Data Lessons From Walmart: What We Can All Learn From Retail

Brand Aware” explores the data-driven digital ad ecosystem from the marketer’s point of view.

Today’s column is written by Madelyn Mills, director of marketing platforms and analytics at Providence St. Joseph Health.

Having worked in the healthcare industry for several years, it’s fair to say we’re facing turbulent times, with regulatory uncertainties, rising costs, declining reimbursements and increasing demand for affordable medical access, not to mention new entrants like Amazon trying to get in on the act.

To stay ahead of competitors while still putting customers first, we can look to successful data-driven retailers for inspiration – specifically, Walmart.

Since the 1980s, Walmart has led the way in leveraging a digital supply chain, and this strategy is still integral to its success. The brand transformed the way retailers thought about data, making data itself a product rather than just a byproduct of doing business. By transforming how data flowed through its ecosystem and enriching that data along its journey, Walmart created a new retail model that streamlined efficiency, cut costs and ultimately brought value to customers.

Why data insight is critical in healthcare

In the healthcare industry, data is our lifeblood. Yet for the most part, it is still held in silos. Non-clinical behavioral data, such as marketing information, for example, is stored separately from clinical data, making it difficult for marketers and clinicians to provide the personalized care customers require. Companies are often unable to reach out to their own customers using first-party data.

If healthcare companies centralize their data, with data throughout the ecosystem linking to a single core customer record, they achieve an end-to-end view of the customer journey, empowering better service. For example, customers often engage with health provider content or research medical conditions and symptoms online. These interactions generate valuable behavioral signals, but doctors and researchers are blind to these early indicators, only able to see clinical data once a patient sits down on an exam table. Data silos also prevent marketers from seeing information from clinical systems that would help them measure marketing impact to the business or improve messaging to deliver patients to the right channel of care at the optimal time.

By unifying data, the industry can shift its focus from reactive care to proactive health management, combining digital behavioral and clinical data to enable advanced research and even disease prediction. Combining clinical and non-clinical data in a single customer record would allow predictive models to create the broadest digital view of the customer, and offer the possibility to intercept disease paths and take earlier action, both in clinical and marketing settings. For instance, a company may target a population with a flu shot campaign because a clinical predictive model has identified them as high risk.

Lessons from Walmart

Smart, ethical data utilization will result in a healthcare industry that is predictive, preventative and personalized. But to reach this level of data maturity, there are two key lessons we can learn from Walmart.

The first is to invest in the right technology. Walmart invested early and boldly in centralized infrastructure so information could flow throughout the company. In doing so, it liberated data, making it available along the supply chain from manufacturer to store. One of Sam Walton’s 10 rules for building a business was “communicate everything you possibly can to your partners,” and the retailer’s data strategy supports this philosophy. It allows data to be enriched at every point along the supply chain, feeding predictive models that enhance the customer experience.

To follow Walmart’s lead, marketers can invest in a customer data platform (CDP), as we are doing. It’s key that your CDP integrates easily with existing systems to enable data to flow around the business and be enriched along the way. By interacting bi-directionally with the entire data supply chain, including CRM, electronic health records, financial systems, contact centers and marketing vendors, a CDP enables a 360-degree view of the customer using common identifiers that link data to central records.

The second lesson is to invest in people and skills. Walmart reinforces its data strategy with the right people, and it plans to hire an additional 2,000 technologists this year. The value of unified data is recognized at the board level, facilitating a data-driven strategy, and data is at the heart of company culture.

To achieve the same benefits, companies need data evangelists: people who dream about combining disparate data types and can translate that dream into meaningful business cases. They also need buy-in at board level to set expectations, sharpen objectives, drive priorities and give data efforts sustained endurance.

In some cases, organizational change is required, rearranging teams to work together. Companies can hire technologists internally to work with IT teams or bring in expertise from the outside – whatever it takes to get the right people. By advocating enriched, centralized data throughout the organization – perhaps by offering analytics training, soliciting broad influence over the digital roadmap or encouraging all functions to feed data back into the digital supply chain – companies can get the best from their people and the most value from their data.

To succeed in these turbulent times, marketers across all sectors can learn a lesson from retailers such as Walmart and invest boldly in data maturity. That entails removing barriers to unify a fragmented ecosystem, streamlining and democratizing their data and­, ultimately, delivering a better experience to their customers.

Follow Providence St. Joseph Health (@psjh) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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