Mark Twain famously remarked, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." This quote comes to mind for me whenever an organization proudly unveils a complex report filled with tons of data and very little actionable information. We can measure almost anything in digital - and often, unfortunately, marketers include every data point and every metric in monster reports that do not serve their organizations well. Reports tend to grow and proliferate in the absence of strategic and integrated planning and clear goals or when laziness ensues - it being much easier to drown users in data points (useful or not) than to think ahead about the information to collect and analyze based on unique goals and organizational needs.
A good reporting plan limits the information presented to those points that illustrate actionable information or trends and provides insights within a timeframe that they can be used. That takes a lot of work and may involve the review and consideration of a great deal more data than is eventually included. All that background work leads to a good report that tells a clear story and gives the readers a roadmap for action. You can't tell a clear story if the lead is buried in less relevant or less useful information.
While it is much more work to create an effective, concise reporting environment it returns handsomely for everyone who relies on that information. Reports are more likely to be reviewed, discussed, and acted upon if they are actually relevant and effective business tools. Often that means different formats or information provided in different depth depending on the user and her needs.
In order to avoid out of control and wasteful analytics practices in your organization follow these easy rules.
Stick to What Is Meaningful
KPIs should be limited. Track everything that is relevant to your business goals and decisions and scan or test regularly for trends or anomalies but only report on the couple of metrics that are truly key. This takes discipline and it would be smart to get consensus in advance.
Stick to What Will Be Used
Know in advance how the data will be used to make decisions. Provide users with the information in their language and paired with the appropriate context of timeframe, trending, budget, competitive, or other info that would be needed to make the data actionable. This requires an intimate knowledge of the audience needs.
Deliver Within a Timeframe That Is Useful
If it takes weeks to deliver insights needed to make regular optimizations or other decisions then that stale data may do more harm than good. It's better to have timely insights on your true KPIs then a metric ton of metrics delivered long after they were needed.
Be Open to Change
In order to be relevant, analytics and reporting should morph with an organization's approach and objectives. That means the analytics can't be an afterthought. It needs to be elevated to the same importance as other critical strategic or campaign decisions.
Stick to What Is Reliable
Know and trust your data sources. If you see unexplained differences or behaviors from a source then validate it before you serve it up for others to make decisions. At the very least qualify the reporting with an explanatory note if questions are still out there.
Stick to What Is Reasonable in Effort and Cost to Collect
The cost, time, and effort to get some data points, even critical ones, can sometimes outweigh their benefit or usefulness. Look for other ways to explain what you need to as often there is a less perfect but more reasonable proxy that can still contribute to effective decision-making without creating an unreasonable burden.
I imagine that your internal audiences and Mark Twain both would be much happier to see a dashboard with some real info and insights than a bloated, complex report that takes tons of resources to develop and maintain and that nobody really uses. If your reports are not regularly referenced in meetings where decisions are made, if your reports are late and nobody notices, if reports are filed and forgotten, if reports are so complex that no one can challenge them or asks any questions, then it is clearly time to revamp your approach.
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Robin is the CEO and cofounder of NetPlus Marketing Inc., a top 50 interactive agency established in 1996 to focus exclusively on online marketing and advertising best practices. Robin brings innovative strategy and a depth and breadth of marketing experience to the agency's practice and management. As one of the industry's pioneers, she is a driving force behind NetPlus Marketing's ongoing success with a diverse and discerning client base that considers online results critical to their business success.
Robin is a frequent speaker at national industry events, including ClickZ, internet.com, OMMA, Ad:Tech, SES, Online Marketing Summit, and Thunder Lizard conferences and is a sought-after resource for industry and business publications for her insight and advice on such topics as digital strategy, social media marketing, and behavioral targeting.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT