What can culture learn from Penguin’s new Insight Hub?, posted September 26th, 2013
Charlotte Richards heads up the Insight team at Penguin, looking for innovative ways to support faster, better business decisions and drive performance through the power of insight. She is responsible for developing and executing Penguin’s data strategy, to ensure that the needs and behaviours of the consumer are at the heart of business decision making. She’s a passionate advocate for the “democratisation” of data and has had experience delivering insight-driven solutions.
This is the text of her keynote talk at Culture24′s Let’s Get Real conference in Brighton on the 16th September 2013.
A very modern bird: Bringing new insight into a heritage business
A bit about Penguin
I’m sure that many people in this room have heard of, read, probably even loved a Penguin book at some point in their lives. Penguin is one of the world’s most loved and recognised brands, synonymous with heritage and publishing excellence, and for nearly 80 years we have published everything from classics to children’s to cookery.
But this isn’t the only side of Penguin worth knowing. In 1935 Allen Lane wanted a mascot that was ‘dignified but flippant’. And for us that means that innovation is core to what we do. We were the inventors of the paperback; we introduced the Penguincubator, a vending machine for books on train platforms; we were even the first publisher to have a website. And today I wanted to talk to you about another journey into innovation that is in progress as we speak – the launch of the Penguin Insight Hub, and what we have learnt and are continuing to learn about bringing together the worlds of data, analysis, creativity and heritage.
Where did the Insight Hub come from?
As I’m sure you’re all aware, the world of data has done nothing short of explode – 90% of the data in the world today was created in the last two years. Digital retailers, social media, smart device ownership: all these things and more have contributed to the profusion and abundance of so called ‘Big data’. And it’s only going to get bigger.
Not only that, but consumers have become much more data savvy; and they have been trained by retailers such as Amazon to expect relevant, mutually beneficial relationships with brands. Their options are broad, their attention spans are short, their standards are high – so you only have one shot at proving to them that you are worth their time.
But if the risk of losing consumers is growing, so is the opportunity to bring them closer to your business than ever before. And using and understanding data is the key to making this happen. At Penguin this opportunity was recognised at the highest level, and at the beginning of 2012 it was decided it was time to create a central analytics ‘hub’ to bring data to life in a publishing context.
I joined the business last year, with no experience in Publishing, but lots of experience in helping businesses such as Visa, B&Q, Waitrose and JustGiving to use their data to understand their customers. And so the journey began.
How did we do this?
Before we could get anywhere near doing any clever analysis or targeting, we had to find some data to work with. I have often found that people believe their business to be very data ‘poor’; that they have no data, or that the data they have is useless. And Penguin was no exception. But it’s amazing what you can find when you lift the lid, have a good root around and discover plenty of dusty old spreadsheets or hidden files that nobody ever thought was useful. Once we started to pull this data out into the open it was remarkable how ‘rich’ we were – to the point of drowning in the volume of information that was available.
So our next step was to bring all these different sorts of data together: a marriage of many types and forms of data, to create a single source of the truth. This was fiddly work – making sure we understood what the different bits of data meant and how they all fitted together. But, with a bit of focused time and effort we were able to create ‘The Engine’ – our database and the foundation for everything that we do.
Once the data was in place, we brought in new tools to make our data beautiful to look at and easy to understand. We have been using a brilliant data visualisation tool called Tableau. We’ve replaced manually created excel charts with automated dashboards; allowing the business to ‘self serve’ and get the data that they need faster and in a more visually appealing way. The key principle throughout has been ‘data democratisation’ – putting data in the hands of the business, rather than keeping it locked away out of sight.
Finally, we’ve established a small team of specialists to enable us to provide expert advice in an area that was entirely new for Penguin. During the recruitment process we looked for technical analytical skills – using tools such as SAS, R or SQL – and practical experience in things like pricing analysis, model building and marketing performance measurement. We’ve recruited outside of Publishing from analytical teams in sectors such as Supermarkets and Charity. Partly because the sorts of skills we were looking for are more common in these sectors, but also because a core part of the Insight Hub’s role is to bring new approaches into the business and to challenge the status quo. It can be tough to take this approach – there is so much that the team and I are learning about publishing every single day – but having fresh eyes on long standing challenges can be really powerful.
This wasn’t enough – however – as you can have all the fancy data and shiny tools in the world, but it won’t help your business if people don’t see the value in it! So we had to prove the approach, one case at a time, working with people across the business to use data to solve their specific business questions. We looked at marketing performance, trying to quantify the value of posters in train stations; the impact of local events, proving to authors such as Clare Balding or Alain De Botton that their efforts in attending book fairs and signings were worth it; and the trends in online search, tracking what was ‘hot’ each week and how Penguin compared against competitors. Even just from the initial case studies, we started to pull out some useful stats and facts about our consumers. It may seem trivial that we identified that readers of erotica and romance were more likely to live in Middlesborough than Tunbridge Wells, but as a starting point for understanding who our consumers were, it was an easy first step for the business to make. The great thing about this approach was that with each case study delivered, we started to make it really clear to the business how we could help them in their day to day jobs. And that is the first step in winning hearts and minds.
What have we learnt?
I was once told by an ex-boss that one of my strongest skills was that I wasn’t afraid to ask the ‘stupid’ question – I tried to take that as a compliment (!). I think what it means in practice is that there is real value in questioning long-held assumptions, in trying to get to the bottom of why and how things are being done, and being open minded in finding alternative solutions. It’s also about being disruptive, in a positive way – being willing to make a change, even if that change isn’t always ultimately successful. Facebook’s philosophy isn’t ‘Move fast, break things’ for nothing; the fear of failure can be far more damaging than the actual impact of failure, but changing people’s perception of this is a real challenge.
For example, an area where you often see this challenge is measuring marketing success or failure – in an industry where you are selling toilet roll or celery, a ‘bad’ campaign might not seem so bad in the long run, as you can always have a go at selling toilet roll again next month or next year. But in an industry where books get one shot at being launched, and the teams involved have a genuine emotional connection with the content and the author, talking about marketing hits or misses can feel very threatening. We’ve tried to tackle this by finding advocates in each area of the business – people who have a natural affinity with data and who are happy to be guinea pigs in trying new things. These advocates are absolutely invaluable, as working with them provides the credibility needed to persuade those who are more resistant to trying a new approach.
Myth busting has also been core to what we have been trying to do: taking the things that everyone ‘knows’, or assumes, or has inherited, and trying to find the facts beneath them. And these myths aren’t unique to one business – you find them again and again across many different industries.
One common myth is that there is a single, right answer to everything: unfortunately, analysis is all about interpretation, and so there may not be a ‘right’ answer. You need to be willing to try different things, experiment, and see what works – the reality of analytics is that it is much closer to a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing than a mathematical formula with one, pre-determined outcome. ‘Success’ can and should mean different things in different circumstances – it might be an increase in sales or profit, or an increase in the number of people who have liked you on facebook, or an improvement in the quality of the data that you send out to partners about your products or how ‘hot’ your brand is on google. The full picture of who your customers are and what they want from you can only be understood when you look at it from 360°.
To be a force for positive change in a business, insight has to be approachable, not impenetrable; useful, not just interesting; and about people, not about data. I think that a common misconception is that the purpose of analytics and insight is to replace human decision making, or to stifle creativity. There is no replacement for the brilliance and ingenuity of the human mind – insight should support innovation, not stifle it, by providing a foundation for making brilliant ideas even more brilliant.
So, our journey so far has led us to a point where we have launched an analytics service to the business and are starting to make a real difference in how we understand our consumers. But we are nowhere near our final destination. The biggest change is not a systems or data one; it’s not about building the perfect analytical model or finding the ‘killer’ data source; it’s a long term cultural shift in how people view the role of data in their day to day jobs, and building confidence and knowledge in using and talking about this data across the business. However, if I’ve learnt anything from my year at Penguin, it’s that you shouldn’t be afraid to start, just because the journey is a long one; the benefits from taking just the first few steps are enormous. And just because your business is associated with words such as heritage, or culture, data can and should still be a core part of your future relationship with your consumers.