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How to Create Better Monthly Reports For Your Clients

The monthly report is odd little creature. It’s created with the best of intentions but is too often under utilized by the people it was created to inform. There’s also the problem of the document itself. It’s confusing, or it focuses on the wrong things. It means well but too often it’s a relic of the past.

Anyway you slice it, chances are you have room to create a better monthly report.

Who Cares?

Surely, you’re thinking, this must be one of the most boring topics in all of business. In my personal experience of creating reports for clients for over a decade, rarely have these reports done their job: be meaningful to those it was created to inform.

Ninety percent of the time, the only time I ever heard from a client specifically about their monthly report was if they didn’t get one. Basically, they were only aware of it because of it’s absence.
In their mind, the monthly report was proof that something was being done. When I would send out monthly AdWords reports to my clients, only a few would want to talk about it. Most clients just filed it and forgot it.

You know you were thinking it.

The clients that filed their reports weren’t intentionally ignoring their website. I’m sure some of them treated them like their monthly financial statement from their broker: They trusted me to do what’s right for them with their AdWords account and take on faith that what’s in the report affirms that belief.

The real problem was that the report didn’t have any meaning to them. There was a bare minimum of analysis, charts from Google Analytics, and AdWords data. It was fun to see the green and red arrows showing how data changed from the month previous but none of it allowed the client to make a decision. And in a world where time is limited, to a business owner, if there’s no decision to be made, there’s no reason to read it.

Rule #1: Do Talk About Fight Club

Rule #2: Do Talk About Fight Club.

Fundamentally, the monthly report is about communication. The best way to make sure the the report is useful and is used to maximum effect is to hold a brief meeting to talk about the various considerations the report reveals.

This guy can skip the meeting.

Focus on Business Goals

The biggest problem with monthly reports is that they are overwhelmingly created as works of fiction. Everything in the report might technically be true but there’s a desire on the part of the creator to send a clear EVERYTHING’S A-OK OVER HERE BOSS message. It’s just one of those things. Once somebody gets a budget, they’ll do a lot to keep it. And bluffing in a monthly report is a good way to do it. It’s security through obscurity.

There's an XKCD comic for that.

I’ve seen reports sent to clients that were hundreds of pages of screen shots. The only reason I can think that was done was because somebody thought it was a good idea to make the report seem huge. As if a report that can double as a paper weight is somehow more valuable than one that focuses on its usefulness.

A useful monthly report is one that focuses on the web plan’s goals.

A monthly report is an extension of the web plan. If there’s no plan, then you’re right to wonder why a monthly report is even necessary. So if you don’t have a plan, stop now, rewind the website to our blog posts last week on the initial client meeting and start there.

If you have a web plan then you should know the:

  • Business goals
  • Website goals
  • Budgets
  • Time Tables
  • Responsibilities

In short, the monthly report needs to echo all of those facets of the report, provide an update on what’s happened in the past month and then it should provide a way to discuss how to move forward. If any decisions need to be made or if there are items that need to be discussed, they need to be noted.

Be Comprehensive

I’ve been using the odd phrase “web plan” to this point in this post. In my opinion, a web plan is really a plan that addresses all aspects of your web presence. A web presence is the sum-total of a person or business on the web.

It’s your website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube channel, SoundCloud account, search engine visibility, advertising, and feed subscribers combined.

If all of this is taken into account when creating the plan, as I think it should be, then you have a Web Presence Plan. Everything else is a subset: a website plan or a social marketing plan or a SEO plan, what have you.

The point is, you have to design the report around the plan, and the plan should be as comprehensive as possible. Applied fully, this report will contain a lot of data. As the months pass and historical data is available, the amount of raw data will only grow. This is a good thing. Normally, this is how monthly reports die a slow death. But because of how we intend to use this document, in this case, it’s a good thing.

It’s more than communication, it’s education

My AdWords clients that I used to talk to about their monthly liked to sound informed. We’d have conversations filled with discussion about click-thru rates, cost-per-click, and page placement. Rarely though were they interested in cost-per-conversion, which is the One Metric to Rule Them All in the AdWords universe.

It’s not that there isn’t value to be had by looking at the click-thru rates, cost-per-click and page placement, it’s just that they are wholly explanatory data for the only metric that really matters: how much it costs to get a sale.

The problem was that there was a knowledge gap. On some level, clients know that web dev and web marketing firms are not going to ultimately take responsibility for what happens on their website. We’ve covered this before. As such, they feel invited to take a peek at the underlying data and to work on the analysis themselves.

While the desire to be involved is commendable, it’s at this point that the gap in knowledge and training on these topics can become apparent. Every web developer I know has a story about a client misusing technical jargon. They’ll say things like, “I need to increase my XMLs!”

Which you have to admit is a little ROFL.

It’s the job of the monthly report to point out what’s important. It needs to highlight the cost-per-conversion and use the other data to support why it is what it is.

The only way that’s going to happen is if the report makes it clear which data is primary and which is supplementary.

Analysis: Inputs and Outputs

Websites are about two things: getting people to it and what they do once they’re on it. Every facet of a company’s web presence can be grouped into one of these few categories. All social networking, all SEO, all advertising is about driving traffic. The website’s graphic design, functional design, and content are all responsible for what people do once they’re on the website.

It’s through this lens that data should be analyzed. Looking at these two sides of the web-coin will keep the report relevant and will lead to smarter conversations.

Traffic

The initial plan probably lays out specific target metrics for the social networks, SEO, and advertising. Certainly, measure all of that and work to meet or exceed those targets. But more importantly, and more generally, how is traffic to the website? Has it been trending up? Do you know why? Do you see opportunities in SEO, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., to increase traffic?

Website Function

How are sales/leads? How has it been trending? What’s the average bill of sale? What are the best sellers? Why are they the best sellers? What’s being done to address strengthening the critical path? How does the conversion funnel look? Has any user testing been done? Has that testing revealed anything about page-specific elements that need addressing?

Build from the ground up, present from the top down


The key to the whole thing is to provide the data but to put it in an appendix at the end of the document. The monthly report is about business, not technology. The technological concerns arise because they support the business goals. So kick the tech stats to the back of the report and put the analysis front and center.

In most monthly reports the data is front-and-center and the analysis is gravy. The data shouldn’t be front-and-center, it should be be the supporting documentation. The meat of the report should be a discussion of the various decisions, considerations, and opportunities that rise out of the data.

It’s also necessary to recognize that business happens in a larger context: what time of year it is, changes to how things are done online, etc. It’s a good practice to get in the habit of summarizing the current environment before moving into the analysis. You want to set up the discussion so that everybody sees as much of the field as possible. Providing environmental context allows the client – who is probably not online every day – to orient themselves before being asked to make some decisions.

Put it all together and a typical report would loosely be structured like this:

  • Current environment (1 page or less)
  • Analysis: Decisions/Considerations/Opportunities (2 pages or less)
  • Supporting Data
  • Full Data Appendix

Create Accountability


I’m a big fan of accountability. That goes for the developer as well as the client. If a client says they’ll be responsible for creating some content, they should be responsible for the outcome of not creating that content. After all, it’s hard to promote a blog that rarely has new content.

The best way to force accountability is to get signatures next to all decisions. Then if things aren’t done according to the plan, there’s a physical record of who dropped the ball.

The thing is, there are a few ways things can go right and about an infinite number of ways they can go wrong. Getting signatures is a way of enforcing the rules set forth in the original web plan. It might sound like a grumpy old man to demand a physical signature but it’s really just trying to prevent problems down the road.

I recommend adding one page to the monthly report after the monthly meeting: it’s a page that details what’s going to be done in the next month. Next to each line item is a signature of everybody responsible for making that line item happen.

Once you have that document, make copies and send them to everybody involved. You keep the original. At the end of the year when you’re doing your annual report, these documents will be the star of the show. And because there are literal signatures on what was supposed to be done, nobody can feign ignorance.

The goal, of course, is not to get people in trouble or to create ill-will but to keep everybody accountable for their responsibilities.

We’ve all experienced the problem of people helping in places where they aren’t supposed to be. This provides a way to discuss that issue too. If your name isn’t signed next to the line item, you don’t need to be involved. Simple as that.

The monthly report is the way the web plan gets accomplished. It’s a tool. And accountability is an important part of that. Without accountability by all parties, entropy starts to increase and the project suffers. Better to stop all of that before it starts. Get the signature.

It’s A Living Document

Monthly reports are their most effective when they’re treated like a living document. It’s meant to reflect conditions on the ground, both in the past month and historically and to provide a way for leaders to make decisions to accomplish the business goals.

Over time, the goals are going to change. The things done to various parts of the company’s web presence will change. When it does, let the report change too. Don’t fit the data into the report, fit the report to the data.

The bad monthly reports we’ve all seen in the past failed to change as the business needs changed. They’re paper zombies; undead and here to eat your brains.

Rather, stay focused on your client’s needs. Create a document that addresses those needs and updates the web plan and talk about it, every month.

A report that does all of that creates the conditions for success and growth and validates you as the monkey that knows how to keep its eye on the banana.

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