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  • Jason Lucey

Dashboards? YES!

This is the second post in my series on "buzzwords". Often derided as superficial, but buzzwords can be a gateway to great conversations with stakeholders and clients. This post is about Dashboards, something everyone wants, yet seem to be constantly misunderstood. You can read the first post on Benchmarking at "Benchmarks? YES!"

The dream of dashboards have been around for a long time. It’s a concept that has consistently captured the collective aspirations of marketing folk. Everyone wants dashboards. Yet, despite their enduring presence, the understanding of dashboards and their utilization has not improved much. While there has been some increase in analytics fluency over the years, it remains inconsistent. I still come across marketing teams that are unfamiliar with even the basics, such as what ‘KPI’ means.


This widespread lack of understanding has historically made me hesitant to develop dashboards for clients. I've seen these projects end in frustration too many times. Instead, I'd usually advocate for investments in skilled human analysts.


However, my stance on dashboards is evolving. The persistent buzz around dashboards is impossible to ignore. Promoting the development of dashboards can serve as a catalyst for important conversations about an organization’s analytics culture. It can pave the way for pivotal discussions about the role of analytics and the strategic execution of analytics programs. It's a conversation worth having.


The Iceberg Analogy for Dashboards

Consider the iceberg analogy: what’s visible above the waterline is merely a fraction of its true mass. Similarly, dashboards are just the visible tip, while critical elements lurk unseen beneath the surface.

  • Scope of KPIs: First and foremost is defining the scope of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

  • Metrics vs. Insights: Secondly, dashboards are not inherently insightful. They present metrics, not conclusions.

  • Data Quality and Models: Thirdly, the importance of data quality management cannot be overstated. behind every effective dashboard is a robust data model—essential yet often overlooked.

  • Dashboard Design: Lastly, they require thoughtful design, construction, and ongoing maintenance—far from the ‘set-and-forget’ report many imagine.


Let’s explore this further.


Defining the Scope of KPIs for Effective Dashboards

A dashboard is a visual embodiment of a measurement strategy. An effective strategy includes a KPI framework that identifies the relevant metrics for each facet of a marketing initiative. While a measurement strategy might identify many metrics, not all can be accommodated on a dashboard. Overloading a dashboard is a sure way to create frustration and confusion leading to irrelevancy.


A dashboard should serve as a concise summary of the most critical performance indicators. It’s crucial to tailor the dashboard to the needs of its particular audience. For instance, someone involved in day-to-day operations may value trend visuals, while a senior executive might prioritize high-level summary metrics. A metric like bounce rate may be pivotal for a marketing manager but irrelevant to a CFO. These distinct needs mean different dashboard designs are important for different users. Understanding who will use the dashboard is vital and is a critical consideration during the dashboard design phase—a stage that often doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves.


One aspect of KPI selection is to understand that dashboards are more than visual displays; they’re platforms that convey information. However, everyone interprets data uniquely. Some users prefer dense dashboards, while others find them confusing. Some people really like trendlines, while others don’t. Unfortunately, most users discover what works for them only when faced with a dashboard. Consequently, multiple redesign iterations are a normal part of the process as personal preferences become clarified. Ultimately, a dashboard that no one understands serves no purpose. Usability is critical, especially for those less familiar with data visualization.


The Complexity of Gaining Insights from Dashboards

Many seek dashboards as a quick reference to discern what metrics are performing well and which are not. The expectation is that a dashboard will simplify their workflow. Yet, dashboards often prompt more questions than they answer. When a metric dips, the inevitable question is “why?”—a question dashboards are not designed to address. This can lead to confusion, particularly when the data presents a mix of positive and negative results.


Dashboards are not the end-all solution for data analysis; they initiate a process of inquiry and exploration. True insights—the kind that inform action—are rarely gleaned from mere up-and-down indicators. Therefore, clear communication between the dashboard creator and the end-user is essential. It’s important to set realistic expectations: a dashboard is not a crystal ball, but a tool that presents a curated set of metrics without context or explanation.


(NOTE: While many modern dashboard tools increasingly incorporate AI elements to attempt explanations, the technology is not great, and I believe it cannot replace human analysis as of today. Current AI-generated insights tend to be basic observations which can sometimes be misleading. Although the future may bring more advanced AI capable of deeper analysis, for now, the nuanced understanding of data and how to take action on it remains a distinctly human domain.)


The Crucial Role of Data Quality Management in Dashboard Creation

Many (most?) dashboards serve management and executive-level users, who require a comprehensive view of various program aspects, not just isolated data points like social ad performance. To achieve this holistic view, a complex data model that integrates multiple data sources is essential. This ‘back-end plumbing’—often undervalued—is the backbone that powers a functional dashboard.


Building a dashboard requires the resources needed to construct and maintain these intricate data models. Marketing data, well-known for its ‘messiness’—from inconsistent naming conventions to improper tracking tag usage—presents unique challenges. The task of normalizing such data is substantial, occasionally necessitating the creation of new index values and lookup tables to ensure coherence.


Without rigorous data management, there is a real risk that the information will become fragmented and unreliable. Moreover, as marketing campaigns evolve with new vendors, team members, and strategies, the data’s complexity grows. It’s imperative to continuously cleanse and normalize the data, whether through automated processes or manual oversight.


Discussing these nuances with clients is important and often times something they haven't thought of. It also opens the door to conversations about governance, consistent naming conventions, and the importance of approval process. It can underscores the need for vigilant oversight as new contributors join the marketing efforts. Understanding these elements is vital for clients to appreciate the ongoing commitment required to ensure their dashboards remain accurate and effective.


Dashboards: More Than Just a Visual Tool

A prevalent misconception worth clarifying with clients is that a dashboard is not merely a collection of reports; it’s a comprehensive and living platform akin to building a website with dynamic content feeds. It encompasses a display layer, a data backend, management tools, user roles with varying permissions, and ideally, a maintenance schedule.


Think of a dashboard as an internal website tailored for specific audiences within an organization and powered by live content streams. It’s a sophisticated system that requires thoughtful design, construction, and ongoing maintenance—much more than just a static display of figures.


From an agency perspective, framing a dashboard as a platform rather than a simple reporting enhancement can help encapsulate the associated costs. Unlike reports provided as a service, a dashboard is delivered as a complete platform. This includes all the expenses involved in its creation, from development to training upon handover and possibly ongoing maintenance. These are essential discussions to have with clients to ensure they understand the full scope and value of what they’re investing in.


Summary

Dashboards have been a buzzword in the marketing world for a long time, often based on misunderstandings about their function and value. However, by embracing their popularity, we can open doors to meaningful conversations with stakeholders and clients. These platforms require ongoing data management and cleansing, and contrary to some beliefs, they do not inherently provide the easy insights people might expect. It’s crucial to manage expectations and clarify that dashboards will not fit every metric and KPI. By addressing these issues with stakeholders, we can explore whether a dashboard is indeed the right solution or if other approaches might be really what they are looking for.


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