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Atlanta YMCA turns to SaaS BI software over 'complicated' Cognos

When the Metro Atlanta YMCA wanted to improve member outreach, it shunned 'complicated' on-premise BI software for interactive dashboards from a SaaS BI provider.

Each of the Metro Atlanta YMCA's 27 branches has access to interactive business intelligence (BI) reports and dashboards detailing membership demographics. But that wasn't always the case.

In fact, until last year, the Y's membership outreach operations, by its own admission, were "outdated" and "old-fashioned," according to Betsy Lenahan, head of marketing for the Y, which serves more than 50,000 Atlanta-area households.

As part of its marketing campaign, for example, each branch published a catalogue of its services and programs – swimming lessons for toddlers, for instance, or aerobics for senior citizens -- but they weren't necessarily targeted to that branch's particular members, Lenahan said.

Members were forced to leaf through pages and pages of information in the hope of finding the services they were looking for, she said. Sometimes they would find them, and sometimes they wouldn't.

With only three employees dedicated to marketing, Lenahan needed to find a better but relatively simple way to market the Y to its members. The Y already used IBM Cognos software in its payroll department, so Lenahan naturally thought of expanding its use to the marketing department.

But she soon thought better of it. Before deploying Cognos, she found, the Y would have to do significant data mapping, most likely requiring an outside consultant and extensive help from her already overwhelmed IT department. That would take time and money, two resources always in short supply at nonprofit organizations.

"Everything just seemed complicated in Cognos," Lenahan said. "And when we looked at what the price tag would be, it just came to a screeching halt."

On-demand BI software has proven less complicated and less expensive, she said. After conducting research on her own, she decided to download BI software from Birst, a SaaS BI vendor based in San Francisco.

Like most on-demand BI software, Birst provided its own preconfigured data models that the Y could begin using in a fraction of the time it would have taken with Cognos. And it is less expensive, so Lenahan was able to pay for it right out of her departmental budget, bypassing IT.

While deployment of SaaS-based BI software usually does take less time than that of traditional on-premise platforms, the Y was not up and running with Birst in a matter of days or weeks. According to Lenahan, the deployment process lasted around a month and a half.

And simpler data modeling, though a boon to users with relatively few "out-of-the-box" data sources, is often not useful to users with highly customized and varied data sources, according to Forrester Research's Boris Evelson.

But for the Y, SaaS BI turned out to be a good fit, Lenahan said. Now that the system is up and running, the Y's branch managers have access to Web-based dashboards and can filter data just for their branch members. Managers use the technology to break down their membership by a number of criteria, including how long someone has been a member, the frequency with which the member visits the Y, and household demographic information.

Branch managers can now easily identify shifts in their membership's demographics, Lenahan said, and they use the information to brainstorm new program ideas.

"Birst has made it possible for me to put on the desk of each branch the ability to filter our data specifically just for their branch within a minute," she said.

Instead of creating bulky, "one-size-fits-all" catalogs, branch managers use their new analytic capabilities to push targeted emails to members with information about the programs or services most likely to interest them.

For instance, a family with preschool-aged children that has just joined the Y might get an email telling them about the latest activities for young children, Lenahan said. Elderly members, by contrast, get emails about services aimed at their age group, like water aerobics.

Lenahan is particularly pleased with Birst's self-service capabilities, meaning that non-IT trained branch managers can do their own analysis. "Otherwise they would have no way of knowing, and they would have to ask us [to create reports]," she said. "[With Birst,] that means I am not in the business of slicing and dicing 27 reports."


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