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The Art of Creating the Annual Report

The end of the year is a busy time for most organizations. While still focused on meeting customer needs, they also have to meet year-end obligations for the business, which may include producing an annual report.

The annual report presents financial information about the performance of an organization, and is mandatory for any publicly traded company, though many private companies and nonprofits also produce them. The annual report is meant to be used as a performance assessment, but it can be more than just a regulatory compliance document. It presents the perfect opportunity for you to tell the story beyond the numbers, giving readers an inside look at your operation.

From the top; Images 1-4: Western Union annual report, Center for Nonprofit Management annual report, UL Lafayette Foundation annual report (Passion) and a retrospective of UL Lafayette Foundation annual reports

The annual report hasn’t always been seen as a marketing piece. Historically, it was simply a rather large, very dry document that touted the yearly financial performance of an organization. Over the years, it has transformed into something greater that connects to readers, and invites them into the story.

As the use of the annual report has evolved, so have the elements and trends for creating it. There is no single template for creating an annual report – each should be tailored to fit the needs of its own business or industry. But, there are some trends in the packaging and presentation of an annual report that will continue to shift the way it is received.

The Annual Report as a Work of Art
Take the time and make the investment to create an annual report that is both engaging and interesting to read. Make it a document that remains relevant beyond the publication date by injecting it with great storytelling that also speaks to the success of your organization.

In this Center for Nonprofit Management annual report, we developed vivid imagery in the WPA poster style to frame the concept of working together for the good of all.

As art director Gary LoBue Jr. says, “The annual report allows a rare opportunity for a company to truly expand on their narrative. Every entity has an interesting story to tell, and that story is not always about the numbers. Give the readership some insight. Give them a story that will engage them.”

An annual report is the perfect place to have the company narrative marry its financial success story. A key part of storytelling is the concept, design and visuals that frame the words and numbers. Keep the door open for the use of an overarching concept that captures the tenor of your message, as well as color, graphics, images and any other design elements that will help transform your annual report to a work of art worth keeping and displaying.

Design for “Turners” and “Scrollers”
Annual report production is shifting towards electronic reports, in addition to traditional hard copy reports. The trend towards digital annual reports is strong, with 67 percent of public companies producing both a printed and electronic annual report. Plan for the future, but don’t abandon a print version if it still holds relevance for your audience.

This shift to digital reports pairs perfectly with the idea of the annual report as a creative marketing piece. One of the key advantages of the electronic format is the allowance for movement in the report. In general, digital content is better received when it includes video, images, infographics, animation – anything that is visually appealing.

Some companies choose to integrate digital assets into their hard copy annual report, bringing an added dimension of interactivity to the print version. In the UL Lafayette Foundation report we included QR codes to direct readers to bonus content. In addition to (or instead of) merely reading the donor’s story, the viewer could see and hear the donor sharing his or her passion for the university, via video. Other QR codes linked readers directly to department or program pages where they could make a donation.

With digital design also comes responsive design. Mobile devices have surpassed desktop machines as the preferred Internet access point worldwide – 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent. As more consumers use mobile devices, content has to be responsive to different size screens. A single-page responsive design is a common solution for the structure of an electronic report, as there is no flipping between pages. Users can simply scroll all the way through or use anchor text links to locate the information they are seeking.

The need for hard copy versus electronic, or both, varies significantly, depending on factors such as regulation and compliance, company size, industry, target audiences and many others. The decision to do one or both rests on your organization’s needs and your audience’s tolerance for change.

Key Elements of an Annual Report
Regardless of which presentation format you choose, there is an established standard for the type of information usually included:

  1. Successes – The end goal of an annual report is to tout the yearly accomplishments of a company. This can be done through both the financial review and the narrative. The successes should also include a “thank you” to those who made the achievements possible.
  2. Narrative – Tell your story. Invite the reader in with narrative that gives an inside look at what your organization really stands for.
  3. Executive Message – Most reports include a message from the CEO, or the highest ranking official within the organization. A company’s publics look to the leaders to provide a pathway to the future, as well as an analysis of the year’s performance.
  4. Financials – No annual report is complete without a look at the numbers. These can range from simple, engaging summary charts to comprehensive financial statements or a Form 10-K, depending on your organization.
  5. Call to Action – What should readers do with the information presented to them? Share it with others? Make an investment? Visit a website? While many will simply appreciate the yearly review, it’s a good idea to give the reader something more to do with the information.
    While these elements are the backbone of the report, the only way to stand out in the crowd of annual reports is to use it as a platform that tells a story, and to give it a unique design that brings the information to life.

It’s All in the Details
Don’t resent or lament the task of creating your annual report. Instead, let it inspire you to put your best foot forward. Company leadership should take advantage of the annual report’s potential size and scope. Make it a trophy piece for marketing, highlighting your organization’s short- and long-term goals. This is a chance to build on the past year’s achievements, or to look past any challenges while focusing on the future.