Annual Reports Marketings New Best Friend

Boring, Drab. Interminable. And the next big thing in marketing.

Annual reports have traditionally filled a dull, unassuming niche in a company's marketing efforts -- if it held any place at all. That's changing. More companies are turning their annual yawn into a showcase for the company's culture, vision and business victories. And racking up sales and online influence because of it.

More Information = More Sales

Warby Parker, the online eyewear retailer darling, set the bar high in 2011 with its inventive, whimsical publication featuring an infographic that captured a year’s worth of the company’s data (now offline). It has continued the tradition every year since with increasing sophisticated, interactive productions, most recently with its 365-day tour of the company for 2013.

Why such a sudden interest in annual reports? For one, it drives sales. Warby Paker’s co-founder Neil Blumenthal said in AdAge that people passed it around driving up Warby Parker's biggest days of eyeglass try-on volumes and daily traffic. Even now, two pages of Google search results are dedicated to media pronouncements (Business Insider called it an “intricate, shareable ad”), enthusiastic listicles and an admiring commentariat.

It generated our three highest consecutive sale days to date at that time," said Blumenthal. "Often, I think the mentality of corporate America is, 'What is the absolute minimum amount of information I can share with the general public? But we found the more information we share, the better the company does."

This genre started (or least made popular) by the eyeglass retailer has spread to other sectors. Email marketing provider MailChimp and Airbnb have both launched their own eye-catching productions, and non-profits are turning their annual financial statements and donor appeals into something worth reading from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter to the Salvation Army.

GoodBye Static Reports

These new annual reports deliver stories while others recite numbers. They're professionally designed digital productions instead of static, SEC-approved PDFs. Rather than text alone, center stage is given to video, audio and interactive content.

Formats are proliferating. A series of annual report apps for iPads have come out in recent years: General Electric, Bertelsmann, Hoffman-La Roche (although GE seems to have switched a web-native version this year). Creating these iPad apps offers stunning control over the visuals and functionality of your report. Yet that comes at a financial and practical cost. Teams to produce such reports do not come cheap. The relatively limited distribution of Apple's app store (compared to the web) also means only those with an iPad and an inclination to download it will see it.

Another option is to simply insert PDFs into viewers such as Issuu. These add a view, zoom and "page-turn" functionality to the standard PDF. The process is usually little more than a simple upload. While the ease is attractive, it still has the challenges PDFs pose for users on mobile devices (the size is illegibly small on phones), and there are barriers to sharing, search and data collection.

Increasingly common is designing it for the open web using the same code that powers all websites (HTML and CSS). AirBNB, Warby Paker, MailChimp and Gates are all taking this path. This can be produced by most skilled web-designers (watch a behind the scenes video of Warby Parker’s report coming together). It offers the advantage of working on any browser and, if designed responsively (so one version works on any size screen from phone to desktop), delivers access to any of the 2 billion people (pdf) now on the web. While it lacks some of the bells and whistles available on iPad apps, the sophistication of HTML5 is catching up fast to deliver an immersive experience.

The Bar is Set High

The art of the annual report promises to evolve fast. Print is not likely to disappear soon. Print campaigns are alive and well with agencies such as Bruketa & Zinic printing annual reports that glow in the dark, or must be baked or exposed to sunlight to be visible, reports AdAge. But print claims an ever smaller share of content marketing budgets — just 60 percent of the $44 billion spent in 2013 compared to virtually 100 percent in 2008, according to the Custom Content Council (paywall) as money floods into digital and multimedia ($13.4 billion last year).  

Title image by lrutherford03 (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license