Annual Report: The Online Edition

It’s the meeting marketing communicators prepare for all year. If you’ve been through it, you know what happens the day finance drops in on marketing to discuss plans for the annual report. Your heart races, your mind spins, and you brace yourself for weeks of writing and photo shoots. Then, the frantic last minute changes on press. It’s repeated annually, but it’s always invigorating. I find very long walks during the early stages are great for inspiration. I also find a glass of Chardonnay does wonders after a particularly grueling day of rewrites.

For marketing communicators, the annual report is opening night, the World Series, and the Cannes Film Festival. It’s when we truly have to show our stuff. Granted, an annual report contains all those dry financial pages, but that’s for the accountants. The sections that really count for marketers are the introductory pages, the pages that tell your organization’s story. Execute this critical section with endless columns of gray text, you shoot down an entire year of marketing communications. Create something memorable that communicates the essence of your company, and you hit a home run.

Although most organizations indulge in annual report frenzy, few use the power of the Internet to produce a memorable online annual report. Most create a print piece and offer a PDF or other difficult-to-download versions for Web users. The 2001 gallery contains many examples, including the following:

  • The Safeway annual is typical of print pieces reincarnated as a PDF online. Nothing special here, but rather what many organizations post for their annuals.
  • Microsoft’s document, although beautiful, is an unwieldy download. It’s surprising Microsoft would devote so much energy to print and not enough to making its digital version easy to manipulate.

Some organizations create a hybrid annual for the Web:

  • Amnesty International is a good example. Obviously, its annual report has nothing to do with corporate profits. However, the group produces an informative roundup of human rights issues in a reasonably usable online report. Each page is clearly laid out for the Web and contains indexes with hyperlinks. A few more hyperlinks in the report’s copy would make sense, but overall it’s a nice effort.
  • PBS’s 2001 annual report is informative but wordy. It’s obviously a print-to-Web transition that didn’t account for the Web’s possibilities. Nevertheless, a good, basic edition.
  • The IBM 2001 report appears to have begun life on paper, but it translates nicely to the Web. Small text blocks keep it readable, and a bit of animation makes it interesting. One can only hope the 2002 report will be even cooler.

Ingenuity doesn’t exactly abound when it comes to online annuals, but here are a few notable efforts:

  • Kudos to AT&T for providing both a Flash and an HTML version. The Flash version clearly shows enterprise in its attempt to transform a print document into an interesting Web presentation.
  • Disney Company’s 2001 online fact book doesn’t look like a Disney product at all. It does synthesize a lot of information in a readable format.
  • Sony’s 2001 report has an interesting take on the traditional message from the CEO. Instead of the usual missive with forgettable phrases such as “banner year” and “long list of achievements,” Sony offers Web visitors streaming video of the “Message from Top Management.” It contains an interview with the CEO, COO, and CFO. Taking its global presence seriously, transcripts in French, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, and English are provided.
  • Circuit City’s online annual report offers email alerts to interested investors. Subscribers receive messages on SEC filings, financial reports, and breaking news from the organization.

For the truly unconventional, there are organizations that completely forego the flashy annual production. Apple states on its site it “do[es] not produce a glossy annual report.” Instead, it offers links to current and previous years’ 10-K filings.

Marketers should view the Web version of their annual with the same sense of challenge as the print rendition. There are a host of opportunities for truly stellar productions. Few organizations have even begun to take full advantage of the possibilities.

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