25 Jul 2019 19:25 IST

Data-driven insights can make ‘segment of one’ a reality for marketers

Darden School’s Prof Rajkumar Venkatesan highlights significance of MBA-MSDS dual degree

With more and more companies the world over recognising the value of data, the demand for specialised data science skills is increasing across sectors. It is to empower future managers with data analysis competence that in 2017, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business (UVA-DSB) launched a two-year dual-degree — the MBA/MSDS (Master of Science in Data Sciences) programme.

Talking to BL on Campus, Rajkumar Venkatesan, Professor of Business Administration, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, said: “Students of the dual-degree gain from the university’s top-ranked management programme as also from the data-intensive curriculum of UVA’s Data Science Institute. The programme gives students a broader understanding of the new opportunities and challenges for businesses. Demand for the course has been good, though the class size is still small, at about 15 students.”



Prof Rajkumar said the graduates get placed very quickly, and in top tech companies, mainly due to the strong industry-academia collaboration throughout the course. Students work on live projects sponsored by companies, which share real-time data with them. Projects range from sales, skew optimisation and customer lifetime value to text analytics of investor calls and customer retention models. The students are often in direct contact with their clients, who are happy as they work on real business problems and leverage data for effective solutions.

“The big challenge in companies is that the MBAs know the business while data science experts know how to devise data-driven solutions. But the MSDS-MBAs build a bridge between the two, with their grasp of both business and customer needs. Assembling data from multiple sources, they know what model to use to churn prediction. One of things we didn’t expect was that many graduates are getting placed in big consulting firms, because those companies are now developing their data practices,” said Prof Rajkumar.

STEM certification, 3-year OPT

Prof Rajkumar said a tech background is essential to pursue the MSDS course, as candidates have to undergo pre-requisite classes in calculus, algebra and coding, even before they start the programme. As the course is STEM-certified, graduates get the benefit of three years of OPT (optional practical training) before they need to apply for the H1B visa. That is two extra years over what the MBA graduates get, he said.

It's clear that business schools in the US are hoping such measures will lead to a rise in the number of applications for the MBA course, as there has been a dip in interest in the MBA over the last few years. And this is not only because of the political environment, Prof Rajkumar said.

“It could be because the standards at European and Indian schools have improved greatly. Or that the fees for the MBA in the US are very high. People also don't want to take two years off at a time when the economy is growing well. Also, at this time, there is a lot of talk, in the media and elsewhere, about whether the MBA is still relevant. This has prompted several schools to start one-year MBA programmes. Online courses are picking up as well,” he said.

There are many questions about the H1Bs too, with fewer companies sponsoring H1Bs at present, said the professor. Given that students with STEM certification get the advantage of three years of OPT, they may want to use this time to start up ventures on their own, or join a company where they can pursue work they’re interested in, rather than just join any employer willing to give them an H1B, he pointed out.

Prof Rajkumar said: “This is also why schools such as Darden and others are now offering specialised MBAs and dual degrees, as part of a process of reinventing the MBA, and keeping it current to the present-day needs of industry and a rapidly changing corporate environment. Without data skills it is extremely difficult to be successful in business nowadays, and this is certainly true of my field, the marketing area, where being data-savvy is essential to being an effective marketer.”

Data science will transform marketing

Which are the key sectors / industries where the dual degree holders find the best jobs? “Finance is still strong,” said Rajkumar, “and investment banking is the largest employer of such graduates. Consulting is growing, but tech is seeing the fastest growth in opportunities. The area that may get really interesting is data science in marketing, which may transform the way marketing is done in a traditional company.”

The professor said: “I'm working right now on a book on AI in Marketing, and my research shows that, while data science may have first impacted tech companies’ business, in terms of AI, blockchain, and so on, the next wave will forge new marketing paths for traditional companies such as Coca Cola, Whirlpool, Audi and Unilever.”

Data science will help these companies deliver sharper, more personalised advertising, a far cry from TV ads targeting a huge consumer base, he explains. It is about aligning with the customer’s interests and customising the message to individuals. To do that they glean specific consumer data, by direct interactions where possible, and use insights from those touch-points to personalise ‘moments of truth’ for each customer. These are the AI-driven moments of truth. Starbucks, Coca Cola and Unilever are already investing heavily in this direction, said Rajkumar.

Digital natives

Digital natives have taken what Prof Rajkumar calls “AI moments of truth” to a whole new level. In the exercise world, Peloton offers an experience beyond traditional gyms and fitbits. Present only in the US, the company designs specific exercises for users, who can follow the routine at home or at a neighbourhood studio, on an exercise cycle fitted with an iPad, that streams classes live simultaneously to subscribers across the country, while recording their parameters. The company customises all exerciser data to design the ideal routine for every subscriber. Peloton also has an app that collects data as one is exercising, and suggests the best routine for individual users.

Such apps, said Rajkumar, are the new data sources for mobile marketers. The next mobile marketing wave will be all about understanding customer habits and using that information to improve the app or product, make it more personalised, offer rewards, and build in incentives to get people to keep using the app. This may not be so important for apps like Swiggy or ticket booking apps or a news app, as they are widely used, but makes sense for apps one does not routinely use.

The other big area is chatbots, like Messenger in Facebook, from where marketers are now deriving data on user preferences. Ultimately, the professor pointed out, in the AI-driven marketing world, while it is still all about the customer, the data tools of today enable marketers to deliver at scale, making it truly about a ‘segment of one’.