Driving business with dashboards

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You know the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words? Fans of marketing dashboards say the slogan is most true about these report-generating tools, which graphically depict a company's marketing and operational performance through the use of simple gauges and scales.

"Marketing dashboards are the appropriate visualization of the underlying data," said Pat LaPointe, managing partner for consultancy MarketingNPV. LaPointe added that an increasing use of dashboards is being driven, "as never before, by the level of scrutiny on marketing return-on-investment."

As in automobiles, marketing dashboards are exactly what the term implies: a series of digital gauges, dials or buttons on a computer screen indicating critical functions within the marketing or operations world. They are graphical overlays on databases, giving quick visual clues about what's happening in real time.

"You want the dashboard to look outside marketing, too," said Jason Burby, director of analytics and optimization for Web analytics company Zaaz, which creates dashboards for Alcoa, Ford and other major companies. "You could be doing a great marketing job, but a poor job on service, or fulfillment or customer satisfaction. It all comes back to the principles that drive the business."

Dashboards are naturals when linked to Web activities. LogoWorks, a business services company, has built its own dashboards on top of a Web analytics application called SiteCatalyst, by Omniture. The dashboards measure Web impressions, click-throughs, conversion and keyword positions, as well as e-mail messages sent, delivered and opened.

"I'm a firm believer in managing by metrics, but it's imperative you look at the relationship among those metrics," said Brian Bond, VP-product management at LogoWorks. "A lower number of Web impressions and conversions might show negative trends, but sitting next to that gauge may be another that shows online advertising costs are going up," he said. "The relationship between these may tell me I've got wrong positioning or products.

Dashboards can be home-grown, using the graphing and charting capabilities of Excel spreadsheets, for example. There also are specialized software applications. Howard Products, a manufacturer of wood care products, recently contracted with Rainmaker Group to install Rainmaker's Accelerated Analytics, a Web-based dashboard application to monitor purchase order and sales data, in addition to inventories.

The process "allows us to quickly come up with exceptions reports showing when our customers' inventory levels are too low," said Steve Pugh, VP at Howard Products. Pugh said he can immediately identify quick-selling stores or regions, or even individual products.

"I did that just yesterday with a customer we rolled out nationwide," Pugh said. "I can just hit a button and dump sales figures to a spreadsheet with colors, then direct it to the buyer saying we can do one blanket order to bring him up to speed."

At Howard Products, there are different dashboards for different folks?generalized big-picture versions for top executives, team-oriented ones for regions, and job-specific ones for individual sales reps.

Defining dashboards

The quickly evolving world of marketing dashboards may be confusing to potential users. Complicating things is that sales force automation and customer relationship management tools have enhanced reporting capabilities that their manufacturers call dashboards. Even software giant Microsoft Corp. has added what it calls dashboards as monitoring devices for its new Office Live suite of Web-based office functions.

"What separates a graphical Web-based report from a dashboard from a portal? I don't think anyone has a clear answer to that yet," said Laura Ramos, VP at Forrester Research. "But in the end, it all comes back to the quality of your customer data. If your data are good, you can put a dashboard on the front and take some action on it. But if the data are crummy, a dashboard will just expose that they're crummy."

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