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When we were a young agency, we had some difficulty with reporting. Because we focus heavily on hard data and have a bad habit of tracking everything, we ended up with giant spreadsheets at the end of the month. This made it incredibly difficult to know exactly what needed to be reported to the client. Picking out the important metrics and synthesizing them into something that was useful and captivating was a giant pain in the ass, and more often than not we would overload the report with numbers and analysis, just to be on the safe side. This sucked, and we very quickly realized that it sucked.

Unfortunately, clients will rarely tell you if your reports suck. You can try looking online to see if your reports suck, but the resources available are generally not terribly helpful. They either suck themselves, or are incredibly abstract, or are so specific that it’s hard to really know how to expand them to other types of reporting. When we first started managing PPC ads for clients, for example, I looked for example PPC reports. I found something like this adwords report. If I was a client, and I got a report that looked like this, I would either ignore it, or be really miffed. That report tells me absolutely nothing. In fact, it’s worse then telling me nothing – it gives me the exact same information that simply logging in to AdWords would. If I’m paying someone to manage my AdWords, I don’t want them to give me the same information I could have simply pulled myself with very little difficulty. It also loads the report down with agency-side planned actions. This, again, is not terribly helpful. I’m paying someone to manage this, I don’t need to know every single thing they plan to change on their side next month. What I DO need to know is “Do I need to do anything to make this work better?”

But clients will never tell you this. Partly because most people don’t like confrontation, but mostly because they have no idea what good reporting should look like. Fortunately, there are some really simple ways to tell if your client reports suck:

Clients Are Not Reading Your Reports

If your reports are too long or confusing, clients simply won't read them.

If your reports are too long or confusing, clients simply won’t read them.

We began to realize that we had a problem when clients would meet with us about the latest reporting (in itself a potential red flag) and ask questions that we knew were answered in the report itself. They would also request meetings to go over the reporting every month. If a client is willing to take time out of their busy schedule every single month to go over the report, that means either a) they feel like it would take less time to sit through a 30-60 minute phone call than try to figure out your report, b) they’re micromanaging (which is a completely separate problem), or c) they have a lot of spare time on their hands and really like talking to you. Most likely, no one is actually reading your reports. Which sucks, because that means you and your client have to take time out to go over something that should be pretty self-explanatory.

Your Reports Are Incomprehensible

Your client reports need to be clear and easy to understand.

Your client reports need to be clear and easy to understand.

There are a lot of numbers that you can throw into a report, and most of them don’t mean anything to your client. In fact, as we mentioned in a previous post on the lessons we learned about local business marketing, most of the things you report are utterly useless to your clients. I’ll go a step further and say most of the things you’re reporting are probably useless to you as well. Don’t give your clients a verbatim dump from whatever analytics platform you’re using. That’s just insane, and makes things needlessly complicated and unhelpful.

Instead, use a simple relevancy test: Look at every metric you’re considering including and ask yourself “Is this number important to my client? Does it help them understand what’s going on? And most importantly, can they take any kind of action based on this number that will improve their performance?” If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you should probably consider not including it. Yes, this might make reporting a little more difficult initially, since you won’t be able to just squat down and take a massive data dump on your client, but it will make things a lot easier further down the line. Not only will you not have to produce giant, 5-page long reports, you’ll also have to answer much fewer stupid questions from your clients.

Your Reports Don’t Tell The Client Anything Useful

If your clients don't care about what's in the report, why would they pay attention to it?

If your clients don’t care about what’s in the report, why would they pay attention to it?

Building off of the second point, why are you including metrics in your report that don’t matter to the client? As a marketing professional, it’s your job to figure out what’s important to the people you’re working for. Between what your clients tell you explicitly, and what they demonstrate implicitly, you should have a pretty good idea of what they want. So knowing that, why would you ever report on something if it wasn’t important?

Too many reports are filled with metrics that don’t directly relate to the KPIs that clients care about. These are either intermediary metrics that are steps on the road to the important KPIs, or sometimes completely unrelated or just tangentially related numbers. This doesn’t help anyone. At best, it’s filler that makes you look like you’re doing more work than you actually are. At worst, it’s word salad.

Look back at that sample AdWords report above. Do you think clients actually care what the CPC for a given adgroup is? Or what the average position of their keywords is? Probably not, because it doesn’t give them any information that they can act on, and it doesn’t actually tell them how well you’re performing. What they do care about is how many actual leads you bought in, and how much it cost them to bring in those leads. If you wanted to be a real reporting superstar, you would also have already known the average lifetime customer value and the average conversion rates. This would allow you to calculate an ROI, as well as letting you compare how the leads you’re bringing in compare to leads from other sources to accurately grade your efforts in the PPC channel. If you wanted to be a blazing reporting supernova, you could also track conversions from clicks to clients, and offer specific advice on how to improve that conversion, as well as recommending things the client can do on their end to improve customer lifetime value based on the search traffic they’re seeing.

So Why Do Most Reports Suck?

suck-at-everything

Suck cake is NOT delicious. Stop sucking.

There are a couple of reasons. The main one is that reporting is hard, and there’s a huge lack of good advice on client reporting. Actually, there’s some really good advice out there, but it’s often really abstract and difficult to put into practice. That was one of the reasons we’re doing this as a series, instead of as a stand-alone post. While the advice here is great advice, it’s still pretty abstract. We’re going to slowly refine that advice into specific examples and use-cases that will help to illustrate what we mean and why it makes sense.

Another reason is that there is a stark divide between the reporting that you need internally to do a good job, and the reporting you need to send to your clients. Since most people don’t want to do the same work twice, they often just make one report that they use for both purposes. This is very similar to using a hammer for nails AND screws. The good news is that the client report can be built FROM your internal report, so it’s not a complete duplication of effort.

Finally, and this is the worst reason of them all, clients have grown to expect incomprehensible verbal vomit. As a result, marketers feel like they need to generate long, complicated reports to seem like they’re working hard. A lot of what we do in our jobs as digital marketers is hard to see, so we overcompensate by displaying the metaphoric tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Clients don’t see how hard we bust our asses to get them one more high quality backlink, or the hours spent researching topics to create a short content plan, or the slaving away tweaking negative keywords to boost their CTR just that little bit, or the hours of phone calls to get them media placement. As such, marketers become paranoid that the client will think they’re spending all their time twiddling their thumbs instead of working. Many clients, meanwhile, are more used to working with employees that they can monitor constantly, and get nervous if they don’t think a contractor is working as hard as they feel they should be.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. Demonstrate value instead of work. If you report on the metrics that are important to your clients, and you show steady improvement in those metrics that can be directly attributed to your work. Then it won’t matter if you put hours and hours of work into every client, or if you spend 30 minutes a month. If you’re generating good, solid results, and if you communicate your value to the client, then they won’t care about the filler. The trick is to let your clients know what you’re reporting, why you’re reporting it, and what it means for them.

Stay tuned for more installments in the series. We promise they’ll be worth reading.