Urban Myth: Report Automation is only for Trackers – E-Tabs White Paper


There is a natural assumption that the concept of report automation is only useful when replacing repetitive, manual tasks. This paper explores the wider benefits of deploying automated reporting for the market research industry and concludes that the significant benefits of report automation can apply in many different areas, not just the obvious “low hanging fruit” of wave/tracking studies, but even adding major value to one-time ad-hoc projects.

1.       Wave or Tracking Studies

Clearly the “no brainer” type of project. Automating the reporting on any study which is repeated wave after wave will see an ROI in the short to medium term. Set-up for the first wave may take a similar amount of time when compared with manual methods, however the populating of reports on subsequent waves will be a small fraction of the time invested on the first one.

Bear in mind:

Automation needn’t be restricted to new projects or the first wave. Just because you didn’t automate it from the outset, that doesn’t preclude you from automating it now. Want a definition of insanity? Continuing to make the same mistake and expecting things to improve!

Consider this typical ROI example:

Quarterly brand tracking study with minimal change from wave to wave: 50 slide PowerPoint presentation, good mix of simple charts and summary tables, and a number of complex charts showing statistical significance, trends, etc. Initial set-up time for automating – 2 days. Populating and updating each subsequent quarter – 15 minutes! (And no manual data entry errors!)

Common objection:

Our tracker changes each wave, brands come in and go out, questions removed / added; we want to highlight changes with time and show our recommendations.  Firstly, if set-up properly at the outset, the automated project can be “prepared” to accommodate change. Allowance is made for changes that couldn’t be anticipated. Secondly, consider this… Even if you ‘only’ have stability in 50% of the report, isn’t it worth automating that 50%, reaping the time, cost and accuracy savings, and then after dealing with the remaining 50% having the luxury of time on your hands to put more value into the whole presentation?

2. Concept/Ad/Copy Testing

Although often commissioned on an ad-hoc basis, for many companies these projects are pretty much standardised in their ‘template’. The key differences would typically be number of concepts/ads tested, question wording, etc.

In this case, a standard report ‘shell’ is prepared and the relevant concepts, images, and question text automatically inserted with each subsequent test.

Clearly depending on the complexity of your typical report template, more thought and preparation may be required at the outset, but the end result can be tailored to deliver near, or completely ready client deliverables. The master project can include various screen prompts that guide non-technical users through the ‘information gathering’ process before populating the ‘shell’ accordingly.

3. Syndicated Projects

Clearly one of the key benefits of a syndicated study is that multiple clients buy into the same survey, and typically each client would receive an identical (or near-identical) report. Now imagine you’re running a project on behalf of several banks – wouldn’t it be nice to add value to each member’s report if you could automatically tailor each of them according to their brand? Re-ranking tables and charts to always place their brand on top, highlighting it, comparing the difference of their brand versus competitors, actually re-formatting each report with the appropriate colours, logos, branding, and more? Essentially providing the client with a custom report for the price of a syndicated one?!

4. Omnibus Surveys

This couldn’t be simpler – set up a master template/shell, and automatically populate it with the relevant number of charts for each question asked. The presentation will grow according to the questions and charts needed.

5. Multiple reports for the same study

This would apply to multi-segment reports; multi-country, regional, departmental, category, product …. Just set up one master report, and then re-populate it according to the number of reports required, each with its relevant ‘slice’ of the overall data.

Some of the biggest gains will come from loyalty research; customer or employee satisfaction studies. And don’t think for one moment that just because it’s “cookie cutter” style, that you can’t customise each report generated! Comparisons against norms, performance targets, regional/national values, highest, lowest, you name it – and the automation can calculate and highlight those values and differences.

6. Custom/ad-hoc surveys – YES it does make a difference!

Perhaps the biggest myth that needs exploding here is that report automation isn’t suitable for ad- hoc reporting. The problem with this common misconception is the mindset and business vision with many charting or reporting environments. Of course each project is different, of course the charts will change, of course you will need to “build the story line” as you go along. But does that really prevent automation from making a difference? We believe it shouldn’t, and here are 6 thought provoking reasons for that belief:

(i) Create time when you’re up against the clock

What are you going to do when the ultimate delivery date cannot be moved, and yet fieldwork has dragged on and on to the point where DP won’t be able to run the final tabs until Friday afternoon, and the finished deck of 100 slides is due to the client by close of business on Monday?

Well there’s always the option of having a couple of researchers donate their weekend for the better good, and risk the typo errors that will inevitably creep in due to having to burn the candle at both ends…. Or, how about using the fieldwork time (often several days or weeks!) to prepare the report template, set-up the charts and formatting that will ultimately need to be completed, and then click GO on that Friday afternoon and sit back and enjoy watching each and every slide, chart and table come to life with the final numbers? Nice thought eh? And it’s very real, and very attainable.

(ii) Minimise your risk with the ultimate Insurance Policy

Cast your mind back to the scenario mentioned previously, except you hadn’t made the most of your fieldwork time, and it’s now Monday morning. You’ve just put in a 40 hour weekend and exhibited an incredible sigh of relief at 5am when you completed the chart on the last slide. You squeezed in 2 hours sleep, and while checking your emails upon arrival at the office there’s one marked urgent from your DP supplier, it reads “I hope you didn’t use those tables I sent you on Friday; the data wasn’t weighted properly; please use the attached banner deck instead…” Your vocabulary of available expletives can’t keep up with the demand!!

However, it needn’t be that catastrophic, since the truth is you decided on Friday to set up the report to be automatically populated from those tables “just in case”. Now it’s time to cash in on that insurance policy. By all means scream at the DP exec to get the message across, but then change the data source to the correct set of tabs, and run the automation again. Within an hour all 100 slides are re-populated, values re-ranked, indicators automatically calculated and re-positioned, and you’re the happiest person on earth! You now take a long lunch break, chill out, and return to the office to click send on the finished presentation.

(iii) Offer your clients more for less

How about a top-line report which will essentially look the same as the final set of charts, but based on interim data?

No big deal – your template has already been setup and you can re-populate it as many times as you wish!

(iv) Not sure which data you’re going to chart to show the story in your final report?

How about automatically over-charting and then simply cherry-picking the ones you wish to keep.

(v) Leverage a one-time project for possible re-use

Be prepared for that client to turn around and ask you to repeat that same project for a subsequent wave! A dream come true when the reporting has already been set-up and you’ll save yourself all those hours next time around. You can even pro-actively offer repeat reporting at a competitive rate.

(vi) Add polish to an existing report!

Already have a report but need to make some ‘global’ changes to it? Change all occurrences of your clients branding to their new logo? Change the colour of any bar with their brand to match their corporate colour? Re-rank every table or chart? Add, change or re-format all significance indicators? Even if you hadn’t automated the actual data population you can still apply conditional formatting on manually posted slides.

Some considerations for project set-up times

For several reasons, the amount of time the initial set-up takes will depend largely on the pattern and content of the presentation slides themselves rather than the size of presentation and number of slides:

– You’ll be reusing concepts over and over. If you had to think as to how to achieve a specific objective, then once that conclusion has been drawn, the next time you need to apply it will only take seconds.

– Projects vary in complexity – a 200 slide presentation where most of the slides are the same, but just based on different questions, categories, etc. may only take an hour to set up, whereas a 30 slide presentation requiring complex stat testing on every chart, a fair amount of conditional formatting and data manipulation and very different requirements from slide to slide could take a day or more in set-up time.

In conclusion

With profit margins being squeezed and research companies finding themselves grappling for ways to streamline their operations, find greater efficiencies and be more competitive, there has never been a better time to implement automated reporting and charting processes. When you consider that quite apart from the reduction in manual data hand-posting, improved accuracy and faster project turnaround, report automation actually creates more time, thus enabling even smaller research vendors to take on more business and compete for large, complex projects that would otherwise have been considered out of their league – The bottom line – a massive Return On Investment, time after time.