How To Report To The Higher-Up’s

By Max Thomas

Sometimes I can’t believe folks still talk about ranking reports…but they do!

It’s not a goal, it’s a metric – and an unreliable one at that. (For more information on why, see Conrad Saam’s excellent “ranking rant” post.) We do a lot of campaign strategy and execution at Thunder SEO, so reporting is somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 of campaign (at minimum). There are many agencies that do nothing but focus on reporting and understanding the tsunami of data that online marketing generates. All of this to say that effective and quality reporting is essential.

We work with medical centers, law firms, apartment communities and other lead-driven businesses where the focus is on ROI (“Return On Investment”).

I was at SMX East NYC this week. While here, I had the chance to grab some coffee with Christie Calahan who’s CMO of WheresMyMedia (a digital asset management platform for large agencies) and used to be with OMD. We were talking about presenting online marketing (as well as technology in general) to high-level executives and she made the observation:
“People won’t pay for what they don’t understand.”

I thought this was brilliant and a wonderfully simple reminder that clients must understand easily and (sometimes) quickly what’s happening. In New-York-parlance, it really boils down to “show me the money”.

Now, ROI (or “show me the money”) means different things to different people. Also, depending on the channel (take social media for example) it’s not always possible to track all the way to a sale. Even so, ROI has to speak about qualified leads and/or sales to some degree, or it’s not ROI – it’s simply a metric.

We spend a lot of our time creating reports that our direct client contact (think online marketing director, etc.) can use to evaluate the campaign as well as reports that ca be presented to their bosses to demonstrate success (or lack of), recommendations and next-steps.

While the SEO/SMM-savvy online marketing director wants to see all the metrics we track, typically the higher-up’s want a one-page report that quickly conveys what are the successes, what’s working, what’s been implemented, what merits continued investment and what should be tabled. And in some cases…doesn’t make them feel out-of-the-loop (aka “does Twitter really do anything?”).

This week I spoke at SMX East in NYC on the panel “Beyond Ranking: Actionable Reports Your Boss Will Love” with Vanessa Fox, Marty Weintraubof aimClear and Matt McGee of It was an insightful panel that demonstrated the importance of showing results that decision-makers can understand, as well as goals and actions that merit attention and action.

My presentation focused on how to frame and structure reports for decision makers. I’d like to use this post to offer a deeper explanation and review of my presentation. My hope is that this is relevant for agencies or in-house folks who support smaller clients where they deal directly with the decision maker, as well as corporate clients where they deal directly with a marketing manager (or team) who then reports to a series of VP’s, C-Level and other Higher-Up’s.

Below is a link to the presentation. Following are some highlights and further explanations.

In short, any person or team doing SEO and social media should be watching the Metrics closely, as well as the Goals. The Higher-Up’s typically need to know only the Goals (success/failure) and select Metrics that support making campaign investment decisions.

Okay, on to the Goals. This sounds easy but it’s vital that everyone is on the same page about the Goal of a campaign. The short answer is … sales! Yes, the campaign should generate more sales. So, how do we track sales if we’re lead generation (meaning phone call or form submit)? The short answer is … leads! Yes, leads are definitely what we track. Now, take it a step further and get everyone on the same page about what is a true lead. The short answer is … qualified lead! Yes, we definitely want to track all qualified leads. But for the search marketer, sometimes that’s easier said than done, primarily because it’s not always possible to get input back from the client (or sales team) which leads turn into sales. Even with fully integrated CRM solutions, it’s difficult to close the loop entirely (Note: this is a problem that online retail does NOT have – good for them).

Back to Goals, here’s a top-line list of campaign Goals to focus on:

  • Sales
  • Online conversions, sign-up’s, etc.
  • Phone calls (if using dynamic call tracking)

In addition, when it comes to Goals it’s imperative to:

  • Define them (is it a form submit, a white-paper download, a phone call, etc. – get as specific as possible)
  • Put a monetary value on them (Avinash offers great insights into the importance but an actual value to an action — it’s a powerful way to demonstrate if a campaign is working)
  • Make Goal definition a priority before starting any campaign or client relationship – without clearly defined goals, a campaign is like a ship tossed in a storm; the goals provide the anchor for any campaign.

Now, what to do when the client won’t implement a trackable goal? Beg, plead…whatever it takes to get them to setup a form, or at least something that can be tracked. You think I’m kidding, but I’m serious. Even though it won’t reflect the entire campaign, any conversion that can demonstrate the connection between the online marketing campaign and a potential customer (e.g., “conversion”) is crucial in showing to the Higher-Up’s that online marketing does indeed work. If the case happens that a trackable lead cannot be secured, then at the least determine a metric that everyone can agree on. A good search example is something like non-branded search traffic to specific practice or service pages — this at least will show that potentially new prospects (via the “non branded search visits”) are visiting the practice or service page that the campaign is focused on.

Once the goals are defined and agreed upon, then it’s much easier to organize the metrics so that they can be presented in support of the goals.

Now, what are the metrics? At Thunder SEO we track a baseline of 16 or so metrics monthly that cover KPI’s such as crawl rate, indexed pages, non-branded search traffic, goal conversions, inbound links, etc. Metrics definitely deserve their own post(s). Following is a short-list of Metrics to consider:

  • Branded vs. Non-Branded Keyword Organic Search Traffic
  • Service or Market Related Organic Search Traffic
  • Geographic (Region/City) Search Traffic
  • Inbound Links
  • Change in # of Keywords and # of Landing Pages
  • Change in Crawl Rate and Indexed Content
  • Lost Links, 404 Errors, etc.
  • Conversions by traffic source

Now that we have our goals and metrics, what’s the proper report format (drum-roll please):

  1. Executive Summary (1-2 pages)
  2. Metrics/KPIs (Appendix – as long as necessary)

I know it’s not fancy (and very familiar) but it really is as simple as that.

As for the Executive Summary, here’s a general framework we’ve found very effective – we call it the Goal – Strategy – Progress – Data summary:


  1. What are our goals?
  2. How are we achieving them?
  3. Did we reach our goals?
  4. Key Takeaways
  5. Recommendations Going Forward (TBD)

As you can see, it clearly defines what’s happening so someone higher-up can easily grasp what this online marketing investment is, and is it working. In addition, this one-pager should be created so that it can be passed upstairs by the marketing director or team. When creating this report, here are some suggestions:

  • Break-out every goal in pieces that a lay-person can understand. Be as specific as possible.
  • Try to limit the report to 3-5 goals if possible. Too many and Higher-Up’s might stop reading.
  • Use charts and graphs as often as possible. Don’t make them read too much detail.
  • When it comes to charts, try to show only one variable in the Executive Summary. Save the multi-variable charts for the Appendix.
  • Use your best judgement about including Recommendations for Going Forward. While you might create these for the marketing director, they may not always be appropriate for the Higher-Up’s.

Annie Cushing of BlueGlass mentioned in her presentation at SMX East that at her previous job as an in-house analyst she had less than 3 minutes to convey what’s happening to the Executives. That sounds like a good rule-of-thumb to me. That’s a little longer than an elevator pitch…but not much. Be straightforward and clear as possible.

As we’ve all experienced, there’s a wide range of understanding about SEO and social media, and online marketing in general. One of the best ways to build an ongoing and fruitful relationship with a client is to listen to them closely, and to put yourself in their shoes. Pay attention to what they express as their pain points as well as their “value points”. Also pay attention to what their expectations are and what information helps them not only understand the campaign, but also do their job.

To revisit Christie Calahan, always remember that clients won’t pay for what they don’t understand. Make it easy for them.

For more insights and resource on reporting, I highly recommend the following blogs and thought leaders:

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Max Thomas

By Max Thomas

Max is a nationally recognized digital marketing specialist who is an expert on search engine optimization and data-driven digital marketing who has spoken at SMX and SMX Advanced, LMA Southeast, LMA Tech in San Francisco, WordCamp and other industry recognized conferences. As the founder and CEO of ThunderActive, Max has lead his team (with offices in San Diego and New York City) to success for clients in legal, real estate, life sciences, consumer goods and new tech. A Columbia undergraduate with a Yale MBA, Max is an Impact Circle Member for The Trevor Project and is an advisor to start-up companies and angel investment networks, including Gaingels and Serval Ventures in New York.

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