by Marjorie M.K. Hlava

Marketing an inhouse file is similar to marketing any database. Whether the file is commercial or inhouse, there are two main parts to the marketing. First is marketing the idea of a database to upper management. Second is marketing the completed file to raise revenue for maintaining the database.

The first part, marketing the file idea to obtain funding and authorization from the appropriate echelons within the company, involves justifying the file on a need and cost basis. Serious thought needs to be given to whether a file is necessary.

  • Are you getting along fine with the manual system?
  • How many people would use the file?
  • Would an online file assure better service?
  • Is it really worth the expense?

You have to answer these questions thoroughly enough to convince yourself before you try to convince your boss, the MIS department, or the comptroller of your company. Find yourself a devil’s advocate to discuss these topics, somebody who will ask hard questions. This will help you find out if you are comfortable defending the database plan. After you have completed this process, switch sides in the argument to see if any objections were overlooked. Put yourself in the position of comptroller to see whether it is really worth spending corporate funds on this type of project.

Can the cost be justified?

Having answered those questions and having clearly established the need for a file, determine if the cost can be justified convincingly. This involves defining the expense of hardware and software and, most importantly, the cost in labor and data collection to build and maintain the file.

As we have discussed in earlier columns, there are two parts to database expenses. The backfile conversion is one. How far back should the file go? Do you need to put the entire collection online? Secondly, each unit you decide to include over the life of the file will have a cost factor that needs to be analyzed.

Determine a monthly budget, then add these costs over a two-year period to see when the file will begin to pay for itself. This will help you determine at what point you have saved enough personnel time or have provided enough extra service to break even. Conversely, you may discover there is no break-even point. Certainly, the administrator who will approve or disapprove funding for the file will be looking for these factors, so you need to know whether you can convince upper management with a solid economic study.

Projecting cash flow will help you to determine whether a file will be cost effective for the company over the two year period that begins once the backfile is complete and the database is on a maintenance level. The costs will be in terms of personnel time as well as in dollars. Hiring additional personnel may be necessary. And it also may be necessary to contract out the effort to bring the backfile up to date and to maintain it once it’s running.

Rather than saving personnel, you may actually need to add another person to the staff to maintain the database. Try to prepare a fairly complete publication for presenting this information to your decision makers. Don’t just jot it down and give it to your boss as the justification for building an expensive database. If the file is worth building, it is worth the time to complete a thorough study and present it in clear, precise terms. This will certainly be an asset in selling the idea to the appropriate administrators.

Spinning off

There are hidden costs and income in the creation of a database that are not immediately apparent when you are concentrating on matters of file design and deciding what hardware and software to use. These hidden expenses and possible income evolve primarily from spinoff products and spinoff marketing activities.

Spinoff products could include hard copies of the database which could be given, sold, or placed as indexes in different parts of the company. You could also develop smaller files that could be produced by splitting the database by individual subjects to create specialized dissemination of information or current awareness services; online searches charged to individual departments; resume updates for individuals in the company who get mentioned, cited, or published; and job searches or “headhunter”applications to help locate professionals who are publishing in a particular field. In order to accommodate these possible services, you must make sure that any necessary codes are included very early in the development of the file so the database can expand to cover these possibilities.

Some of these ideas will come to light during the test-file phase, but some will not occur to you until the database has been running for some time. Adjusting the database later to utilize additional spinoff products and services can be expensive, so it is best to brainstorm with the information center staff before you begin work on the file. These ideas should also be documented in the study presented to upper management as additional arguments for creating an online file.

Once the file has been approved and all the sign-offs are implemented,you will have a short period of time for rejoicing and a major period of time for reflection on the enormity of the task you have committed yourself to for the next few years. Once those two phases have passed, you are ready to start building the file. And, once you have a test file up, then it is time to start the public relations effort to market the database!

Let people know it is coming even before it is available. Let them know how they might access the file. Let them know who to call for additional information. Part of the beauty of doing a public relations effort early in the file creation process is that you will receive outside input that may help in creating the file. Other people may want to test the file. This will help you identify problems before you are totally committed to a particular file design. New people who look at the file will point out things you might have overlooked. This input will also help you accommodate the file to the audience who will have use for it, giving you a more saleable product.

When the full backfile is up and the updates are in place, you should already have a means for people to access the database. Be sure you know exactly how they can reach the data. Amazingly, with an inhouse file as well as a commercial file, many people are stymied by how to connect a terminal to the database. You need to make the user manual or instructions as specific and as graphic as possible without patronizing the user. Whatever those protocols may be, they need to be straightforward. Also, you need to include a call for action in each piece you send in a public relations program, a direct-mail effort, a layout ad, a handout, or a presentation at an exhibit booth. You need to let the potential user know exactly what it is he is supposed to do.

Marketing a must

Promoting, selling, and marketing the online database is essential to the long-term life of the file. After all, if the file is perfect but never used, it wasn’t worth the expense. So, when you make your initial presentation to management, you need to include promotion, printing, and distribution budgets. You have to indicate the expected marketing effort. This must include details such as number of personnel hours, expenses, and expected return for this effort.

Promotions for an inhouse file should include testimonials of satisfied users. For an inhouse file, word-of-mouth advertising is best, but you should not rely solely on this form of advertising to promote the file.

Write an article for the inhouse organ or newspaper. Send out a newsletter from the information center that includes articles or items from the database. Post records from the database on a bulletin board where people can see them easily.

Promotional posters and stickers are helpful but not entirely necessary. These activities depend on your budget. An information flyer describing the database, explaining how to access it, and listing the subject coverage will help people decide to use it. Some companies give an introductory tour of the information center to new employees. Make sure this tour includes instructions on how to use the database.

In short, normal advertising channels such as layout advertisements, glossy brochures, direct mail, and exhibit booths are appropriate for commercial files, but advertising to an inhouse staff will require more inventive ideas. You will have to depend heavily on informational announcements, how-to brochures, demonstrations, and sales calls. Press the flesh; talk with people individually about their problems and find out how the database can help the average user. Marketing is very important to your private file both to convince upper management to commit funds to the project and to help support the file through the years of its use.