Marketing reports damage my car.
Sometimes, when I walk out of a meeting, usually a quarterly or monthly There-Is-A-Very-Important-Person-In-The-Room kind of meeting, I head to my car. I close the door. I crank up the radio. Then I punch the roof as hard as I can while screaming “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.”
Most of the time, that’s because I failed to persuade the Very Important Person In The Room.
And most of the time, that’s because I provided a report about as consumable as a bag of 6-week-old broccoli you keep shoving further back in the vegetable drawer.
Face it: When it comes to reporting, digital marketers suck. We lecture clients about audience awareness. Then we create reports that ignore our own audience. We dive down into the details too fast, or we deliver no detail at all. We make it hard for clients to get more information. Our reports are backward. Upside-down and sideways. Mish-mashed. Cattywampus. Higgledy-piggledy.
Want to fix it? Stop dumping data in the client’s lap. Use progressive detail.
Progressive detail is layered. The top layers show metrics and KPIs most directly connected to overall business performance. Deeper layers get more and more tactical. They show metrics that support day-to-day decision making but may not mean much to executives who spend their time looking at overall business performance.
Progressive detail creates this layered presentation with multiple formats:
- Dashboards start with the big picture and then deliver increasingly granular summaries
- Detailed findings and recommendations explain dashboards and provide specific next steps. This is what usually call “the written report.” After you read this, you’ll know better
- Tabular data provide the raw backup to support the rest of the report
Progressive detail helps digital marketers stand out, not as tactical nerds, but as marketers who understand the big picture. It means fewer roof-punching moments.
Here’s how to do it.
Ingredients Of A Kick-Ass Report
Short version: A kick-ass report combines dashboards, detailed findings and recommendations, and tabular data. Treat reports like user manuals. But read the rest of this section if you want examples.
I see marketers say “report” and mean one of these:
- A 70-page-long, in-depth written discussion of recommendations or findings
- A slide deck
- A dashboard
- A bunch of tables
Cow dung. Those are just formats, and a format does not make a meaningful report.
Kick-ass reports don’t follow a one-size-fits-all format. Instead, they use multiple formats to deliver information to various audiences: Dashboards (or slides), tabular data, and detailed findings and recommendations. These are the formats:
Dashboards are slides, graphics, web pages, or spreadsheets designed for at-a-glance consumption:
They can include annotation. Just avoid the blah-blah-blah this went up, this went down stuff. The graphics should already speak for themselves. Tell your clients something they don’t know:
Don’t learn dashboard design from me. Learn from the masters:
Stephen Few: Information Dashboard Design and Now You See It. This is practical stuff you can’t find anywhere else.
Everything ever written by Edward Tufte. Given a choice, I’d pick his brain over John Malkovich. Sorry, John.
I have a couple of practical rules, though. When you create dashboards:
- Assume paper. Someone, somewhere, is going to try to print the dashboard. Maybe they own stock in a paper company, or they want to hang up a cool-looking graph. It doesn’t matter. Just be sure your report is readable when printed on an 8.5 X 11 sheet of paper
- Skip the metaphor. They don’t need gauges and thermometers. Show them data with as little adornment as possible
- Annotate, don’t narrate. Explanatory text should add value, not repeat what the graph already shows
- Minimize text. Better yet, create a dashboard so amazing it doesn’t require annotation. That’s impossible, but it’s a good goal
Dashboards are great for illustrating conclusions and guiding the discussion. They aren’t great for details. Which is why you also need this next format.
Detailed Findings And Recommendations
Eventually, someone looks at the dashboard and needs two things:
- A closer look; and
- Next actions
That’s what detailed findings and recommendations are for. This is the deep dive, with full explanation of what you found, as well as actionable advice. It’s all the information you can’t put in a dashboard. Use this format to deliver the detailed narrative and step-by-step recommendations:
If you want to create proper detailed findings and recommendations:
- Provide insight. Same as dashboards: Don’t just narrate the data. Computers can do that. Provide findings and actionable recommendations
- Chunk it up. Organize recommendations into meaningful units. When moving to the next recommendation, start a new page
- Learn to write. You don’t need to be the next Stephen King. You do need to string together coherent sentences. Anyone can. If you don’t want to bother, then don’t write the document
Anyone looking at dashboards or the details may question the data. That’s what tables are for.
There are plenty of folks who will question the data no matter what you show them. Please read my yet-to-be-published post, “Dealing With Lunatics.”
Tables show raw information as tabular data. They’re not designed to explain. They’re designed to enable analysis and serve as a kind of data bibliography: They show readers the source of your analysis.
By the way: Tables can be annotated and used in a dashboard. I’m not a fan of this approach, though. Tables aren’t the best way to show change over time. They’re lousy comparison tools. Use them instead as a way to deliver raw, tabular data.
They’re any tabular presentation. Software doesn’t define a table. Want to use Excel? Sure. Google Sheets? If you must. But you might use HTML (gag), or a dashboard reporting tool that spits out information in a tabular format. It doesn’t matter if you use fridge magnets, as long as your client can read it.
Don’t get lazy! Don’t throw data into a table and fling it at the client. Tables are not reports. They’re the reference behind the report.
Phew! Made it! You now know the ingredients of a kick-ass report. It’s time to put it all together.
Putting It All Together: Progressive Detail
Short version: There isn’t one. Keep reading.
You have to assemble the ingredients—the dashboards, details, and tables—for your readers. That means using progressive detail.
A report uses ‘progressive detail’ when:
- The top layer of the report delivers the information everyone needs
- The bottom layer gives the super-detailed information individual practitioners need
- The intermediate layers increase in detail, allowing readers to opt out when they have what they need
All clients have at least three levels of readers. It might be a single person in multiple roles or teams spread across a large organization. A report using progressive detail delivers layers of information, each layer more granular than the last:
Your report may have more layers or more dashboards. This is just an example.
Different layers cater to different audiences:
Top Layer: C-whatever-Os
The very top layer is for the CEO/CMO/CxO. The board has hired them, or they own the business.
They’re hired to provide a long-term vision but get their ass fired (or go out of business) if they miss their two-month numbers.
The C-whatever-O needs to see overall business performance and the top one or two KPIs. They need a clear picture of the state of digital marketing at their company.
Show them one or two dashboards tied directly to their KPI goals:
Most C-whatever-Os stop here. If they want more, they head “down” to the next layer.
Next Layers: VP-Director-Seniors
The VP/Director/Senior is stuck in the middle. The C-whatever-O wants More ROI or Whatever They’ve Read About In This Month’s Forbes. The practitioners want to know why the VP ignores their concerns about dev resources, why they’re forced to record their hours, and why the CEO just told them to switch to NLP AI Machine Learning Data Driven Virtual Paper Identity Persona Powered Enhanced Marketing (again, Forbes).
They need to see what’s working and decide what’s not and guide my team’s decision-making accordingly.
Show them two or three layers of data, from top-level business performance to channel-by-channel data. That drives their decision making.
A masochistic VP-type person can always dive even deeper, looking at the practitioner data.
Bottom Layers And Tables: Practitioners
The practitioners are the doers. Week-to-week, day-to-day, hour-to-hour, they execute the campaigns.
I don’t think it’s plagiarism if I cite The Doors for that reference.
For them, it’s all about the tactics.
Show them everything: The dashboards for the C-whatever-O and the VP types, then all the detail that follows. Help them justify their existence. Give them the raw data, and specific findings and recommendations. Written reports. The whole shebang:
Not Drill-Down. Progressive.
Progressive detail is not drill down.
Never provide “drill down” capabilities for C-whatever-Os or VP types. Drill-down means the user interacts with the report, selecting dimensions and filters to get more detail. Drill-down is helpful for practitioners, but the last thing I want is my C-whatever-O or VP getting frustrated as they try to find the right drop-down menu. They don’t have time for this.
So the first three layers of my report are pure dashboards. You might include a date range selector, but that’s it. Allow data exploration with successive dashboards and navigation.
It’s not because CxOs and VP types are dumb. Some of my best friends are CxOs. Heck, so am I. Give us simple navigation instead of drill down because we don’t have time or brainspace to do in-depth data exploration.
Make it easy for us.
Always Use Progressive Detail!
It’s tempting to cut corners. You may think “This is the monthly report. Only the VP will read it. I don’t need the top-layer dashboards.”
That’s a huge mistake. Reports always make their way up and down the food chain.
So every report should start from the “top.” The practitioner’s findings and recommendations should also include the most recent version of all dashboards. The VP-types’ channels dashboards should include the top layer dashboards.
And, every report should provide access to the next layers “down.”
Be sure the VP types can get access to the detailed findings and recommendations. Make sure the C-whatever-Os can see the channel dashboards. You could do that by delivering the complete report to everyone, or by linking to the lower layers. Whatever. Just make sure everyone has the option of getting progressively more detailed.
An Example Report
Here’s a walkthru of the final product. I’m delivering my monthly report to the Beets, Inc. VP of Marketing.
Why beets? Because I hate them. They’re freaky and strange, and they’re not food. They make more sense in a slingshot than a salad. If I can create a good report about beets, I can do anything.
I know they will pass it on to the CEO and the practitioners, so I’ve covered it all:
1: Basic KPI Metrics Dashboards
These are the highest-level dashboards. If you’re using 16:9 format, like slides, you should have no more than two. Everyone needs to see this stuff.
- Practitioners need to start at the top layer to make smart decisions and understand tactical direction from the VP types
- VP types need overall campaign performance to put channel performance in context
- C-whatever-Os want a yes/no indicator that their digital marketing is working or not
We created a guide on how to generate realistic forecasts for KPIs. Using forecasts in monthly dashboards helps motivate the marketing and sales team to perform.
2: Channel Performance Dashboards
These are the next layer of dashboards. Two-thirds of your audience needs to see this.
- Practitioners use channel performance data to focus their day-to-day efforts
- VP types must see channel performance to make strategic marketing decisions
- C-whatever-Os don’t have time to look at this
If you’re using 16:9 format, you can have two, four, or four hundred, but remember progressive detail. Put the less-detailed, more-strategic stuff first.
3: Detailed Findings And Recommendations
One-third of your audience needs to see this.
- Practitioners use detailed findings and recommendations to do the work
- VP types may give this a quick look, but they really don’t have time and usually stick to the channel performance dashboards
- C-whatever-Os would rather clean up after a geriatric cat (I had a 21-year-old siamese – I know whereof I speak) than read this stuff
4: Tabular Data
Tabular data backs up detailed recommendations, shows where the dashboards came from, and shows that you did your homework.
With multiple formats, it’s hard to create a single document. Dashboards are usually 16:9-ish. Detailed recommendations are traditional 8.5 x 11. Tables are tables—they don’t fit anywhere.
Link ’em. Don’t get fancy. You can use PDF to combine it all, of course, but I like to use links and connect stuff where it makes sense:
And, of course, put it all in a folder somewhere so your client can access it.
These are random things I frequently get right (or wrong) that may seem silly. But clients appreciate it:
- Use the same URL: Don’t change the address for your report. Every month should “live” in the same place. It’s easier to remember
- Provide a PDF version of the entire report. Learn to use Acrobat, Preview or another utility to combine dashboards and detailed findings. It’s a lousy way to deliver this information, but it mushes it all together into a single easy-to-distribute package
- Get good at data visualization. I already mentioned this above. Progressive detail only works if the client can read it. I’ve obsessed about data visualization since 2013. Check it out
- For dashboards and detailed recommendations, don’t require tools. Not even Excel. Clients should be able to browse and read using software they already have: A web browser, maybe a PDF reader
Why This Matters (And It Does)
Progressive detail is all about crushing our competitors. It’s about growing our industry, developing our careers and growing our agencies/departments.
Reporting using progressive detail makes data more consumable. It makes it less intimidating and draws even the busiest client into the story. It also helps clients independently understand the data and your conclusions.
That lets you spend more time talking about next steps and strategy. It lets your analytics team focus on opportunity analysis and integration. It moves us from report generators to bringers of value. So it increases client retention (or gets you a raise).
It also improves the perception of our industry as a whole. If you’ve read my writing over the last few years, you know I’m frustrated by the fact that digital marketers still struggle for relevance against big, traditional agencies. We should rule the marketing world. Progressive detail can help us do that.
Contact me with questions any time: @portentint
This puts into words exactly what I’ve been telling my team for years – make your reports worth your audience’s time! Thank you – I’m sharing out to the masses!
1st: really well written and I agree with 92% of it 😉 I am of the firm opinion that dashboards are not versions of reports, they are something entirely different. Dashboards are used by operators (think of race car drivers who have…dashboards) and reports are narratives for a specific audience. A dashboard tells you what is happening right now and a report is a story arc over a period of time. The infographics you brilliantly cited IMHO are not so much dashboards as ways to represent information in the narrative of a report. That’s why 90% of marketing reports are built in PowerPoint and Keynote…I have so many examples of them with actual screenshots from dashboard software (sadly) Anyway, this article better captures the reporting landscape than anything I’ve read.