Mike Ruins “You Can’t Give Us Too Much Data”

The latest installment in this series was inspired by something a client recently said to me as I was showing off a nice, focused-on-what’s-important, automated report I’d built for them.  They said…

“You can’t give us too much data.”

As many of you already know, this is perfect fodder for something to ruin!  But if you’re wondering why, this post is especially for you.

Now, I understand the client surely didn’t mean I could give them an infinite amount of data and it would never be too much.  They were just exaggerating their point of course.  But, given the fact that they said this tells me their healthy boundary in this area is past where it should be.

I’d like to submit to you that yes, I CAN give them too much data. Or if you’re the one creating the reports, yes, you CAN include too much data.

Let me explain.

How much data should you include?

We have soooo much data.  More than we could ever use. Therefore, we need to establish some sort of boundary on what we’re reporting; for the sake of all parties involved.

But what should it be?  After all, we don’t have an infinite amount of time, money and energy.  Therefore, we have to prioritize.

This is where a critical few metrics should come into play.

In his book Web Analytics 2.0, Avinash Kaushik talks about establishing these by focusing on the most important factors for your business right now. He says…

“You shouldn’t have more than three or four critical few metrics.  If you have more than four, then you have not done your job well enough.  Go back and try again…If you want a focused business and execution, then you need to bring your metrics down to a handful – four or fewer is optimal.”

Reminder of what a KPI is

So, how do you come to these Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?  List out your top 3-4 current business goals (and be specific). Then ask yourself – what one metric measures how we’re doing at achieving each goal?  And how can I best segment the data to get the insights I need?

Here’s an example…

[Side note] You can include additional metrics and segments in reporting that may not be directly tied to your KPI, but they should be directly tied to improving the KPI.  For example, the way I’m going to improve my main KPI of Cost Per Acquisition is by improving our Conversion Rate.  There’s a direct link between the two.  But, when you report, focus on how the corollary metric affected your critical metric.

What should you do with the data?

After you’ve thoughtfully and carefully deciding on your critical few KPIs, what should you do with them?  Three things…

  1. Trend them.  How has this metric performed over time?
  2. Segment them.  Aggregate data tells you nothing insightful.  There will likely be one particular segmentation that should be your focus at any given point in time.  You’ll probably know it when you see it.  Whether it be device, location, channel, etc., include the one that is going to give you the insights you need to take significant action.
  3. Benchmark them.  What is/was the goal?  Have you reached it?  Why or why not?

Now this example will seem silly, but look what happens if we’re looking at YoY sales from Canada while leaving out the three pieces above…

Besides “sales went up this August compared to last year,” what insights can be gained from looking at this?  What was responsible for the increase?  Is this a new trend just hit in August, or has it been hit for many months now?

Now look what happens when we trend, segment and benchmark the data…

Do these three things with your KPIs and the insights should flow. I bet you’re already wondering why Organic went up so much and Paid tanked compared to last year aren’t you?

But we can’t stop here!  We must…

Do analysis instead of reporting

We really should rarely give someone a report, unless there’s a darn good reason to leave out the good stuff.  We should provide them (and us) with actionable analysis.  If you want to do that, here’s 3 other things to include in your “report” (really analysis)…

  1. Insights.  As I said above, these should flow if you trend, segment and benchmark your KPIs.  You’ll see a particular segment trending a certain way and immediately be able to tie it to a previous action.  Or you’ll ask “why” and go on a hunt to find an answer that will become an insight.
  2. Actions.  Now that you know what happened, what can and should you do about it?  What steps are you going to try to move the dial?
  3. Bottom-line impact.  Having trouble getting decision-makers to take action or allow YOU to take action?  This should help.  if you want to truly be amazing, communicate the impact to the bottom line your current results are having and possible actions can have.  You’ll seriously be a rock star if you can do this part, and you’ll get to do things you never could before.

Now check out what we’ve got…

And if this is the type of analysis you deliver, I can almost guarantee the response you’ll get for your action items…

Your KPIs should evolve

These chosen critical few metrics should change over time.  After all, do you plan on working on the same things forever?  No.  You’re going to make progress.  Business priorities are going to change.  Improvements (and mistakes) will be made.  Therefore, this inevitably means our metrics should change as well.

What used to be priority #2 will slide down to #5 because of the progress you’ve made.  That metric should now disappear for the time being, while being replaced by a more critical metric.

Elements that are grossly over-reported

If you do all of this correctly, you’ll realize how often reports muddy the waters for us by including metrics, charts and graphs that simply shouldn’t be distracting us with their presence.  There should be words.  Lots and lots of them.  If there aren’t, use it as your queue that something is wrong.

Average Position?  Quality Score? Top 10 keywords and ads?  Why people?  What exactly are the insights these are telling you that’s leading to action and having a bottom-line impact?

As Timothy Jensen (@timothyjensen) said plain and simple during our discussion on Twitter about this…

what you DON’T include is just as important as what you do.”

We live in a culture of distractions.  The last thing we need in our lives is more of them.  So, stay focused on what really matters.  This will guide all stakeholders involved on staying as efficient as possible at accomplishing what it is you truly want to accomplish.


Make sure to check out more posts in the Mike Ruins Digital Marketing series, where I challenge the status quo by tackling digital marketing topics that most practitioners have all wrong.

Mike Fleming

Mike Fleming is a Senior Client Manager for Point It, and has been managing PPC accounts of all kinds for over 6 years; with a strong emphasis in Analytics and Conversion Optimization. He’s a respected digital marketing blogger and speaker whose articles can be found on industry blogs like SEMRush.com and SearchEngineGuide.com. He also contributed to a published book called The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!. Mike enjoys playing, writing and recording music, playing basketball and investing. He resides in Canton, Ohio with a girl who threw a snowball at him one day…then married him.

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