How to Create a Great Marketing Dashboard

By Julie Schwartz, ITSMA,

Metrics yield insights that demonstrate value and improve performance. Yet for all the talk of data-driven decisions, only 40% of marketers agree that “measuring marketing’s value and contribution to the business” is “very important” or “critical”. Only six in ten produce a marketing dashboard—and that’s using a liberal definition of the word that includes PowerPoint decks. Of those who do produce a dashboard, as many as one-quarter don’t share it with executives outside the marketing function. If marketers produce a report only for each other, does it make a sound in the organization?


Those are some of the findings of the 2013 ITSMA/VEM/Forrester Marketing Performance Management Survey conducted in June 2013. Many marketers are only starting to address measurement issues that departments like finance and operations have been dealing with for years. But there is good news too: some marketing organizations have figured out what works—and the survey illuminates several best practices, so that when a CFO asks, “Is marketing doing its job?” the CMO can say, “Let’s see what the data says.”

The Ideal Dashboard Tells a Story

Visualization expert Steven Few defines a dashboard as “a visual display of the most important information needed to understand and manage one or more areas of an organization which fits on a single computer screen so it can be monitored at a glance” (“Common Pitfalls in Dashboard Design”).

The ideal dashboard is:

  • Dynamic. A vehicle dashboard is dynamic. It faces the driver or pilot. It picks up data from sensors and displays it in real time. It shows whether you’re making progress or about to crash. In its ideal form, a dashboard is as visual and intuitive as the screen of an Xbox.
  • Visual. The visual aspect minimizes what’s called “cognitive overhead”—the number of jumps your brain makes in order to understand what you’re looking at. Visuals help patterns and trends emerge from tables of numbers, becoming instantly apparent.
  • Accountable. The use of metrics that relate to business performance—especially performance that the users of the dashboards are accountable for—ensures that the audience will care.
  • Focused. Limiting the dashboard to a single screen with few metrics ensures that viewers focus on what’s important. (Remember the rule “seven plus or minus two?” In today’s attention-deficit age, the rule is often modified to “five plus or minus three.”)
  • A Story. The best dashboards tell a story. Think of a dashboard as a narrative, with each chart a paragraph and each data point a sentence. If someone is accountable for the metric, the story has a built-in emotional hook (and perhaps a hero or villain). It could be an inspirational story or a horror story, but it should pull the viewer forward towards a question: what, if anything, are we going to do about it?

Most Marketing Dashboards are Far from Ideal

It’s a rare marketing dashboard that meets these specs. Often dashboards are nothing more than Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint decks. These are not really dashboards—they’re static reports created manually on an as-needed basis, once a month or once a quarter, for a periodic business review. Another option is a report created from the marketing automation or CRM system.

These reports are easy to create but often too narrow in scope. Marketing automation systems show one kind of information extremely well: leads collected, scored, and passed on to sales. CRM reports show how much business has closed so far, how much must close in order to meet the sales target, and what sales must accomplish to close the gap. marketing automation and CRM data is too tactically focused to stand on its own. It tends to be focused on the short term, while marketing’s contributions usually surface over the longer term. At best, CRM measures represent only a piece of a bigger marketing picture that also includes metrics like customer value and market share.


Here’s How to Create a Great Marketing Dashboard

  • Start with a plan. Almost half of the marketers ITSMA surveyed followed a conventional IT process of planning a framework, defining the data required, creating a report, and testing and iterating until the dashboard was acceptable. Although just over 90% would take this approach again, a surprising two thirds of these had caveats about the process. These unspecified caveats may have had something to do with the unwieldiness of the framework-data-prototype-iteration process, especially in an environment where IT project management is second nature. The lesson: start with a plan, but be ready to streamline it—or even lop off unnecessary parts—depending on your circumstances.
  • Buy dashboard software. Nineteen out of 20 marketers who developed dashboards after evaluating and purchasing dashboard software would do the same thing again. If the dashboard does not meet expectations, it’s usually because of underlying data problems, not because of the dashboard software. The core functionality—grabbing data from a spreadsheet, Google Analytics, or SQL Server, transforming it, displaying it, and distributing the output across an intranet—is universal.
  • Hire a consultant. Only 3% of the respondents used a consultant, but all were happy with the results. Everyone who went to an outside consultant was satisfied, at least to some extent, with the outcome. The lesson: don’t try to do it all yourself. Take advantage of specialized knowledge outside your organization. Go to people (both inside and outside) who have faced the same problems and learned from experience.
  • Avoid the ad hoc approach. Fiction writers often use a method called “discovery writing”: they start to write without much thought, knowing that they can always go back and revise later. It’s not a good method for dashboard developers.

Marketing Dashboards Are Not Optional

It is easy to track what marketers do, but hard to track what they achieve. When marketing shows the CFO its activity and sales shows its results, there is a good chance that the CFO will respond in a way that doesn’t reflect favorably on marketing and the revenue to sales.

The difference in circumstances between sales and marketing is all the more reason that clear, accurate dashboards are essential in order to get the attention of executives and highlight the links between marketing activities and business results.

Marketing departments are relatively new to the process issues that departments like finance and operations have been dealing with for years. But those processes need to be mastered if marketing is to build a dashboard that shows its contributions not just to revenue, but to market share, customer satisfaction, shareholder value, or any important business outcome.

Learn More!

Now that you’ve seen the key findings from 2013 Marketing Performance Management Survey, please take 15 minutes to participate this year’s survey. All participants will receive a report of the survey results. The survey can provide invaluable insights and be an excellent catalyst for internal debate and discussion. Please feel free to share the link with your marketing colleagues and your leadership team.

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