Marketing Dashboards: Simple Visualizations with Swagger

We all know data visualization is important. We track EVERYTHING these days. In fact, every action a user takes online is trackable. As marketers, this is awesome. We have more information than ever before to use for understanding and optimization. But, this comes with a price. Tracking everything sure does make a mess. We have so much data at our finger tips from different sources and in different formats, it’s hard to make heads or tails of all of it. That’s where your analyst comes in.

One major function of an analyst is to present data in a way that’s easily digestible and actionable. We don’t just want to tell a client what they need to do – we want to walk with them through Data Land and help them to fully understand what happened, why it happened, and what we can do next. The first step of that process relies on data visualization to relay the story and understand the “what happened.”

Below are a few of my favorite “pretty pictures,” an example of how to use said “pretty pictures,” and a stylization (The Bonus Swagger Tip) note to differentiate your chart from the out-of-the-box Excel charts.

General Chart Swagger Tips

Before we get into the specific charts, I want to share some of my general chart swagger tips that you’ll see across the majority of these visuals. These are preferences I use to help my visuals stand out from the pack and also help guide the client’s focus. Let’s get to it…

  • KISS Principle – Come on, I know you remember this abbrev. “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” Simplicity should be the goal of any design and unnecessary complexity should be cut out of all that you do.
    • Get rid of axis labels when you add in data labels. There’s no need for both!
    • Don’t let your legend takeover. The reader will constantly be moving back and forth from the visual to the legend in order to understand what they’re looking at. Keeping it clean helps speed up that back and forth process.
    • Don’t let your gridlines rule your life. Many charts auto populate with gridlines. Unless they’re adding value to the chart, get rid of those suckers.
      • Example of value: For a line trend chart where movement is relatively flat, a gridline will help you to see small ticks up or down.
  • Color Code it! I LOVE some color coding. It makes it very simple for your audience to understand what everything is, what goes with what, and who goes where. Wait, what? Exactly. Color code it! 
    • One of my big ones is labels – especially if you’re using multiple metrics/dimensions in one visual. Having the label color match the data visual color will help clear up any confusion concerning what goes with what. 
    • Highlight your points of interest using custom formatting/coloring. BUT DO NOT HIGHLIGHT EVERYTHING – you don’t want to call out that your clicks and impressions are up 120% YoY if your spend is up 80%. That’s simply the nature of the business, not really a fair improvement to call out. Create logic for what you highlight and let conditional formatting do the rest.
  • Note Your Sources. It is rare for you to work with a client that has a single data source. If you do, let’s trade jobs. It is important to understand where data is coming from in order to make decisions off of it.
  • Theme it. In the visuals below, you’ll see a light color and flat theme. Sometimes those 3D style charts are just too in your face, so we went with a flat style that is a little more relaxed and focused on the data. No matter what you choose, carry a single style throughout all the visuals so everything is cohesive.
  • QA EVERYTHING. You check it, have your coworker check it, have your boss check it, ask your dog if he thinks anything is off, ask your neighbor’s kid if she likes all the pretty colors: there’s nothing worse than giving a dashboard to a client with incorrect data or a confusing format. Always get your data checked and always run it by someone who is not “close” to the data to see if they get it.

Line Trend Chart

What is it?

The Line Trend Chart is an old familiar staple. Basically it’s a visual of a metric or metrics over time geared at showing you patterns, changes, and trends (hence the name, duh).

What is it good for?

Any metric that comes in over time can be plotted on a trend chart: Visits, Revenue, Facebook Likes, Cheesesteaks Eaten, etc.
Unique visitors by month is a super easy but useful Line Trend Chart I like to use for a YoY gauge of traffic growth:

This tells a great high level story about YoY growth and monthly seasonality. From a high level view like this, you can also identify any outliers and dig in deeper where needed.

What is the Bonus Swagger Tip?

I often go for the smooth line option on line trend graphs. It fits in nicely with the light and flat theme I’m going for, as well as gives a little “oomph” that differentiates your chart from the familiar old line chart you see on everyone else’s dashboards.

Bar Charts

What is it?

Bar Charts are another staple in the visual world. One side shows a specific category or dimension while the other shows a specific metric. You can use single bars to show one category or multiple bars to show different variations of a category.

What is it good for?

There’s a ton of marketing use cases for these bad boys – campaigns by conversion rate, leads by landing page, cost per conversion by month, to name a few.
In the visual below we see cost per conversion by paid search segment type:

This, combined with a few other data points, can help define spend allocation for where you get the most bang for your buck, as well as areas in need of optimization.

What is the Bonus Swagger Tip?

Abbreviated axis labels help guide the viewer back and forth between the visual and the legend without taking up too much space. The combination of the color and number makes for an easier read.

Duh, Erin

So at this point you’re probably sitting there, thinking to yourself “Duh, Erin. I make line and bar charts in my sleep.” I get that. But knowing these basics and how to differentiate them from everyone else’s charts is clutch. Basic charts like these are the backbone of dashboarding. AND, now you can combine these basics for a more advanced visual like….

Combo Chart

What is it?

Exactly what it sounds like! This is a combination of two chart types. Typically it combines features of the bar and line chart (do these sound familiar?). You can utilize the same axis for both chart types or introduce a secondary axis that measures one chart type on a different scale.

What is it good for?

This can be super useful when comparing a metric in different categories/dimensions: for example, a bar chart that shows projected sales with a line graph layered over top that shows actual sales. It can also be used when comparing metrics that are on different scales but correlate; for example, a bar chart that shows leads with a line graph that shows spend MoM. This example is seen below:

This combined with Cost per Conversion bar graph shown in the previous example can pinpoint where spend is most effective and dictate future campaigns and spend allocation.

What is the Bonus Swagger Tip?

A dark line across bright colors goes a long way in a combo chart. It screams “Hey you! I’m a separate metric than whatever is in that bar chart! Don’t you forget it!”

Pie Chart

What is it?

A visual that should be eaten, not presented.

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing.  Ok, ok, that’s not totally true.  As a personal preference, I steer away from pie charts and Jell-O.  Why you ask? Well that’s easy.  I think a meaningful visualization tells a story about a correlation, and I think an afternoon snack just shouldn’t move like a jelly fish.  A line graph shows the correlation of a specific metric and time, a bar graph shows the correlation of two metrics or a metric and a dimension, and so on and so forth.  I want my X and my Y.   

What is the Bonus Swagger Tip?

Dashboarding can take a lot out of you and the right pie chart can really help boost your productivity. Take a break, make it, and call me when it’s done.  

Data Bar Conditional Formatting (My Pie Chart Alternative)

What is it?

Data bars are in the sparklines family and are new in Microsoft Excel 2010.  Data bars are tiny charts that allow you to display comparative data within a worksheet cell. You can find them in the conditional formatting section of Excel.

What is it good for?

Data bars are great for quickly displaying comparative data in small spaces.  My current favorite use for these is to create a Marketing Mix visual showing the percent of total traffic vs the percent of total conversions by channel:


What is the bonus swagger tip?

This isn’t a “swagger tip” per se, but a tip nonetheless. When creating these you’ll need to have a cell highlighted that is equal to 1 or 100%. I hide those cells on a part of the sheet that is out of the print range. If you don’t, the largest bar (51% for traffic and 54% for conversions) will take up the entire cell giving a skewed visual. It will look like this:

All Together Now! The Dashboard

Now the key is combining all these visuals into a cohesive story. That’s when building the dashboard comes into play. Pick and choose the data that will provide your meaningful and actionable story, build your visuals from this data, smash them all together on an Excel tab and tada…. instant dashboard. Here’s an example of a standard Marketing Dashboard and a Paid Media Dashboard for my dog’s world renowned fake business, Eddie’s Dog Training. Within these dashboards, you’ll see different variations of the visuals we discussed above.

The Marketing Dashboard:

The Paid Media Dashboard:

The Insight & Action:

All of these simple visuals can come together to create a powerful story that, if read correctly, can help guide a business in the direction of success. The dashboard covers the “what happened” but you still have your “why did it happen” and “what should we do” to deal with. From here, I work with the marketing team to find these stories. We review the visuals, the data, and the actions taken that month to devise an Insights and Recommendations document to go along with these dashboards. This takes the user through each visual, calls out all outliers (and the “why they occurred”), and provides next steps for optimizing. 

Wrap Up

The goal of this whole piece is to show you that simple, basic charting graphs in Excel can effectively be distinguished from the boring standard lives they’re used to living:

These visuals can come together to make an impressive dashboard that can help drive a business forward. What other visuals are you a fan of? What else can we add to our dashboarding artillery?

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