{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Freeing Yourself From Reporting Nightmares

In this week’s In-Ear Insights, Katie and Chris discuss companies and individuals stuck in reporting nightmares. Why do we keep behaving like reporting vending machines, cranking out report after report, instead of focusing on building reporting systems that let our stakeholders get what they want, when they want it? Why are marketers resistant to automation, and what are some first steps towards embracing automation you can take to free yourself from reporting nightmares?


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{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Free Yourself From Reporting Nightmares

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Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the episode.

Christopher Penn
Today, in this week’s in In-Ear Insights, we’re talking fundamentally about automation.

So we’re having, doing some work last week with a client and looking at this massive spreadsheet of all these reports and spreadsheets and things like that.

And in reviewing this, one of the things I thought was, Why are we Why is this this organization creating, you know, one off reports for every single ask, it’s so time consuming, and really not the best use of talent when you look at the collection of requests and say You could just put this in a dashboard, you could put this in like Google Data Studio, or Tableau or Domo, or the dashboarding system of your choice and hand it to the users.

As long as it’s well designed, they should be able to figure out what it is with minimal explanation.

But then they can self serve.

They can get their data whenever they want it as often as they need it.

And most importantly, for the analyst, you don’t have to essentially be the report machine.

You know, the report then machine people come in and put it on, put a coin in pull, push some buttons, and you spit out a report.

So Katie, why is it that organizations and people and and analysts are stuck in this space of I got to be the report vending machine, I got to spit the thing out, I got to do the thing.

Instead of taking a step back and going, how can I make a system that will solve these requests forever, which will make everybody happy because I see analysts won’t be spitting out reports like a like a little, you know, crank box toy, and the users won’t have to wait, you know, hours.

days maybe to get the information they need so they can make decisions faster.

Katie Robbert
There’s definitely a couple of different reasons.

So one is, you know, depending on how large your team is, you may not realize that that’s what’s happening at all.

It may be a, I’m constantly behind the eight ball, I just need to get the thing done.

I don’t have time to think about the historical work that I’ve already done to say, I’ve done this report six times over, why do I have to do it again? So that’s one scenario.

Another scenario is maybe use the analyst say, Hey, I already did this report for the sales team.

Do you want to just use that report? And the marketing team says, No, I have a unique set of needs.

I need to know exactly how this affects me personally, do this uniquely for me.

And so there’s sort of the that’s the second reason and then the third reason, probably the most common reason is will I automate myself out of a job? And I think that there’s a lot of psychology that comes into this kind of a conversation because You’re talking about basically automating away the thing that you’re getting paid to do.

Therefore, if it’s automated and you’re not doing it, what are you doing instead? And I think that that is probably the most common followed by, there is not enough time to step back and see that you already have this wide library of reporting.

You know, not everybody knows how to automate, not everybody knows how to pull it into Google Data Studio, tell the story, oh, I can just spin up a dashboard, and it automatically works for me.

Not everybody has the right systems in place to do that.

So there’s a lot of different factors as to why these things aren’t being done.

And once you can understand why, then you can start to solve for how do I fix it moving forward? Do I even want to fix it? So from where we sit? We always you know, we come at it from a different perspective.

We always say yes, you do want to fix it, because the more you automate, the more time you have to do other valuable things.

tasks, but we’re coming at it from an outside perspective, internally, there may be some hesitation, well, I don’t know if there are other valuable tasks for me to be doing.

I used to work with a very large data team.

And it was a struggle for years, myself and the director of engineering would approach them probably about once a quarter and say we have some ideas for automation, for how you’re reporting, which takes 60 days from start to finish, for one report, to be automated, and I got constant pushback from the team.

And, you know, over time, we finally realized that they didn’t want to automate any of it because then they didn’t have the leg to stand on to say we need more money.

We’re doing some very, you know, special, unique snowflake work, whatever the thing was, if we had automated it, the rest of the company would have been able to see that they didn’t need 10 people on the team that they probably only need about two or three.

Christopher Penn
So let’s let’s unpack that because I think I can see that both ways.

When I was in high school, I worked as a summer admin at at&t and one of my jobs there, which was awful was to take 700 pages of printed paper every day, tally up the number of people who had rejoined at&t from like MCI or sprint back at the time on post it notes and then put that together into a spreadsheet that then got email that got printed out and handed off to the my next command.

That took seven and a half hours a day.

I said, this is really stupid.

You’re printing out a spreadsheet, walking it two floors down so that I can rekey in the information.

Can you just email me the spreadsheet and this was in the early 1990s.

And person was like, what’s email like it’s this in draft coming up.

But what ended up happening was I got to the point where this person emailed me the spreadsheet, I built a Visual Basic macro, super simple.

Back then the just did the thing for me.

And so within five minutes of my workday, I was essentially done with the day’s worth of work, I spent the rest of the day wandering around the building aimlessly, which is great for as a summer intern, obviously, they no longer need that position, because five minutes to work with one push of a button.

But the other side is if you stop being the system and you create the system, someone has to maintain the system and the more automation you create, the more complex the system gets until you reach a point where the system cannot function without you as the maintainer and operator of it.

And so increases at least from my perspective, increases your job security because now nobody knows how the heck the thing works.

Except you and and you’ve clearly demonstrated it’s indispensable.

And so I don’t I don’t understand the mindset of if I do this out of my myself out of a job and stuff.

If I do this, I’ll be even more indispensable.

How do you how do you resolve that? That brain space?

Katie Robbert
Well, I guess I want to take a step back for a second.

And not everybody knows where to start how to automate.

So you know, you’re talking about creating macros in my brain, like, do I even know how to create a macro? I don’t know that I do.

Or if I do, it’s buried deep within the recesses of my brain.

And so, you know, you, Chris are unique in the fact that you approach everything with, I can solve this with code, because you know how to code or that’s just how your brain is sort of wired to think about solving a problem.

A lot of marketers aren’t wired that way, or they’ve never had an opportunity to think about it that way.

And so that’s where I think the hesitation is, is perhaps they see that automation might be a solution, but they don’t even know where to start.

You know, and so we’ve talked with a lot of clients and a lot of other marketers where, yes, they’re aware of Google Data Studio, but they don’t know how to start with a system like that.

Whereas to you and I, it’s a very simple system.

But we’ve been working with it for a long time.

So I think before we can get into how do we, you know, sort of the psychology, where does someone even start? If they know nothing about automation? I mean,

Christopher Penn
to me, you start with curiosity, you have to have that, that impulse to say, How can I do this better? You know, the rule encoding is you should never copy and paste more than twice, right? If you copy and paste more than twice, twice, you should be writing, you know, a routine before it.

But the very beginning of your journey starts with that curiosity of Is there a better way to do this? One of the perennial cliches is there’s an app for that, right.

There’s an app for everything.

There’s a reason why the MAR tech landscape has an 8000 solutions on it because there literally is an app for that whatever that is.

And so, I would say the for the knowledge technical person, the first step on the journey is just to ask the question, is there an app for that? Is there a way to do this in an automated fashion and start googling, you know, even if it’s something as simple as when I do my month, my morning blog post, I have a keyboard shortcut because there’s an app that just lets you store essentially templates, right? And instead of having to copy and paste from a an Evernote notebook or whatever, just hit two keys on my keyboard, it spits out my blog template, okay, that’s not fully automated, but it’s, it saves me 510 15 minutes a day.

And if folks start thinking, Oh, what are the things I just do over and over and over again, is there a way to at least automate some of it to start trimming away not, you know, just open up our studio or Jupiter notebook and start writing code? that’s unrealistic.

But could I create a keyboard shortcut that just copies and pastes my email signature, I created a keyboard shortcut that would put up a blog post templates.

I don’t have to do this.

You’ve been doing a tremendous amount with Asana.

task management software in terms of like, Here’s just the templates for how we do this sort of thing so that it’s not a machine doing all of it.

But it’s a defined process.

And there are ways they’re compressed some of the tasks into easily copy paste of things.

So I would say that’s the start of it.

How do you think about when you’re building a system of processes, making it efficient and, and repeatable

Katie Robbert
documentation? That’s where I always start.

And so because I am someone where I can’t just abstractly visualize something, I can’t start googling for a question.

I need to start to write out what the heck am I even doing? And so for me, it always starts with, Alright, let me literally write out step by step.

What I am doing in this thing to see, you know, do I do the same stuff more than once and I, you know, we get you and I get to the same conclusion, we just approach it a bit.

Because I need to see okay, step one, open your browser.

Step two, find this application.

Step three, click on this button.

And so that’s the way that my brain needs to process it.

But once I get that system, you know, set up those steps right now, then I can start to see Oh, okay, now, I’m going to highlight this step here, because this is where I might be able to save myself some time.

This is where I maybe might be doing it the long way.

It makes me think back to when I was running the development team.

You know, we also had QA under us and one of the quote unquote, newer things to the team, not to the industry, in general was automated testing.

And so we would struggle with our release dates because the way that the software was built, we had to test it on a variety of different operating systems and browser combination.

All the way from like Windows 95, windows, you know, 10, I think we were on or Windows XP, which was a horrendous thing.

But we forget about that now.

But the point being is that we also had to been tested on Firefox and Internet Explorer and Chrome.

And so all those different combinations.

And so we had two people in our QA department, testing all of those different combinations plus trying to juggle the priorities of other product teams around the company.

And so one day we were talking and somebody said, Did you know that we could build automated test scripts, and we all just sort of took an audible gasp and said, What? And it became this debate of like, Well, you know, can we trust the automation and what does that mean? And so eventually, we were able to come to a consensus that we could automate some of the testing, the very routine testing where you basically go in a straight line through the website and the product, and that the QA engineers would test the new stuff.

Because you always need to make sure you’re testing the original stuff to make sure it doesn’t break.

And it was an interesting process to go through.

Because I learned a lot about the psychology of the team, the insecurities of the team.

What happens if I’m automating, but once they sort of got over that hump of automation wasn’t the enemy.

It freed up so much more time of the QA team and the development team to do more and more things.

And they kept saying, what else can we automate? What else can we automate? And so we almost kind of created this automation monster.

But it took a lot of documenting what’s happening, making sure there was a lot of transparency and it wasn’t something that happened overnight.

It took quite a few months for us to get up and running with this automation.

And I think that’s sort of the other thing I think about when approaching automation is it’s not an instantaneous solution is something that does take planning is something that does take maintenance.

You can’t just, you know, declare automation and suddenly everything is working on its own like little, you know, magical machine cogs.

Like you have to put a lot of thought into it.

Christopher Penn
I think it’s a really good example because it speaks to that very binary mindset.

A lot of people operate in either you’re not automated or you’re fully automated and you’re out of a job immediately, right.

And it’s much more like cooking like you don’t walk into the kitchen as somebody who’s untrained and immediately make a five course meal, right? You start with making toast or boiling some water for for pasta, and you know, yes, there are some people who do manage to burn boiling water, but for the most part, you start small you start in little phases and you work your way up to eventually be able to cook a large dinner or for dinner party, things like that.

And automation i think is no different where if you’re trying to go from zero to using Watson Studio, yeah, you’re gonna fail, right there’s you’re not going to succeed because it’s it’s too big a jump But if you go from no automation to, let’s just start copying and pasting our templates instead of manually typing everything.

And then you move to one of there’s a app that I can use as a keyboard shortcut to paste my template for me.

And then you go to, I wonder if there’s an app that will schedule that for me.

So I don’t even have to remember to do that.

And you like you said, You ladder your way up.

I think there’s two different sorts of personalities, maybe more than two.

But I think we, we sort of embody that, well, there’s the process person who can write out the thing, and then diagnose and say, like, here’s where these things go, are clearly repetitive.

And then there’s sort of like the technology and tools person who goes, Well, I have a tool for that I have a tool that can do that.

I have a tool that can do that.

And you kind of need both.

Where I think a lot of marketers fall down is that the non technical marketer doesn’t have that buddy in it or marketing technology that they have beers with on a Friday and say, hey, how would How would you tackle this? Right? How would you do this thing Hey, have you ever run across a tool that does this? And I think that’s a great place to get started.

is having that person go? Oh, well, yeah, you could just write, you know, a three line macro would do that for you.

And then and now you’re starting to have the language you need to be able to say, okay, there’s a thing called macros.

How do I start googling for what is a macro? How do I use macros? And that I think will help people start their journeys?

Katie Robbert
Well, you just hit upon two specific things that I want to talk about.

So one, you mentioned templates.

Templates are probably the easiest baby step into automation.

And so, you know, if you’re creating the same report month over month, and what you’re finding after a few months is the only thing changing is a couple of numbers.

Stop recreating it from scratch.

And I know that, you know, a lot of marketers might be rolling your eyes like Yeah, no kidding.

But it’s amazing where what you know, versus what Do are two very different things and it is a discipline.

And so knowing that you should create a template and having an using a template, you know, that’s a really easy step into automation.

And you’ll find like, okay, the narrative never changes.

The executive summary never changes, the intro never changes.

So why am I recreating it every single time trying to, you know, wordsmith it to make it sound new and fun and interesting, when I know my executives don’t even read it.

That’s a whole separate issue.

That’s a separate thing.

You know, so start with a template start with an email template.

This is actually something I was talking about with one of our contractors, she said, Well, if you just have an email template, then I can send out the email on your behalf.

And I’ll just use the template and I was like, Oh, yeah, I guess I don’t have to rewrite it every single time and then, you know, and it was just one of those like, aha moments.

If that will save me, not a lot of time, but it will save me some time.

And eventually, these things, these tiny little small moments of automation add up to a bigger amount of time.

You know, the other thing, I guess there’s two other things, Chris, that you had mentioned was starting too big.

And I think that that’s where a lot of those automation projects or those attempts fail, is trying to automate everything all at once, when really start small and pick those little moments that you feel very comfortable with.

Like if I just automate this one thing.

That will save me a little bit of time, if I decide to make these two things that will save me some time.

The third thing I just wanted to touch upon, Chris, that you had mentioned was, you know, marketers having that friend, that technical minded friend, I think the trap that a lot of us fall into is we think we need to know, all of it solely ourselves.

And so if I’m a more traditional offline marketer, and I don’t know a lot about digital, I immediately assume what I know To You know, learn everything I can about digital, I need to learn everything I can about tech in it and solve this problem myself when to your point, Chris, that’s really not true.

There are a lot of other people out there who are willing to help and collaborate.

And automation a lot of times is a collaborative effort.

And so don’t be afraid to ask around.

Have Has anyone done this? Or do you know of any tools? Or, you know, whatever the question is, I guess the fourth thing is when I go out for beers on a Friday night, I’m not talking about work.

Christopher Penn
That’s fair.

Well, if we’re just paying for it, you could talk about talk America.

How’s that? Fair enough.

I think that’s a great point to wrap up on, which is, you know, use the power of the community who have access to and if you don’t have access to a community, I’ll put in a quick plug here.

Go join the Trust Insights analytics for marketers Slack, go to Trust slash analytics for marketers is over 1000 marketers and they’re asking all kinds of tech To go and non technical questions about marketing analytics, I had a question this morning about how do how do you benchmark a company for Acquisition compared to its peers? Lots of questions.

So if you have these technical questions like hey, has anyone ever done x stop on by and asked totally free to join? That’s dot AI slash analytics for marketers.

If you have questions about this episode or any other over to the website, dot AI, drop us a line and say hi and we’ll talk to you soon take care want help solving your company’s data analytics and digital marketing problems.

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