to scale, a variation on Immelt’s thought regarding self-disruption.  But it can take a large costly and timely effort to implement the right solutions.

But no matter what choice managers make, companies have to analyze their strategic activity and determine how to best create solutions that customers appreciate.

Managing data is now paramount for building businesses effectively – A Perspective

This image is just notes from my pad, but one comment is a crucial aspect that is really important in business today – the idea that the team that manages all its sources of value has a significant advantage.   Those resources are become digitalized, represented as data.

The end result is that analytics becomes central in building a strategic advantage.  For probably the most dramatic example of what analytics can potentially do, check out my CMSWire post on the Amazon-Whole Foods merger.   The grocery retail industry has operated on thin margins. Whole Foods Market has been the noted exception for years, thanks to its emphasis on organic foods. Organic foods have traditionally carried a higher price, so its contribution margin is higher than common goods.

But during 2016, Whole Foods saw competitors begin to also offer organic foods. The most notable is Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has offered groceries at lower prices, putting earning pressure on Whole Foods.  It experienced 6 financial quarters of declining earnings, due in part to the increased competition.

Analytics can not fix a bad business model, but it can make an effective one better.  Whole Foods has an effective model, and Amazon’s ability to leverage wholistic analytics on its cloud technology and operations can offer new ways to Whole Foods to cut costs where possible.

–Pierre DeBois

Pierre DeBois in the Chicago Sun Times
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Zimana founder Pierre DeBois profiled in the Chicago Sun Times

Pierre DeBois in the Chicago Sun Times
Zimana founder Pierre DeBois was featured in Chicago Sun Times
On January 1st, the Chicago Sun Times published an interview with Zimana founder Pierre DeBois.  The interview covers how Pierre made a transition from his early automotive career to a leader in the analytics field.
You can read the interview at this link, and can check out the accompanying video below.

IoT Primer: Beacon Basics For Retail Analytics

Maybe the joyous reaction of marketers to beacons, low-cost sensors that can communicate with tablets and smartphones, comes from the fact that the word’s spelling is close to bacon – seems to be a lot of memes suggesting that bacon is a favorite food.  But let’s stick to a more straightforward reason:  Marketers are as excited about beacons as a child is excited about Christmas day.

So what is the beacon excitement about? Here’s the run down:

  • The idea of using sensors in commerce started with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. These tags were used in retail and operations mainly for inventory management and shipping identification.
  • Beacons represent the next “evolution” of sensor usage because they can communicate with apps on smart devices.  The apps are activated by shoppers, allowing the device to be picked up by the proximity beacon.  This establishes proximity broadcasting, which means objects can continuously “communicate” information. The devices and sensors communicate in a data broadcasting environment that pairs mobile devices with beacon sensors on a physical item – a display, a store shelf, or in a store location.
  • A network of beacons are popular because mobile-savvy customers have opted-in through using an app provided by a retailer which has beacons placed in a retail space. Smartphones, tablets and laptops already use Bluetooth, so there is a natural usage already primed for beacons acceptance.
  • The latest generation of Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) 4.0, expands the breadth of beacon sensor capability. It includes metadata association to the objects, allowing objects to essentially broadcast their identity, location, and additional information.  The data shared in this environment gives users valuable information, from on-the-spot announcement of a sales offer to simple assistance in finding the right product selection.
  • All of this plays into the Internet of Things (IoT) environment, in which machines are now communicating signals to each other in a coordinated effort.

Where are beacons being used in retail?

Luxury brands are becoming the first movers in experimenting with beacons as part of an augmented reality strategy. Sephora, a make up provider, announced beta testing beacons in its San Francisco store.  And Burberry uses augmented reality technology in its flagship store in the UK.

So what does beacons mean for analytics?

Beacon-generated data can then be pulled up into a corporate cloud application for tracking and analysis, influencing the business intelligence and the analytics associated with it. Real time analytics that include beacon-sourced referral traffic must consider digital activity over time.  Additional analytic tools highlighting foot traffic patterns can aid where message are being triggered, and facilitate inventory planning.   Integrating the associated metrics mean increased tagging complexity, so marketers must consider what capabilities lie within their tools.

Adoption is still early – eMarketer reports that 29% of retailers have incorporated beacons into their stores.

But as the IoT environment emerges from the budding stages, retailers will learn how to use beacons to determine how well their business model aligns with the customer experience needs.  Customers are demanding sophisticated experiences. Beacons provide the the building block for understanding those experiences.