If you have clients, you have to report to clients. But what's the best format to use?
I thought I'd share the evolution of our client report formats over the past few years to give you some ideas for effective (and not so effective) client reporting.
Let's jump in the time machine and go back about three years. Ancient history, no? I mean, Google+ wasn't around. Neither was Bing. Who can remember life with MSN search? But I digress…
Client Report Version 1
Our first status reports were done in Excel spreadsheets. (We never liked doing pre-fab reports from a program. We'd use the data, but import in into Excel.) Big Excel spreadsheets with lots and lots of data. We'd put in keyword ranking, lots of Google Analytics metrics, the entire list of incoming links from Yahoo! Site Explorer. Here's a screenshot or two from an actual report from the archives, with identifying details blocked out.
That's a snippet from a keyword ranking report, with lots of keywords. The program we were using for ranking at the time had these cute little arrows that showed at a glance whether the keyword had moved up or down. Cute, that is, until you copied and pasted it into Excel and then each arrow got its own row, and it wasn't clear which arrow went to which URL. Best of all: even if you selected and deleted the content of all the rows with the ranking data, the arrows remained! You needed to select each arrow graphic and delete manually. Ahhh! (Later we started using the program's CSV export and forgoing the cute little arrows.)
Thats another screenshot from our primordial status report. Yep – just the Google Analytics dashboard. And there was more data from Analytics reports included. Lots and lots of stats, top pages and top keywords and top other things. Did most of them actually help the client? Questionable. But thus we continued until we got some new clients who we felt wanted a very simple, easy to understand report.
Client Report Version 2
We switched to Word and created a report with a bunch of easy to understand metrics, presented clearly. We even had focused more on client goals by this time, trying to help the client focus on what it was they wanted to get out of their website (and thus out of their website optimization).
Here's an excerpt from the cover page of the report.
Getting there. But not there. Easy to understand it was; but easy to understand what it meant for the client and his business? Easy to draw practical conclusions from? Not quite.
But the funny thing was: no one complained. None of our clients ever asked for a more focused report – for any change in the report – except one, and only because he needed to report to higher-ups at his company. I think that might have been the catalyst for report version 3.
Client Report Version 3
When we changed to version three, we did so for all our clients, not just the one who had made the request. It was great: focused data! Data that reflects your business goals and shows whether you're achieving or not achieving it. Each goal and metric measured had three sections:
The Data: self-explanatory, right? We would compare it with the previous month's figure.
What it Means for You: In simple terms, what the data means for the client's business goals.
To Do Now: Steps to take in the coming month to further business goals, based on understanding from the data.
Heres an example:
This was great because it forced us to analyze the data practically and come to actionable conclusions. Forcing yourself to be accountable to the client makes you accountable. It's easy to get sidetracked otherwise, even if it's not purposeful.
The report did get a little lengthy to read through, though, depending on the number of goals. And we wanted to be able to do even better data analysis. And so was born version 4. Our fourth and final version (for now).
Client Report Version 4
Version 4 was inspired by Avinash Kaushik's Web Analytics Measurement Framework. One of the main additions to the previous report was the adding of a target for the metrics. Your goal is to get subscriptions and so you want people to reach the thank you for subscribing page? How many do you want (realistically) per month? That way you're actually measuring success against a goal, and not just more or less than you had last month. Another addition was segmentation: segment your subscribers by keywords they used to reach your site, or visits to your site prior to subscribing.
Heres a screenshot of part of a new report (the segmentation results are left off because otherwise it wouldn't fit on this page while still being legible):
You'll see that we highlighted in green where metrics matched or surpassed the target, and in pink where they were significantly less than the target (especially if they had dropped from the previous month's metrics). It's a question whether to do that; you are drawing attention to the areas where your service seemingly hasn't lived up to expectations. On the other hand, if this report is really to inform the client of what's going on, then that's the goal. And you need to be accountable and prepared to discuss the situation, even if the decrease or the lack of progress isn't entirely due to you.
As I'm looking at this report in light of the others, I see that we don't have columns for To Do Now: something that would probably be useful for the client and for us. Report version 5, anyone?
If you have experience with a practical, actionable report format that worked for you and your clients, please share the highlights with us below!