Tell Me A Story: Three Tips for Communicating Marketing and Sales Analytics

Cesar A. Brea

Virtually every job description for the modern “analytic marketer” includes requirements for “strong communication skills.” In particular, what’s sought is someone who not only distinguishes signals from noise, but communicates this way: good analysts appreciate nuance, but executive audiences often don’t, preferring bottom lines as headlines.

While communication skills are written about frequently, tips for marketing and sales analytics are scarce. Here are three for getting your message through:

Tell A Story
Obviously! But how? One way is to use a framework such as Barbara Minto’s popular “Pyramid Principle,” which the world’s leading consulting firms train teams to present findings. This framework proceeds from a situational description, through a tension-building plot complication, followed by “So what are our options, and what should we do?” questions, then to answers/hypotheses for recommended action. These are supported by statements of logic and relevant facts.

How can we apply this more to marketing and sales analytics stories? While the Pyramid Principle suggests how to think, it doesn’t give you suggestions for what to look for. How do you describe marketing and sales situations? What constitutes a complication? What options typically exist, and what logical considerations inform ones to pursue?

We’ve developed questions and tools to develop insights that can be woven into a Minto-styled story:

  • How’s business? How much growth is expected, and how are you doing against that plan?
  • Let’s break that down by customer. How do you segment them, and which ones are you prioritizing?
  • What do you know about how they buy? Take me through their journey in stages -- for example, awareness, consideration, purchase, loyalty -- and tell me the most important touch points and factors at each stage.
  • How well-mapped onto those journeys are your marketing investments? Are your resources fishing where the fish are?
  • How well do your marketing investments perform (conversion rates and cost-per) in helping your target customers along dominant decision pathways in their journeys? Tell me about competitive comparisons / benchmarks, and your trends over time.
  • Where do we see the most significant mismatches in mapping, or gaps in performance?
  • What can we do immediately to open those ‘bottlenecks?’ What’s cheap, effective, proven, and flexible enough to leave our options open?
  • What, based on higher stakes and / or uncertainty, should we study further, and how -- with more or different data via research, better analysis of what we’ve got, or through experimentation?

We call the document that flows from answering these questions an “Analytic Brief.” It’s used to complement the creative briefs for marketing campaigns or programs. As marketing and sales move away from campaigns with few channel choices to continuously optimized programs across a nearly infinite range of channels, executives should insist that analytic briefs encompassing these questions be developed at the outset of campaigns, in parallel with traditional creative briefs.

Send on Multiple Wavelengths
Our research identified three major perspectives executives bring to analytic discussions. We’ve called them “Experiencers,” “Optimizers,” and “Builders;” or, for short, “Venus,” “Mars,” and “Earth.”

Note how the answers to the questions above can be woven into a story that follows a person in a sequentially ordered journey and can be plumped up visually. Together, narrative plus illustration appeal to the executives that fall into the Venus category.

In parallel, envision laying out journey stages as columns and touch points as rows, with the resulting grid creating a map. Now consider cell colors to indicate customer influence intensity, plus investment dollars in each cell, arrows between cells to indicate paths, and conversion rates along those arrows, also colored to highlight performance. The grid is visually compelling, but its real power lies in drawing in the Mars crowd as it brings a quantitative sense of proportion to the story.

Finally, consider that the grid inventories touch points and data the firm has and needs, and in that sense acts as a point of departure for functional requirements documents that the Earth people need to build solutions.

Beyond these distinctions along the analytic perspective dimension, there’s also a functional dimension to pay attention to. If you’re presenting to marketing executives, you might focus on journey steps and relevant channels upstream in a more fine-grained way. If you're presenting to salespeople, do the reverse: give them detail about the lead advancement and closing part of the process. To benchmark performance, for salespeople you might use as baselines the probabilities that a sales pipeline tracking system usually has for labeling leads.

The point is that there’s something for everyone here – and through speaking to each of the different analytic personalities, there’s a bridge for mutual understanding.

Check Your Bias
So far, so good! We have a framework for a story, and a way of presenting it that will appeal to multiple perspectives. Together, these can be really powerful.

Or, perhaps too powerful – so it’s crucial that the analyst avoids some common traps. One is to fall in love with the neatness of a story -- so much so that he or she begins to fit the facts to it, rather than have it partially describe a messy reality where data’s often in conflict.

One way to hedge this is to apply some statement of probability to your story. Another is to keep the action cycles that flow from forming a story short enough that you can quickly see whether what we’re doing is making a difference.

Deliberately keep the packaging a little messy, and transparent. Purposefully give your materials a work-in progress feeling. People tend to over-trust materials (and people!) that look very polished. Trust the bones -- the soundness of the framework and process -- to serve your audience better. Treat the facts you hang off these bones as a continuous improvement project.

These ideas will improve the discourse around what to do, and in the process to allocate scarce resources and attention more effectively. But they’re only a starting point of course. What’s worked for you?

Cesar is founder and managing partner of Force Five Partners, LLC, a marketing analytics consulting firm, and author of "Marketing and Sales Analytics: Proven Techniques and Powerful Applications from Industry Leaders"