Digital Online Annual Reports Becoming Commonplace

As a writer of annual reports and other financial documents, I’ve noticed the trend of online annual reports, a digital or electronic format. However, I wondered just how far the “digital online report” has come in the last few years and set out to learn for myself. Since you found this post, perhaps you, too, are inquisitive about the digital online annual report. Here’s what I discovered.

Online Annual Reports Image

Full HTML annual reports leverage Internet technology

About one-third of US annual reports are digital

According to a 2010 Annual Report Trends poll from Craib and Blunn & Company, about 32% of US companies publish an online HTML version of their report.

Nexxar, a Viennese company “devoted to the topic of online reports,” states that 42% of 2011 annual reports in North America and Europe are online.  Nexxar research indicates that online reports overtook PDFs, at 38%, in 2011.

Multiple formats for annual reports

Online annual reports can be of several types:

  • HTML online annual reports are designed for online reading using Internet technologies like html and micro websites (versus printing), and may include video, audio and interactive elements.
  • PDF annual reports had been the standard bearer of offering online financials, but are losing favor, or least becoming the second banana to html reports.
  • Flip book style reports typically are print layout pages converted to images (JPGs) and allow one to flip through the gallery in a magazine-style fashion.
  • The hybrid annual report, per Nexxar, has become popular in recent years. Parts of the report, such as the financial notes section, are available as a PDF while the front half of the traditional print report is full HTML. Organizations find this a cost-effective balance of reporting technology. Some criticize this approach as being a poor mix of technologies.

Benefits of HTML annual reports

Trends indicate that that the HTML annual report is slowly but surely becoming the status quo for annual reports, especially for publicly traded companies. Benefits of the HTML online annual report include:

  • Speed. Interested parties can get to a number of web pages quickly, and are increasingly adept at finding what they want on an html website. In today’s need for speed era, downloading a PDF and then flipping through pages is too time consuming. The flip book may not require a download but are also more time consuming than HTML.
  • Accessibility. Online annual reports are accessible anywhere one has an Internet connection. Mobile devices, like smart phones, iPads and tablets are playing an increasing role in content consumption. These devices are made for interactivity, and HTML reports are quite adaptable for screen size. Some do question the actual viability of content-heavy annual reports with the small screens of many smart phones. Best practices call for the extensive use of audio, animation and video, versus long pages of text and data.
  • Multi-media. The HTML annual report allows a company to tell its story and communicate key messages through a combination of words, images, video and audio.
  • Search engine optimization (SEO). The phenomenon of the Internet is the ability for an organization to be found by the thousands and from just about anywhere. A digital annual report has a better opportunity for successful search engine optimization than a PDF report or flip book.

What financial reporting mode is best for your organization?

Publicly traded companies’ annual reports

In my opinion, publicly traded companies need to take a hard look at the HTML annual report. You’re competing for institutional and retail investor’s attention, and you need to be current with Internet technology as adapted to the annual report. You may want or need to keep a print layout version, too. There certainly is a place for the tangible document in communicating your company’s challenges, strategies and financial results.

Nonprofit organizations’ annual reports

Nonprofits don’t have to produce an annual report, but many feel compelled to communicate how they have progressed in meeting their missions and how they have stewarded their resources.  Nonprofit annual reports generally do not disclose detailed financial data, but do include a financial highlights section. An HTML nonprofit annual report, and the likely increased expenses, may be construed as an unnecessary cost. However, those costs may be justified in how the use of multi-media can tell the compelling stories of the nonprofit.

Private companies’ annual reports

Private companies are just that, private, and tend to shy away from revealing what they consider to be internal information. So, creating an online resource with private information is generally inappropriate. We do see some large, private companies provide snippets of financial data, such as overall revenue, number of new locations, number of locations closed, etc. Private companies with employee stock plans need to share certain information to those employees, but typically prefer print communications that is selectively shared. I have seen private companies create documents called annual review, which contain some financials and often include stories and visuals of their products and services in action.

Need help with your financial or annual report? Please contact me for a free 30-minute consultation.

How fancy is your firm’s capabilities brochure?

Just when I thought nobody wanted a firm brochure anymore, I get a call from an upstart accounting firm. The sole proprietor had already created a “do it yourself” website, and she also wanted to have a printed brochure to provide clients and prospects.

capabilities brochure

Print brochure samples courtesy of Kelly Palmer

The capabilities brochure banter

“What kind of capabilities brochure options do you have?” she asked.

“What kind of information do you want to disseminate, and who is your target audience?” I asked.

The usual answers came forth,

“Something about me and my background, a description of my services, my contact information and I really want it to sell them on me. My prospective accounting clients are small businesses and individuals with fairly complex tax filing needs.”

“Don’t you have a listing of options from me to pick and choose from, you know like the way I did in choosing the level of website I just acquired online?” she asks.

“Well, no I don’t offer a canned brochure product. I try to make each brochure unique to the client.” I replied.

And frankly, between you and me, it seems everyone is the best at what they do, or at least they think so. It can be a real challenge to write something about a person or firm that makes them truly stand out. Isn’t everybody client-centric, skilled beyond human limitations, etc.?

So, you write good copy that flows well and tells their story as best as it can be told; and by teaming with competent art directors we can make a brochure stand out as coming from a professional, quality-minded professional service firm.

The request for a list of canned options did get me thinking, especially since the CPA firm owner did not have much in the way of budget. So, I offered her a brochure option using the “good, better, best” analogy. Here’s the basic description of each:

Good, better and best capabilities brochure options

  • Good Brochure: a simple sheet of 8.5 X 11 or 11 X 14 (legal size) that is ultimately machine-folded in order to fit into a number #10 envelope or perhaps a desktop brochure holder. Most businesses today go with color, versus one-color or two-color that might be a bit more economical to print.
  • Better Brochure: a presentation brochure/folder (approximately 9 X 12 when folded) that includes copy on a stapled insert (usually 8.5 X 11), and may have a pocket for additional materials, plus a slit for a business card. Printed on heavy 15PT card stock and 100# Gloss Cover, giving it durability and a higher level of impressiveness, versus the “good” approach.
  • Best Brochure: an “image” brochure is a capabilities brochure on steroids. It might be a unique size and shape, and with a unique paper stock. It might have “see-through” tissue paper when you open the first page. It might have a folder pocket. It can be a bit costly, but if one wants to impress, the image brochure will do the job.

My capabilities brochure recommendation

As a startup accounting firm, she was in the early stages of building her solo, professional reputation and client base. She offered accounting and financial services to individuals and businesses, as well as tax services and QuickBooks services/training.

If your accounting doesn’t have much money, then the good brochure may be your only option to get a professional quality capabilities brochure, written by a skilled copywriter and designed by a proficient graphic designer. It was just right for her startup accounting firm for now, and she can step up to a higher quality level as she grows her accounting practice.

However, if you really want to stand out, and you have a reasonable budget, you should consider the “better brochure” or the “best brochure.” They have size, which makes an impression. Think of how you get your mail. If you get a letter in a #10 envelope and another in a 9 x 12 envelope, which do you open first? Hands down, I bet it’s the larger envelope because it grabs your attention. It’s perceived as more important, even if the smaller envelope holds a check for you.

It’s good to know that even though I’ve jumped headfirst into online marketing, content marketing, inbound marketing, or whatever handle you might use, there are many people and businesses who still value the qualities of printed marketing collateral. This begs the question, do you have a firm brochure, and how would you describe it?

Note: read more about marketing brochures.

FINRA is Official Social Media Guide for Financial Advisors

As content writer for professional service and financial service organizations, I find that all my customer segments are not playing on a level playing field in regard to social media. Specifically, I’m talking about financial advisors, financial planners, broker-dealers – those people licensed to help other people with planning their financial futures and investing appropriately.

Like others that have to be adept at personal marketing and selling, financial service professionals have discovered the benefits of social media and online marketing. Unlike most of us though, financial professionals have a pretty heavy regulatory burden. Mind you, I’m all for protecting consumers from the unscrupulous advisors, but I can empathize with financial service professionals and their bafflement with their oversight.

They answer to Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). FINRA is the largest independent regulator for all securities firms doing business in the United States.

The question then is, “How does a registered representative leverage social media and stay in compliance?”

The answer is a bit convoluted. The easiest way to manage the “stay in compliance” part is not the play the game. In other words, omit social media from your marketing mix, even though it’s fast becoming an expectation by many consumers. Consumers expect to interact with people and organizations regarding most every aspect of the consuming lives: cars, restaurants, hotel destinations, and yes, financial services and products.

Follow the FINRA bible of social media

Step #1 to using social media while staying in compliance is to read (and print out) the “Guide to the Web for Registered Representatives.”  It is the official rulebook, however, it can be vague at times, and it’s periodically updated and/or interpreted by FINRA and other regulatory bodies. Watch for the updates, too, of course. Google Alerts is a handy and free tool for getting updates when certain keywords, or topics, are mentioned in cyberspace.

Step #2 is to learn how respected organizations and people interpret the guidelines, and to keep track of how FINRA rules on those people and organizations that are using social media that are out of the ordinary, or not specifically covered by FINRA. Social media is so new and so different that we’re going to see changes in the guidelines evolve on a continual basis.

Nuts and bolts of FINRA social media guidelines

A number of organizations are closely following and summarizing the latest information coming from FINRA. Since they do a nice job of providing the “nuts and bolts” of social media compliance for the financial services industry, I will not try to duplicate their efforts. Instead, I will mention a few that I found very helpful.

  • FINRA. Always start with FINRA, and state/local regulatory bodies. They are the ultimate source of how financial services professionals can use social media.
  • Socialware. Socialware is headquartered in Austin, Texas. The company (in their own words) “operates a social middleware platform that enables enterprises to transform public social networking Websites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter into enterprise-grade channels for communication and collaboration.” They also are closely following trends in social media for the financial services industry and share their insights in the Socialware blog/website.
  • HearSaySocial. Hearsay Social offers a software-as-a-service (SaaS) social media management platform that acts as a layer on top of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media. The company says it offers the only social media management solution that comprehensively addresses content, compliance, and analytics for corporate-to-local companies. The Hearsay blog and Ally Basak Russell, of Hearsay, are good sources of information about FINRA and social media use in marketing financial services.

If you know of other sources of good information, please let me know! Good luck with leveraging social media in your business.

LinkedIn a Safer Investment than Facebook?

Facebook has been abuzz lately with its likely public offering of stock. I wonder if LinkedIn might be a safer investment? The New York Times (1/28/2011) says that LinkedIn, the social network for professionals, filed a prospectus for an initial public offering on 1/27/2011, and that private shares of LinkedIn recently traded at an implied valuation of $2.51 billion on private exchanges. (Don’t know if there is a date for the actual offering yet.)

For comparison, the New York Times reported earlier this month that Facebook “has raised $500 million from Goldman Sachs and a Russian investor in a transaction that values the company at $50 billion.” Fifty billion, are you kidding me? Of course, I said something similar just before Google went public a few years ago.

People can crunch the numbers and talk about the number of users, dollars earned per user, share of market, etc. Those things are important, of course, for those seriously sinking some money in the market. In this post I’m just making a personal opinion based on my personal use of both social media tools. Facebook is really robust and fun, but it really scares me to death in regard to security and privacy. I don’t trust Mr. Zuckerberg all that much, and the movie about him lends to that concern.

I enjoy keeping up with friends, family and business acquaintances with Facebook. It does not, however, seem all that safe to me. Every day I question my use of it. The privacy rules seem to change regularly and changes to the tool seem to be devised more to raise revenue than to thrill the users. Security issues have popped up lately – Zuckerberg’s own account was hacked a few days ago. A serious misstep or calamity could really hurt Facebook.

LinkedIn isn’t perfect either, I know. Maybe some of the same issues exist there, too. However, I do find it to be quite valuable as a business networking and learning tool. I like that it’s focused on business professionals only. Facebook, unless you have consumer product, just doesn’t seem to be very beneficial for B2B. LinkedIn has brought me some new contacts and business opportunities, and I feel reasonably safe in using it. The groups have some really good discussions and give one opportunities to soft sell their expertise. So, I’d go with what has been good to me.

So, if I had some “walkin’ around” money to invest, and the choices were Facebook and LinkedIn, I think LinkedIn might be the safer investment. Most of all, I hope that all these rumored public offerings for these and other social media companies don’t go the same way as the tech bubble (aka dot-com bubble) that occurred at the turn of the century.

What do you think? LinkedIn? Facebook? Some other social media company? It’s all too risky? Bet the farm?

Slogging Away in Kansas City

The economists, financial gurus and prognosticators have pretty much all made their predictions for the national and global economies in 2011. One that seems rather accurate to me is that we are in a long, hard slog and have been since 2000. William Greiner, CIO for Scout Investment Advisors, asserts that the USA has been in long-term bear stock market since the year 2000 – that’s eleven years running! Yes, we’ve had a nice market run-up since the declines of a couple years ago, but tell me, is your retirement account significantly higher than 2000? Most of us would say, “No.”

More importantly, what do they experts predict? When will a recovery really take hold? I cannot get too excited about reports that we’re not losing jobs at the same pace as in previous quarters. I’m looking for something a lot more positive. Like friends and neighbors getting jobs, raises and not feeling too scared to take a risk, on say, buying a new car or home. Greiner, Bill Gross of PIMCO and others seem to think eventually there will be capitulation. Capitulation is the act of surrendering or giving up, and people and organizations decide to tackle the real problem. The real problem is an unsustainable debt level in the US and several western countries.

While I’m rooting for our government to get us out of this mess, I don’t know that continued fiscal stimulus (i.e., spending money we don’t have) and keeping interest rates at extremely low levels is getting us anywhere, at least very fast. Of course, I would like to take advantage of those low rates and secure a mortgage – so don’t move too fast on that one Fed. My parents always taught me to be smart with my money, and I pretty much have taken that to heart. They, like our current government, didn’t do so well with spending just the money they earned, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Well, maybe with parents, but I do believe it’s time for our government to show some fiscal restraint perhaps event to the point of fiscal austerity. Otherwise, I’m afraid we’ll just keeping slogging away.

From a micro viewpoint, I do know of one person who landed a job, a good job mind you, in recent months. And I cannot think of anyone getting laid off in recent months. My clients, those still standing, seem to have settled down and are investing some money into their marketing communications efforts. The experts say these positive instances may be temporary until the capitulation. SO

Congress should raise the debt ceiling, or the legal limit on U.S. borrowing, before it reaches capacity in the next few months to avoid threatening the U.S. credit rating, Gross said in an interview today on CNBC. After candidates supported by anti-deficit Tea Party activists were elected on pledges to rein in spending, some lawmakers have said they would demand budget cuts in exchange for voting to raise the debt ceiling.

What is your money personality type? (I’m a hoarder)

Olivia Mellan told our gathering at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City (October 21, 2010) that we can take steps to gain harmony with our money. First, determine our money personality types, one of the five she describes as hoarders, spenders, money monks, avoiders and amassers.

I think it’s safe to say in our relationship, I’m the hoarder and my spouse is the spender. Olivia says opposite money personality types in couples are a frequent occurrence.

Our past history with money – while growing up in particular – has a lot to do with how we handle money as adults. The good news is that Olivia believes that we can make positive changes in our individual and joint (couples) behaviors in regard to money through exercises, dialogues, and other communication techniques.

Economy on the mend

C. Fred Bergsten, director of PIIE, told us the USA economy is on the mend Monday night at the annual banquet of the International Relations Council of Kansas City. Bergsten is the director of Peterson Institute for International Economics, and believes that most economic forecasts are too gloomy. PIIE predicts that real GDP growth in the world will be 4.2 percent in 2010 over 2009, and real GDP growth in the United States will be 4.0 percent from the middle of 2009 through the end of next year. This is only about two-thirds the pace of typical US recoveries from sharp recessions but it is nearly double the consensus predictions of other top forecasters.

PIIE asserts that a V-shaped recovery is still the most likely course, meaning a they anticipate a steep recovery following a deep recession. Many forecasters have predicted a flat, slow recovery. Let’s hope Bergsten and PIIE are right, but I’m not going to go into big debt until things feel a lot better!