What are Data Reports? + 3 Keys to High-Quality Reports

Kelly Kirwan on August 13th 2021

Data reporting is not unlike news reporting. A journalist gathers information about a story from various sources, then selects what information is most relevant and important to their readers to create an article. In the end, the journalist should have an objective representation of a situation.

You do the same when you create a data report. You gather data from a variety of sources, then select which is most relevant to your audience to (in the end) create an objective report, usually in a business context.

The similarities don’t end there. Several articles and a book declared “we’re all journalists now” in the early 2000s. Computers, phones, blogs, and social media gave everyone the tools to report, write, and publish to an audience.

In recent years, virtual dashboards, data visualization tools, and centralized customer data platforms like Segment have done the same for data reporting. Which is to say: “We’re all data reporters now.” Here’s what you need to know about data reports:

  • What is data reporting?

  • What are the benefits of data reporting?

  • What types of data reports are there for businesses?

  • Three keys to high-quality data reporting

  • The foundation of successful data reporting: data accuracy

What is data reporting?

Data reporting is the process of organizing and curating information into a format that makes it easier to digest and understand than if you looked at the original, raw data. The result of these efforts is data reports. Data reports usually take the form of tables, graphs, and charts, often bundled in static presentations or business intelligence dashboards that update information in real-time.

Data reports help the recipient better understand a situation and frequently form the basis for important decision-making and follow-up actions. Often such action is further analysis to make specific recommendations, so data reporting often gets confused with data analysis. They go hand in hand, but they’re not the same thing.

There is a clear separation at traditional newspapers between the news people—the reporters—and the opinion people—the columnists. Reporters are objective and report facts. Columnists are subjective and give their opinions. The relation between people creating data reports and data analysts is similar: Reporting uncovers and summarizes objective information, whereas data analysis is subjective—it uses that information to form recommendations and opinions.

What are the benefits of data reporting?

Data reporting, when done well, distills the essential information about a complicated situation or endeavor in a format that’s easy for the reader to grasp. This characteristic of data reports makes them indispensable for modern organizations, as they provide executives and other departments with the information they need to make plans and decisions.

Communicate complex information quickly

Good data reports communicate complex information quickly, which saves their readers time and makes it easier to understand a topic or situation they’d otherwise couldn’t.

Data reports accomplish this distillation of complex information in two ways:

  1. Curation. They present relevant data to the reader while leaving out or summarizing information that’s not helpful.

  2. Visualization. They turn endless rows of numbers in a database into tables, charts, and graphs, making the information more accessible for the reader.

Monitor business performance at a glance

Data reports can take inputs from across the organization and summarize what's essential for the recipient in one place, often in real-time. This mission-control-like overview allows managers to monitor the data that's important to them to answer business questions and spot problems as soon as—or sometimes even before—they arise.

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Another advantage of using dashboards for data reporting is that you can share them with stakeholders and tailor them to specific audiences. An executive might have an overview displaying high-level data from every department. In contrast, finance and marketing can have their own reports that go deeper into their specific areas of responsibility and expertise.

Highlight patterns and relations to uncover insights

Data reports can spark insights in their readers when they spot patterns and relations, even when the report doesn’t include specific recommendations—the realm of data analysis.

Say an executive’s dashboard shows a drop in marketing spending for the past three months and fewer applicants in the HR section of the report during the same period. The trend in those two charts suggests a relationship between marketing efforts and recruiting. Leadership can follow up this insight with further analysis or a specific experiment to test the correlation between the two.

What types of data reports are there for businesses?

Businesses rely on data reporting at every level, and so reports appear in many forms and sizes. On the smaller side, we have the real-time dashboard for the product team with usage data or the internal monthly sales report. More extensive reports include the annual shareholder report and research studies into the feasibility of a new strategic direction for the company.

Below we’ve listed the most common types of business reports.

Customer analytics

Customer analytics reports help companies understand—and, ideally, anticipate—customer needs. Such reports can show spending levels, product usage, likelihood to churn, or purchase preferences, to give just a few examples. They’re essential for product, marketing, and customer support teams but are often helpful for other departments, too. Reports can now provide a single view of the customer that’s updated in real-time and accessible across the organization.

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Source: Qualtrics

KPIs and OKRs

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) help teams set goals and measure their progress based on a set of predefined metrics. These goals and metrics can be visualized in a report that, these days, is often updated in real-time. Such reports take the shape of a virtual dashboard, sometimes displayed on a monitor teams hang in their rooms, so they instantly see how they’re doing compared to their objectives.

Financial reports

Financial reports give an overview of the companies’ financial situation. They can include historical data, like the annual report or a monthly breakdown of revenue and expenses. There are also financial reports that look ahead, like a cash flow forecast or a budget for the coming years.

Some question the usefulness of long-term financial forecasts—most notably investor Warren Buffett, who said: “I have no use whatsoever for projections or forecasts. They create an illusion of apparent precision. The more meticulous they are, the more concerned you should be.” However, most financial reports are critical for operating any business because they give you an understanding of how much money is coming in and where you’re spending it, allowing you to make corrections where necessary.

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Source: Corporate Finance Institute

Research reports

Research reports often set out to find extensive answers to a predefined question, like “Is there a market for our product in country X?” or “What do potential customers think of feature Y?” Sometimes, they’re relatively informal because an internal team handles them. At other times such reports are massive undertakings that involve external agencies, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and many months of work.

Research reports are most at risk of defying the definition we’ve given earlier of data reports—that they organize information so it’s easy to digest—because they tend to turn into tomes with too much irrelevant information for the reader. But, when done well, they’re treasure troves of insights that inform strategic business decisions, product roadmaps, or PR and marketing campaigns.

Three keys to high-quality data reporting

Data reporting is like storytelling. You need to understand your audience, have sources of unique information to make your story compelling, and present it appealingly and appropriately.

Know what you’re looking for and for whom

The first step in creating a helpful data report is understanding what question you’re trying to answer. A specific question helps you prioritize relevant information for your final report.

You also need a clear picture of whom you’re answering that question for, as the target audience determines which data is relevant and how to present it.

Know where to get your information

Once you understand the question you want to answer with your data report, you’ll need to determine where you can find the most reliable information to form that answer. In most businesses, this might involve navigating a complex web of tools and databases spread across many departments, making it challenging to find the information and verify its accuracy.

A Customer Data Platform (CDP) like Segment pays enormous dividends here. Segment Connections ensure you have a centralized, unified data source for all your organization’s departments where they can collect, access, and utilize the same data with different tools. This centralization allows you to find the information you need to create your report quickly.

Know how to present and structure your information

Presenting and structuring your data reports involves picking the most relevant information and then visualizing that data in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the reader to grasp. Such visualization goes beyond creating a chart, graph, or PowerPoint (PPT)—table stakes in modern data reporting. You’ll need to build virtual dashboards, use data visualization tools, and connect them to a centralized data platform like Segment.

The foundation of successful data reporting: data accuracy

“We’re all journalists now” has taken on another meaning amid an abundance of misinformation in recent years. Everyone needs one essential skill of the journalist, even if you don’t want to do any reporting yourself: the ability to distinguish fact from fiction to verify the accuracy of a story.

Anyone dealing with data reports faces the same challenge. Now that it’s easy to put together a dazzling report without the help of an expert that verifies data’s accuracy, that onus—of distinguishing fact from fiction—is on you, as either the creator or the reader.

Luckily, technology like Segment can take on a lot of this fact-checking responsibility for anyone creating data reports. Segment Protocols lets you create a global, standardized Tracking Plan for your organization, ensuring you collect data across channels, platforms, and tools in a consistent format. When your data is standardized with Segment, it guarantees the accuracy of your data so you can deliver trusted information to all business units for their data reports.

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