Annual Reports Version 2.0: Taking IR’s Main Attraction to Cyberspace

Never a function ripe with proverbial sex appeal, investor relations has experienced a makeover in recent years, having been bitten by the digital bug alongside many of its conservative corporate counterparts. Now, IR executives are challenged to incorporate innovation into their strategies, while at the same time working in tandem with the communications function to engage stakeholders in meaningful ways.

This charge to innovatively communicate business strategies to investors centers largely on the focal point of IR activities: the annual report. According to Diane Cady, president of Cady Communications, “The annual report is changing. Today, innovative IROs [investor relations officers] use these once-stodgy compendiums of facts and outdated financial information to introduce important strategic changes and to rally employee, industry and shareholder support.”

With the combined efforts of communications and investor relations, then, this vehicle is becoming more dynamic to meet changing stakeholder demands. In turn, annual reports are taking on increasingly digital components and becoming interactive platforms that “live” online all year long.

Amanda Clardy, vice president of investor relations with Invitrogen, cites these considerations for taking her organization’s annual report online:
•    The Securities and Exchange Commission adopted amendments to its proxy rules that allow companies to deliver materials to shareholders through a “notice and access” model using the Internet.

•    Video features allow for the culture of the company to come through.

•    Elements that appeal to all audiences, including investors, customers and employees, could be incorporated.

•    The content can be updated more easily throughout the year.

These benefits apply to all organizations, which can only mean one thing for communications professionals: It’s time to take the lead and move annual reports to the Web. Here’s how.

â–¶ Think visually. In 2008, the team at Millipore Corp. made significant changes to its communications strategy and tactics to “drive a better understanding of the company, markets and [business] strategy,” says Joshua Young, Millipore’s director of investor relations, noting that these changes hinged on making the traditional annual report and 10-K more innovative and digital in nature. The investor relations team started by adding a new format, color and information design to the 10-K.

“The traditional 10-K format lacked effective visuals to deliver key messages,” Young says. “We implemented a measured approach to changing the 10-K, [with a] new format that’s easier to read and provides flexibility in drawing the reader to specific messages.”

By incorporating visual elements into the report, readers will automatically become more engaged with its content. Initially, it’s as easy as focusing on simple design strategies like more white space, simple visuals that replace dense text and using a two-column formal instead of one.

“Leverage graphical information to help the reader understand the business,” Young says. “Type hierarchies [fonts, etc.] help the reader follow the organization of the information.”

â–¶ Rethink content. Kathy Strege, manager of investor relations for Nike, says that her company shifted its focus from financial performance, major business developments and new product information to vision, long-term goals and strategy. “[The annual report] evolved from a thorough recap of a company’s annual performance to a discussion about the ‘big picture’ items,” she says.
This is especially important in the modern business environment, which is defined by stakeholders’ wants and needs more than those of the organization. Connecting the company’s goals and performance to larger industry trends answers the “what’s in it for me?” question.

â–¶ Move from analog to digital. When putting the annual report online, don’t just put a pdf copy of the print edition on the company Web site; that defeats the purpose, which is to create an interactive experience for readers. “The role of the online experience is to move the topic beyond rhetoric and into meaningful conversation,” Strege says.
In that vein, Clardy cites Invitrogen’s use of Flash technology and video to give the viewer control over what to watch, as well as the voiceovers of the CFO that accompany each financial metric, explaining the importance or trends in an engaging way. The online format became an evergreen communications vehicle that hosts new videos throughout the year, quarterly updates from the CEO and digital features like podcasts and downloads.
Then, Clardy says, “The reports online design became the basis for all external communications.”

â–¶ Measure up. Taking annual reports online comes along with challenges (see sidebar) and costs, but the end ultimately justifies the means. Clardy says that the online annual report saved 325 trees, generated less waste and eliminated the need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on design. Plus, there is the immeasurable benefit of having ongoing interactions with the investor community, as well as with other stakeholder groups.

â–¶ Learn from others’ experiences. Clardy cites the following lessons learned, which communications executives should consider when executing their own investor relations online initiatives:

•    Know your company’s voice and make sure the annual report’s tone is aligned with that voice, as well as with the overall corporate culture.
•    Start planning early, as last-minute efforts to develop digital content will appear unprofessional.
•    Secure executive management’s time.

•    Involve different parts of the company.

•    Be willing to take a risk.

Finally, when looking to revise your annual report and frame it in a digital context, Cady recommends asking yourself one question: Would I want to read my annual report as it is? That answer alone should guide you. PRN

Contacts: Amanda Clardy,; Joshua Young,