Onlining the annual report

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Printed annual reports may be on the way out. Where does that leave their web counterparts? Something that British companies should be asking themselves as a result of the announcement that they can now ask their shareholders if they really want a glossy paper document. And if they say yes, companies will still apparently have to give them only a summarised version.

Assuming similar thoughts are being had around the world, it raises very interesting possibilities for investor relations folk. Let’s start by looking at the online annual report as it is now. It comes in four flavours, with rising levels of sophistication. The most basic and most common is a PDF (that is, printable facsimile) copy of the print version, which is cheap, does the business more or less, and saves money by offering something to which non-shareholders (especially students) can be directed. The next level comes from companies who want to offer more but still have a close eye on the budget (most of which has been absorbed by all the glossy paper). This is the hybrid report: it looks like a full web version but is not – it is in fact a collection of photographed pages cleverly held together by an indexing and search system. ExxonMobil (www.exxonmobil.com) has an example.

The third level is the full web version – the annual report turned into a website. Look at Cadbury Schweppes (www.cadburyschweppes.com) for a good example if this. Finally we have a few companies that have gone for web-plus, taking a web version but adding bells and whistles. This is where it starts getting interesting, because it is using the technology to provide benefits that would paper cannot match.

ENI (www.eni.it) offers what it calls an interactive version of its annual report. This is a nice clean website, easy to get around. But click on any of the pages within Financial Review and you will find not only a table but an Excel icon, signifying that the numbers can be downloaded in a spreadsheet. There is nothing original about providing spreadsheets on a site, but integrating them into the annual report is an extra. UBS (www.ubs.com) goes a stage further, with an annual reporting section that includes an annual review, a financial report, a handbook and, good grief, a ‘create your own report’ option. Pull together text and numbers to get just the report you want.

As we go higher up this sophistication ladder, online annual reports move further away from the print version. They may never have the sensuality of glossy paper but they become, it seems to me, a lot more useful. And if we bring another web-only element, they can even have style. Look at Cisco (www.cisco.com). Its latest annual report has a letter to shareholders from the CEO, John Chambers. Click on it and it’s a not a letter, it’s a video chat – Mr Chambers pops up to tell us just how well the company has done. He touches the senses too: lovely southern US accent he has.

So annual reports are in any case departing from the print version. What happens if they no longer have to exist? Will they just disappear? It seems to me they should divide and metamorphose in a way that makes them much better aligned with the needs of shareholders.

A problem with annual reports now is that they are trying to serve two audiences. First analysts and professionals, who might well find the nitty-gritty about risk factors and market environment very handy (especially if they do not follow the company closely). Second individuals, who really appreciate their glossy document, who think it means their company loves them, and who may even read bits of it.

Many companies already produce an annual report ‘lite’, usually called an annual review. This is aimed at the individual, is nice and friendly, and is just the place to put Mr Chambers in the future. It is significant (and sensible) that GlaxoSmithKline (www.gsk.com) produces a pretty web version of the annual review, but provides the full report as a PDF document only.

What the loosening of rules should do is to allow individuals and professionals to be served quite separately. Without the need to produce this hybrid called the annual report, companies will be able to produce three things. First a slimmed down PDF version to meet regulatory needs. Second, an amazing set of interactive tools for professionals – covering annual, quarterly and any other reporting they need to do (maybe even environmental factors – wouldn’t that be nice?). This would also force risk factors and the like on to the open web: too often they stay buried within the PDF annual report. Finally, something for individual investors that more than compensates them for the loss of gloss. Possibilities for making the annual review more exciting by using web technology are endless. Start with a video of the board doing a song and dance number, and go on from there.

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

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