Imtiaz Noor Muhammad on the Questionable Usage of Data in Digital Marketing


As originally published in Synergyzer Annual 2020.

The evolution of the digital sphere has effectively reshaped the world around us today and one key area that was naturally not left behind is the space of businesses. Digital is effectively summarized as a transition to electronic technologies: From paper, faxes, letters to emails; from paper records to databases; from carrying out phone calls to make changes to clicking in apps and barcode scans; from mail-order catalogue-based purchases to online orders and payments via swipes and clicks; the world around us has changed. Chances are, if you, the reader of this article; are aged over 35 years, you might even have seen this transition. Any age below that and chances are you might not even know what a VCR is.

Digital technologies may conveniently be blamed for the demise of the video cassette rental shops and even the DVD rental shops. What the west calls blockbuster; we called it the video shop. Taxis have lost ground to the likes of Uber and Careem and food is a whole different vertical where you don’t even need a physical restaurant anymore. Most online retail brands even in Pakistan have seen phenomenal year–on-year growth in online retail, to the point where their online retail outlet is now conveniently one of the top five customer touch points in terms of revenue, swiftly moving further up one step at a time.

We now have a plethora of digital advertising agencies and to put it mildly, chaos reign supreme with respect to knowledge, experience and service delivery. As brands have evolved and grown from traditional business models to adopting the digital medium, the need for base-level knowledge to set business expectations with vendors needs to go all the way up to the top. It is frankly, not there yet, but changes have been seen in the past few years that must be encouraged.

While a new process of reaching and catering to customers has been created, another crucial need is slowly following – the need for analysis. The beauty of the digital medium is the ability to report, often in real time, the status on-ground with respect to the ‘state’ of affairs as they are now and as they have been since the measurement started. The process of reporting and analytics takes on a whole new dimension when you factor in that pretty much any digital platform you can think of can be used as a base for reports with a significant degree of flexibility. It gets even more interesting when you can report on multiple platforms together.

The ability to crunch data faster and being able to see it, leads to businesses identifying metrics that suit their business objectives and are also indicative of the internal performances they want to keep. The ability to access these faster means they can take action when things are about to go south instead of waiting on a periodic report based on outdated data that may suggest that the ships may have set sail already.

This ability to analyze faster has created a new degree of flexibility in businesses – the ability to respond to evolving situations. Take, for example, a sales-based business. Knowing that sales were down consistently for the past 3 days at the highest level of management means the management has a direct view of the situation and can take immediate action. Data at hand can easily tell which stores in particular are affected, and what products are the most affected.

The ability to analyze and execute faster has, in fact created a whole new pedigree of teams in many businesses who do just this. Analyze and report. Teams are set up to drive growth through insights gleaned from this data. Where data is missing, plans are put in place to ensure that it can be captured and made available.

While retail and online businesses tend to plan a lot of optimizations around data and marketing spends, one key area that remains slightly elusive to most businesses is retention-focused marketing, also sometimes referred to as CRM Marketing. Most businesses tend to look at advertising as a means to achieve sales, which it is. Consequently for core ecommerce businesses, it often translates to a CPO (Cost per Order) metric, which analyzes the advertising cost per order. This helps businesses dilute the effect of non-purchasing traffic which varies from business to business, and even with the same vertical, may vary based on campaign planning quality.

Unfortunately, while CPO is a good metric to look at, it often dilutes the impact of the CPA (Cost per Acquisition). CPA is created around the cost of acquiring a new user for the business. Once a new user is acquired, by virtue of being an ecommerce company, the customer’s contact details are made part of the data set and hence the ability to re-market to these users without the need to spend advertising money on the same users. With respect to re-marketing, the idea is not to aggressively stalk them with Facebook &/or Google ads to the point of irritation, but some gentle, subtle, time and behavior based communication that reminds the customer of the bond that exists and why they are special.

This model may pose a potential risk of losing business to many agencies which are used to a spend-based commission and compensation model, however it presents an opportunity to agencies that charge their clients based on results delivered. At the same time this also means that the agencies of the latter sort would need to re-arm their teams to understand and analyze data in much more detail and plan campaigns and automation cycles accordingly.

The challenge of arming agencies and businesses with more data is not only applicable to pure digital medium based business initiatives but has significant strength in brick and mortar retail. While it may be safe to say that pretty much all brands ask for their customers’ contact numbers at the point of checkout, how many actually map purchase behavior to the number? How many make an effort to enrich that data to see if the customer has purchased online in the past? Or if they have browsed online and purchased offline? How many brands take the liberty to ask for a customers’ name or ask them to tag the retail outlet they purchased from?

The point I am trying to make here is, while data is up for grabs for those who want it, how many understand the value of the data they are capturing? How many think about cross-platform data distribution? In all off this, the interesting part is that one does not need to re-engineer their entire architecture to capture data today. Multiple tools speak multiple languages and capture different sets of data. As long as the business is in a position to make that data available on a digital format, CDP’s (Customer Data Platform) like Tealium can help to not only create a unified view, but also help distribute enriched data between tools, allowing them all to take advantage of every data point available while retaining a singular version of the truth.

What this means is that if offline marketing data is captured, it is no longer a challenge to create highly personalized ads with respect to utilization – and possibly even attribution – within analytical tools like Google Analytics or Google Data Studio or even to create custom advertising audiences on multiple platforms.

With all this data at play across multiple tools, a key question is where does all that data that businesses gather across multiple platforms reside? Is it linked to a specific Google or Facebook account? What about the open rate data of emails? Which platform stores it? What if a business wishes to change loyalty to platforms? How much of this data is first party and portable, considering that third party is swiftly falling out of favor with big tech companies like Apple and Google.

The world of data in marketing is wide open to play for anyone who wants to. The challenge here is creativity, the willingness to do more, learn more and think big. This would most definitely require a re-tooling of existing talent to give them a broader understanding of the building blocks of a data driven marketing organization and also to think beyond tools and channels. The need of the hour in Digital Marketing today is to think about data, or platforms will end up becoming just execution tools.

By Imtiaz Noor Muhammad


Imtiaz runs a marketing technology firm that helps businesses become more efficient and cost effective in their digital advertising, customer engagement and retention by harnessing the power of AI and cross channel communication.

Imtiaz has over 15 years of experience in technology and data driven marketing. He can be reached at