As techy as I am, and I am reasonably digitally-literate, I suppose, for my age (as my kids would say about anyone over 35), there is something about online reports that doesn't work for me.
It's fabulous to have information accessible but for me, a report that is entirely online with no possibility to download the full or at least a summary is a turn-off. I was travelling last week in Europe and internet access is not always easy. Free WiFi in my hotel gave such a weak signal that I abandoned it. In other places, international roaming costs an arm and a leg. I have a personal hotspot deal that provides 400MB for around $10 and that's pretty good, but for a heavy user such as me (not games or movies, just regular work type surfing, downloading reports (:)), emailing and a few apps), that barely covers half a day. Local or international data bundles are not always available and when they are, the price per mega is far more. Travelling is the one time that I have time to look at things I don't have time to look at when I am under deadline pressures. Flying time is perfect - oops, no internet on flights. I have about another 50 hours of flying and airport time coming up in November - most of that is free-WiFi-less. No online reports. I have no idea what free or low-cost internet access is like in other parts of the world outside of Europe and the U.S. and a few other places I have traveled. I expect it's even harder or costlier to hook up outside your own home in many places. So, why do companies insist on providing sustainability reports that can only be viewed online? This is so restrictive. Financial reports are never only online (I believe) - there is always a downloadable document.
Don't get me wrong, online is great and opens up access to many - including consumers - that reports wouldn't otherwise reach. Online reports provide opportunities for feedback and dialogue in real-time - page by page - much better than asking someone to provide feedback about an entire report if they have read only a couple of sections. Sharability of online content is also a big advantage for expanding the reach of your report. But can't we have the best of both worlds?
Today I came across Annie's Homegrown, Inc.'s online Sustainability Report for FY 2014.
But, when you go for the detail, you lose the report.
For example, I selected to "learn more" about sustainability education for employees. I left-scrolled. This brought me to another page with a font so small I had to enlarge my screen.
After the short text, there is a clickable link to a "Related Article" which brings you to another part of the Annie's website that is outside of the report content. Browser back-click to get back to the report. Repeat endless times to actually read any content. Don't bother. Simply give up.
No site-map, no contents list, no index. For some, this may be a great online experience. For myself, a professionally-oriented reader of reports (and I understand that I might be outside Annie's target audience, even though I am positively disposed towards organic food :)), it really doesn't work for me and I give up once I see that I am getting nowhere fast. While I commend this organization, and I really do, for reporting on sustainability and doing so quite attractively and creatively, as well as achieving some sustainability performance plusses, I find this reporting format frustrating. (At least it's not a flip-book. Don't get me started on those.....). A small PDF download for me to read offline in an orderly and sequential way would make all the difference.
Annie's is just one example of many companies that seem to believe that the progressive and PC thing today is to report exclusively online. I could give many more report examples, some that have easier navigation, some that are impossible, some long, some short, some with webby pyrotechnics and pop-ups and pop-outs and dynamic menus and charts and more. No matter how fancy they are, I can never read them on a flight, it costs me an arm and a leg to read them while I am travelling, and I have to spend (and waste) time clicking away for everything I want to glance at.
The real value of online reports should be real-time accessibility and interactability. Accessibility is limited, as I have noted, but if your report is online, then why not use this as an opportunity to invite feedback online and generate some dialogue? A bit of talkback may do the company some good. A learning opportunity. The Annie's report interactivity is one-way. It has several share buttons - you can pinterest it, google it, facebook it and even email the URL to all your closest friends.... but you can't comment on it. You could go to Twitter and interact with @AnniesCEO there, but who can be bothered? Twitter is not the best tool for providing report feedback.
This rant-post therefore is both an expression of my frustration to all online-only reporters and a plea to you/them to go the extra mile and publish reports in a way that make it easier for a wider range of stakeholders to use them. I LOVE reports. I hate having to miss out because online just isn't there yet.
PS: Maybe we have missed the boat with Annie's. The company has now been bought by General Mills. At least General Mills has a downloadable PDF sustainability report. However, I am not so optimistic about the chances of Annie's brands competing strongly with Cheerios for page space so we might just find ourselves wanting the online report back :-)
elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting AND Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen) or via my business website www.b-yond.biz (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm). Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at email@example.com to help make your G4 reporting even better.