How to Confidently Produce a Superior Annual Report
This document will empower you to achieve a highly efficient annual report writing, design, and development workflow.
Our design studio has completed more than 200 annual reports ranging from the Fortune 1000 to the Fortune 500.
Creating a Superior Annual Report
Superior annual reports are grounded in messaging and design that help analysts and investors understand the relevance of your market presence.
The goal is to communicate your brand purpose and value proposition—to establish a market position that builds trust in your enterprise and set it and apart from the competition.
Through the years, Michael Patrick Partners has listened to and learned from market leaders.
Recurring comments we’ve heard from chief executive officers and chief financial officers regarding their annual report presentations have included “We need a more compelling story to attract a wider audience, a report that explains why we exist and how the business units and brands contribute to an overarching market strategy.”
Investor relations clients echo similar statements. We hear that their annual reports are dull. There's too much industry-speak. They need a report that better describes how the company is positioned within the industry.
And corporate communications managers tell us: “Our reports need to go beyond product photos and customer testimonials—digital techniques and motion graphics would engage stakeholders. And too often the messaging is off brand. Our group needs to be more involved in the annual report content. And outside, objective help would ensure a more dynamic result.”
By referencing this checklist, you will be able to develop a financial story that explains your organization’s achievements, depth, and scale.
The Value of an Outsider’s Perspective
To start, maybe it’s time for an outsider’s epiphany. Or a creative partner who just gets you better.
An educated outsider arrives with no preconceived ideas and no political baggage—they often strengthen internal team resources. Bringing in people who think differently—and have vast experience—means internal teams are exposed to practices that can help them in the long run.
Organizations benefit from interaction with external creative partners who typically work faster than their corporate counterparts. Juggle multiple assignments with ease. And propose novel solutions to brand management.
Today business obstacles presented by COVID-19 and employees working from home have posed extraordinary challenges never envisioned. Marketing managers who apply intellectual objectivity from outsiders—who possess specialized expertise—are thriving on multiple levels.
Consider welcoming advisors who provide new perspectives.
Comprehensive Annual Report Workflow
On the pages that follow, we’ve listed our particular approach (steps) to organizing an annual report design, writing, and production assignment.
Consider this checklist your road map. A broad brushstroke. It’s a resource we created for both seasoned veterans and people new to the discipline—information everyone will value.
Our tested process has guided organizations ranging from the Fortune 1000 to the Fortune 500—an annual report workflow that can be applied to any industry.
Depending on the type of presentation (e.g., digital, 10-K wrap, traditional printed annual report), the workflow steps vary slightly, but the principles remain the same.
We suggest that you focus on three critical areas: the schedule, the messaging, and the design.
A detailed schedule lessens stress, highlights the next step in the process, ensures that everyone on the client and agency teams understand their respective responsibilities, and helps reduce the overall cost.
Messaging must be on brand—consistent with the institutional market positioning. The annual report is not an island; the content must be harmonious to promote a distinguished, integrated, and relevant story.
And the design should be timeless and innovative. A presentation that sparks stop-and-think moments.
When the schedule, messaging, and design are meticulously executed, a winning outcome is achieved.
The goal is to develop the right message; the medium (print or digital) applied is secondary.
Two Approaches: Digital or Print?
A question that must be addressed early on is Will the annual report be digital or print-based?
Investor relations and corporate communications professionals are keenly aware there is no simple way to answer this question—each organization must carefully weigh the response. Although sustainability and responsible environmental stewardship remain passionate topics within all organizations, the medium (distribution channel) selected cannot be driven by this singular criterion. Initial thinking is that a digital (online) production is obviously the greener choice; yet, even distributing a simple email has an environmental impact.
Your job is to develop the right message; the medium is secondary. A successful outcome promotes brand recall, ensures a maximum return on the marketing investment, and promotes intelligent green stewardship.
The question of whether to create a traditional print-based annual versus an eco-friendly digital production must be weighed against the communications goal and the type of touchpoint best suited for your segmented audiences.
Digital-Based Presentations A true digital-based annual report will take advantage of today’s online communications and production techniques. Consider it a microwebsite approach with endless opportunities to grow brand value.
A digital presentation demonstrates an organization is technologically proficient. And because it can be accessed by anyone, anytime, you can reach far beyond the shareholder base. Features for digital annual reports can include easy-to-use navigation that helps stakeholders quickly jump to their particular areas of interest. Videos can be embedded to explain technical advances. Motion graphics show rather than tell. Context to key issues can be presented though special links. Interactive interviews provide insight to executive reasoning through which the audience can hear answers to complex questions. And Excel files can be offered to examine selected financial details.
Plus, analytics gathered from an online presentation enable you to measure which sections (content) of the annual report readers are most interested in carefully scrutinizing. This feature is a driving force to understand top-of-mind issues, content to downplay, and information to enhance the following year.
With all this said, be aware that the time, design, production, and development requirements of a superior digital-based report can be just as arduous as its print-based counterpart.
Print-Based Presentations The adage “Everything old is new again” can now be applied to print medium. A printed annual report, created by a talented design studio becomes an extraordinary tactile experience. Today’s audiences are not being exposed to innovative applications of paper, ink, photography, illustration, typography, and foldouts that when combined create stop-and-think moments.
A printed annual report ensures a linear, cover-to-cover story. Printed annual reports are convenient—a reader can inscribe notes, comments, and questions. And printed reports can be archived and cataloged for future reference.
An artfully written and designed printed annual report, when placed on a bookshelf or coffee table, contributes to a bold, impressive market presence that stands the test of time.
If print-based materials will be published, use paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC certification ensures that paper products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. FSC principles and criteria provide a foundation for all forest management standards globally.
Hybrid Presentations In many instances, our studio has also created a hybrid annual report—an assignment that includes a printed financial overview plus a digital presentation. In this case, the best of all worlds is available for audiences to explore.
In the final analysis, successful annuals apply both print and digital tactics, resulting in a blended plan.
Planning and Research Workflow
Planning and Research Phase
Most steps of the process are necessary to produce any type of annual report, but some are unique to a digital presentation. To help you understand variances in the workflow, we’ve indicated digital processes with a (D).
Assignment Planning and Statement of Work Assignment planning should include a detailed statement of work to reiterate deliverables and confirm creative partner and client responsibilities.
Project Brief A project brief identifies the basic elements of the assignment and empowers teams to initiate the work. It confirms the audience, deliverables, objectives, process, and schedule at a very high level. It is not a detailed scope agreement, nor does it include content intricacies; the intent is to identify only the fundamental elements.
Scheduling One of the keys to your success is meticulous scheduling. It’s all in the details. All aspects of the planning, creative, production, and distribution process must be identified and scheduled.
Competitive Audit To ensure that the message and creative strategy are distinctive, a competitive audit (analysis) of the annual reports that exist within your competitive landscape should be conducted. The audit is then applied to guide a 360-degree view that will optimize the creative strategy and story. This step helps avoid creative directions in use by competitors, thus further differentiating your visual positioning and mitigating any confusion in the marketplace.
Stakeholder Interviews and Previous Annual Report Assessment Before initiating work, it’s prudent to hear from key stakeholder groups regarding their view of the fiscal year. This is also a good time to ask for their perspectives regarding your previous annual reports’ strengths and weaknesses.
Brand Strategy Workflow
Brand Strategy Phase
The brand strategy phase ensures that the annual report content supports your overall market position. As mentioned earlier, the content must work in harmony with institutional messaging. Your job is to strike a chord with the existing brand strategy.
Target-Audience Personas Target-audience personas and their care-abouts are developed to identify segmented audiences. They are determined based on assumptions regarding demographics, interests, pain points, values, fears, motivations, internal influencers, knowledge of your industry, and keywords used to search for your offerings.
Theme Development Based on what you learn from the stakeholder interviews and competitive audit, multiple story themes should be proposed (preliminary recommendations). Themes are then presented to senior staff as soon as possible, one is selected, and the creative process moves forward.
Shareholder Letter Outline The writing process begins with the shareholder letter outline. The outline’s purpose is to identify and confirm key messaging topics and establish the appropriate flow of information.
Operations Review Outline A separate outline is then created that reflects the operations content and how it will be organized. Recommendations for the operations review are fleshed out during the stakeholder interviews. From this point forward, the content takes root and evolves as drafts are produced.
Legal Compliance Make certain your general counsel is informed regarding the operations review content strategy. They must be given an opportunity early in the process to comment.
Digital Strategy Workflow
Digital Strategy Phase (D)
A digital strategy (and workflow) must be in place—scaled to your situation and scope—to establish development guidelines.
Information Architecture Brief If a digital annual report will be produced, an information architecture brief (project scope document) is required. The brief outlines all pages, sections, subsections, and general functionality. A wireframe doc is also essential to note all plug-ins, as well as who is responsible for setting them up. This step ensures that the design reflects expectations.
Design Concepts Review It’s a good practice to evaluate concepts and the interface early in the process to ensure that goals are achievable within a content management system (CMS).
Responsive Design Brief The online annual report should be responsive, meaning the format will adapt to fit the screen size and aspect ratio of the device on which it is viewed. In this case, resolve the primary responsive design target breakpoints for smartphone, tablet, desktop, and large desktop in a responsive design brief.
Search Engine Optimization Establish who will be responsible for search engine optimization before work begins.
Additional Features If additional (out-of-scope) features are requested after the project has begun, determine if fixed-cost or hourly billing will be applied.
Change Orders All teams must work collaboratively to prioritize and document changes. To ensure that costs can be tracked, they should be presented as line-item change-order estimates.
Training and Maintenance If your team will be trained on the CMS, outline the steps that are required.
Creative Strategy Workflow
Creative Strategy Phase
The following steps are applied to create an information-rich annual report. As mentioned earlier, processes specific to a digital production are indicated with a (D).
Rorschach Test To initiate the design, examples of annual reports that you believe to be exceptional should be reviewed. Consider this a type of Rorschach test to discover visual and messaging preferences.
Messaging Strategy A messaging strategy is devised specifically for the annual report. Think of this work as translating points of difference into compelling positioning concepts.
The goal is to outline the vision, expertise, culture, market need, brand purpose, value proposition, and talking points. It serves as a check-and-balance reference tool to enable content providers to clearly articulate essential messages.
Creative Positioning All organizations have a vision for the annual report—how it will look and speak. To ensure that preferences are discussed, we suggest including a design exploration step. Think of this process as an annual report mood board that explores design approaches.
The exploration includes recommendations for photography or illustration best suited to visually communicate the message, information hierarchy solutions, grid systems, strategic use of color, typography, and texture. And your brand identity guidelines must be applied to ensure that the design adheres to brand standards.
Pagination and Content Pacing Now, based on the creative positioning option you select, the first design presentation includes multiple paginations (how each digital frame or page will be organized). This process is similar to storyboarding. The goal is to hold the reader’s attention through a strategic and lyrical pacing of graphic elements and copywriting.
Wireframe (D) A wireframe ensures the story is user-focused. It establishes digital features to help anticipate how the user will interact with the design and links. The pagination is used to direct the work.
Shareholder Letter—Draft One Once the shareholder letter outline has been approved, work on draft one will begin. We recommend that the letter include phrases that closely track back to the annual report theme; the theme is the glue that holds the financial story together and provides a transition between key messages. We realize that the CEO may have specific input requirements and may want to ultimately assume responsibility for the final draft—this is typical of most assignments.
Operations Review—Draft One Draft one of the operations content is developed based on the outline and preferred creative direction.
A valuable component of the operations content is a company profile—a succinct explanation of the organization’s market position; it is a concise introduction that communicates the market and defining attributes. Never assume that the audience fully comprehends your market position within the competitive landscape. The profile is highlighted before the shareholder letter or operations review begins.
Design Presentation—Round One Proof One of the design options selected during creative positioning is now refined and presented in a more comprehensive format.
The presentation includes preliminary designs for covers, key pages, charts, and tables. Navigation (strategic user journey) titles are formatted as active links to enable viewers to click through to specific pages or sections. The designs for section dividers, financial highlights, and photo captions should also be proposed.
Shareholder Letter—Draft Two Draft two of the shareholder letter is now completed. If the CEO will make heavy content and tone edits from this point forward, the letter writing becomes an investor relations responsibility.
Operations Review—Draft Two Your recommendations and edits from the initial operations review should be incorporated and a draft two completed.
Photography, Illustration, and Video Considerations Distinctive photography, illustration, and video (imagery) are essential elements used to achieve particular graphic styles—elements that demand a second and third look. Your goal is to present a memorable, differentiated brand.
Once it’s been determined whether photography, illustration, and/or video best supports the message, an image list is compiled. All costs and logistics must be evaluated. Your in-house photography archive reviewed. And the CEO and board photography organized.
Print and Development Bids After the design direction is approved, print and development (programming) bids are gathered. If a printed design is included, specify Forest Stewardship Council recycled paper.
Design Presentation—Round Two Proof The preferred design undergoes continued refinements, with a focus on the typography, photography, illustration, motion graphics, and color details.
Photography, Illustration, and Video Image List Approved At this stage, details of the image list are evaluated and approved by the client team.
Photography, Illustration, and Video Bids and Selection The preferred photography, illustration, and video partners are contacted, fees negotiated, availability confirmed, shoot locations coordinated, and the work scheduled.
Real People and Location Photography Coordinated It’s critical to appoint someone on your team to assist in coordinating photography, video logistics, and scheduling.
Video Talent Casting Call, Auditions, Selection, and Contracts (D) If the annual report requires video performances using professional talent, casting specifications must be developed. Basic talent specs (age, gender, and ethnicity) are shared with talent agents, and headshots and performance reels are gathered.
Wardrobe and Props A wardrobe memo must be written for both photography and video productions, indicating what each on-camera principal will wear during shoots. This step also applies to the board photography. People will appreciate simple wardrobe guidelines.
You must also assemble a list of props and gather items—to use within specific shots—that support the story.
Production Book Following approval of the image list, a production book should be compiled that outlines production-day details.
Financial Data and Charts—Preliminary Input At this point in the process, preliminary (close to final) input is required from the finance department. It’s critical to know early on the type of financial data, charts, tables, and graphs best suited to support the story.
10-K Design Layouts To ensure that your 10-K is attractive, easy to read, and meets today’s best practices, a sample 10-K typography layout should be designed. Although you will not be typesetting the 10-K, design templates can be forwarded to your financial department or outside financial printer to follow.
Development (Programming), Printing, and Scheduling As you enter the design refinement phase, you must initiate preliminary digital development, print production planning, and the related schedules.
The annual report is not an island—content must work in harmony with institutional messaging.
Content Strategies: Digital and Print
There are myriad content strategies that can be applied to present an engaging financial story.
Listed below are a few ideas to consider. As noted earlier, make certain your general counsel is informed regarding the operations review content.
Brand Drivers In the final analysis, the annual must be carefully scrutinized and evaluated to discover if the content and design tracks back to the key brand drivers.
Value Proposition A value proposition is a messaging strategy. It states the desired emotional connection between an organization and the audience (functional requirements, emotional response, and self-expressive attributes). A proposition—written specifically for the annual report—also helps analysts and shareholders understand customer buying influences. The value proposition leads to a higher value placed on your brand than that of competitors.
Brand Purpose A brand purpose statement is rooted in your business philosophy. It is a high-level thesis—a prompt—to make stakeholders aware of why the organization exists and what drives the employees. It identifies what external audiences should expect from interactions with your brand as a whole.
Key Messages Within the messaging strategy, a few key talking points should be developed to support the year’s achievements. Key message talking points contribute to developing a precise story through which attributes are made clear. And why audiences should think about your organization first within the respective category.
Differentiators Differentiators (and attributes) explain how your organization stands out from the competitive landscape. While you cannot present unsubstantiated platitudes, you cannot blend into the landscape either.
Brand Architecture It’s essential for your audience to understand sub-brand relationships under the institutional umbrella. Again, explain your strategic market position—don’t assume the audience is aware of your strengths.
Brand Culture Your culture is defined by what motivates employees to come to work each day and why customers are drawn to the brand.
Product Pipeline Stakeholders want to know what the future holds—consider presenting background on new, non-proprietary products or services in development and how each innovation fits into the overarching business strategy. An informative diagram (graphic) can be created to educate segmented audiences. Make certain your general counsel approves the release of this information.
Customer Testimonials Testimonials aren’t new to annual report design, but presenting customer stories through the use of interesting scenarios is novel. Think differently.
Interactive CEO Q&A Video A letter to shareholders is essential but doesn’t provide insight to the CEO’s personality. Consider filming an interactive question-and-answer segment where stakeholders can select top-of-mind issues and hear the CEO’s response.
Financial Review Rather than producing a comprehensive annual report, consider a financial review that serves as a companion to the 10-K. This can be a digital review or printed document that showcases the fiscal accomplishments in a broad, highly-visual presentation rather than details.
Motion Graphics, Infographics, and Charts Show—don’t tell. Support your data through the use of interesting motion graphics and imaginative print-based charts and graphs.
Pull Quotes The strategic use (design) of pull quotes is an excellent communications tactic.
Refinement, Production, and Development Workflow
Refinement, Production, and Development Phase
During this phase, ongoing refinements are made to the annual report. Plan on up to three copy drafts, three rounds of design proofs, and three rounds of production proofs.
Photography, Illustration, and Video Completed Now all art requirements—photography, illustration, and video—have been completed. It’s important to wrap up these tasks as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary stress and ensure that there’s time for reshoots or changes to illustrations. Expect the unexpected.
Shareholder Letter—Draft Three Draft three of the shareholder letter is presented for review. If your investor relations has assumed responsibility for writing the letter, make certain completion dates adhere to the schedule.
Operations Review—Draft Three Draft three of the operations review content must be completed and presented again.
Design Presentation—Round Three/Final Proof Round three should be considered the final design. At this stage, overarching details have been critiqued. Additional refinements will be presented during the production proof stage.
Development and Staging Environment (D) A staging environment for a digital presentation should be provided for content review. Edits (design and copyediting) will continue until the annual report is pushed live.
Financial Data and Charts—Final Content Final financial data is due and used to produce the charts, tables, and graphs. Scheduled review dates should be included for content to be proofread—a good practice is to present this content as independent designs. The process continues until the work is approved.
Copyediting The production proof stage is when final copyediting takes place for the shareholder letter, operations review, and all additional content. A professional editor/proofreader should be used to review all production proofs.
Production Proofs Print/PDF-ready production files are now completed and presented for your approval. This process typically requires a minimum of three rounds of proofs.
10-K Printer’s File Your finance department is responsible for all aspects of the 10-K file. Those processes include, but are not limited to, typesetting, print estimates, proofing, prepress, printing, mailing lists, delivery quantities, addresses, delivery dates, and shipping.
Files Released to Printer If a printed design is being produced, the final approved production proof is released to the printer and the prepress process begins. Ensure that all aspects of the delivery requirements are finalized.
Prepress and Printing The creative agency should remain at your side to ensure quality—or your marketing communications staff can coordinate all aspects of the process. The goal is to have enough time in the schedule to ship the annual reports using UPS Ground and avoid Federal Express.
Server-Side Processes Your web services will be responsible for placing the final digital production file or PDFs on the website. It is critical that web services be involved in the process and attend periodic meetings on an ongoing basis.
Investor Relations Service PDF A final PDF is provided for your investor relations service.
EDGAR Filed Your finance department is responsible for all EDGAR filings, proxy coordination, and related processes.
Launch or Delivery The digital annual report will be launched and the printed version shipped to your transfer or mailing house.
Congratulations—you’ve produced a superior annual report.
Include multiple stakeholders from key groups in the process to ensure they know that their input was considered.
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