Arguably more annual reports will be read from a digital platform this year than ever before, even by those who have not yet opted to receive their copy digitally. This is not necessarily because print-runs will be less, it is simply because many of the offices to which the reports will be posted will not be occupied. So for most shareholders, they will be reading a report designed to be printed, yet consumed online. This may be convenient, but is it the most practical or logical solution for either the reader or issuer?
Remarkably in this day and age very few PLCs actually produce a fully interactive annual report. And to an extent this is understandable given the requirement to issue a physical hard copy to any shareholder who has not yet opted for a digital version. It is also clear from our direct experience that based on the ever decreasing numbers of reports being printed and mailed each year, most reports are now being accessed online. Yet in the majority of instances, the annual report continues to be designed, developed and produced in a format geared towards the minority i.e. for print. With measurable benefits for both the reader and issuer, we believe there is now more than ever a strong argument to support a digital-first approach to reporting.
Of course it is a fact that an exact copy of that same printed version of the Annual Report can be published online as a PDF and while not interactive, it is therefore available in a digital environment. And by adding a few hyperlinks to the contents, often embedded in a basic navigation, it would appear that an interactive annual report is magically produced! However any sense of interactivity soon disappears as the static nature of the content reveals itself as no more than a glorified PDF. Though this approach is at least better than the alternative subscription-based 'interactive' page-turner offerings, high on gimmick but lacking on accessibility.
The hybrid interactive option offers a little more pizzazz! Also referred to as the Interactive Summary Report, it is fair to say it does bring an element of interactivity by providing what might be best described as a HTML portal to the content of the report. Typically this appears as a one-page summary of the contents designed specifically for a digital presentation and often includes elements of rich media and dynamic content to engage the reader. But beyond this HTML facade, the reader is left somewhat underwhelmed as the content fizzles out into a series of yet more downloadable PDFs.
Our perspective of interactive reporting is more practical, logical and functional. Our first premise is that the contents of an annual report lend themselves very effectively to user interaction - where the reader selects how they want to navigate the content. Rarely, we suspect, is an annual report read from cover to cover in one sitting and perhaps it is more likely for the majority to never be read in their entirety at all. An interactive annual report presents information that can be accessed immediately and is entirely responsive, where the information is presented specific to the digital medium in which it is being viewed, either on desktop, tablet or mobile. Our proposition for an interactive report is where information flows dynamically, bringing life to otherwise static graphs and charts and enables rich media such as video and motion to be included. Our version of an interactive report presents ALL the information as live text, particularly the Financial Statements, where any corresponding Notes are immediately available at the click of a hyperlink. An interactive annual report should allow for content to be linked to and from other digital resources and searched and shared across other digital channels. A truly interactive annual report is in itself a standalone microsite that can be integrated into your existing corporate website structure, sitting alongside on your servers, or entirely independently hosted and monitored.
While an interactive report offers much more functionality immediately to the reader, it can also provide valuable insights to the publisher. Statistical data similar to that obtainable from any website, once correctly formatted, can inform not only your reporting approach but a broader corporate communications engagement. Most viewed pages, how long spent on each page, returning visitors and from where, all help build further understanding as to how your content is being consumed and where your investment of time is most effective, or might be better directed.
But what about those shareholders who prefer the printed copy packaged, labelled and delivered to their physical postbox? In promoting a digital-first approach, we are not suggesting a digital-only approach; we are simply suggesting that the emphasis should be geared towards the optimum communications solution for the business. At its most basic the content of the annual report is simply a database of documents, images, charts and diagrams. It lives in a secure digital environment from where it is then deployed and incorporated into the design and layout of the report. A 'digital-first, print-second' approach creates a more streamlined process in the first instance, capable of real-time client edits, and secondly, creates a workflow for the development of the print version of the annual report enabling it to be more easily and cost effectively created within the agreed schedule.
While there are many measurable stakeholder benefits to adopting a digital-first approach, including sustainability and accessibility, the fundamental argument is based just as much on a corporate communications agenda - delivering effective and concise information to a primary audience, which can then be easily shared and widely accessed in a digital age. Just like we are already in the age of the all-electric vehicle, Source is already delivering the all-interactive corporate reporting solution.