Kath Walters provides some advice about annual reports and why its time to challenge the status quo.

    Annual reports are not what they used to be – thank heavens. They are still a mandatory requirement, yes. They are still a significant investment of money and time for most companies, it’s true.

    What is different is the sheer array of exuberant responses by brands to reinventing the annual report. Gone are the reams of pages filled with endless tables and tiny type. Gone are the stuffy pictures of the chair and chief executive. And if they are not gone, they should be.

    Like every interaction your company has with its shareholders and customers, your company’s annual report must be a tool for engaging and delighting. This document is your board’s chance to communicate its value and purpose, its effectiveness and vision. And as reporting season hurtles our way, boards need to insist that the annual report is not a cure for insomnia, but a brand-defining document.

    Opt for authentic data

    Bland is not the brand for the 21st century. Investors and customers alike take for granted that your company is in safe hands; they want your annual report to show the personality, values and culture of your company. When you get it right you’ll know, because your annual report will spark a response from your stakeholders, such as comments and shares on social media, and coverage in the traditional media.

    The email platform MailChimp puts as much fun into the banal process of sending broadcast emails as possible. Its annual report reflects its cheeky culture. A shining example of the trend to interactive online annual reports, MailChimp starts by informing us that the company adopted a 5th-grade class at Hope-Hill Elementary and finishes by announcing that MailChimp customers sent 246,148,661,219 emails, of which readers opened 66,531,138,961. Along the way are ridiculous numbers (21 grumpy felines wearing cat hats with our #meowchimp hashtag) and serious numbers (148 new MailChimp integrations including e-commerce integrations for Shopify, Magento, BigCommerce). MailChimp’s values are also on display, with numbers like 175 MailChimp marchers in the Atlanta Pride Parade and 240 hours of training for each new support hire.

    Declutter and go global

    The key trends in corporate reporting are to simplify, provide insightful data, and use global reporting standards, finds the latest study by the global accounting firm, KPMG.

    KPMG singles out the annual report of a packaging company, Pact Group, for decluttering its financial reports. Each section of the financial report has a brief introduction to orientate the reader. The company also integrates its notes close to the relevant part of the report. For example, under the sales revenue figures is an explanation of how Pact Group accounts for income.

    Go beyond tables and bar charts to represent data graphically. Use graphics that are relevant to your brand (there are bananas everywhere in MailChimp’s annual reports). Use links to allow readers to explore your data in more detail. Choose numbers that matter and tell a story.

    In 2013, Austria Solar created global headlines by publishing a blank annual report; blank, that is, until you took the document out into daylight. As the sun hit the pages, the content of the report appeared as if by magic: the annual report was powered by the sun.

    The Australian Broadcasting Commission won the Australasian Reporting Awards for its 2016 annual report, while brands such as MailChimp; online TV platform, UStream; and crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, were featured in Forbes magazine because of their innovative annual reports.

    Your story is your future

    Let your annual report tell the story of your year in numbers. Use it to show the personality of your company and its commitment to its values and purpose. Show all the critical data clearly and graphically and let your readers know why it matters. If your annual report doesn’t capture the story of your brand, investors and customers will believe your company has lost its way. And they might be right.

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