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Bridging data and action: How to create killer reports
Are your reports not having the impact you would have hoped? Check out columnist Amy Bishop's tips and tools below to create powerful, useful reports that drive results.
Ask any digital marketer about the prerequisites for a successful campaign, and undoubtedly many of the answers will revolve around obtaining or making use of data points. Simply put, marketers — especially digital marketers — love data.
But despite the love for pulling data, reviewing stats and identifying trends and outliers, it is no secret that formalized recurring reporting can sometimes be a bit of a drag to compile and put together. (What, you thought you were the only one dreading that Monday morning number pull?)
It isn’t so much the time that it takes — although depending on the complexity, it can add up and become quite tedious. But no, the main reason that reporting becomes a dreaded task is usually that the report isn’t impactful enough and begins to feel like busywork.
So how can you create reports that are worthwhile, sustainable, and most importantly, impactful?
Keep it focused
Some of the most common reporting issues result from good intentions. For example, in an effort to be inclusive, reports can quickly become an attempt to boil the ocean. Massive, ocean-boiling reports are the reports that become dreaded because you have to sift through so much information to get to what is important.
If you create a powerful report, recipients will read through it. If the report is watered down, people will skim it or ignore sections (and maybe eventually the entirety). This is a slippery slope — even if they continue to consume part of the report, they could miss out on things that you really wanted them to see.
Here are a few tips:
- Instead of starting the report by creating a list of metrics that you (or your client) want to see, start by identifying the questions that you want to answer with the report, and then build the report to answer those questions.
- If a client or stakeholder provides a laundry list of metrics that they want to see, dig into their reasoning and make sure that those are the right metrics to address the goals of the report and ultimately the campaign success metrics.
- Remember that sometimes less is more. If a stat isn’t useful, don’t include it — no matter how pretty the graph looks.
- Don’t try to create a one-size-fits-all report. Different time frames tend to call for different reports. Likewise, if there are multiple stakeholders with different interests, it can be beneficial to create separate reports, as opposed to a watered down report. For example, if one report is for the marketing manager and the other is for the CMO, it may be pertinent to keep the CMO’s report distilled so that he or she isn’t overwhelmed with information that he or she isn’t interested in.
Now you have your report, but so what?
If your reports aren’t getting the attention that they deserve, and you’ve already tackled the steps listed above to keep them laser-focused on only the most important analyses and data points, then you should ask yourself this question: “So what?”
No, really — so what?
There is a purpose to pulling reports, and each report has a different tale to tell. So, what is the story? What is important about the report? What do you need the people viewing it to know? What do you need to know? After you ask yourself, “So what?” then ask, “So why?” and fill in the blank after, “So next…”
Here are some examples:
- So, what changed since the last report? Why did it change? So next, I will _________.
- So, what are the positive outcomes? Why? So next, I will ________.
- So, what are the negative outcomes? Why? So next, I will _______.
- So, what caused these results? Why? So next, I will __________.
- So, what are the most important takeaways? Why? So next, I will _________.
- So, what are the opportunity areas?
This brings us to our next step.
Create a narrative
If the report is being shared with someone else, the best way to ensure that they don’t miss out on any key takeaways is to share the data in the form of the story.
Telling a story with the data is way more impactful than passing over a bunch of percentages and dollar signs because it connects the dots between what happened, what the results were and what the takeaways are. It provides your “so what” on a silver platter.
There are even a few different studies that show a demonstrable impact of storytelling on recall. (For starters, there is this one from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, which shows the impact of storytelling on recall, and this one from Stanford, which digs into the way that recall can be impacted by the story’s composition.) And quick search will land you loads of posts from people with anecdotal evidence.
The fact that storytelling is so effective makes sense — stories are more interesting to listen to and, because of the logical flow, are often easier to follow than a data dump.
Depending on how important the story is, this may mean reformatting the data, but it doesn’t always have to be a heavy lift. (Remember, the goal is to create a sustainable process!)
- Put the data and analyses in a logical order to help create context. If you show a huge decrease in traffic within the first graph but don’t show the simultaneous budget decrease until much lower in the report, it might look like an error or concern point, whereas the two data points could easily speak for themselves if shared together. Similarly, if CPA increases but conversions also increase, that’s less likely to give someone heartburn than a change in CPA without conversions as a reference point.
- Add a summary. This is key. If there are specific things that you’d like the recipients to take away from the report, just tell them! The best summaries explain what was done, why it was done, what the outcome was and what will be done next as a result.
- If the situation calls for it, consider creating a presentation. This will give you full control over the narrative. Even if the report is typically an Excel file, using PowerPoint once in a while is nice because it’s built for storytelling. This also provides an opportunity to put extra emphasis on the data just simply by changing the routine.
To spot outliers — good or bad — be sure to add context by including additional date ranges for comparison as well as trending data. Adding context provides clarity around whether the numbers are good, bad or same-as. Here are some easy ways to provide context:
- Provide a benchmark by comparing time frames:
- If your business is seasonal, or if you’re reviewing a particular event such as Black Friday, year-over-year is often your best bet for looking at trends.
- If your business isn’t seasonal, you might look at week-over-week and month-over-month. The time frames you choose really depend on the amount of data that you have.
- Visualize the data with graphs.
- Make note of any external factors that throw off trends, such as that one time your product was randomly photographed in the hands of a celebrity.
Don’t get in a rut
The first car you drive may not be the car you drive forever. The first person you date may not be the person you marry. The first report you create may not be the report you use forever and ever.
That’s okay! If you find yourself at a point where you’re pulling a report that doesn’t have value, then it’s time to revisit the goals of the report. Here are a few tips for avoiding a reporting rut:
- Set informal checkpoints for reevaluating the report with key stakeholders to ensure reporting is still adding value and to make any adjustments. If it seems a certain part of the report isn’t getting much attention from stakeholders, there’s no need to wait until a checkpoint to discuss removing it.
- Reconsider the time frames for your report, if necessary. If you’re not getting much from your reports, then the time frame might not be right. It’s possible that the reports are being pulled too frequently (yes, seriously) or not frequently enough, depending on the size of the account and the amount of data.
- Keep it fresh. If goals change or strategy shifts, start from the top. Determine which questions need to be answered, and determine which data points and analyses best answer those questions.
- When additions to the report are requested, as they often are, take a few minutes to consider if it is valuable to add the requested data on an ongoing basis, one-off, or at certain time intervals. Likewise, when a new feature is added to a report, pull it a few times and see if is as valuable as expected. If not, it might add clarity into better analyses that can be included instead.
Automate what you can
Of all the reasons to dread reporting, resource constraints are both the easiest and the toughest to solve for. Tough because, well, resources are finite. But easy in that there are a lot of (free!) tools to help with reporting. Even if there are some unavoidable manual pivot tables to be created, automate what you can. Here are a few tips:
- As much as possible, try to integrate and consolidate your data into one, or a few, platforms as opposed to pulling a bunch of one-off reports.
- Continue leveraging a free tool to automate as many of your reports as possible. Here are a few that you might want to check out:
- Google Data Studio: Still technically in Beta, this super-neat tool is somewhat new to Google’s offering. You can visualize data to create beautiful dashboard reports with different tiles, tables and graphs. It also integrates with Google Sheets, among other integrations, so you aren’t only limited to reports based upon Google Analytics and AdWords data.
- Cyfe: Cyfe has several integrations, so it is a great place to start for multichannel reporting. And did I mention it is free?
- Domo: Domo has a free reporting subscription that boasts 80+ connectors. Features are limited in the free option compared to higher-tier Domo options, but the free option can still be a really good option for multichannel reporting.
- For my Excel lovers, check out Microsoft’s free version of Power BI to amp up your data visualization.
- If your reports — or parts of your reports — can’t be formally automated with tools outside of Excel, automate within Excel as much as possible.
- Pulling the same pivot tables? Instead of recreating them all together, just replace the source data and update the tables.
- Taking the same steps over and over to prepare the data? Concatenate these two columns, then delimit this column, and so on and so forth? Set up a spreadsheet to do those things and then drop the data in.
- Set up a dashboard for the data points that you’d like to analyze, then just update the source file.
Change your mindset
One last note. Reporting-gone-wrong often becomes a burden, viewed as taking time away from more important tasks — tasks that would lead to the optimization of campaigns.
Good reporting, however, is one of the most valuable tasks that you can tackle. A good report will help shape priorities and optimizations — and is, therefore, the first step toward action items, as opposed to a competing priority.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.