Marketing metrics used to mean a lot of spreadsheet headaches, but today’s technology can make your life a lot easier by delivering the metrics you need in a predefined format. Essentially, you have two choices for making that happen: report automation and dashboard implementation. Let’s take a look at how each one works, and the pros and cons of each option in getting you the data you want, when and how you want it.
What is it?
Report automation is the process of scheduling an existing report (that somebody currently produces at some level of frequency) to automatically refresh and be delivered to specific places at a specific regular interval.
Why would we automate reports?
As a marketer you have a lot of better things to do than spending hours in front of the computer going through multiple data sources, dredging up relevant data, combining it, updating a file (usually an Excel spreadsheet), and then distributing that file to various users around the company. That’s the primary reason that companies choose to automate reports: to save time. But there are other reasons as well, which we’ll cover a little later.
How is report automation done?
Some platforms may already support automation to a degree, but generally clients need external report automation because their platform does not support the level of automation they need, or they need to blend data from disparate sources. By far the most common type of reports that people want to automate are those ubiquitous Excel reports; Excel is your friend, but not your only friend. We create programmatic access to the data sources being used, such as Salesforce, Eloqua and Marketo, other Excel files, and other disparate systems, in order to blend and aggregate the data that is needed. For platforms with better automation support, we can schedule exports from within the platform, or extract data with an API (an Application Program Interface, available for some platforms, that allows us to programmatically interact with the platform and extract necessary data).
After aggregating the data, we prepare it for reporting by performing any needed cleansing (for example, value translations) and/or custom calculations (for example, custom campaign attribution logic). Finally, we set up the report for refreshing and distribution on the regular frequency required by the client’s business situation.
What are the main benefits of report automation?
- The number one reason that clients automate reports is also its number one benefit: it frees up their time and resources. Clients get access to report data right away, without having to wait for somebody to run it.
- The number two benefit is accuracy: the elimination of issues due to manual intervention, like hitting copy-and-paste at the wrong section.
- It’s your own report that is automated, so there’s no need to adjust to a new format. Optionally, we can assist you on enhancing your existing report in numerous ways (clearer charts, data slicers, themes to match your presentations. . .)
- A side benefit is that, by freeing up time, automation allows staff the opportunity to focus on analyzing the data instead of on pulling it—and the analysis is the most useful part of the whole process.
- Report automation is typically easy, quick, and inexpensive to implement, and really depends on the size of report. If your report has 6-8 charts, that’s fairly easy; one with 30 tabs will take longer to automate.
Are there any drawbacks?
- Software functionality. When you are automating Excel reports, you are limited to the functionality of the software. You may also be limited by the functionality of your platform as to its support for automation.
- File size and accessibility. If you are reporting many metrics with a large volume of data, you will need to be cognizant of file size. Will you be able to email your report if the file size is very large? Will it take too long for your users to download? If not, where will you put it so that it can be accessed?
- Technical knowledge. Your average Excel power user isn’t going to be doing this project! You’ll need an experienced programmer who is proficient not only with Excel but also with all the data sources—and who will be able implement changes or additions in the future.
What is it?
A “dashboard” is a centralized reporting platform that displays your KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and other meaningful metrics, usually accessible via a web browser.
Why would we implement a dashboard?
A reporting dashboard eliminates the requirement to refresh and distribute reports on a set schedule. Instead, up-to-date reporting is available to you 24/7.
How is dashboard implementation done?
Implementing a dashboard involves tapping into data sources such as your CRM and marketing automation system and creating automated data extracts. A dashboard is designed to be a “set it and forget it” solution.
Some platforms like Salesforce, Eloqua, and Marketo have native support for dashboards—but those dashboards are limited in functionality, are somewhat inflexible, and do not easily allow for blending data with external sources. For example, if you build a dashboard in Salesforce, you may not be able to merge opportunity status with company goals because those goals are in an Excel spreadsheet somewhere that Salesforce cannot access.
Depending on platform, the reporting dashboards we build for DemandGen clients are usually very flexible, highly functional (including filtering, drilldowns, etc.), and aesthetically pleasing—meaning at-a-glance clarity for the user, and professional design that can be simply copied and pasted into a presentation. Export functionality varies by platform but typically includes several formats to choose from, such as PDF, CSV, Excel, and image files. Some can email reports, and even schedule the emailing in advance.
What are the main benefits of dashboards?
- For most, the top benefit is peace of mind: data refreshes typically occur overnight, and reports are ready by the time you pour your first cup of coffee. You don’t have to do anything about it; the process is completely automated.
- No company resources are required for data refresh once the data links are created. No one person must be relied on to do anything, and no manual intervention is required. So you no longer need to worry about who can run the report if the analyst is out sick, on vacation, or otherwise lost to you.
- Giving someone user access is simple: usually it just requires an email address and a click of a button. No complex administration!
Are there any drawbacks?
- Implementing a dashboard usually requires a programmer/technician who is very proficient with the dashboard platform and the underlying data sources: the CRM, the marketing automation platform, databases. . .). The programmer will more than likely be needed to create new reports or make report changes—and, for changes to the process or the dashboard itself, would need to perform the development tasks.
- Not every data source/platform shares its data nicely. Special projects may be necessary in some cases in order to extract data from less accommodating sources.
- Dashboards can be pricey for large implementations, depending on the platform you choose, the amount of data, the number of users accessing it, and other factors.
- A dashboard implementation is a significant project that requires quite a bit of planning and development, and is typically not a quick turnaround. And it’s not for the faint of heart: once somebody in the company hears about it, everybody will want to leverage it, and suddenly you are responsible for vetting global metrics and spearheading a major corporate initiative!
So. . .at what point should I consider upgrading my reports to a dashboard platform?
We find there are three telling factors when it’s time to upgrade to dashboard reporting:
- You’ve outgrown your spreadsheets and charts when your report file is enormous. Suddenly you have a 100MB file; it takes forever to open, and going from tab to tab is incredibly slow
- You need a more reliable and global delivery method when you are blocking everybody’s email for 20 minutes a day just downloading the report.
- The most recent copy of the automated report is on the company intranet. . .but you can’t access it from your client’s office, or the airport, or the hotel. . .
What should NOT be a factor is fear! If you’re not comfortable implementing these technologically advanced solutions, and you don’t have anyone on your team who is, get a professional, like the folks here at DemandGen. And justifying that expense is a true no-brainer:
- Automation saves time, and time is money.
- Automation improves accuracy and reduces risk.
Ready to make the change? Contact us to learn more about DemandGen’s Data & Insight services.
Rick Segura, Data & Insights Technical Specialist at DemandGen, is a vastly experienced data guru. Having 20+ years of database experience, Rick is a master of ETL (data processing), data merging & aggregation, report & dashboard development, data analysis and automation. He is very passionate about delivering intuitive, purposeful data-based solutions. and enjoys developing Excel reports/dashboards that feel more like interactive applications rather than simple-looking collections of tables and charts.