Producing Annual Reports That Sell

Annual reports are more than numbers

[tweetmeme]If the crocuses are sprouting, then so will the annual reports that public companies will soon be sending to their shareholders.  As I wrote about this topic last year, most of them will be as dull as dishwater.  Think about it.  When was the last time someone told you he had curled up in bed with a good annual report to read?  Not likely, unless sleep was the primary motivation. Annual reports can be real dullards.

In an effort to avoid offending any of the organization’s constituents, not step on the toes of regulators or in the rush to get the darn thing out, the people who produce them for a living often take the easy way out.  Change the wording a little of last year’s CEO’s letter, revise the financial charts, drop in photos of the new trustees, add a dollop here and there of new initiatives, and that’s it.

Gathering Dust in the Archives

In years past, hard copies of the report would often lie dormant in the storeroom after the initial distribution.  Years later, musty copies would still be taking up space.  In this new era of digital annual reports, it isn’t easy to get people to click on the link to open the annual report.  There is the danger the report will figuratively gather dust in the company’s website archives.

People given the assignment to product the annual report need to look at this document more strategically.  How can it advance the goals of the organization?  How can it support the sales team or development director?  Who should be involved in the process of defining the content?   Who will most benefit from an annual report that demonstrates the dynamic nature of the organization, its vision, and its role in society?

Make it sell

The report should very strategically position the organization as the leader in its space, developing new paradigms of products and services.

In creating the annual report for a nonprofit in the health care field, I worked closely with the director of development to understand his needs so we could present the financial results and new strategic initiatives in such a way that it would be easy for him in personal meetings to walk potential donors through the report, hitting the high spots to pique their interest and open their wallets.

Use Testimonials

Use testimonials from the company’s customers and employees to bring the vision statement to life.  Let them tell the reader what a great company this is.

So, if you’re assigned to create this year’s annual report, how do you ensure it accurately represents the organization and has a long, active life after it’s been distributed?  Here are my suggestions:

•    The CEO needs to be involved from the get-go.  Do not even think of hiring a writer or design firm until you have met with the CEO to understand how s/he wishes the organization to be positioned in the document. S/he cannot delegate this discussion to someone else.

•    Armed with this information, write a creative platform that describes the overall theme and tone of the annual report, its content and “look.”  Get the CEO to sign off on it.

•    Meet with key people in the company or organization who would most likely use the annual report throughout the year such as the head of sales, director of development, director of public and community affairs, and so on.  Get their ideas of what they would like to see emphasized in the report.  Find out what would make them use it during the year to help them achieve their goals.

•    Make a mock-up of the report, page by page.  It doesn’t need to be fancy. Take some legal paper and fold the sheets in half.  It’s essential to know the content of every page and ideas for photos, charts, etc.

•    Now you can meet with your design firm and writer, if that’s not you.  Everyone should be working from the approved creative platform and mock-up.  Believe me, they will love you for it.

•    Show two to three designs to the CEO with the mock-up.  If you’ve done your job right, s/he will have a tough time picking out the winner, because s/he will love them all.

Be true to the creative platform as you go through the process of developing the report.  Be excited as it begins to unfold as a living, breathing document that will take on a life of its own for a year.  Don’t be afraid to be a little gutsy with the copy and design.  You’re not creating the next Bible, after all.

While your readers may not print out a copy to read in bed, at least you can be confident they won’t fall asleep at their desks as they read it.

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  1. Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report and shareholder meeting is a great examples of how corporate communications can be excellent marketing vehicles. In the case of Berkshire, people value what Warren Buffet and others have to say. I know of one person who owns one share of the stock just so he can go to the shareholder’s meeting.