If you love data reporting, raise your hand.

I'm guessing the vast majority of you are not out there shouting "Me! Me!" right now. Synthesizing data, analyzing it, and compiling a report... most marketers (i.e., not data scientists) dread the prospect.

Full disclosure: I am a bit of a reporting geek. I love it. But I totally get why people might hate the whole reporting process. It can be hard. Data is all over the place—and often not easy to wrestle into an analyzable format. It's intimidating to try to make sense of all those numbers. Excel can be scary!

Yet reporting is incredibly important. Data without reporting is just data. Without reports to capture and convey what the data tells you, you're not getting the value the data has to offer.

Too often, however, reports fall flat. They fail to communicate important insights—and, worst, aren't even read. The problem usually isn't with the data,it's with the reports themselves.

The good news: all that is fixable. By adopting the following eight good reporting habits, you can transform your data into meaning and action—and improve your results.

1. Know your goals and ensure they are meaningful for the business

That sounds obvious, but it needs to be said. Include your goals right in the report so there's no question about what you're measuring, why, and whether you met expectations.

But as a steward of your programs, do make sure you're not just blindly accepting goals assigned by others who may not know better. Too often, marketing teams are still focusing their reporting on volume-based metrics (e.g., impressions, followers, etc.), even though those numbers don't translate to business value. It's easy to say, "Well, that's what the executive team asked for!" But they're not the experts—you are. It may take a little educating, but you (and your business) can't afford to focus on the wrong things.

2. Understand your measurable data, and map metrics to your goals

Sometimes, metrics are clear and obvious, such as closed revenue. But sometimes you can't get exactly what you require, so you need to figure out what data you can get that can be used to represent your goal.

For example, to track the effectiveness of your content, you want to know whether people are interested in what you're publishing. You can't measure interest, per se, but you can measure a metric such as time spent on page. It's not an exact measurement (did visitor X spend a long time on the page because he was interested in the content, or because he was interrupted while reading it?), but it provides a decent indicator. Be very clear about every metric you track and how it relates to your goals.

3. Get comfortable with the basics of Excel and/or your reporting tools, and continue to build expertise

Excel can seem intimidating. (The phrase "pivot tables" has been known to induce mild-to-moderate panic.) But the tool's wide range of advanced formulas and functions shouldn't scare you off.

You don't have to be an Excel power user, but you do need to master the fundamentals. And don't stop there. Whenever you find yourself thinking, "I wish there were an easier way to do X," do a help search; most often, there is an easier way to do it. Over time, all that additional knowledge will add up—and before you know it, you will be a power user.

Same goes for any other reporting tools you may be using.

4. Look at results, and be able to explain anomalies or changing trends

Reporting shouldn't be a rote exercise of gathering data and creating charts. In addition to showing the "what," you must also be able to explain the "why."

If there's a sudden spike or dip, or if you detect a trend, you need to dig into it to see what's driving those results—and put that information right in the report. Because when your audience sees the anomaly or trend, "What happened?" is going to be the first question they ask.

5. Present results in the most impactful and easy-to-understand way, and be visual

For each result you include in your report, consider the optimal way to portray it. If you have a choice between a table of numbers and a chart, go with the chart.

Understand the different types of charts and graphs so you can select the one that's most appropriate for your data. And look for ways to combine multiple related data points within one chart to show relationships and correlations. (That may require digging into some of the more advanced charting features—see tip No. 3.)

6. Include relevant details, such as definitions and benchmarks

The entire point of a report is to communicate results, but results often require context to have meaning. Your audience needs to know exactly what you measured, why it matters, and whether the results are good.

Define the metrics you used (for example, how was "engagement rate" calculated and what does it mean?), either within the report or in an appendix. Also help your audience understand how to gauge the results they're seeing by including benchmarks—whether industry norms, your own historical averages, or explicit goals.

7. Understand your audiences, and align reports accordingly

Just because you have data doesn't mean you should include it in your report. If you're sharing results with the operational team, then you may want to show lots of detailed operational stats to help you manage, measure, and improve your programs—and you probably don't need standard definitions. But if your primary audience is the executive team, focus on key business results and provide lots of context.

8. Use the data, and state how results will inform future activities

Reporting is an exercise of looking back to see what happened. But what's the point if you're not going to use that information to help you do better going forward? Each reporting cycle should give you insight about what is or is not working. Include key learnings, and describe how you are planning to incorporate them into your programs.

Better reporting habits can drive better results

That old adage of "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well" certainly applies here. Build your reporting muscles so you can deliver better and more effective reports that provide more insight to optimize programs, which in turn helps to improve outcomes.

And who knows... you may even start to enjoy the process.

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From Data to Actionable Intelligence: How Not to Sabotage Good Data With Bad Reporting

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image of Jennifer Scheer

Jennifer Scheer is principal of Shout Studio, which provides B2B clients with end-to-end marketing services—from strategic counsel to program execution.

LinkedIn: Jennifer Scheer

Twitter: @j_a_scheer