The annual report is a company's calling card, with a major role to play in building stakeholder relationships. And these days, when advanced businesses increasingly rely on creativity and added value, getting the annual report right has never been more important.
Contrary to some pessimistic predictions, the printed annual report isn't an endangered species, just an evolving one. The most progressive-minded companies are moving away from the traditional to the inventive, and from the rigid to the flexible and multi-purpose. Today's best corporate reports go beyond the basic requirements, to help businesses enhance their credibility and marketing, and build and maintain vital stakeholder relationships. Management and investor relations consultant Bill Dunk, who publishes an annual report on annual reports, believes the tactile, physical quality of the printed corporate report is its greatest asset. - "Today's report serves as a valuable global calling card, to put in people's hands, literally, wherever they are on the map,” he says. “As creativity and added value become the new competitive edges in advanced economies, it's a far more effective vehicle for showing these advantages.”
1) ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE!
Frank Oswald, an award-winning US-based annual report writer for familiar companies from FedEx to Yahoo!, adds this perspective: “Investors may have better ways to source financial information, but companies need to become more than little black digits on electronic spreadsheets. Great annuals enable them to make the leap: to not only inform, but also interpret, illuminate and inspire.” However, Dunk notes that the average report could do better. “The writing has to improve greatly,” he says. “The content has to add substance to the lives and thoughts of readers, and link to other media efforts.” Canadian strategic writer Tony Leighton believes that companies with courage and imagination can use the report to stand out from the crowd - provided that they can “ 'engage' their audiences.”
2) PRINT HAS PRESENCE
While the Internet is a good place for pure information, it's a poor one for more reflective communication. This is why the wisest companies use their bound reports as platforms and forums to delve into more contemplative thinking, the longer term stuff that gets lost in more immediate electronic media. Integrated marketing designer Carla Hall likens it to the Slow Food and Slow City movements. “Because people are speeding up everywhere else, this is an opportunity to slow down and savor the tactile experience of a 'book,'” she says. “And this helps people to remember a company and its story.” “As its best,” notes Anthony Russell, whose firm has been designing successful annual reports since 1972, “the printed report serves to synthesise essential top-line content, making it easy for shareholders and other readers to digest it.” “It's a complete package,” points out designer Michelle Marks, “that tells a story at a controlled pace.” It's also the ultimate portable communication, useful where and when the Internet isn't. Unlike virtual annual reports which are disembodied and ephemeral, the genuine article is something you can comfortingly hold, touch and turn the pages of. “It's an artifact that imparts an actual reality, substance and permanence that companies need and can't otherwise achieve easily,” elaborates Russell. “It has that reassuringly final quality the average shareholder still responds to.” There's also the plain fact, as Dunk emphasises, that “many substantial long-term retail investors are over 45; they read and underline and by and large are not big fans of computers or the Internet.” They prefer the printed word whenever they can get it.
3) PAPER IMPRESSES
The paper that an annual report is printed on forms a big part of the first impression readers get of a company. “The good news is that the average corporate client is very sensitive to the feel and quality of the paper involved,” Russell says. “You can take the same design and run it on a lighter gram-mage uncoated, then run it on a heavier coated, and the results will be like night and day. The choice of paper is pivotal.”
Paper, of course, speaks a universal language - and the annual report is now a global phenomenon. “Some of the most creative and distinguished reports are being produced by globally astute businesses outside the US, whose boldness has stolen a share of American companies' leadership,” says Dunk. Nevertheless, Russell contends books written 'American-style' have the edge. They are often “more lively and conversational and less formal and legalistic,” and therefore more engaging and effective.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT
Whatever story a company has to tell for the year, from the reader's point of view, it's only as good as the way it's told. A near miss is still a miss. To get it right, each annual report demands a specific strategy: skillful planning, a strong creative direction, an authentic voice, fresh language and a story that's meaningful and motivating. Today's corporate 'talking heads' should speak to the most burning issues in the minds of stakeholders. Design and content should be conceived in an integrated way, so the story comes across seamlessly and naturally. “More companies are realising there are specialists out there who can craft their stories far better than they can,” says Russell. “We just need more of them around the world.” So in this Internet-intensive world, the printed annual still has an influential place and a unique supporting role - and a cachet, when well done, as a refreshingly offline embodiment of a company. Those businesses that invest in hiring seasoned creative talent, and developing fitting strategies to show and tell winning and worthwhile stories, stand to gain the most ground and glory in the marketplace.
Colin has co-authored the article "Don't Write Off The Annual Report" for Forbes.
Colin Goedecke, www.tenowls.com, is a “corporate storyteller” working worldwide.
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