The Benefits of a Digital Annual Report

What if you could turn your Annual Report into a marketing tool that serves to promote your organization and engage your audience all year long as part of your larger marketing efforts? What if your Annual Report could be something your audience looks forward to receiving and that you're eager to produce? What if, it could be so engaging and interactive that people actually enjoy reading and sharing it?
Article Annual Report

The Annual Report. For many organizations, this annual obligation feels like a marathon of herding cats, gathering stats, and late night editing of long-form copy. If you’re still printing your report, you have the added stress and cost of mailing out documents that, at best, people flip through until they find their name on the donor list, and at worst, toss straight into the recycling bin.

But what if you could turn your Annual Report into a marketing tool that serves to promote your organization and engage your audience all year long as part of your larger marketing efforts? What if your Annual Report could be something your audience looks forward to receiving and that you're eager to produce? What if, it could be so engaging and interactive that people actually enjoy reading and sharing it?

It’s possible, and there are a multitude of reasons to change your thinking around and your approach to your Annual Report.

It’s Time to Go Digital

When we talk about a Digital Annual Report, we’re not suggesting you turn your print piece into a .PDF and throw it up on your website. An effective report is, in essence, a microsite. It has a unique URL that allows you to share it and drive people directly to it, and it works and feels more like a native digital experience than a scanned print piece.

Today, more and more people get their information online. If you want to reach those people, especially younger audiences that want to get involved, then you have to meet them where they are. Whether your report is printed, a .PDF, or a full-fledged digital experience tells people whether or not you’re a modern, forward-thinking organization.

How to Prepare for Your Digital Annual Report

We’ll look at the three phases of producing reports—Pre- production, Production, and Post Production—and discuss elements to consider when taking your Annual Report digital.

Obvious Benefits

There are some high-level perks to publishing your report digitally.

  • Reduce your environmental impact. If you’re aiming to be a green brand, then reducing environmental waste is a no-brainer. Even if you’re not looking to be a certified green organization, having the ability to tell your stakeholders that you’re using less paper and saving trees is a positive message.
  • Tell deeper stories. When you print, every page adds expense, both for printing and shipping. With digital, you can tell the full story of everything you accomplished over the last year. You’re no longer limited by page count. And you can utilize more beautiful, impactful imagery. Never choose between color or black and white again.
  • Improve your SEO. One aspect that search engines utilize is active links between trusted sites. Your report should link out to your website and vice versa. Any earned media should also direct people to your report, which in turn, can lead people to your site.
  • Feature media-rich content. Going digital means that you can use animations, interactions, and video to grab and hold people’s attention. The Girls Who Code Annual Report 2016 uses all three. As you scroll through the report, there are additional instances of these elements that keep you engaged and draw your attention to different subjects. It’s an experience that can only be approximated on paper.
  • Showcase your video content. Don’t underestimate the power of video. Used strategically, video communicates in ways that print and even pictures can’t. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video (projected at 30 frames per second) delivers 30,000 words worth of content every second. Young people consume video content everywhere on mobile devices and including it in your Annual Report is a good way to let them bring your report with them wherever they go.

Get Readers To Take Action

If your Digital Annual Report is compelling enough, you will inspire people to take action. What they do is up to you and your marketing goals. You can ask them to sign up for your newsletter, visit your website, share the report, donate, and more. A single click can turn a reader into a participant, volunteer, customer, advocate, or donor.

Expand Your Reach

Online, and most importantly on social media, sharing spreads your message. A person can only share a printed report one person at a time. But a digital report can be shared with hundreds, thousands, even millions of people in an instant.

As of this writing, the Gates Foundation’s 2018 Annual Letter has been shared on Facebook 69,375 times and on Twitter 2,302 times. The videos published to YouTube in support of the Annual Letter received hundreds of thousands of views and provided additional paths to drive traffic to the letter itself. There’s no telling how many people this drew to check out their letter. They include icons at the beginning of the letter to make sharing it a one-click process. These links should be part of every digital report.

You can also easily share your annual report with the media. When a journalist is looking for information to write about you or your area of expertise, they can share the report or reference it as a resource. This type of exposure, called earned media, can be priceless for your organization, and it’s unlikely that you will garner earned media from a printed report.

Storytelling Through Design

A Digital Annual Report is a unique platform for you to tell stories about your organization. Consider what the most effective presentation of that story might be. Use a slideshow that shows progress. Tell a long-form story using a magazine-style layout. Cut together interviews with your beneficiaries to give a voice to those positively affected by your work. You can do all of this and more, leveraging the power of story to show success and excite your audience about what’s coming next.

Make Statistics Interesting

Annual Reports are often loaded with statistics. It doesn’t take long for people to glaze over and flip past them. But there’s a way to get people to pay attention to the numbers that express your success.

PeopleForBikes’ 2016 Annual Report leans heavily into numbers. 24 of the 29 panels in its presentation are stat based. To keep the viewer’s attention, one statistic loads at a time, drawing them through the site and providing clear jumping-off points to explore the numbers' meaning in greater detail.

Measure Interest Through Analytics

When you mail a printed Annual Report you’re sending it off into an informational void. Most organizations don’t have a good way of learning if the report was received, if anyone opened the envelope, if the report was read, what grabbed people’s interests, or if they just used it as a coaster. And it’s impossible to know whether or not the report generated any new interest that led to conversions.

A Digital Annual Report, connected to an analytics platform, provides you with a treasure chest of useful information. See how many people opened the report from your Email campaign, if they were referred through earned media, or from your social media campaign. You can discover how many minutes they spent reading, which pages they visited, and where they dropped off. You can tell if they shared it on their social channels or if they clicked over to your website after reading the report.

All of this information helps you better utilize the report as a marketing tool and see what information resonates with your audience. It helps you to make informed changes each year and track the effectiveness of those changes, resulting in wise spending decisions and higher return on investment.

Cost Effective

You may be thinking, “This sounds expensive.” To be honest, the initial investment in creating a Digital Annual Report may surpass the costs of a printed Annual Report, but when effectively leveraged, it leads to cost savings over time.

Take a look at the format of the last three Annual Letters from the Gates Foundation.

Bill and melinda gates foundation 2018 annual letter
Bill and melinda gates foundation 2016 annual letter
Bill and melinda gates foundation 2017 annual letter

With some minor variations, they follow a similar design language. Their reports are filled with different videos, infographics, animations, photos, and writing, but they use the same general format. This is a smart play, and one you should emulate. After the initial creation, the building blocks of the report can be repurposed. There’s no need to reinvent it every year, as is often done with printed reports. The ability to reuse the design and to archive it, in addition to zero print costs, makes it a better investment over a relatively short period of time.

Fulfill Expectations and Get ROI

You can use a Digital Annual Report to meet your organization’s commitment to inform investors, shareholders, donors, and other stakeholders. At its core, this is its primary function. However, the nature of information sharing has evolved, and to remain relevant, the presentation of your Annual Report should follow suit. Producing your report is a lot of work, and any organization would benefit from a return on that investment.

When you leverage your report to do more than merely meet expectations, it starts to produce additional value. You can send people a link to a specific page of the report that speaks directly to their interests. And when you can cater to someone's interests and personalize their experience, that's when you get results.

Improve Production Efficiency

A Digital Annual Report is created using the same type of Content Management System that’s used to build websites (such as Craft CMS), so multiple people can work on it at the same time.

For example, you could assign the director of each program to create the page(s) about their project and they can work on those pages without interrupting any other content creator. Each person can see the report coming together and be involved in how their portion of the report works with the other pieces. This leads to less revisions and increased productivity.

Edit and/or Augment After Publication

Even the most accomplished organizations miss a typo now and then. If you miss one or more in a printed report, there’s no fixing it. But with a digital report, you can correct mistakes at any time.

You can also update information throughout the year. We suggest you develop a schedule for regular updates and integrate it into your annual marketing schedule. If a project concludes partway through the year, or you have a big win, there’s no reason to hold back until next year to write about it and highlight it. Instead, clearly amend the information and then promote your success, pointing people to the report that already contains all of the background information.

The Tableau Foundation takes this idea to the extreme with their Living Annual Report. They describe it like this, “The Tableau Foundation's Living Annual Report shows you what we’re up to this week—not just what we did last year. Unlike traditional printed reports, our report, which updates weekly, allows anyone to interact with the data and ask follow-up questions.

We're sharing our report here to show that foundations and non-profits can move beyond the traditional annual report. With this approach, organizations can share the latest information and cut the time and costs of producing a traditional printed piece.”

We agree wholeheartedly with their approach.

The Report as Marketing Tool

We mentioned at the beginning of this article that you could transform your Annual Report into a marketing tool. Let’s start with the initial publication.

When you first launch the report, it should be part of a larger marketing campaign. Mention the upcoming report in blog posts, on social media, and in conversations prior to its release. When you launch it, send out a press release and get the attention of local, national, or international journalists as is appropriate. If you follow our suggestion and update your report, promote the updates. Schedule this in advance so that you can integrate it into your other marketing efforts.

Stop thinking of the Annual Report as something that’s done and in the rearview mirror. Integrate it into your marketing and communications strategy throughout the year.

When you’re doing a fundraising push, be sure to point people to your Digital Annual Report to remind them that you have had success and that your ongoing work merits their attention and a donation. People respond positively, and donate their time and money more generously, to organizations that can show they're making a difference. Leverage your Digital Annual Report as a tool to showcase your progress towards addressing the cause you champion, and make sure your development and marketing team understands that a Digital Annual Report is a valuable fundraising resource.

Personalize Your Report

Digital reports can easily make the recipient feel special. There are varying degrees of personalization opportunities to consider. The most basic form of personalization is for your introductory email to be sent using the recipient’s name. An email that begins with, “Dear Cynthia…” or “Dear Anton…” feels more personal than, “Dear Supporter…”.

A more in-depth version of personalization surfaces specific content when different visitors view the report. Let’s say that you have four different programs. Supporters of a specific program or cause could see the cause they care about first, while other programs will have less emphasis. Think about ways you might personalize for your audience which will increase engagement and drive more conversions.

Bolster Your Grant Requests

A Digital Annual Report can be a unique differentiator when competing for grant monies. Much like donors, grantors are looking to spend their money wisely, and by providing them with clear, modern, technology-driven evidence of your success, your grant application will quickly rise to the top.

What About People Who Still Want a Printed Report?

It’s often the elephant in the room with donors who are used to receiving a printed report, or people who aren’t technically savvy. For some people, the print piece seems very important. We get it. Here are some solutions to meet people part-way and to help them understand the benefits of going digital.

The Streamlined Printed Report

This is a good strategy for the first year or two after converting to a digital report. Send out a significantly reduced version of the report that covers the highlights of the full report. Clearly indicate that the enhanced experience of the full report is only available online.

We took this approach with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). We worked with them to produce their 2017 Annual Report. The content in the final report could easily fill a magazine. The print version is a slim 22 page 6x6in booklet that refers the reader to the digital report ten times.

Here are several options for a streamlined printed report:

  • Optional PDF: Girls Who Code has their own solution to the printed report. At the bottom of their Annual Report 2017, they offer an option to download a PDF version. That way, if people want to, or feel they need to download and print the report, they have the option to do so at no additional cost to either the organization or site visitor.
  • Print on Demand: One possible option for printing your annual report is to offer the report through a Print on Demand (PoD) service such as peecho. With this kind of service, you upload a file and the company prints your report when requested. The requestor then pays for printing and shipping. Strategically, there are a few options that will help convert people to your Digital Annual Report while allowing them to also support you at the same time:
  • Pay What You Want (PWYW): With this option you can tell people the
    printing and shipping costs and then allow them to either pay that much,
    more as a donation, or nothing at all. Regardless of how much they pay,
    this strategy gives you the opportunity to let people know the real costs
    involved in printing and shipping the report—money that could be better spent on your programs.

    This strategy clearly communicates the actual and opportunity costs involved in printing and shipping a report. It also allows you to print only as many reports as people actually want, and have them shipped anywhere in the world. You no longer have to print and ship yourself, saving you valuable time.

    For example, you might place the following instructions at the bottom of your digital report:

    “Our Digital Annual Report is an effort to be more environmentally conscious and to reduce the costs and time required to print and ship a physical version of the report. A simplified printed version can be ordered from our Print-on-Demand partner.

    The cost for printing the report within the continental US is $20.00 plus $3.95 postage via USPS ground service. We offer a Pay What You Want option that allows you to pay anything from $0.00 to $500.00. Any amount that you pay below the base cost of printing and shipping are paid for from our general fund, thereby reducing the funds available for our programs. Any amount that you pay above the cost of printing and shipping goes to support our programs. Click here to order a printed report.”
  • Request a Copy: You could use the PoD service behind the scenes. With this strategy, you simply ask interested parties to request a printed copy via the digital report. Rather than suggesting that people pay for a printed version of the Annual Report, you can offer the report for free while emphasizing the costs involved.

    This strategy saves you the cost of printing and shipping reports to people who find the digital report sufficient. We suggest that this printed version be a distilled version of the Annual Report to save printing and shipping costs.

    An example of the copy for this request is as follows:

    “Our Digital Annual Report provides detailed information about our activities throughout 2018. The digital report is one element of our ongoing efforts to minimize our environmental impact and reduce the costs and time required to print and ship a physical version of the report. This allows us to focus more of our funding and resources on programs. If you would like a printed copy, a simplified version can ordered from our Print on Demand partner.

    The cost for printing and shipping each report in the continental US is $13.95. We are happy to cover this cost via our general fund, but feel that it is important to inform the people who request our report about this expenditure. Click here to order a printed report.”
  • Print or Donate: This strategy gives people the option to enjoy the digital report and choose to donate rather than get a printed report. The fulfillment can be handled through your PoD partner. An example of this text is as follows:

“Thank you for your interest in our Annual Report. You can request a simplified printed version of the report below. Alternately, you can enjoy the detailed, media-rich digital report and share it with like-minded friends while donating the same amount as you would spend on the printed report.”

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Significant Upside

As more and more organizations move from print to digital, they conclude that the cost and effort are worthwhile investments. According to Nancy Barr, Web/Print Project Manager for MBARI, “Moving to a digital annual report not only saved on our usual printing costs, it also allowed us to add an interactive map, videos, and many more large compelling images than we have been able to print in previous printed reports. We also feel that the stories about our discoveries and developments will be more readily available to a wider audience for some time to come because the format is more searchable than a PDF.”

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