The 7 golden rules for creating kickass dashboards

Create a great dashboard report

Dashboards are the easiest way to accurately tell your clients how your marketing activities are performing and which actions to take in order to optimize them. Providing easy-to-understand visuals is the simplest way to convey what you need to convey to top brass, colleagues, and clients. This is probably why dashboards are widely used by marketers as a web marketing reporting tool. And it’s certainly why we founded a company that caters to the performance dashboard needs of online marketers and SEO specialists.

But, if dashboards are the Shangri-La of reporting, why are so many dashboards created–only to be abandoned along the way?

We regularly witness businesses and agencies make tremendous efforts to create a marketing dashboard, and yet, they fall short when it comes to making their clients benefit from those dashboards on a permanent basis. Sure, clients may use them for a while; however, after a certain period, they seem to realize that they haven’t taken any concrete actions to improve results. They’re too busy. They don’t quite “get” the dashboards. They have problems selling the necessary changes to the powers that be. The reasons are endless. And what’s the end result of all this? The dashboards (and their potential benefits) fall into a deep, dark abyss.

If your dashboards were truly useful, rather than scratching your head wondering what the heck happened, you’d be celebrating yet another month of fist-bump-worthy results.

So, in an ultimate attempt to stop this horrible scourge, here’s our best advice to help you create kickass dashboards that will change your client’s perception about reporting.

 

The 7 golden rules for dashboards

Here are the 7 golden rules to creating kickass dashboards that your clients, colleagues, or boss will love (and actually USE to make better decisions).

 

Dashboard report rule 1

1. Less is more

Not being able to identify which metrics absolutely need to be in your dashboard is the #1 problem. We all tend to want to include as much information as possible in a report.

However, the old “Less is More” adage is also true for every web analytics or marketing report. When selecting the metrics to add to a dashboard, you have to go back to the basics. Don’t hesitate to ask yourself these existential questions:

  • What is the business trying to accomplish?
  • What are the business’ strategic goals?
  • What are the actions that need to be taken in order to reach these goals?
  • Which metrics can measure the success of these actions in terms of reaching the business’ strategic goals?

Asking theses questions will inevitably lead you to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These are what you need to add to your performance dashboard. A dashboard isn’t exploration (aka. advanced reporting); instead, it serves people who want to see, at a quick glance, how things are going and what they should do about it. Yes, I know, we tend to repeat this over and over, but we won’t stop until every marketer on Earth knows it!

And by the way, if you want to create a more detailed dashboard, you’ll still have to identify the most meaningful and actionnable metrics for you or your client anyway.

I’m often asked what the ideal number of metrics in a dashboard is. Honestly, there’s no magic number. However, 10 is a pretty good place to start. Google Analytics Dashboards have a 12 widget limit and that’s perfectly fine by me.

 

dashboard report rule 2

2. Know your audience

While you can’t go wrong by figuring out a business’ key performance indicators (KPIs), knowing who will use the dashboard you create can also help you tremendously.

The level of detail shouldn’t be identical for every client. Managers generally want high view metrics, such as Transactions and Revenue, while specialists might need more precise information for their own work.

Perspectives can also be different depending on type of audience. One metric might be of great importance for a certain business unit, and yet not at all for another one. You may even want to change the report’s time horizon to better suit a particular audience’s needs. In other words, there are a lot of factors you need to consider while creating a dashboard, but first and foremost, you have to know who your audience is and what is important to them.

 

dashboard report rule 3

3. Context is everything

Remember, data without context doesn’t mean anything! Never, ever give a number without giving a context. For example, is an average conversion rate of 4% good? Who knows! It may be an awesome result for one business, but totally bad for another one.

To give your audience a hand in analyzing the results shown in your dashboard, you should always give them a sense of scale. How? By making comparisons. What was the conversion rate in the same period last year? What was it last period? What’s the average conversion rate for the entire site? Even better, compare between different segments. How is the conversion rate for each traffic source? Why?

But watch out! You don’t want to fall into the trap of adding too much information to your dashboard. You don’t want it to become a mind-numbing accumulation of numbers–with never-ending questions that may or may not be relevant anyway.

While you probably know when your business is performing well and when it’s not just by looking quickly to your numbers, your readers don’t. So if you want them to look at your report more than just a quick glance, be sure they understand the scale of your numbers by making the appropriate comparisons.

 

Dashboard report rule 4

4. Be visual

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. And well, that’s pretty much the whole idea behind dashboards. After all, dashboards are a visual way to present statistical information.

So, once you’ve chosen the right metrics for your dashboard, you need to be sure that they will be understood quickly and easily.

How? By working with visual elements. And I’m not referring to fancy icons, 3D effects, or things you see in Hollywood blockbuster movies. The most simple graphs are always the easiest ones to understand. Working with visual elements does’t mean trying to impress people with crazy features. And while I’m not ignoring the fact that crazy features may have a role in getting the needed attention, I will say that if the information in the dashboard is useful, you shouldn’t need to put make-up on it to make it an entertaining read. Instead, I’m talking here about transmitting information with visual elements. It’s kind of a user-experience thing. Work your dashboard like a web design expert in order to make it more usable.

For instance, you could play with font size or make things bold to give them more weight.

The position of each element is also important; the most important metrics should definitely be at the top of the report. Regrouping complementary or similar metrics together is also a good idea to make reading the report more logical!

Icons can also help users, as long as they can understand them. Too often, we see icons that we can’t understand. It’s the case of artists gone wild. So be sure to use a universally understood icon. Add a little mobile phone icon to help when talking about mobile traffic, for example.

Colours can be used to give more information about a metric as long as it really is used to give information! Green, yellow, and red will always be a good pattern to talk about performance (sort of like traffic lights, if you will). Or if you use colours to tag segments, don’t forget to add a clear legend.

We won’t go into too much detail about the chart types, because this subject actually has a dedicated article in our Help Center. It’s just important to remember that each chart type is best for demonstrating certain things. A pie chart won’t help you in illustrating the big variations your conversion rates have gone through recently, for example. But it will be great for showing off the distribution of your traffic sources and how they compare to one another. The first step in choosing the right type of graph is asking yourself what you want your data to show. Do you want to compare, show the distribution (over time, for example), analyze the composition or illustrate the relationship between two elements?

Here is a little guide that can help you choose the chart that suits your needs.

Chart suggestions for a dashboard report

This particular golden rule can be summarized this way: dashboards are limited in space and information, so make good use of every pixel!

 

Dashboard rule 5

5. Guide your audience

Being visual is probably the biggest advantage of the dashboard. It is also its biggest weakness.

As a web marketing specialist, I love dashboards. I have to admit, though, that some clients may need more guidance than others. A client once told me to stop sharing a dashboard with his entire company because each business unit was interpreting it in a different way according to what was favorable for their own needs. Basically, they were seeing different things in the same charts. And believe me, my dashboard was crystal clear. So, we decided to let go of the dashboard and replace it with a written report; I was literally writing what I was seeing in the dashboard and sending that report to the company instead. Now, let’s be honest, it was a very, very, very political and hierarchical company. You probably won’t have to do this. But this example just goes to show that you need to be very discerning with how you present your dashboards.

You can help your users go in the right direction with their thinking and analysis by adding comments and notes to the dashboard. This way, you eliminate any possible misinterpretations.

 

dashboard rule 6

6. Add useful functionalities

The features offered by your dashboard creator tool are also important. They can really help boost user adoption rates.

The way people access the dashboard may seem simplistic, but it’s actually really important. Is it accessible on every device? Is it a document that has to be shared or a link that you can add to your favorites? Can you always have access to the latest version of it?

Adding interactivity has some benefits too. Is it possible to change the observed period? When your mouse hovers over a graphic, do you get more details, such as dates and exact numbers?

Is it possible to print the report or share it with others? If yes, how can you share it? In what format?

These questions may seem overly obvious or secondary, but even the most brilliant dashboard won’t be used by someone who is determined to receive it by email in PDF format (like every other report he or she has received) but instead just gets a link.

 

dashboard rule 7

7. Make it evolve

Lastly, your dashboards have to evolve with your – or your client’s – business!

Over time, a lot of things will change: business objectives, the marketing mix used, your boss, your client’s boss and, without a doubt, your focus.

Your dashboard will have to adapt to theses changes or people will stop using it. In fact, if it doesn’t evolve, it’s probably because nobody uses it (maybe because you haven’t applied all 7 golden rules)!

 

Bonus tip: Centralize your dashboards

Your marketing tools aren’t necessarily compatible with one another. You may end up using only one dashboard per tool: one for Google Analytics, another for Facebook, a small one for MailChimp, and probably one or two more for all the internal metrics you have in business systems (lead, sales, etc.).

Instead, you should probably use a tool that lets you centralize your reporting. This way, you’ll be able to create a dashboard that lets you easily follow all your marketing activities from the same place.

Yeah, you could manually import your data into Excel, but we recommend DashThis or any other tool that will make your life easier and the task less daunting.

 

Final thoughts on dashboards

As you have now realized, we didn’t speak much about technical elements; I could have mentioned which type of graphs or metrics have best served me. However, the issue with that idea is that the technical elements ARE secondary. If you follow each of these golden rules, the foundation of your dashboards will be solid as hell and the technical stuff will be a piece of cake. You just have to know why you’re doing what you do. If you know that, people will understand what you are showing them–and better act upon the results.

At this point, you will already be ahead of your competitors, since they’re all loosing their time searching for cool tools with NASA-type features (or ruing the day they got introduced to Excel).

Automate digital reporting

Antoine, aka. Tony, has been in the field of digital ecommerce and marketing for the past ten years. Ranging from marketing analyst in a large corporation, to web marketing specialist in a small agency, to independent consultant for small and large business alike, he’s been involved in the ins and outs of inbound marketing, analytics, SEO and SEM for years. Currently Chief Operating Officer at DashThis, Tony has his hands in everything… but he’s still a marketer at heart.


Category: Client Reporting, Digital Marketing and KPIs, Key Performance Indicators (KPI), KPIs vs Metrics, Marketing Dashboards, Tutorials, Web Analytics | Tags: , , 3 comments »

     

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