Build Marketing Dashboards that Drive Action, Not Confusion

August 26, 2015
Contributor: Heather Pemberton Levy

Develop user-centric dashboards that lead to more effective action and decision making.

“Action-packed!”, “Astonishing!”, “Beautiful story-telling.” This may sound like a summer blockbuster review but it should be how the CMO reacts to a marketing dashboard. Unfortunately, most dashboards suffer from a glut of metrics and elicit responses such as, “A circuitous tale that is sure to confuse,” or “The Analyst will take you on a wild ride through the forest of big data…” However, there is a solution. It starts with the realization that a dashboard is not a document, but instead it is a tool for future action, notes Martin Kihn, research director for Gartner for Marketing Leaders.

From Good to Great Dashboards

Instead of rattling off the qualities that make up the world’s worst dashboards, it’s more helpful to focus on what makes a dashboard useful.  Your dashboard should be audience-specific, answer an important question(s) for that user and focus visual attention on what is important. Consider a simple dashboard for a family car. Its chief focus may be on speed. However, the dashboard for an electric card may highlight available resource.

In other words, know your audience, do the heavy lifting to give them actionable recommendations and highlight exceptions. After all, dashboards are simply a visual summary of metrics relevant to the user.  So make it a summary and make it relevant. Above all else, remember that dashboards exist to help users make decisions and take action.

Four steps to developing a marketing dashboard: define scope, develop metrics, describe context, design dashboard
The Four Components of Dashboard Greatness

The first step is to define the scope of your dashboard. Instead of asking what a leader wants in a dashboard, ask her to outline the top 6 business or marketing questions she needs answered. Most marketing leaders will want to cover sales, operations, investment and customer-level metrics.

Second, develop the metrics. Start by listing the types of metrics (strategic, tactical, etc), the actual number format (ratio, count etc) and finally some possible metrics. Make sure to add a time dimension from past, present and future.

“Know your audience, do the heavy lifting to give them actionable recommendations and highlight exceptions.”

The third area recognizes that context is king when it comes to dashboards. Users need to be able to compare a reported number to something else to make decisions and take action. Use trend lines to compare goal vs forecast, current vs. past or actual vs benchmark. The idea is to use context that is relevant to the user and his or her decision making needs. In seasonal businesses current vs/ year ago may be more relevant than current vs last week.

Last, but not least, is the element of good design. Gartner has a set of design principles for great dashboards, such as placing the key summary or focus metric in the upper left corner, use 3 or fewer fonts and sizes and structure the time dimension from left to right. But most importantly, make your dashboard action-oriented. Ensure that directed recommendations are included and the reader knows exactly what should be done to address issues.

Speaking of action, here’s our quick list of action items:

  • Audit current dashboards to spot opportunities for improvement.
  • Pilot the new dashboard to learn what works and what needs improvement.
  • Provide a way for users to drill down and interact with dashboards, ask new questions and suggest ways to improve.
  • Remember that dashboards are living, not static, so always be on the lookout for ways to better know audience needs and how to meet those needs.
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