Leon Milligan sees changes on the horizon for online reporting trends

Q: Given the current diversity of approaches, what will online annual reports look like in the future?

A: We have just completed our 15th reporting season and have been working with public companies on their online reports for well over a decade now. For the past few years HTML annual reports have been on the rise, albeit with financials increasingly presented in PDF. But we may be reaching an inflection point in online reporting trends.

Our research into the UK’s FTSE 350 shows that of the companies that changed their approach this year, more turned away from HTML than turned to it. We can also report that the most common change was to add a Flash-based page-turner. This year has also seen the emergence of the online annual summary: a brief annualized snapshot focused on progress, which invites users to download the full PDF.

Forty percent of FTSE 350 companies still provide their report solely as a basic PDF and 35 percent in some form of HTML. But it is interesting to note that more than 15 percent now include a Flash-based page-turner, while 10 percent provide an enhanced PDF with links, search and print functions embedded in it.

It could reasonably be argued that the uptake of these less expensive options – enhanced PDFs and Flash-based page-turners – reflects budgetary constraints and the economic pressures of the times.

We believe that this is only part of the story, however, and that companies are also reacting to user preferences. If you produce an HTML annual report, we suggest you check your web stats to see whether your users prefer the PDF download or the HTML version. From our client analysis, we find that in most cases they prefer the PDF.

Communicating your firm’s investment proposition and progress via the corporate website is incredibly important – but perhaps converting the annual report into HTML is not the most effective way to achieve this.

In our opinion, much of what is in an annual report should be within the main website itself and companies should take great care to ensure this is consistent with the annual report. We are also great advocates of the use of video to provide users with a more engaging online experience.

What will online annual reports look like in the future? In our opinion, the increasing uptake of Flash-based page-turners is interesting – but they have a serious disadvantage: they are not mobile device-friendly.

Therefore, while a full HTML online report may remain the approach for many large companies, for the majority, an online annual summary focused on progress and supported by a PDF is likely to be the future.

Leon Milligan is reporting consultant at design firm Emperor.