Myths about Online Annual Reports.

Our top 3 myths about online reporting.

Ten years ago, in 2001 I first thought about how to best transform content of a printed Annual Report into an usable online version. It was a pilot project for DaimlerChrysler and aimed for no less than to reinvent the wheel. We were a bunch of people highly specialised in designing printed corporate reports and we saw hugh potential in the interactivity and global reach of the web. Put yourself in the users shoes was our main thought and never give up before you achieve your goals our work ethic.

Since then a lot has changed but our credo and ethic didn’t, it became part of our business DNA. By developing this online reporting business to what is nowadays known as the world leader of its kind, I came accross a lot of ignorance in the multi-hundred presentation/pitches/credentials.

Dragging together my top 3 myths of online reporting is more than a list, it’s a personal satisfaction:

Myth 1: An Online Annual Report is a PDF for download.

This myth is a simple beginner’s mistake. It is an innocent approach to online reporting as amazingly many people still think Adobe invented the portable document format (PDF) to view print documents on screen. In fact it is a standard for document exchange and not for use on screen.

A simple test shows best why PDF is not a suitable online format. The web is about search so Google for

In BASFs case you are taken straight to the HTML version of the Annual Report answering your question instantly as well as in detail. McDonalds offers their Annual Report just as PDF download. So you end up on secondary news portals which are taking the conversation and McDonalds credibility away. I am sure McDonalds does a lot to highlight their Cash Flow in their printed Annual Report but in a web context this effort was just wasted.

Portion of HTML Annual Reports vs. PDF/JPG since 2003

Portion of HTML Annual Reports vs. PDF/JPG

This research going back to 2003 is looking on what format 500 companies in Europe and North America are offering for their Annual Report. Though the trend towards HTML reports is obvious, still an amazing high number of companies do not care about a true online conversion of their reporting. They miss out a big opportunity to engage and interact because they simply do not exist in our growing online world.

Myth 2. Nobody reads Online Annual Reports.

This myth is one I agree up to a fine wording line, because nobody “reads” online. Online is a research media, people look things up and skim over webpages. So the question should be more like “Does anyone use Online Annual Reports”? This question I can answer with a clear YES and want to backup this with some insights, aggregated from user statistics of our growing 30+ client base.

  • In average 30,000 unique visitors per year look at an online annual report. Of course the interest is strongest straight after release, but the decline of interest towards the end of the reports primary live-time is just a 7% below the average monthly usage.
  • We see a positiv correlation between company size and unique visitors of their online reports. But equally its important how the online report is positioned within the entire corporate communications strategy. Good visibility and explanatory links from the corporate website, press releases, social media and the print report drives usage.
  • The growth of unique visitors in our reports averages around 8% per annum. This is above average website growth of around 5% p.a. according to webdata provider comScore www.comscore.com.
  • Every 3rd visitor of our online reports is referred from other (mainly search engines) than the corporate website.

In the absence of statistics from how your printed report is used, online can take the lead.

You can see from this snapshot that its easy to check back what, if and how your online report is used. Beside for answering this myth, statistics in general are a key advantage of online over print reporting. I see these user stats increasingly influencing the overall content concept of our clients reporting.

Myth 3. Online Annual Reports should focus on story telling using rich media, the notes section is dispensable.

This is a rather new opinion mainly circulated by design agencies. Facing challenging budget cuts they seem to build a case around their selfish desires? Again I want to refer to our stats to see what users really want in an online report.

Contentwise two out of three page hits go to statutory information i.e. business review and financial statements. The notes section alone accounts for 14% of all page hits, which is well above the strategy section of 5%.

From a functional point of view best received is the search tool which every 4th visitor uses. But this rather new trend might be influenced by enhancements and conceptual effort we put into this.

Search tool at Wolters Kluwer Annual Report 2010
Search tool at Wolters Kluwer Annual Report 2010

It’s evident that Annual Reports are primarily used as source for information. I strongly support the importance to develope an appealing design, improve narrative, cut clutter and tell your business story well! But still everybody should be aware of the needs and reasons why users pick up an Annual Report online.

Spread the word and keep me posted

Though lot of people see the importance of Annual Reports declining I can’t see this from our business perspective. Our online reporting business has never seen a stronger demand than now. Despite or because turbulent economic times, our clients invest into a direct communication channel to engage with their stakeholders.

With this blog post I want to gather support for a more conscious conversation about what the online report of the future should look like. I hope corporate reporting professionals will continue to spread the word and educate about good and bad online reporting – and keep me posted.

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  1. Joann, thank you for your comment! Yes, google does index PDFs if they are made accessible. But as you can see from my example links PDFs don’t get a google rating anything close to HTML. Thats why the McDonalds Report is not displayed on the top of google search results page.
    And still if I would get a link to the PDF of a 200+ page annual report the search within the PDF starts again. From a user perspective I will prefer the direct link to right webpage of a multi-hundred page report.
    When you google for a restaurant, do you open restaurant PDFs or webpages?