Australian companies and their annual report designers and production houses have had more than a decade to develop better online financial reporting from the time the Simpler Regulatory System legislation allowed listed companies to distribute their annual reports online and provide hard copies only on request.
So how have we done? In a word: poorly.
A review of annual reports from companies across the board shows the vast majority of online annual reports are simple, static pdfs, little advanced from the previous paper versions and often harder to flick through than the printed reports they supposedly replaced. Some are difficult to find on a company’s website and, upon opening, it is not easy to navigate between the different parts of the report.
Many fail to meet other criteria for Australasian Reporting Awards (ARA) Online Reporting Award, which include having:
- contents and index linked to the main sections of the report
- links to relevant sites of other documents
- ability to access financial information in spreadsheet form
- downloadable sections for later reading and printing
- the report available soon after the results are released
- animation that doesn’t slow down the file.
The majority of Australian companies have done little to use technology to make their annual reports more interactive, despite ARA encouraging this by introducing awards for online reporting.
The ARA’s Online Reporting awards this year went to Mirvac Group, The Audit Office of NSW, and Australian Red Cross. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation won Report of the Year, but — like the online award winners — its microsite version is an example of intelligent condensation and clear communication that remains non-interactive.
Several companies have included simple flash-based animation of graphs, charts, maps and even directors’ biographies. With upload and download speeds problematic – even with the NBN – it obviously will be some time before video inserts become commonplace. What else can be done?
Those at this year’s ARA annual seminar on annual reporting picked up some handy hints on what is ‘in’ and ‘out’ from the presentations and discussion, while FCR’s annual report design and production experts have additional suggestions:
Creating a dedicated website or micro-site for the annual report.
Websites are now easy and less expensive to construct, don’t require the downloading that apps and page-turning books require, and provide the potential for more animation and interaction than pdfs. They are more engaging, work well on tablet or phone, and enable companies to gain statistics on what people look at. Tools for investors, such as a search function, clickable references and ability to download tables to Excel are possible. Ideally, pdfs of the main sections of the report should be available from the website.
Creating an interactive PDF.
FCR has introduced an intermediate step for companies that don’t have the budget for a web microsite but want to go beyond a bog-standard ‘dumb’ PDF of their annual report. FCR’s Creative Director, Jo Yuen, explains: “It’s a PDF on steroids that works like a website.” It enables the viewer with normal Acrobat Reader software to navigate from a menu, or the contents list, clicking to go straight to the section they wish to examine. Links can be inserted to take the reader to a CEO interview on YouTube or detailed information, such as a case study, on the company’s website. It can easily be emailed and printed, and can include forms that can be filled in on screen and emailed.
Q&A format for video or interactive Chair/Managing Director statements.
Marnie Reid, head of shareholder services at AMP Limited, with 15 years communicating with Australia’s third largest group of shareholders, advised the ARA conference that a speaker in shareholder presentations can look stunned reading from a script. “Hitting the ‘unsubscribe’ button is so easy. You’ve got to work hard at keeping people,” she commented, suggesting the Q&A as an alternative.
Using a cloud-based platform to simplify the process of creating, managing and publishing multiple formats from the same source.
Erwin Groenendal, co-founder and product director of Tangelo Software, with a background at Oracle, explained that using the cloud enables the one annual report to be published in multiple formats from the one source – eliminating mistakes that occur when different versions have to be updated in the final stages. It also enables each version to be released at the same time.
Developing a perfect suite of reports.
FCR’s creative services manager, Mark Sheedy, explains that superb annual report design looks great on wide screen and is built to transform seamlessly into the vertical mobile format without losing the main content and characteristic styling of the larger version. “Horizontal format annual reports are enjoying resurgence, as they can maximise the impact for readers accessing them through computers and tablets. But with more people simply calling a report up on their phone to search for information, the design has to work equally well transformed into vertical presentation,” Sheedy says.
Intuitive and efficient structure and navigation.
Make it easy to access the content. Adding relevant hyperlinks can help provide a significant amount of data in a format that’s simple to use but not overwhelming.
Top navigation that features a prominent social media sharing space.
This will encourage viewers to circulate the annual report on their social networks.
Familiarity with the demands of XBRL.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) demands that financial reports on US websites must use eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) format, a computer taxonomy that tags the thousands of bits of financial data in financial statements and footnote disclosures as interactive data files. This is already required in China, Spain, Netherlands, UK and used in Tokyo and Canada. Here it is an option to report to ASIC in XBRL as part of the Treasury’s Standard Business Reporting (SBR) initiative. It’s probably only a matter of time before it is mandatory.
Measuring sustainability in visual ways.
Integrated financial reporting, incorporating a focus on measuring corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainability or ‘triple bottom line’, is becoming more widespread as companies place more emphasis on detailing their environmental performance. More are using visual forms such as infographics in this communication, FCR Creative Director, Jo Yuen, notes.
Apps and flip-books.
Hard copy annual reports don’t allow readers to cut and paste information, while apps that were popular in 2012 in Canada and Scandinavia have almost disappeared, Tangelo’s Groenendal told the ARA audience. Apps, however, can still take investors to video of the minesite, the latest research breakthrough, CEO interviews and other forms of communication.
With Apple iPhone and computers blocking Flash, this basic animation technology has been superceded and HTML5 is becoming more popular if you are looking to inject movement into annual report design, FCR’s Jo Yuen notes.
Companies with a brand from Mars producing an annual report from Venus.
The design of the annual report should reflect the branding of the organisation and visualise its values, with a design fitting naturally with that of the company’s website and other communication material.
These have been a lazy designer’s way to spark up tired annual report design for almost a decade, so are losing their novelty. Nicholas Felton long ago found arrestingly new ways to graph how many times he had listened to a song or how many alcoholic drinks he had per day, so it is definitely possible for our designers to create emphasis with fresh design, rather than falling back on the use of big shouting numbers.
To avoid possible introduction of text errors in the accounts and financial section, large companies now fill templates provided by their designer with the relevant content, cutting out the typesetting stage. However, this has the drawback of not appearing professional.
The Australian Investor Relations Association (AIRA) has researched how retail investors like to receive online information in its report Electronic Communication: Preferences of Retail Investors. This probes shareholders’ preferences regarding electronic communication vehicles such as investor websites, online annual reports, webcasts and conference calls.
 Marnie Reid told how 240,000 of AMP’s 750,000 shareholders (Australia’s third largest shareholder base) now receive the online report, while it has reduced printed annual reports to 3,500.
By Brian Mahoney, FCR Director and Co-ordinator of the adjudication panel for the Australasian Reporting Awards’ Special Award for Communication