How and when to create an online annual report

Digital annual report

The time has come to throw away the paper (by which we mean recycle). Digital annual reports have arrived! Digital Annual reports are a way for charities to spread their story with wider networks. This post gives four reasons why online annual reports are great and a bunch of tips about how to actually create them.

Why bother with an online annual report?

Annual reports have a reputation for being a bit dull, with an overload of information and lots of figures. When was the last time you sat down to read a charity annual report? No, we can’t remember either.

Many communications-led charities have already adopted online reports, either as an accompaniment to a printed version or as a digital-first output, as a downloadable PDF or a website. For others, it remains inappropriate due to their target audience (elderly people, or people in developing countries with slow internet connections for example), yet there’s a gap in the middle where the majority of charities sit.

As a digital agency for charities, we’re biased towards adopting digital tools - and we urge a careful consideration of target audiences before making any giant leaps - but we think the concept of online annual reports has huge potential.

Here are 4 reasons why:

1) Digital is cheaper

Digital doesn’t have to be expensive. Of course, you could create an all-singing, all-dancing website, but you could equally design it as an interactive PDF using the same designer and programmes you’d use for a printed copy. Only without the printing costs.

The US headquarters of the Salvation Army estimate that going digital with their annual reports saved them $25,000 in 2009, based on previously printing 28,800 copies.

2) Digital is more easily accessed

The beauty of online information is that people can discover it themselves from any location in the world - they don’t have to ask you first. Paper copies mean you have to physically mail the publication to people who are interested before they can read it, so the resulting readership is only the very keen! An online report means that anyone can stumble upon it and have a scan, without being committed to reading the whole thing. By getting these casual online users as well as your committed supporters, the audience is broadened.

Online Annual Reports can be cheaper, more engaging & accessible, & easier to get stats from.

Charity Water’s 2011 Annual Report is a great example of this - produced as a website and a downloadable PDF, it's very easy to dip in and out of and is easily digestible for the more casual viewer (this report is no longer available online).

Charity Water 2011 Digital Annual Report

Charity Water Financial Summary from 2011 Digital Annual Report

3) Online reports aid analytics

Unlike a paper copy, every PDF downloaded can be tracked so you know where and when it was distributed. If your report is online then the reporting becomes even better as you can see which bits were the most-read, most-clicked on, where people found out about your report, where they went to after reading it, which stories were the most popular, and which pages led to further engagement with your charity, and more!  It’s no surprise that these figures are golden to the charity wanting to tailor their communications to their audience and keen to ensure targets are met.

4) Digital lends itself to more engaging & creative content

If you’ve got the cash, (or even if you haven’t- there’s much that can be done using a smartphone video recorder!) online reports allow a variety of creative ways of storytelling which paper reports don’t. Interactive infographics, videos and animations can all help to get your message across more effectively.

Not having printed pages mean you have the luxury of more space (your PDF could be 50 pages whereas a printed copy may limit you to 20 due to price) which enables more creativity with design - key messages with a page each in bold colours is more likely to create impact than key messages squashed on the top of a page with some other content.

The British Heart Foundation’s  2013 Annual Report shows this well -  click on the screenshot below to be taken to the website, complete with moving people!

British Heart Foundation Fundraisers from 2013 Digital Annual Report

But how do I create an online annual report?

If you’re not the BBC, able to spend £100k on Annual Reports, it’s easy to feel like it's an uphill struggle. Perhaps surprisingly after all that effort we find most charities do one of two things:

  1. Very dry documents that end up hidden deep in the bowls of their website.
  2. Professionally designed documents with images and graphics which are turned into PDFs but, despite the extra effort, often given similar treatment and buried on the 'annual reports' page. 

This is a shame. Over the last year, your charity has been doing lots of great work so it's a real communication opportunity. But how do you make the most of this in an easy and manageable way?


5 questions to help do things differently:

Over recent years lots of bigger charities have been doing digital annual reviews, like this one by Charity: water, but these can be costly. Below we set out a few guidelines and questions to help charities who are up for doing an annual report but don't want to spend a small fortune. 

search-icon1. What did you do last year?

Well, yes, this is obvious. But quite likely you have been nose the grindstone and haven't had the time to consider the top line of your organisation's achievements. If you can't roll off a few major achievements then it's a sign you should get a few colleagues together and brainstorm the year's success. 

person-icon2. Who is your audience and what do they read?

How well do you know the demographics of your supporters and audience? How often will they be online? Would they prefer a physically printed report or a short snappy message? These options show a diversity of approaches that will suit different audiences:

  • Printed and professionally designed annual report (old-fashioned approach, but still can have its place)
  • Blog post or mailer showcasing the year's top achievements (minimum effort if you aren't convinced more is justified)
  • Short video promoting your latest achievements, perhaps with soundbites from people you've worked with. 
  • Dedicated microsite with a collection of content including stories, interview, data. 
  • A series of news stories featuring different aspects of your work last year or looking at the whole year from a range of perspectives (stories, interviews, data).

credit_card-icon3. What are your resources/budget?

When considering a new project we always recommend a dual budget that includes both internal time you plan to allocate and cash for designers, etc. Staff time is a very valuable resource! Setting this at the start can help you rank competing priorities for your charity in a rational manner and avoid the 'always busy' cycle. But keep open-minded about costs - read on to find out why good digital annual reports may be cheaper and quicker to create than you initially think. 

content-icon4. How do you repurpose your content? 

Your annual report is an ideal opportunity to develop the habit of systematically 'repurposing' content (using the same content multiple times in different formats and to different ends). A few ideas to get going:

  • Collect a small selection of photos that together tell the story of your year. They don't have to be professional. 
  • Review your funder reports. Often there is loads of info that, while it might be a bit dry, can easily be turned into more engaging stories, stats or graphics.
  • Get top-line stats from your case management software. While the ideal is always rigorous stats about impact (the change you've made), stats about activity (what you did) are much easier to come by and can be a welcome window for your supporters into what you have been doing with their money. 

tools-icon5. How to choose your tools?

Understanding your audience and assessing the extent of resources available in terms of time and budget are both really important factors in the decision about how to publish your annual report. But it's also worth being strategic about the tools at your disposal and being on the lookout for quick wins. Here are a few common considerations:

  • Do you have a template printed annual report from last year? The readership of printed resources is notoriously hard to measure and this can lead to irrational decision making. Ask yourself whether you really need to set out this year's report differently to last years or are you just pursuing novelty for its own sake. 
  • Or perhaps you have a micro-site kicking around from last year or the year before. Assuming it was pretty well built you may well be able to re-use this with only a small amount of work to slot in new content and stats. The chances of anyone external to your charity noticing are low and of anyone caring less still. 
  • Use the opportunity to try out one of the self-publishing website platforms like Squarespace. These can lack sufficient flexibility or functionality to be used as your main website but can provide a good foundation for simple sites showing off your last year's achievements. 
  • Lastly, don't forget the merits of keeping it simple and keeping it on your site. This is often cheaper, points people to your main digital asset, builds a more manageable content legacy (micro-sites can easily become a pain) and can increase your overall search engine profile. 

4 repurposing tips to turn your report into a marketing tool!

1. Find soundbites:

As you review the various bits of content you've collated, look for facts or quotes that can be shaped into soundbites. A list of these can be a really valuable resource to keep your content snappy and your messaging consistent. 

2. Turn figures into infographics

Have you helped 200 people or provided 1000 meals in the year? These kind of stats are easy to turn into infographics that are much easier for readers to digest quickly and can be easily published on your website or through social media.

3. Turn achievements into positive stories of change

Did you collect stories from the year for funders? If so, going back where possible to get a follow-up interview, some photos or a video can add depth and interest to your story. 

4. Promoting and linking to existing content

Don't be afraid to promote old content if it still has value. New content linking back to old content or reviewing old content and adding links to new relevant content can increase levels of engagement by website users. Our SEO guide has more about the impact of links on search engine ranking. 

Need more inspiration?

If you want practical examples of organisations being creative with their annual reports then check out these dynamic annual reports from Mailchimp and Krochet Kids.

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17 February 2017