David Blecken
Sep 5, 2014

MasterCard's Sam Ahmed explains the company's 'Priceless Engine'

ASIA-PACIFIC - Complaints that marketing and business don’t understand each other still abound, but MasterCard is one brand that claims to have made significant progress in bridging the gap.

Ahmed: "We are finally talking the same language"

At the centre of this assertion is a recently launched social media-monitoring tool, which MasterCard calls the ‘Priceless Engine’. The technology is unusual firstly in that it is a transaction-focused business model led by the marketing department, and secondly that it is an innovation led out of Asia. Its ultimate aim is to drive revenue for banks and merchants.

In Hong Kong yesterday, Sam Ahmed, MasterCard’s senior vice-president and group head of marketing for Asia/Pacific, Middle East and Africa (who features among Campaign Asia-Pacific's 40 under 40 this year), explained the concept behind the technology and how it works in practice. He said the concept evolved from a desire to use the mass of data available to MasterCard through digital channels more intelligently and effectively than it had been in the past, with a view to providing more relevant, timely offers to consumers.

Deconstructing the engine

The technology is broken down into four key sections that enable MasterCard to conceive campaigns or offers, monitor their progress in real time—not only in terms of engagement, but also transactions—and adjust as needed.

The first element concentrates on understanding consumer sentiment on social channels, using language detection to identify micro and macro trends. This helps MasterCard develop ideas in terms of its approach to consumers.

The second monitors conversations once a campaign initiative is underway, to gauge positive and negative feeling and importantly to track engagement through to online transactions. Ahmed explains that this enables MasterCard to pinpoint barriers along the path to transaction and remove them. He says this is a major step forward given that the typical approach would be to firstly “blame the creative” for a lack of business outcomes and then simply “pump in more money”.

The third is a social publishing device that enables the creation and sharing of content across markets. Ahmed says this element is crucial for scaling an initiative. The process also provides data immediately, which then helps banks and merchants “craft an experience” for their customers.

The fourth is a means of aggregating all data points onto a central dashboard, which helps the company make decisions as to where to make further investments. Ahmed says the dashboard is scrutinised twice daily while an initiative is in progress by MasterCard’s “engine team”, which consists of a data scientist, content strategist, project manager, creative and selected members of the marketing team.

On a typical morning, Ahmed said, “we review the data from overnight, consider the implications and act”. Later in the day, the team reconvenes with a relevant business owner to make further necessary adjustments. “We have to consider [whether to] fix, change investment strategy, or accelerate across the region,” he said.

The biggest difference Ahmed pointed to between the “engine” and the more standard approach to marketing is that the accessibility to and ability to process consumer data means that decisions and tweaks can be made in a matter of minutes rather than months. MasterCard is building the facility out across seven markets in Asia, including Hong Kong and China (where it has already used the technology to run campaigns), India, Japan, Singapore, Australia and Thailand.

Understanding consumers

Ahmed said the technology has been around eight months in development. He acknowledged that there has traditionally been “a discrepancy between what businesses think should be on social platforms and what consumers want. Businesses think product and company information, but consumers want offers at the right time and guidance on the experience they are about to have”.

He said research showed that particularly among younger consumers, who are open to offers, there was frustration that they were receiving offers at the wrong time—for example, dining offers while already dining, or holiday offers when having just returned from holiday. The ‘priceless engine’ is an effort to rectify that, he noted, adding that “big data is dead data if not used at the right time”.

He said the technology has helped optimise the delivery of communications. At the same time, it has improved the planning process in between campaigns. He points to a recent example in Hong Kong around Mother’s Day, which targeted affluent consumers based on a very different insight to the standard consensus that the target audience is “asset rich and time poor”. Social monitoring brought to light the insight that the Hong Kong affluent tend to be extremely respectful of the sacrifices their families made to enable them to reach that position of affluence.

Similarly in mainland China, research accumulated via the monitoring tool showed that the affluent tended to feel a strong sense of gratitude to those who had mentored them. The ensuing campaign yielded high engagement, although MasterCard had not provided figures relating to consumer transactions for either piece of work at press time.

Making marketing credible

While not sharing specific numbers, Ahmed noted that improved consumer connections strengthened marketing’s case in the boardroom by ultimately delivering business results. In MasterCard’s experience, the ability to identify where to make changes in real time has moved marketing from a costly, nebulous exercise to much more scientific practice, he said.

“We are finally talking the same language,” he said. “Instead of marketing as an expense, we’ve changed the dialogue to marketing as an investment opportunity. We are giving marketers the data needed to build a business case in business language… [That] social/digital marketing is now driving revenue is at the heart of the transformation.”

MasterCard plans to triple its investment in digital marketing across Asia over the next three years, he said.

“The companies that are successful are those that have built a social business model where the language [between marketing and business/finance] is the same,” he added. “There is frustration from marketers that not enough money is being invested, but on the business side, people don’t see what ‘likes’ are doing for the business. Until you cross that barrier, you can’t transform digital marketing.”

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