Silos: great for grain storage, not for marketing decisions

Silos in Iowa

I come from the Midwestern region of the United States, Iowa to be precise. This is a place where grain silos are an omnipresent visual reminder of the agricultural distribution infrastructure critical to prosperity in farming. Grain silos are a practical means of providing protection from the elements to increase the storage life of the grains, as well as to prevent contamination and exposure to mold, chemicals and insects. In that context, silos are a good thing.

But in a corporate enterprise, silos are a symbol of obstacles to collaboration, deterrents to agile decision making and the enemy of profitable growth.

Not only am I from the Midwest, but I come from a background in software development, where too often I saw incredibly talented coders develop tools and applications that no customer actually wanted. Sadly obvious, at least to me: they were trapped in the silos, sequestered away from the consumer/user. They lacked the conversations that would inform the products that they built. As a result, they wasted time and effort that could have been saved just by a conversation with an actual end user!

It is easy to understand how silos exist. Disparate sources of quant or “big” data are traditionally held in separate departments, corporate functions, or maybe even different locations. Data are formatted differently, in systems to which the entire enterprise doesn’t have access, controlled by groups who are not incentivized in their daily activities to make data, literally or philosophically, accessible to other stakeholders. Access to data is often restricted to stakeholders perceived to have a “need to know.”

It is also hard to mine data. You might yield patterns that are completely opaque to one team, whereas another team might take one peek and identify a forehead thumping “Ah-ha!” of an insight. However, that’s only possible when everyone across the enterprise with skin in the game has access to the data and the tools to divine the “whys” behind the “whats.”

Silos can be the warehouses that literally store the data (and remember we are talking mostly about structured data, even if the structures often don’t align). But even more toxic are the silos that exist departmentally or philosophically, where gatekeepers have historically been the librarians of the data, or the hierarchical “Knowledge Gurus” who maintain their authority to interpret and disseminate the meaning of the data.

This siloed mentality is further exasperated in the case of the unstructured data that is mined from conversations between brands and consumers when there is a lack of tools that facilitate these conversations in real-time with a global consumer-base. Historically, brands have struggled to store, access, parse, and share the insights from these conversations across the enterprise, so that the whole organization can achieve the mission, rapidly and efficiently.

In a landmark study called “Insights 2020 – The Future of Insights” (conducted in 2016 by Kantar Vermeer along with a scores of clients, associations and research suppliers), one of the key goals identified was the aspiration of “customer-centricity” as the strategy to deliver business values against customer needs. “Internal silos & bureaucracy” were seen as a key challenges to the insights and analytics functions. The overall prescriptive in the study was a challenge to organizations to “understand the influence of the customer voice throughout the company... and act on it in a timely manner.”

Voice of the consumer has long been the domain of the market research teams alone. Qualitative research was commissioned (typically by Marketing) with little input from other departments or functions. Far too often the results were thrown over the wall to stakeholders with little to no ability to engage with consumers holistically in real-time, much less say to the consumer: “wait, that’s interesting, maybe even significant! Tell us more.”

The “right way” to engage in a consumer conversation became a methodological roadblock rather than a facilitator for better business decisions.

Even within Marketing, disciplines are becoming so specialized and fragmented (digital, social, CRM, activation, packaging, shopper marketing, etc.) that silos are emerging within silos!

Data scientists are nudging out insights professionals in the quest for a clear predictive snapshot of consumer behavior. But it takes the nuances teased out in conversations with actual consumers to give real meaning to the quant data, so all stakeholders are more effective decision makers.

Brands see the iceberg looming and many are looking to find ways to break down organizational barriers and in order to focus on the imperative: increased consumer engagement across teams. The brands we see winning are the ones who are calling for “consumer empathy” to be a top priority across the organization. They are adopting the processes and tools to democratize the voice of the consumer, enabling many stakeholders to engage in conversations with consumers, so that everyone can prosper. If these are the kinds of challenges your teams face, we would love to hear from you.

Zach Simmons is the Founder and CEO of enables brands to make better business decisions by engaging directly with consumers through real-time conversations. Using video conferencing, brands are able to connect face-to-face, online, in order to achieve a rapid and deep-seated understanding of consumer perspectives and behaviors. This “agile empathy” encourages brands to make better real-time decisions, leading to reduced time-to-market, successful products, and more effective marketing. The proprietary platform erases geographic barriers, expanding brands’ global reach and equipping them with a cultural and contextual understanding of the consumer populations that they target. Today, is powering consumer connection and empathy programs at many of the world's leading brands.