How Narrative Helps Communicate KPI Performance

For two years I worked at a large and very active agency in New York City. It was both difficult and very impactful in my career because of the grueling pace and demanding nature of clients who were used to seeing easily measurable results. In many industries, success is static. You either do what you say you’re going to do or you don’t. There’s little grey area.

But in digital marketing, there’s a lot of grey, because guarantees are difficult to provide and even more difficult to back up. It’s risky to promise a client you can improve their rank in Google for specific keywords within a specific amount of time. It’s risky to promise a certain amount of revenue growth when the value and success rate of those leads is largely dependent on factors outside the control of the marketing campaign.

But, despite the demanding nature of many clients, I had great success in keeping them not only engaged but excited about our progress. Results were generally good, but when they weren’t? The key was to be as open and honest as possible and to communicate why they weren’t, what I was going to do about it, and what we had learned from the data.

It came down to good storytelling.

What Storytelling and Client Management Have in Common

A good story provides a narrative that listeners are immediately invested in. It makes them feel something and it moves them to take action. A good story can keep someone glued to their chair for hours, devouring a book, movie, or podcast. It can keep them engaged in what might otherwise be dull topics. It can make Astrophysicists and Historians into rock stars.

And when utilized properly, it can vastly improve the quality of the relationship between client and agency. Specifically, let me tell you about monthly reporting calls.

A big part of my job the last four years has been reporting. Getting on the phone once a month and explaining to clients what we did for them, what worked, what didn’t, and what’s coming next.

And it’s really easy for these reports to become dry, number-driven affairs, especially because that’s what clients generally tell you they want. Ask any client what they want to know from their marketing agency, and they’ll say “facts”. They want to know what was done and what the results were of those actions. Did it generate revenue or not?

All of which goes into my end of month reports, but numbers alone don’t tell a story. They can fill a spreadsheet and for some time, that’s what was provided — a short one-page spreadsheet that summarized traffic, lead generation, and conversion rates. As dry as it gets. And completely without context.

Having the Conversation (Good or Bad)

The problem with this approach is that it’s so generic. Anyone can produce a spreadsheet. If your client fired you tomorrow and hired another agency, they could receive the exact same spreadsheet to track their results.

If the results are good, it offers quick confirmation and the spreadsheet goes into a folder never to be reviewed again. If the results are bad, they act only as a trigger for frustration from the client. They want to know why they are bad — the spreadsheet doesn’t show that.

So, this conversation needs to be different.

Here’s what I currently do each month when having this discussion with clients:

  1. Produce a high quality, customized deck of 8–10 slides summarizing three things:
  2. Visual charts representing traffic and contact growth for the month.
  3. A full list of what was completed for the month and what is scheduled for the next month.
  4. Paragraphs describing what happened in a given month and what we should do about it.
  5. Schedule a 30-minute phone call to review this deck, without sending it to them in advance, to ensure we are able to discuss it in real time.
  6. Invite all major stakeholders to the call to ensure everyone involved at the company feels some ownership over these results.
  7. Walk through each slide and describe what the results mean and what we should do with that information.

It’s a lot of additional effort — between 2–3 hours each month, plus any additional research or reporting needed for advanced SEO or PPC campaigns. But I do it because it builds a narrative that helps to fully explain what is happening and involve the client in those results.

I’m telling a story about their company — about what was done, what results were achieved, what we thought those results would be in advance, what they actually are, and what the difference is. Most important in all of this is context.

If you’ve been in marketing for several years and I tell you a B2B email about an upcoming tradeshow got a 30% open rate and 5% click rate, you’d know the results are good — above average with good engagement for such a specific event. But if you’re a client who has never engaged in email marketing, all you hear are two very low numbers. Less than a third of people opened it? Only 1 in 20 people clicked on something?!

If you weren’t provided ample context, you’d be kind of pissed off that your marketing company could only get 1 in 20 people on your list to click a link. This report and the discussion that happens around it allows me to provide that context, but also to explain what this means. It means we’ve been successful in this particular campaign, and will work to replicate and improve the results in future campaigns.

What if the Results Are Bad?

We have the exact same conversation.

If that same email, for example, achieved only a 14% open rate and a 0.8% click rate, the narrative would shift. We would talk about how it underperformed industry averages and that our goals likely weren’t met as a result. Beyond this, though, we would discuss how I plan to remedy this in future emails. What adjustments will we make, how we will overcome the low performance and ensure next time we are more successful.

That last piece is so important. I’ve been preaching it for years and believe it’s the one thing that separates good agencies from great ones. If you can effectively evaluate and analyze data and provide a specific action plan for each conclusion you come to, you will always have an answer. You will always be able to tell your customers what comes next. And when you make a big mistake, you can move past it that much faster.

Why did this page get deleted?
It looks like there was an issue with the server backup. We’ve identified the problem and resolved it, and I’ve followed up with all members of the team to ensure we are using the same procedure and it doesn’t happend again. The next time we make an update, I will personally oversee the change to ensure it is saved properly.

It’s not much work — a small reminder on your to do list — but it resolves the problem and explains exactly what you’re going to do next.

This approach works with almost all forms of communication. Your reports. Your sales calls. Your mea culpa when something breaks. It becomes a part of how you do business. That extra 20% of effort can mean an 80% increase in satisfaction — give it a try.


Originally published at .