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Will COVID-19 kill printed annual reports?

3 September 2020 13 min read

Printed reports will be dead within five years, we concluded.

That was in 1998. The worldwide web and email were arriving on desktops as powerful business tools. Google was born. A new digital era was dawning and with it the promise of light speed communications. Musing with a colleague on the nascent revolution in corporate publishing no wonder we expected annual reporting to be transformed.

Indeed, we produced our first award winning, ‘interactive’ online report for a client in 2000. Yet, 20 years on, businesses are still geared primarily to preparing printed reports rather than online- or digital-first. Why is that? And will the coronavirus pandemic finally close the chapter on paper-based reports?

The digital reporting landscape in Asia

Let’s take a look at the top 100 companies (by market cap) listed on each of The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong (HKEX) and Singapore Exchange (SGX) to see how they are currently publishing their reports online.

Note that all listed companies are required to provide annual reports online, usually via their website in the form of a PDF or sometimes an ‘e-book’. We define ‘digital reports’ as html pages allowing integration of animation, videos and other interactive content. We use the term ‘hybrid reports’ for microsites that showcase the year’s highlights in digital form and house the full report as PDF, usually downloadable in sections.

Why so few digital reports?

When comparing HKEX to SGX listed companies there is no significant difference in the breakdown. On aggregate, PDFs that replicate the printed version dominate at 71.5%. Of these, 4.2% are interactive PDFs with clickable menus and embedded links.

E-books or ‘flipbooks’ account for 12.5%. We’re not fans of these ‘print wannabes’ as they offer nothing beyond a well-designed interactive PDF and depending on viewing platform can be frustrating to navigate and read.

Only 0.5% of companies currently deploy html annual reports: 4% as fully digital microsites and 2% as hybrid html/pdf reports.

It should be noted that some companies seem to have experimented with fully digital annual reports in previous years and then reverted to PDF versions only. Hints as to why this might be the case are suggested below.

Challenges

If stakeholders request a printed copy of the annual report companies are obliged to provide one. The result is that editorial and production workflow remains geared to producing a printed report.

This is because a printed report requires the designer to use publishing software to create print-ready artwork. As anyone who has been involved in annual report production will attest, the editing and proofing process can be intensive. No one wishes to go through the process a second time to produce a digital version. ‘Print first’ therefore often means ‘print only’ with a corresponding PDF version to satisfy the online publishing requirement.

HK-listed companies have the additional challenge of simultaneously producing English and Chinese versions. All the more reason to focus solely on a printed version. The time and resource demands of producing a digital version in parallel are often prohibitive.

Timeliness of publication is also a critical factor. There’s no great advantage in producing a digital report if it can’t be published in parallel with the printed/PDF versions.

Digital-first reporting?

Interactive PDFs have somewhat diminished the advantages of html. However, the biggest advantage is captured when committing to a truly digital-first approach.

Digital reports can be mobile friendly and seamlessly integrated with social media platforms and digital campaigns. They can also include animations to enhance the presentation of textual content and charts as well as video such as ‘talking head’ presentations from the leadership.

Currently, most PDF reports hark back to the design approach of printed reports. They seduce readers to (laser) print locally, which is far from being environmentally friendly.

A true digital-first report means that a PDF version is derived directly from the html version with minimal additional design and proof reading required. If needed, this PDF can be printed digitally in short run quantities to meet any lingering demand for physical copies. The printed quality of these documents has improved significantly in recent years due to advances in laser printing.

Whilst this approach poses some limitations on PDF design, software solutions are gradually getting more sophisticated enabling highly tailored PDF formatting.

The impact of Covid-19

The pandemic has already ushered in virtual AGMs. Might such innovations also accelerate digital-first reporting?

Companies often cite the need to serve senior citizen shareholders by providing them a printed copy. Ironically, this is the most at-risk group for Covid-19. Many over-60s now have anxiety about handling goods delivered to their door or distributed at meetings. You can wash vegetables before consuming them, but not an annual report!

ESG leads the way

If Covid-19 is going to finally kill off the printed report it may have an unwitting accomplice; Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting.

All listed companies are required to report on their ESG performance. Sometimes this information appears within the main annual report but is often produced as a separate document. It should be noted that an ESG report (usually risk and compliance focused) is not necessarily a sustainability report (which tend to be more strategy and opportunity focused) but the difference is sometimes indistinguishable, and the terms used interchangeably.

HKEX and SGX listing rules allow companies to publish ESG/sustainability reports online only. Below is a breakdown of the Top 100 companies’ online sustainability report formats.

From compliance to purpose

As Larry Fink said in his 2020 letter to CEOs of the world’s largest companies:

a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders …. We will be increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures and the business practices and plans underlying them…”

The relevance to reporting is that purpose needs to be substantiated and proven through a clearly communicated sustainability strategy that is acted upon and measured across the business and its supply chains. Hence, sustainability strategy is crucial. Some would argue that sustainability is the strategy. Consumers investors and employees are demanding more transparency and want to see top down commitment and a clear connection from purpose to profit.

As ESG reporting requirements continue to evolve—this year for example companies must report on climate change risk—the trend is for increasing integration of sustainability into overall strategy and brand. This closes the gap between the respective roles of annual and sustainability reports.

Given that sustainability reports are almost universally accepted as being online-only the implication is that companies are happy to leave printed reports behind. All that remains is a mindset shift to put digital first and plan workflow, selection of publishing software and editing processes accordingly. A new generation of report authors who are not wedded to traditional processes will quickly embrace this.

We should be mindful that digital is not necessarily more environmentally friendly than print. There is nothing very ‘green’ about mining rare metals, creating toxic waste, producing plastic and batteries. In addition, almost 80% of power for our digital devices and data centres in China and Southeast Asia comes from coal-fired power plants, a proportion that is increasing not decreasing! Paper on the other hand is largely sourced from sustainable plantations of carbon absorbing, oxygen producing trees. It’s a complex topic but the point is that the shift to digital is not truly about being environmentally friendly.

It’s about saving management resources, costs, and delivering a timely and reader friendly experience.

This should include ensuring that all audiences are catered for including the visually impaired. A digital report can accomplish this better than a PDF.

Maximising the investment brand

When moving to digital-first, leading with content strategy, messaging and a creative approach to articulate the investment proposition is key. Brand is a business’s most valuable asset and in a virtual, digital world the importance of the intangible is multiplied. This holds true for a company’s investment brand when communicating with shareholders and investors. Today, investors expect all businesses to be digitally enabled, not just those in the tech sector.

The annual report also addresses internal audiences and can provide an employee branding opportunity by featuring staff. This approach binds together purpose, mission and performance through engaging stories.

Due to technical parameters, many websites, including annual report microsites, tend to look rather similar. The limitations of screen sizes and browsers should not be allowed to diminish the opportunity for standout content and designs. Differentiation comes through a distinct narrative and compelling imagery consistent with the corporate brand. Iconography, information graphics and illustrations should be immediately distinguishable from those of competitors. Therefore a ‘Digital Brand System’ that can be deployed across all digital media and channels is essential.

Post pandemic reporting

In the heyday of printed annual reports, designers in Hong Kong and Singapore would sometimes order printing paper from across Asia, Europe or USA. The impact of a tactile, elegantly designed printed document is something that many will miss. However, given the recent disruption to every facet of our lives and with more people—both authors and readers—adapting to digital communications as the default, the days if the printed report may finally be numbered.

Digital reporting is not about being sustainable in the sense of being environmentally friendly. It means being reader friendly: making smart use of existing platforms, putting ‘evergreen’ strategic content onto the corporate website, promoting the report through appropriate channels and embedding richer information than can be included in a traditional, printed annual report.

The future of reporting is about being inspiring, informative and integrated. All should be geared towards communicating progress shaped by a galvanising purpose and mission.

The annual report is not immune from the impact of the pandemic. In the post-Covid era, let’s look forward to more intelligently designed, on-brand and viewer-friendly digital-first reports from companies listed in Asia.

It’s long overdue.

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