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Database Solution

In-house vs outsource? It’s hard to escape that old chestnut. Qbase’s Gary Olive weighs up the pros and cons of each and suggests a third way.

By Gary Olive

Gary Olive’s data series 
May/Jun 2004The big idea - first steps in setting up a marketing database.
Jul/Aug 2004Data audit – what you have, what you need, how to get there.
Sep/Oct 2004Data protection - key to a sound strategy.
Nov/Dec 2004Database solution – DIY or use professionals.
Jan/Feb 2005Tactics and strategy - using the database to build business.
Mar/Apr 2005The great unknown - blue skying.

So far we have considered the foundations, the groundwork for your marketing database strategy. Whilst you have been addressing the key factors to a successful implementation, you will also have been giving much thought to the database solution itself; what it will be like and who is going to build it for you.

You will want to contrast and compare the benefits of using internal IT resource versus external specialist database developers. Whichever route you end up taking, you can stay firmly in the driving seat of your marketing database solution through the creation of a comprehensive user specification.

User specification

This details fully what you expect from the database itself, the corresponding support infrastructure and provides clear guidance and focus for whichever resource subsequently delivers it for you.

You do not need a technical background or understanding to create your specification. In its simplest form it is a series of statements which express what the database must do and how it must interface with existing systems (the necessities) along with any other functions and attributes that would be useful but not essential (the niceties). Typically, it will detail these requirements under a set of headings and sub headings such as Deliverables, Marketing Systems Objectives, Functional Outline, Data Sets (eg. personal, address, transaction and activity) Facilities (eg. access, external links, administration and security).

Unless you have an internal protocol with regards to which software must be used for the database itself (eg. SQL, Access, FastStats etc) try to avoid being specific about this in your specification. It will allow a greater variety of options to be considered.

The key is to remember that the greater the level of detail in the user specification, the greater the chance that the marketing database will deliver to your expectations from the first build.

If you do have a choice as to which resource will subsequently build your database, you may wish to consider the following. Although it does not represent an exhaustive list, it will give you some food for thought.

Internal IT resource


* Should know your business inside out.
* Have immediate access to vital donor systems and relevant data.
* Costs are likely to be significantly less that those of their external counterparts.
* No question of ownership – the database belongs to the business.


* Work to long lead times – not necessarily in line with your implementation plan.
* Driven by operational support remit – could be pulled away from your project at extremely short notice for days and weeks at a time.
* Skills gap – adopt a ‘make do’ (or worse, a ‘guinea pig’) rather than a ‘fitness for purpose’ approach.
* Poor records kept of development – the loss of a human resource through resignation or promotion can create a void.

External database development specialists


* Project management – the solution is developed in stages for delivery when you need it.
* Appointed resource – focus clearly and specifically on the project in hand because you are paying the bills.
* Experience in building marketing database solutions – skilled in building with access to a range of proprietary software solutions.
* Development is fully documented – process control procedures, data dictionaries and entity relationship diagrams give the full picture and record.


* Little or no initial understanding of your business – may under develop/miss vital aspects of your database solution.
* Create the database architecture and data processing routines only – reliant on others for consistency and content of data supply.
* Higher development and support costs for database – ongoing software licences to be considered and specialist skills come at a premium.
* Need to ‘contract’ on the development – avoid intellectual property disagreements and/or safeguard the database ‘code’.

And now for a contradiction, or rather an alternative, to what has been discussed above.


The optimum ‘build’ solution is a combination; a working partnership of internal IT and external database development specialists. You invariably need your internal IT to provide the core data streams for your database to be a success, so why not factor them into your plan throughout.

It is true that using external database developers to get the solution up and running is likely to require a higher percentage of budget than you may wish to spend but you will be founding your whole strategy on a more robust, more rounded, marketing platform. And, depending on your specific requirements in terms of database hosting and access (eg. hosted off-site and accessed on-line via the internet) the impact on your existing IT infrastructure is likely to be minimal.

However you should also seriously consider making it your objective to migrate the ongoing management of the database to your internal IT resource as soon as practicable. This should have the effect of significantly reducing your ongoing database maintenance budget requirements as you move forward.

The database solution you deliver to your business needs to be a team built solution taking the ‘best’ attributes from both your internal and external development resource. It is vital that you realise the important role you have to play in pulling these together to make your database solution a success.