“Getting great results” and “creating great reports” are very different skill sets. If you’re like most marketers, you’d rather sharpen your subject-matter expertise than spend time in PowerPoint.
The result is that reporting becomes an afterthought rather than an opportunity—a “necessary evil” with imperfect solutions:
- Manual reporting is too time-consuming, but it’s been the only way to report on the right platforms with the right analysis.
- Automated dashboard reports save time but bring limited functionality and don’t help clients understand the story behind the scorecards.
Fortunately, Google Data Studio can automate the time-intensive tasks of data compilation and report building without sacrificing important context and insights.
While Data Studio gives you an ideal platform for report creation, there’s a final step to transform data into a story that drives your clients to decision and action (such as pivoting strategy, approving new resources, or simply choosing to retain your services). That step is not so easily automated.
So before you start building your Data Studio report, make sure you know what to include—and what to leave out—to create a compelling client report.
Clients need stories, not just data
In data-driven industries, it’s easy to imagine that we can “let the data decide,” but that’s actually not the function of data. It’s our job to help our clients interpret the data so they can approve recommendations and take action.
While dashboards and data snapshots bring value to marketers and analysts, they’re usually insufficient for clients. A Deloitte Canada study revealed that 82% of CMOs surveyed felt unqualified to interpret consumer analytics data.
As Google’s Digital Marketing Evangelist Avinash Kaushik explains:
People who are receiving the summarized snapshot top-lined have zero capacity to understand the complexity, will never actually do analysis and hence are in no position to know what to do with the summarized snapshot they see.
To build useful reports, we need to move beyond simply summarizing performance with quick charts. We need to help clients understand the story.
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The benefits of data storytelling
If “storytelling with data” sounds both vague and intimidating, you’re not alone. Storytelling evokes ideas of creativity and even fiction, a sharp contrast to the left-brain data and analysis tools we’re accustomed to using.
Telling a story in a report doesn’t require a cast of characters, anecdotes, or plotlines. Essentially, you need to follow the same UX advice you’ve been giving your clients for decades: don’t make them think.
Your readers need more than features (facts and figures) to take action. Story provides context so that they understand where to focus their attention. Storytelling also heightens emotions, which is vital because decision-making is driven by emotions, not logic.
Make your data storytelling emotional
The words emotion and motivation are derived from similar Latin roots. The more your clients can feel something, the more motivated they’ll be to act.
Marketers may be tempted to highlight wins and gloss over losses in reports to nudge their clients to feel joy (or at least satisfaction). But this strategy can backfire.
Your clients need to know about what’s not going well—even more than they need to know about what’s working. Due to what’s known as attentional bias, we’re wired to pay attention to perceived risk, and generally to ignore status-quo.
People also respond differently to winning and losing, and losses are twice as powerful compared to equivalent gains. When your clients can see and experience a loss, you place them in a highly motivated state to take necessary action and, if necessary, change course.
To illustrate, let’s say you were responsible for driving 4,000 net new email subscribers each month. You’re hitting the goal, but the steady increase in list size isn’t growing revenue—a fact that’s been overlooked and gone unreported.
By drawing attention to the discrepancy with a visualization, you can drive a discussion that wouldn’t be possible if you focused only on list growth.
With this new (alarming) information, you can revisit targets, value per subscriber, or changes needed for lead nurturing and sales.
With client work, there’s always a temptation to default to “everything’s sunny all the time” reporting. But those reports do a disservice to the client and the agency, even if they are more comfortable to deliver.
Transparency about actual market conditions, threats, and challenges are catalysts for real improvement. If not examined, nothing changes.
3 key elements of data stories
Analytics evangelist Brent Dykes says that storytelling with data needs three elements to drive change: data, visuals, and narrative.
When all three elements work together in your report, you reduce the cognitive load placed on clients, helping them easily identify and process the story. Reports that showcase only raw data are insufficient but are still used surprisingly often.
Adding charts and graphs can help with comprehension, especially when they employ good design principles. Our brains process high-contrast images subconsciously (before we can make sense of the data). These visual properties, known as preattentive attributes, include:
- Spatial positioning.
When you apply preattentive attributes to chart creation, you help your reader find the story more clearly and quickly. Notice the impact of adjusting weight and color in these Data Studio line charts:
Narrative is the final key element for story, but it’s often missing from reports—making it difficult for clients to understand and engage with the data. Narrative provides context for your readers; it’s the answer to the question, “What am I looking at?”
Journalists begin their stories with fast facts: who, what, where, when, and why. This style, known as the inverted pyramid structure, puts the most important information first and gives supporting details further in the story.
Readers are accustomed to this style, and they assume that the earliest information is the most important.
- On a macro level, the report should begin with account performance before diving into supporting details.
- On a micro level, each section or chart should lead with priority metrics, or KPIs, followed by secondary metrics.
Many reporting tools lead with secondary metrics, which measure “what must not be broken” (instead of “what needs to be fixed”). That focus can encourage clients to overweight metrics that you shouldn’t optimize. Always start with the big picture.
What your reports should contain
Before we explore what specific information “clients” need from report deliverables, we have to address the fact that businesses, roles, and people aren’t all the same. A small business owner has different priorities than a CMO. Some clients want to see all the data, others just want the phone to ring.
Keep your specific client in mind as you build out your report, because details that satiate one person can overwhelm another. That said, there are three universal guidelines that will make all your reporting better, no matter the end user.
Your report should include:
1. What happened
Your clients hired you to solve problems, so your report should address those problems, and the progress made in solving them. This starts with basic benchmarks:
- What are the KPIs, and were targets met?
- How are we performing compared to previous periods?
As mentioned above, it’s not the job of a report to showcase only the wins. Be consistent with your key metrics (don’t cherry pick flattering stats), and make it as easy as possible for readers to interpret the data you’re sharing with them.
2. Why it happened
Once your clients know what happened, they’ll want to know why. Sometimes, changes are due simply to natural variance, but you’ll want to document causal factors:
- External changes. Your report can reveal changes to the competitive landscape, document the impact of seasonality and news cycles, and illustrate the effect of algorithm updates.
- Internal changes. Note if there were changes to marketing efforts (whether on- or offline), page content, site speed, availability of inventory, offers or promotions, or pricing. Also document if tracking changed or went down.
- Your team’s involvement. Show progress made on tasks, including implementation and production. Note how your team helped accomplish wins or mitigate losses.
Clients want to see the return on their investment in your team. And according to the labor illusion effect, they’re happier when they feel like you’re working hard for them—whether or not that work affects the outcome.
3. What should happen next
Just as it can be hard for novices to tease out benefits and outcomes in product copy, it can be challenging to write recommendations in reporting (e.g. “Your tracking is broken. So as a next step…we recommend you fix it.”)
The purpose of next steps isn’t necessarily to introduce groundbreaking ideas or plans but to create a clear path forward. What may feel redundant or obvious to you can provide needed specificity to your client that increases the likelihood they’ll take action. If performance isn’t meeting expectations, it’s especially important to provide recommendations that address the shortcoming.
When writing next steps, use the active voice and assign responsibility wherever possible. “This discovery should be investigated further” does not help your clients know what to do, or who should do it. “Client to provide updated content roadmap by August 15” does.
Now that you know how to tell a story and what to include in your report, it’s time to create it in Google Data Studio.
Create your report in Google Data Studio
1. Start a new report > Choose a template
After logging in to Data Studio with a Google account, your first step will be to create a new report.
You can choose a blank report or avoid “blank page syndrome” by beginning with a Data Studio template. Templates are available within the platform or from the Report Gallery. (Many marketing teams have published their own.)
As a reminder, don’t be fooled by the apparent convenience of templates; Even the best ones are still tools, not client deliverables. You’ll need to spend time strategically customizing whichever template you choose to transform it from a one-size-fits-all dashboard into a report that provides value for your client.
2. Connect your data sources
Data Studio makes it easy to connect directly to your data source(s). You can currently select from 18 Google connectors built and supported by Data Studio, such as Google Analytics, Google Ads, and YouTube Analytics. You can also upload your data via CSV or access it through Google Sheets or BigQuery.
Here’s a quick walk through of how to add a data source:
If you run into limitations accessing data sets or fields through Google products, you can choose from 141 partner connectors and 22 open-source connectors, with more connections being regularly added.
Because you can connect to multiple sources in a single report, you don’t need to prepare or curate your data sources before connecting. Individual charts in Data Studio each use a single data source by default, but you can use shared values (join keys) to create blended data of up to four other sources.
Once your data sources are connected, you can begin formatting the presentation of your report.
3. Create impactful visualizations
Visualizations can increase your reader’s understanding of the data on both conscious and subconscious levels. The more clarity your charts provide, the easier the story is to interpret.
Choose the best chart for your data
Adding a chart in Data Studio is an easy dropdown. Selecting the right chart visualization takes some thought.
Be sure that each chart adds meaning to your report; don’t compare metrics or create segments just because you can. Your clients will seek patterns and meaning even where they don’t exist, and it’s far easier to omit useless charts than to explain why a perceived trend is actually just noise.
That said, you can create multiple charts to increase comprehension. By grouping distinct charts (rather than relying on viewer-enabled date-range or data controls), you clarify relationships, composition, and trends without requiring clients to conduct discovery and draw their own conclusions.
Following the inverted pyramid guidelines, you can show high-level, aggregate performance with one chart, and break out performance with another. Or, use side-by-side time series charts to “zoom in” on recent performance and “zoom out” on trends over time, giving your client at-a-glance context.
If you’re unsure of which visualization to use, chart selection tools (like the one below from chartlr) can help you choose the best chart types for your data and objectives.
Enhance charts with preattentive attributes
When charts are busy or cluttered, add contrast to clarify the story. Edward Tufte’s Data-Ink ratio suggests minimizing the amount of non-essential “ink” used in data presentation.
Data Studio makes it easy to adjust color, weight, and scale (as well as grids and axes) to create contrast and emphasis. This is handled in Data Studio’s Style panel, where each metric series is individually controlled:
Data Studio also has some built-in visualizations to help with quick data interpretation, such as the red and green time comparison arrows found in scorecards and tables.
Be sure to review whether the colors correlate with positive or negative change for the metric. “Green is up” works great for site visits, but a CPC increase with a green arrow is confusing for readers. You can override the default settings in the Style panel.
4. Provide narrative and context
Narrative creates a sense of setting, time, and place for your reader and connects concepts, ideas, and events.
Help your readers make sense of data and visualizations by clarifying relationships and including background information they may not immediately know or remember.
Establish hierarchy and organization
As with any document, a consistent layout and hierarchy in your report orients your readers. Data Studio is not a word processor, and it doesn’t apply style sheets or standardized formatting the same way.
You can apply elements to all pages by selecting them and making them report-level.
Group thematically similar charts and data together. It helps to have one main idea per page (or slide) to reduce the amount of information your reader processes at one time.
Leverage headings and microcopy
Headings are good; better headings are better. Again, your goal with headings is more to orient your reader than to repeat what they’re about to read.
Microcopy gives your readers additional context about a page element, and it’s extremely easy to add to your Data Studio report.
You can use microcopy to spell out acronyms, provide definitions and annotations, cite targets and objectives, or otherwise reduce friction for your clients as they work to understand the data.
In this Data Studio template screenshot, the heading, microcopy, and metric labels all repeat each other. This is fine for a template but would add little value for clients.
With just a bit of customization, each text element serves a purpose. (Note that the metrics have also been re-ordered to lead with KPIs.)
Add context with chart deep dives
Context and text are not synonyms; context doesn’t have to be lengthy sentences—and doesn’t even need to be words at all.
The “why” of what happened is rarely found in standard aggregate charts. When further explanation is needed, sometimes the best approach is “show don’t tell.”
Here’s a chart showing revenue and spend year to date. Both metrics are trending up. But why?
We could just say “demand for Product A increased,” but a supplemental chart does a better job illustrating the spikes in search traffic:
Keep it current
Performance data can and should be automated to save time and ensure accurate, consistent reporting. Data Studio recently added new date range options, giving you advanced features for automatically updating visualizations, such as:
- Compare year-to-date against two years ago;
- Compare last 30 days with previous, aligned on Monday;
- Fixed start date through last month.
As you may have gathered, performance-specific narrative and analysis don’t play well with “set it and forget it” automated reporting distribution. While sharing direct access makes sense for dashboards, curated reports are usually better scheduled and delivered as PDFs.
If your client prefers a “live” report to a PDF, you can create a new instance with a new link each month. You’ll just need to manually set date ranges rather than using “last month” to keep data accurate to the time period you’re reporting on.
Many of the principles for report optimization mirror the principles of conversion optimization.
There are key differences between guiding a prospect to action and guiding your client through interpreting complex data, but in both cases your audience’s needs should inform your choices about what information to include and emphasize.
With customized Data Studio reports, you can automate the compilation of the data your clients need to see, and add essential narrative and analysis to lead them on a virtuous cycle of smarter action and better results.