Why private shareholders cannot be ignored online

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I am sometimes struck by the offhand attitude investor relations professionals have to their individual shareholders. We all know they are not terribly important when it comes to real decisions, but surely some effort should be made to keep them happy, if only of the sake of public relations. The website is the obvious place to do that, which is why I have been drilling down into the FT Bowen Craggs Index of corporate sites to look for example of Aunt Mary-friendly corporations.

The first thing I notice is that Aunt Mary will do better if she is Tante Marie. Three of the four companies that provide separate sections for individual shareholders are French. Why would they want to do that? Well, individuals and analysts have very different needs, and should be spoken to in a different tone of voice. If anything, the strange thing is that more companies do not do the same.

EDF (www.edf.com) has one of the most confusing sites in the Index, but it does at least have a nice division between shareholder and investor sections. If these labels are not as clear as they might be (in French or English), a slightly longer explanation clarifies that the first is for individuals, the second for institutions. There is some overlap of content, but also significant differences. The individuals’ area has a shareholder relations section which, with its informal language and jolly pictures of happy families, might not suit the office-bound analyst. It also has a shareholder guide (”Being an EDF shareholder has many benefits”), a “Question of the month?” and a friendly – and rare – encouragement to individuals to make contact. There is even a picture of the delightful team waiting to help you. For IR professionals who shudder at the thought of Aunt Mary coming through on the phone, this will be a bit of revelation.

Sanofi Aventis (www.sanofiaventis.com) and Total (www.total.com) also have separate sections, and score over EDF by giving them an unambiguous label: Individual shareholders. Sanofi-Aventis really lays on the friendliness: ‘Dear individual shareholder, Welcome to this section dedicated especially to you’. The section is packed with goodies including an individual shareholders guide, a quarterly letter to shareholders, guides to both ‘becoming a shareholder’ and ‘being a shareholder’ and a glossary. Total’s individual shareholder section is rather less chirpily friendly, but is nonetheless helpful; and at least it exists.

The French have a near monopoly on dedicated sections for individuals - the other company in the Index that does it is Santander, so it must be a Latin thing. But that does not mean private shareholders elsewhere get completely ignored. A few companies actually give precedence to them over the institutions. I don’t know whether this is because they have so many of them, or for policy reasons. But look at Procter & Gamble’s investor relation section (www.pg.com), and you will find a section whose tone shouts ‘We love Aunt Mary’. The language and pictures have more in common with the soap powder area than a standard corporate IR section. Analysts get the information they need, under Financial Performance, but I cannot help wondering if they would rather have their own, more nitty-gritty, area.

Most companies weave information for individuals in with the rest of the IR section, using a ‘shareholder services’ area to provide practical advice. Digging around, we found some useful tools. UK and US companies are increasingly integrating their sites with those of their stock transfer agents (registrars in British), which makes good sense as these sites can add a whole new level of service at no extra cost. A good example comes from Verizon (www.verizon.com), where a set of introductory pages on the main site lead neatly through to the transfer agent site.

US corporations such as Verizon also make good use of their sites to help shareholders work out their tax liability. Its ‘Cost base worksheet’ does not use interactivity, but does walk people through the sums, letting them jotting down the answers as they go. JP Morgan Chase (www.jpmorganchase.com) has a simple return on investment calculator going back to 1980, with a ‘reinvest dividends’ feature removing the tedium of finding out and adding in payouts.

Finally, a handful of companies are using the technology of the web to make themselves seem as shareholder-friendly as possible. You should always be careful of using Flash without good reason, but with broadband spreading fast the cost/benefit balance must be tipping increasingly often towards net benefit. Look at the General Electric annual report (www.ge.com), and you will see a video of the chairman, Jeff Immelt, chatting away in his most comfy sweater – Aunt Mary would think he’s such a nice young man. Or try Cisco’s video letter to shareholders in its online annual report: here John Chambers’ long-syllabled accent should make your aunt feel quite weak at the knees.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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