Storytelling With Digital Annual Reports

As one of the most common communications pieces produced by nonprofits, annual reports have grown to be one of the central storytelling tools an organization uses to reach its existing donors and other key audiences. Many organizations put significant employee hours into these reports—brainstorming, gathering content, designing, printing, mailing, etc.

Unfortunately, despite the importance of and resources poured into annual reports each year, a large number of organizations are stuck producing print reports that lack important measurement and storytelling tools.

Are annual reports worth the effort?

My design studio conducted a series of informational interviews with communications professionals to better understand how this medium is and is not working. Starting off with 15 in-depth conversations and then surveying about 50 others, we saw a number of important themes emerge. Sixty percent of the organizations we surveyed put out an annual report each year, while 15% said they rarely or never did. The size range of our organization’s annual report audiences was mixed—30% had an audience of 100-500, 28% had 500-1,000, and 26% had 1,000-10,000 recipients.

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Measurement is key

The first insight we uncovered was about measurement. In a social sector that is increasingly enamored with, and simultaneously confused by, the power of data, most organizations had little to no means of measuring the effectiveness of their reports. This was true even of organizations that had spent in excess of $20,000 and months of staff time on the reports. While a handful of organizations had anecdotal accounts in support of the importance of their reports to donors, these were often based more on casual conversations than on any kind of systematic measurement.

Digital reports, by contrast, can harness the power of Google Analytics to deliver detailed feedback on the total number of visitors and the popularity of individual sections. Organizations can A/B test possibilities to develop a much clearer idea of who is seeing what content and to what variations people respond.

There are new ways of engaging audiences

Our research also found a strong preference for storytelling tools that many organizations already use on their websites, but which obviously cannot exist in print form. The most common of these were video and interactive data visualizations. Far more engaging than print reports, which are often skimmed, these storytelling tools allow organizations to capture attention in a variety of ways.

Another advantage of going digital is to remove steps involved in taking a specific action. Often called “friction,” the greater the number of steps or duration of time in between the content that inspires action and the ability to take the action, the greater the drop-off in response rates. In soliciting donations, a print report might require a donor to shift from print to digital to make a donation, or even worse, to write a check and mail it in. While these steps are relatively easy, they are far more work than clicking a button on a digital report and making the donation in that moment. Removing even just a small bit of friction can produce wildly different outcomes. Additionally, for organizations not wishing to solicit donations through their annual report, no other obvious call to action may come to mind. With a digital report, many smaller steps can guide viewers to do things such as follow social media pages, support a campaign, or sign up for a newsletter.

A summary of some key insights

For organizations considering going digital with their annual reports, here are a few of the insights we got from our research. Based on what we heard below, we developed a tool that can be found here.

  • Only 21% of respondents had previously created a digital annual report, with 77% saying they would do so in the future
  • Of the features surveyed for the report, the most popular were Dynamic Data Visualization, Responsiveness (for mobile and tablet), and Metrics and Analytics
  • The desire to supplement print with digital was strong, with only 21% saying they would drop the print report entirely to go digital. 55% said they would send out a smaller summary in print
  • More than half of the organizations had budgets between $1 million and $10 million

Print reports can be a beautiful way to send donors and other important constituents a summary of the organization’s accomplishments over the last year. For those recipients that don’t treat it as junk mail or only briefly scan the report, a meaningful interaction can occur between the reader and the organization. However, the quality of these interactions can be extremely hard to measure. By supplementing or replacing printed annual reports with digital ones, both measurement and engagement can increase dramatically.

Matthew Scharpnick
Matthew Scharpnick is the co-founder and chief strategy officer at Elefint Designs, a design and marketing firm that works with good causes. He founded Elefint Designs on the premise that organizations doing good for the world deserve great design. Matthew received his MBA from UC Irvine and has worked with good causes for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter @mattscharp.