Crossing the channel

Post #1: Print first? Digital first? Claire thinks about the place to start

Now that we all go to the corporate website first (and most people get the annual report from the website anyway), shouldn’t we be thinking digital rather than print first for reporting? Well, that’s a very good point, but have you tried writing an annual report? The Rem Report, for example – how on earth would you write that as a website? And how would you get the auditors to sign off a website (which you could change afterwards) instead of a print document (which you can’t)? How would they actually do it?

These – and similar – questions will be familiar to anyone wrestling with the seemingly intractable problem of producing an annual report in an age of digital-first communication. A lot of the content – lengthy, detailed, complex, wordy – seems to scream ‘I’m print, not digital’. But then much of it would be great – better, even – on a website, presented in a way that’s tailored for digital. I’m thinking animated business models, for example, that, by their interactive nature, really help you understand how a company works – something you just can’t do in print.

So where do you start? Do you write a print document and then transfer the most web-friendly bits of it to the corporate website in a ‘reporting hub’? Or vice versa? Or a bit of both, depending on the section?

I’d say – neither. We shouldn’t be thinking about the channel first at all. We should be thinking about the message and the content first. What is it we want people to understand? What are we trying to say? How do we want to say it?

We need to ask – and answer – all those questions before starting to do things for either channel. Too often you see otherwise great websites spoiled by an injudicious cut and paste from the annual report, which has clearly been written for print (and statutory print at that), without any thought about how you’d get the same information and message across effectively on a website.

Print and digital are different things, of course. Just think about the language – we read a report, a book, a newspaper, a magazine; we look at or browse or use a website. Yet we all preach consistency across channels.

And consistency is essential – but it shouldn’t mean cutting and pasting from one channel to the other. Instead, it should mean that people get the same overall message whether they’re a reader or a user. And that requires writing and designing content that makes a virtue of each channel’s strengths, based on an underlying understanding of what we’re trying to communicate, why, and to whom.

But, you might think, what about my annual report? (Which, by the way, I’ve got to get signed off by zillions of people, not to mention the auditors who are new this year so are going to take longer than usual, and the late Easter bank holiday is slap bang in the middle of my sign-off period, oh and my budget’s been cut because we’re all feeling the squeeze…)

It’s not as hard as it sounds. In fact it can be an opportunity. An opportunity to do things better and more easily, because you’re asking people to do the thinking about what they are trying to say only once. The annual report has a unique role because it is a legal requirement and has to be reviewed and signed off by the Board. It leads when it comes to content and message. So make a virtue of it.

Instead of just thinking about the 172 pages that will be sent with a sigh of relief to Companies House, think about all the ways annual report content can be used (and will be used, whether you like it or not), and plan for those too. If you do the thinking properly first, the doing properly – print and digital – will follow.

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4 comments on “Crossing the channel

  1. Melany Page on

    Great article and something we have had to battle with.

    What I have found is that thanks to online/digital print reports have become more interesting, more user friendly, less repetitive and generally easier to read. With the aid of infographics – these work well on web and print and can be adapted for most mediums. For me, the pain has been taken out of reporting and brought the need for, as you mentioned, thinking through the message and then the content follows suit.

  2. William Pitt on

    I have found the best approach to this issue is to think of an annual report as a layered communication, which enables readers to determine for themselves how much depth they want to go into. On this basis, the front end of the report and accounts (corresponding roughly to the “strategic report”) should employ all relevant web-based tools to aid comprehension and engagement. Those looking for a deep dive will generally be happy to access a pdf version of the other sections of the report to find the detail they are looking for.

  3. Ann Mickle on

    Really thought provoking Claire – and has made me consider print vs digital outside of annual reports, in terms of Codes of Conduct and Policies as well.

    What content do we want people to engage with and how will they do that best (which could vary Policy to Policy)? Also to ‘layer’ information on a website is a lot easier; top line facts with a “click here” for the truly interested, helps people read through the truly key information more quickly.

    In also thinking about audience, I read a statistic that by 2020, 50% of the workforce will be millennials…how should we engage them and in what format…(I still can’t get my policies down to 140 characters, yet!).

    This is purely a personal preference, but I’m still a big fan of print…

  4. Andy Milligan on

    Excellent piece which has wider relevance. Any piece of communication these days faces this same messsge/media challenge that digital and print poses. In the old days of TV and print which had similarities in the way they were created and consumed (both difficult to edit both essentially absorbed passively by the audience) it was easy to cut and paste content across media. The interactivity and instant ‘editability’ of digital media poses a whole different challenge. Loved the way you pointed out the different words that describe how we interact with the various ‘channels’. Of course there might come a time when digital/print merge just as now you have books with embedded videos soon you might have printed pages with digital interactive embedded. Who knows? Look forward to reading more of your blogs


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