Data of Reckoning

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted April 01, 2001
by Michele Marinnan

Pamela Johnston used to spend hours putting together media lists for client announcements -- time she and her four employees couldn't spare. But those lists of editors and reporters, the people who decide who gets coverage, are crucial. Without the right contacts, no PR firm can expect to be successful. Johnston's staff needed good lists, but they also needed time to do their real jobs. Johnston's four-year-old firm, New Jersey-based PJ Inc., has earned such accolades as being named Guerrilla Marketer of the Year by Brand Week magazine in 1999.

"We were using a system that had media lists in either Word documents or Excel databases," says Johnston. "It got to the point where you'd have a reporter on six different lists because they change beats and publications so often. If you corrected it on one Excel spreadsheet or Word document, you might not know that the person was in seven other places. We needed a system that would consolidate our media databases."

For a company dealing with large amounts of data, an integrated database system can vastly improve access to information. But it won't magically solve every data woe. Johnston found out that the cure can sometimes be worse than the original problem.

In Search Of Functionality
Back in March 2000, Johnston assigned an employee to evaluate several systems. They agreed to settle on GoldMine from FrontRange Solutions Inc. Johnston liked the comments field that now lets her people make notations about each contact. They can make note of the last time a reporter covered a certain topic, and whether he or she is easy -- or difficult -- to work with.

More important for Johnston's mission was the program's ability to include individual entries in several categories. "I can, for example, create a media list based on all reporters in Florida who care about travel, and work in print, the Internet, or radio, but not TV," says Johnston. "So we set out to find the best system to do this for us, to consolidate what we have."

Ultimately Johnston chose the most complex system she looked at. Her thinking was that it would allow them to do highly detailed searches; it could also expand with the company as it grew.

Dirty Data
Up to the point where Johnston made her choice, everything went smoothly. But as she soon found out, importing data can be one of the most difficult aspects of converting to a database.

According to John Albee, general manager of the data management offering at Pervasive Software, a provider of data management products in Austin, Tex., getting help is a critical step in migrating to a database. "What's going to make a business grow is probably less dependent on how well the staff knows the computer system," Albee says. "It's going to be much more dependent on how well they know their area of expertise and how well they manage the information they have to deal with on a daily basis. So, a lot of thought ought to be given to solution providers."

"We all think data is going to be consistent, but it never is," says David Inbar, vice president of marketing at Data Junction, an Austin, Tex.-based company that creates data integration software. "We always have 'dirty data,' as it's called. It always needs some sort of cleansing."

After Johnston hired a value-added reseller to install the software and import her data, she discovered that her company had no consistent method of inputting data. Some records listed phone numbers with the area codes in parentheses; others used dashes. Zip codes were also a problem. As consistency problems began to emerge, Johnston realized that the technician sent over by the company that sold her the system knew very little about importing data efficiently, despite the $1,600 per day price tag.

Working late one Friday night, deleting parentheses and dashes from area codes, Johnston had a revelation. She called a business acquaintance whose ninth grade son was a computer whiz, and within 20 minutes of accepting the assignment, he had written a macro program that removed all the parentheses and dashes. He and his computer-club friends later coded PJ Inc.'s raw data for easier import, re-imported all of it, and even translated the user manual into laymen's terms. And they did it all after school for $15 per hour. "They have skills far superior to anything I've seen in the marketplace," Johnston says. "When I called the technology company for some guidance and assistance, they told me, 'You don't have a service contract. If we're going to answer your questions it's going to cost you $100 per hour.' "

Taking Charge
Unfortunately for Johnston, the initial "help" did more harm than good. And despite the kids' aid, PJ Inc. was still experiencing problems. Running a search one day, Johnston discovered that the entire list of reporters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was missing. She still has several media lists to input, not to mention the tests and fixes that need to be done. "The problem is trying to troubleshoot or decide if it is as good as we hope it will be," Johnston says. "I have to run lists and pretend mailings to see who's missing and why. But I do have confidence that once we learn the system, even if there are some nuisances, it'll become second nature eventually."

Eight months after embarking on the project, PJ Inc. was still in the throes of data migration. Johnston had originally estimated that the transition would take just two to three months. The original budget was $3,500, though it had hit $6,000 when Johnston took charge. She says the project was on course to reach the $20,000 mark before she replaced the technology company with the high school whizzes.

Johnston eventually was able to successfully contest the technology company's $6,000 bill. She pointed out that the technical support person the company sent over to do the installation and data migration had only a rudimentary knowledge of the program. The "specialist" had failed to tell her that the program couldn't even handle parentheses in the phone-number field.

After Johnston threatened to call the Better Business Bureau, the company sent over another representative. Still, her high school staffers have accomplished far more, says Johnston.

Data migration doesn't have to be painful. The following resources can get you on track before you initiate the process:

    Association of Database Developers
    Organization for database developers. Provides a directory of members.
    www.baadd.org

    SearchDatabase.com
    Features reviews of database software programs, database primers, tips from the experts and more.

The following products automate the details that bog down data migration:

    MARCMagician
    MITINET/marc Software
    Data-cleanup software combines automatic MARC Record Repair, comprehensive global editing, and active error checking functionality.
    800-824-6272
    www.mitinet.com

    FirstLogic Inc.
    eDataQuality
    Cleanses customer data in real-time, at the point of data entry, to ensure that transactional data is reliable and accurate before it is input into a database.
    888-215-6442
    www.firstlogic.com


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