Tell a Story – Making Reports Worth Everyone’s Time

Ryan Moothart
Graphic of talking mouths

Weekly and monthly reporting is one of the most important things I do as a PPC strategist.  Clients invest a lot of money into paid search and need to be able to keep track of progress.   More importantly though, clients need to understand the strategy and the reasoning behind what’s going on.  That’s where I come in: instead of leaving it up to someone else to try and read between the rows of data in a spreadsheet, it’s my duty to convey a clear understanding through quality reports which go beyond outlining standard data points.

I firmly believe in the awesome power of words and communication – we, as human beings, understand the world around us not in terms of logic and technical reasoning, but in terms of narrative and subjective rationality.

Think about it, if a concept is being explained to you that you have little or no prior knowledge of, and you’re charged with making a decision, how do you do that?  If you analyze the symbolism behind one’s syntax, determining if what you’re being told follows the formulas of formal logic, then pat yourself on the back and buy yourself a drink, because you’re in a very, very small group of the population.

To gain a sense of understanding about an unfamiliar subject, almost everyone relates to their past experiences and the instances they recollect from other people, or forms of media, in the manifestation of a story.  They construct a prism of understanding which they find rational based on what they think they know is true and what they expect from these notions.

That does not necessarily mean the decision they make is going to be logical.  It will, however, be rational – based upon the coherence and fidelity of what they understand (which, again, is in the form of narrative).

This notion becomes incredibly important when it comes to reporting.  The absolute worst thing you can do when relaying information to a client is to export a spreadsheet of data and send it without including any analysis.  Like this:

series of data screencap

THAT IS NOT A REPORT! That is a series of data which can be used in a report.  Sending something like this to the client will do absolutely no good and, worst of all, could cause confusion on their end, making your life far more difficult than it needs to be.  You may want to focus on one column while the client focuses on another – you could both end up coming away from looking at this data with two completely different rationales of what’s happening and why.

In any report you send, the following questions should be answered in the report itself, clearly and directly, without any additional messages via email or phone call:

  • What occurred in the PPC account(s)?
  • What change(s) did we make? / Why did we make them?
  • What are our goals? / How are we progressing on our goals?
  • What change(s) do we plan on making next?

Answering these questions in your reports will allow you to convey the story you want to tell the client, helping ensure they’re seeing data the way you’re seeing data, whether the marketing contact, the intern, or the CEO is reviewing the report.  You don’t need to get super-granular when answering these questions – in fact; too much granularity can lead to additional confusion.  All you need to do is be as clear and concise as possible.

So, how do you do this? Here are 3 tips we hope will help you adjust your reporting strategies:

  1. Use text to your advantage –In many of Portent’s reports, we have an overview tab that’s sole purpose is answering the questions above.  It’s the first thing the client sees when opening the report and is laid out in a straightforward format according to these questions.  This is just one way of conveying a narrative – if you prefer something less text-heavy, use text boxes and bubbles to your advantage.  Be sure to call out the key pieces of data you feel are most important to focus on.
  2. Don’t highlight everything – Do not just include every segment of data you use to your advantage because you feel the report needs lots of data.  That does nothing but overwhelm the client.  Create a template which highlights the (few) most important pieces of data (according to what the client’s goals are), get rid of what you or the client does not need to review on a regular basis, and stick with it.  This will allow the continuity of the story you tell the client to remain intact week over week and month over month.
  3. Use visual metaphors – Using simple graphs and shapes to format your data in a visual manner is both very important and very useful.  If your client is most concerned with cost efficiency and average cost per acquisition, try using a visual representation like a funnel to help shape everyone’s understand of how effectively the money is being spent.  If your client is most concerned about conversion totals, use a bar or a thermometer-shaped visual which is filled up more each week.  Shapes and colors are simple things to manipulate, and they can help you formulate the basis for understanding data far easier than a dozen rows of numbers.

Make your reports worth your time and the client’s time: use them to tell a story.  You’ll find that answering the question of “what’s next” becomes far easier when the flow of narrative coherence and fidelity shapes your rationality and sense of understanding.

Ryan Moothart
PPC Architect

Ryan is a PPC architect at Portent, with nearly a decade of experience managing large-scale e-commerce, international B2B lead generation campaigns, and everything in between. He became a published author in 2016 with the release of his book, Towards Cascadia, which is a non-fiction exploration of Pacific Northwest identity, bioregionalism, and nationhood. Outside of work, Ryan and his husband, Paul, enjoy traveling and are avid followers of Sounders FC, Seattle’s Major League Soccer club.

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  1. I use Skitch a LOT for this kind of thing. When I’m constructing a narrative using data from a variety of sources, being able to highlight and annotate screencaps is an absolutely invaluable super-power. I’ll drag Skitch images into gmail as I’m crafting emails to people who are less familiar with the data, and it does absolute wonders for information absorption.

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