Reporting is an essential part of any digital marketing campaign. Your initial insights give you information about your current performance, and your following reports track your progress. Each report you publish over time tells the story of your marketing efforts and the lessons learned along the way.
However, too often, brands treat insights like a report card. Marketers worry that they are going to pass or fail based on their performance, which creates high levels of anxiety and pressure to make the reports look good.
To grow your marketing efforts sustainably, you need honest reporting. Your team needs to develop healthy best practices they can follow over time. Use this guide to increase your transparency and the effectiveness of your reporting to gain actionable insights.
Audit Your Current Reports
The first step to increase transparency in your reporting is to look at your current documents to see what you can remove and what you need to improve. Too often, marketing teams add new metrics and reports when they become available. These reports are useful for a bit until the next shiny reporting toy produces fresh metrics. Teams keep building new charts, graphs, and numbers into their reporting until the documents become bulky and unwieldy.
Follow these steps to conduct a reporting audit to identify irrelevant elements in your reporting:
- Identify stable metrics: Mobile adoption is plateauing, with 85% of the population owning smartphones. You might not need to track the ratio of mobile vs. desktop users if these metrics rarely change. Look for other metrics that don’t waver and remove them from your monthly reports.
- Eliminate vanity metrics: Stop looking for metrics that only tell you good news. (For example, total website visits over time.) These waste your time and will never provide actionable insights.
- Look for insights that say the same thing: Double reporting occurs when you track similar metrics in multiple ways. Try to simplify your reporting process.
- Choose the best way to display information: You might not need bulky pie charts or line graphs that take up entire slides or pages. A simpler reporting structure is easier to review.
Depending on how you handle reporting within your organization, these audits might occur across multiple departments. Your SEO, paid search, and social media teams all might need to look at their reporting to see how it can improve.
Establish Reporting Timelines Within Your Organization
One of the easiest ways to manipulate metrics is to choose favorable timelines to make your results look good. With the right reporting window, you can make it seem like small changes had a significant impact on your organization. However, these windows often either hide the full story or paint an inaccurate picture of success.
Look at car buying trends throughout the year to see an example of this. The busiest time of the year to sell cars is Q4, from October through December. If a marketing team wants their numbers to look impressive, they simply need to compare their efforts in Q4 to the three quarters before it. However, these reports are ineffective. A more transparent report would compare the Q4 numbers from 2023 with the Q4 marketing results of 2022.
Not all industries are seasonal, which is why some reporting tools compare results month-over-month rather than year-over-year. It’s up to your team to adjust these windows to reflect your efforts.
Work with your team to establish best practices for reporting windows to maximize transparency and honesty in the numbers. This doesn’t always mean that you will take a year-over-year view. Your goal here is to create standardization so all teams can track their efforts and adjust when they need to improve.
Review Macro and Micro Trends
One of the challenges of good reporting is assigning causation to specific trends. It is tempting to assign reasons to various insights to explain them without getting to the root of the issue. For example, 72% of Americans believe the economy will worsen, and 43% say it is already in poor shape. If you aren’t seeing the car sales you want, you might decide to blame inflation or economic instability for your current results. The reality could be that your campaigns aren’t reaching the right audiences, or they don’t have effective messaging.
As you develop your reports, look at both macro and micro trends that could affect them. While you should certainly consider seasonal buying trends and the behavior of the American public, look at performance within specific departments and channels. It is better to catch issues — like audience mismatches — early on so you can fix them. By improving your marketing campaigns and tracking your efforts, you might be able to overcome some of the national trends that hold buyers back.
Look Ahead With Forecasting
Marketing reports often focus on what is currently happening and how it compares to what happened in the past. However, you can work with your team to start forecasting future results and set upcoming performance goals.
Forecasting estimates the performance you can expect in a future window. You can look at how Q1-Q3 of 2023 compared to 2022 and 2021 to predict the performance of Q4 of this year. You can also use month-by-month insights of 2023 to set budget, traffic, and sales goals for 2024.
Help your team understand that forecasts are not set in stone. They might not hit those exact numbers but should use them to guide their goals. This process can help you and your team take a past, present, and future view of your reports. You can track how accurate your forecasts were and address why there were any dramatic variations in your expectations.
Take a Zoomed-In Approach to Troubleshooting
As you develop your reports, start with a high-level view of your performance and then dig deeper to understand why those insights exist. For example, if you see a dramatic increase in website traffic, look at your channels to see whether your SEO, PPC, social, or email efforts drive those results. If you notice the traffic increase comes from your SEO efforts, dig deeper to understand why.
Marketers often work like detectives when generating reports. They look for issues or outlying data points that throw off their expected forecasts. From there, they keep asking why those data points occurred until they have a clear picture of the marketing performance.
This will also help you clearly present your reports. You can tell a story with your insights by addressing key metrics and how they differed from your forecasts. After you review what went right or wrong, you can discuss steps that your team will take to capitalize on the opportunity or reverse a downward trajectory.
This process can also help your executive team decide how “in the weeds” they want to get with your marketing reports. Some people only want high-level insights into your efforts, while others want to really understand what is going on. A high-quality report gets to the point and helps even non-marketers understand what your team is doing.
Check the Accuracy of Your Insights
Work with the IT professionals within your team and the analytics vendors you choose to make sure the data you are tracking is accurate. It’s not uncommon for glitches in cookies and other tag managers to accidentally double-record site visits or conversions. If you suddenly notice a dramatic change in your insights, but your team didn’t make any significant marketing changes, you might have a reporting issue.
You can also compare insights across multiple tools. For example, you might track your site visits on Google Analytics and see how they compare to your IBM Digital Analytics data. There might be a slight difference in how these services track site visits, conversions, and other metrics, but they should be similar enough to compare.
In the same way that you can’t trust manipulated data, you also can’t gain accurate insights from incorrect reporting. Try to run an IT audit at least annually — if not quarterly — to ensure your data is accurate.
As you evaluate your reports, keep in mind that Google Analytics 4 has different metrics and ways to track sessions and bounces. You might need to make a note in your reporting if you are comparing now outdated Universal Analytics insights with the current GA4 metrics.
Provide Space for Commentary
The last step when improving the transparency of your reporting is to create space for commentary in your documents. This could be as simple as creating a text box with three to five written insights about the data. This commentary can contextualize your reporting and address any outliers or surprise insights. It is particularly useful for people who cannot attend meetings to review the reports but still need to understand the most important aspects of the data.
Commentary alone doesn’t build transparency in reporting. Instead, evaluate how your team leaves commentary. You can create a SWOT chart that takes the report data to identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. You can also embrace a model that highlights the good and bad aspects of the data.
Your goal is to have open conversations about your performance. By creating space to discuss marketing challenges or weaknesses, your team can be more open about their problems. You want to avoid commentary where employees only leave glowing reviews about the great work they are doing.
Work With a Partner, Not a Vendor
One of the main reasons why companies struggle with transparent reporting is because their vendors are afraid of displaying poor performance. They constantly want to make their services look good to impress their clients. Instead of directly addressing problems, these vendors try to hide issues, which is a disservice to anyone who works with them.
At J&L Marketing, we strive to be a partner, not a vendor. This means we address problems head-on and work with you to develop solutions. We want to operate in the best interest of your business, not just our bottom line.
If you have struggled to trust your marketing vendors in the past and want transparent reporting in your organization, reach out to one of our team members. We are happy to have an open and honest conversation about how your business can improve. Let’s overcome your challenges together. Call us today.