The introduction of new media brought a simultaneous shift in communication strategies – a shift which undoubtedly affects corporate reporting as well. A printed report can no longer be the centerpiece of a company’s communication plan. Each individual format coexists with many other communication channels. But what is the most effective digital report format?
The future is digital
People’s reading habits have changed. They want specific information – and they want it quickly. This means that important information must be accessible anytime, from any place, on any device, easy to find and easy to consume.
A research published 2019 by the Center for Research in Financial Communication shows:
- 49% of stakeholders read reports in HTML format “very often” or “often”
- 53% read reports “often” or “sometimes” on their smartphones
- The three most relevant factors for the choice of format: intuitive navigation, findability of content, ease of use on the preferred digital device 
Traditional printed reports most certainly do not meet these requirements. But what about Super Summary Online Reports or PDFs? Can they meet the expectations of today’s digital audience? Let’s have a look.
Summary reports only prepare a short overview of the report “highlights” in HTML. The summary approach has one major problem: it does not keep in mind that users of annual reports are diverse. There are swimmers, surfers and divers of data. Some prefer an interesting presentation of data, while others want to really dig into the details. A good online annual report provides a solution that fits the needs of all stakeholders.
Our research shows that most readers don’t want solely multimedia entertainment. When they open an HTML report, they are looking for comprehensive information, i.e. full disclosure of all annual report content. More than two out of three pages views are of the Management Report (37.0%) and the Consolidated Financial Statements and Notes (30.1%). Information about the company and the share price (19.4%), corporate governance (7.3%) and the image section or magazine (1.9%) is significantly less accessed.
This data leads to the questioning of the current trend towards one-page summaries. It shows that user interest is clearly centered around the classic cornerstones of reporting – namely the hard facts and figures. This corresponds with other findings which position the Annual Report as a statutory document rather than an image-based fun read.
Online Annual Reports – access by report sections
(n=10 Online Annual reports with a comparable structure)
Readability and user-friendly design
The PDF is made for print, not for the screen. This simple fact has serious consequences for the overall experience of reading a report in this format.
- The portrait orientation of the PDF and the landscape orientation of the screen do not work well together. One usually has to zoom in, because the text is otherwise too small. Since most PDFs have text in two or more columns, one is continuously scrolling up and down in order to read the text.
- Double spread design: This typical print design does not work on the screen. What may be just irritating when viewing a cut-in-half double spread photo can make other elements, such as big tables, almost completely impossible to read.
- Super Summary Pages, which rely on PDFs, share these problems. Especially given the fact that it’s precisely those chapters that users are most interested in that are typically excluded from the online report and only available as PDF.
Super Summary Pages often require the user to jump back and forth between the website and the PDF, which creates a sub-par user experience. In the digital era however, user experience is key – and research shows that nothing can beat a full HTML report with smart navigation and search functionalities.
Example of a typical double spread PDF on screen and a landscape PDF on a mobile device
PDFs can be optimized for the computer screen by using a landscape format for the design. But an increasing number of people read reports on their mobile devices.
- A long and picture-heavy PDF is quite a large file, which means it will take a long time to load. A Wifi connection isn’t always available and some users might additionally have a data limit in their cell phone contract to worry about.
- What we said about readability of PDFs on the computer screen is even more true about mobile devices. Small letters, having to zoom in and then constantly move up and down, left and right… Not to mention trying to tap tiny links to navigate.
Searchability and SEO
While PDFs are searchable, the quality of the results and the overall search experience is far superior in a HTML report.
- The search function within a PDF is purely mechanical – it shows where a certain word appears in the file, regardless of context. A well-designed search function on a website can rank the results based on relevance, making it much easier for the user to find what they are looking for.
- A Super Summary Page offers very limited options when it comes to searchability: one first must find the right PDF, then download it, and then use the search function within it.
- With a HTML report, using a search engine such as Google to look for specific information from the report takes the user directly to the site with the relevant content. When the report only exists as a PDF, the same search leads to the PDF, which needs to be downloaded and then searched again.
- Every single page of a HTML report can be found by Google. The PDF is indexed only once, not to mention that PDFs are generally ranked worse by search engines than HTML pages. This can really make a difference – depending on the size of the company, 20 to 50% of online report traffic is generated by search engines.
Communication and social media
Good performance is worth talking about. The sharing features of social media are a great way to do that and to give your audience the possibility to spread your stories. A web PDF simply does not offer this option.
- With a PDF, you can only link to the whole report. Aside from being inconvenient for the users, it limits your options. With a HTML report on the other hand you can link to specific content, allowing you to work with the report in your social media communication throughout the year.
- Unlike a PDF, a HTML report comes with a “share” button on every page, making it very easy for readers to spread the message further if they wish.
What do my readers really want? What do they look for, what do they read, what do they download? This information is powerful!
- Super Summary Pages offer only very limited insights, and a single web PDF offers no insights at all. There is no way of knowing which parts of the report users are actually reading. You invest a lot of money into producing the report, but you have no idea whether this investment is paying off.
- A full HTML report provides a complete picture of actual report usage. These statistics offer a valuable source of information which allows you to evaluate and further optimize your reporting and communication strategy.
Multimedia and accessibility
Websites are vastly more flexible than PDFs – they offer a much wider variety of possible features, such as interactive content, multimedia or accessibility.
- Videos, GIFs and audio files are an extremely powerful way to support your report: watching a CEO interview video for example is much more entertaining than reading the same text on several pages. These are features that only an online report can provide.
- Accessibility features for PDFs are only available in certain programs, while new web browsers have them included – for free. And since PDFs are always subject to print limitations, their level of accessibility will always be worse than HTML reports.
Interactive PDFs and Super Summary Pages, which many agencies claim to be the future of digital reporting, have their technical limitations and cannot offer all the features that people have come to expect in the digital era.
Only a full HTML report can meet the expectations of today’s digital audience: with interactive and multimedia content, easy navigation and mobile-friendly design, good searchability and options for social media sharing. That is why full HTML reports, and not PDFs or Super Summary Pages, are the future of digital reporting.
 Center for Research in Financial Communication: Crossmediale Geschäftsberichte. Von Sendern und Empfängern – wie zielgruppengerecht publizieren Unternehmen?