digital-annual-report-cover
How to create a digital annual report

2019 update with design tips, ideas, examples and software
This is a comprehensive guide to digital annual reports. In this guide we'll talk about different technology options available, their advantages and disadvantages, and also, a list of must-have features for these solutions.
Why Digital Annual Reports Are So Valuable
Communication is hard, really hard in today’s world. Cutting through the noise becomes harder every day. We have an ever-growing choice of communication tools these days. While in the past we had print, radio and TV, today we have websites, blogs, forums, and social media platforms that cater to every different way of communication you’d like.

Annual reports however do give you the possibility to go far beyond the light interaction of social media. Very often, people do take more time to read an annual report, and especially one that follows best practices in terms of design and storytelling.
Audiences today mostly expect that any information is online, available whenever they want it. And they expect the communication to be well-designed, easy to read and mobile-friendly. If you fail to deliver, then you will fail to deliver on your image and on your brand. As a brand, you stand for something, and you want to show that you will be able to execute your goals well. How credible is that message if you cannot deliver it in a way that meets your audience’s expectations? Now, definitely, some audiences expect a printed format. And that is fine too. These two audiences nicely co-exist next to one another, and print has proven itself to be a great medium for communications. Advantages of digital annual reports:
  • Very low distribution costs
  • Instantly available
  • Can be shared & linked and generate new interests and visits
How to create a digital annual report?
We see people using three technologies to put their annual report online:
  • PDF
  • Flipbooks
  • Web technology (the best ones)
Readability
Let’s have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of these options by comparing some real-life examples. Content is made to be read, so readability is a major concern.

We will look at these examples using the same technology most readers use.
It might be surprising, but 1366x768 is still the most common screen-size out there!

Online PDF
Let’s have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of these options by comparing some real-life examples. Content is made to be read, so readability is a major concern.

We will look at these examples using the same technology most readers use.
An online PDF is no doubt the easiest way to create a digital annual report. You design your annual report for PDF, you export a PDF and you put it online. There are of course, a couple of obvious problems with this approach.

An online PDF is no doubt the easiest way to create a digital annual report. You design your annual report for PDF, you export a PDF and you put it online.

Let's have a look how online PDF's perform for users.

Here is a real-lie example from an organization which is literally setting the standard: the ISO.

The ISO digital annual report is a beautiful, professionally designed report and easily accessible from the ISO website.
The biggest issue of online PDF's is the format. PDF's are made for print, and the dimensions of a print page vs a desktop are significantly different.
So right from the start, we see that the whole front cover is not displayed, and we get a lot of (unwanted) negative space on both sides.
When readers move to a content page, they are confronted with several readability issues at the same time:
- font sizes are small, often very small
- reading the text in the columns requires moving the window left to right, and up and down
On mobile, this becomes very problematic, and the report is really not readable without serious additional effort on the readers side.

Here is another example to illustrate that print layouts often do not translate well to digital formats.
The above example is a 2-page spread, and is like any other online PDF. It reads "Breaking New Ground."
Not the image you want to display:
On mobile however, the spread is split in 2. It reads now as a racially offensive slogan "Breaking NeGro."
Our conclusion on online PDF's:

Advantages:
  • Easy to make
  • Practically free IF you have print

Disadvantages:
  • Usability is poor
  • Looks like print on a screen
  • Very limited interactivity, if any
  • Very limited statisitics
  • No SEO results
PDF’s are easy for you, but offer very poor usability and features online. In today’s age of mobile-first, the results of readership and impact will be low.

And lastly, what is the effect on your stakeholders when you use technology that is a burden to read? Your annual report will not only be a struggle to read, but also: Your annual report will portray an image of your organization not being a leader and innovator.
Flipbooks
What are flipbooks? Flipbooks are PDF’s which are hosted and delivered as a reading experience by a 3rd party. Typically, there will be some user interface to make the reading experience more dynamic.
Flipbooks are provided by software vendors (such as Readz) and they will host the content for you.

Let's have a look how flipbooks can be used for your digital annual reports:
Flipbooks still use the PDF layout, and as such they inherit all the usability issues that come with PDF files. Text will still be hard to read often, but sometimes the supplier has installed some options to help in these scenarios.

For example some suppliers offer a full-screen option which alleviates most of the reading issues on desktop (not on mobile).
What is digital (web) publishing?
Digital web publishing is the publication on the web as 'digital first' content experiences with HTML/CSS. It is used typically more for brand publishing and marketing communications, like annual reports.

Because these publications are often truly responsive, they offer a great user experience with mobile-friendly layouts.

Let's look at an example from IBM to see how this works.
Our conclusion on flipbooks:

Advantages:
  • Easy to make (upload on flipbook platform)
  • Provider takes care of hosting
  • Feels more dynamic compared to online PDFs

Disadvantages:
  • Usability is poor on mobile
  • Still looks like print on a screen
  • Limited interactivity, if any
  • Limited statisitics
  • No SEO results
Flipbooks are still an easy-to-produce solution, and offer better usability and features for desktop, but not for mobile.
It certainly can be an option for your annual digital reports if you want to get started or improve upon the flat online PDF's.
Digital web publishing
With these web-based online annual reports you can design a great reading experience, including a good navigation across your annual report.
IBM's online annual report is a great example of clear communications with its great usage of fonts, illustrations and negative space.
Web-based publishing gives you superior reading experiences on mobile, as illustrated with the example from IBM.

Platforms like Readz offer you an easy, visual way into digital annual reports with a platform that lets you create layouts and designs without having to code.
Our conclusion on web-based digital publishing:

Advantages:
  • Superior user experience
  • Mobile-optimized, responsive
  • Detailed analytics
  • Interactive, possible call-t-actions
  • Animations, video possible
  • Great SEO results possible

Disadvantages:
  • Requires extra work, not just a print layout
Digital Web Publishing offers you the best results, but it does require more effort to create. It will generate the best results in terms of readership, and can boost your image as a leader and innovator significantly.
  • PDF are not really readable on-screen, and especially not on mobile devices
  • Flipbooks add some interactivity and more navigation, but do not solve the issues of readability
  • If you are serious about getting more support with your annual report, PDF and apps on a store are NOT an option In short: For digital annual reports, a flipbook is a great start, web technology is THE best solution for superior reading experience and business results. Split out your financial reporting and keep that as a PDF for people to print.
Summary on options for how to create digital annual reports.
Digital annual report software: Pro's & Con's
Once you made your choice on the type of solution you want to offer, there are still a lot of options. Multiple vendors will offer you solutions, whether you choose to publish your digital annual report as a flipbook or as a web-based publication.

In this section, we will look more in-depth at some of the features that you would need (or would not need) to create a superb online annual report.
Flipbook technology
Here is a list of technology features that you should examine when selecting a flipbook vendor for your digital annual report.
USER INTERFACE

You should create as few obstacles as possible for people who want to read your online annual report.

From a usability viewpoint, offering an overwhelming amount of options and choices creates friction, and will turn people away. This is a case of 'less is more'. Users want content, and anything in the user interface needs to serve the purpose of easier reading. Plus, users want a zero second learning curve or they will bounce.

Unfortunately, many flipbook vendors have gone feature-crazy and have added a set of rarely-used features in the hope of luring more customers to buy their platform.

As a rule, every feature that does not directly contribute to a better reading experience is superfluous. Technology features should not take the focus away from the content of your annual report.

Here is an example of a simple, yet effective user interface that focuses on offering a great reading experience.
This flipbook example from Readz shows how a flipbook interface can be non-intrusive, and still offer all the tools users really need.
FAST LOADING SPEED
The first pages of your annual report should load with almost no waiting time. Publishing technology should be up to the level where readers do not have to look at a 'loading' spinner for multiple seconds.
In this example from the provider 3DIssuu, the reader will be looking at a loading screen for several seconds.

On top of that, this vendor relies on outdated (Flash) technology, which brings us to our next point.
NO EXTRA SOFTWARE INSTALLATION
Many flipbook vendors still use older technologies such as Flash which require the user to install software or plugins before offering access to the digital annual report.

These technologies will often automatically be blocked by browser's security settings and require extra work and downloads by the user. Many people don't do this and simply go away.

This practice is not of today's age any more, and valid alternatives exist.
This type of pop-up messages asking to run or install extra components is something you should definitely avoid. Many people will choose 'no' or 'block'.

And that impacts the results of your digital annual reports negatively.
Digital publishing technology
Looking at digital publishing platforms, here are some crucial features which you will need when creating your digital annual report on one of these platforms:
100% RESPONSIVE
A huge advantage of these web-based technologies is the mobile, responsive behavior. Make sure the mobile version is responsive, and make sure that you have options to control and edit these versions.
The Readz platform automatically creates a mobile version, and gives you controls to adapt and modify the mobile version even further should you wish so.
SUPER-FAST LOADING SPEED
Any page on the web that take over 2-3 seconds to load is considered a slow page. To help you check how a technology provider's platform performs, there are free tools available to help you. Just take any real-life example and put it to the test.
Tools like Google's Page Speed Test let you check the performance of pages. Use a platform like Readz to get continuously above-par results.
MEDIA & ANIMATIONS
Subtle animations will liven up your digital annual report and can give it a dynamic feeling.

Videos from key people at your organization will add a personal and humna touch to your content.

So be sure to check that your vendor offers you these functionalities.
IMPORT CONTENT FROM INDESIGN

Many people create printed annual reports, and why not re-use some of the work you did on InDesign for your digital annual report?

A publishing platform like Readz offers you technologies like an InDesign import which will move all your content from InDesign on a digital format, and you can then start modifying and changing it for a great online version.

Meet the world's most powerful
digital publishing solution
With Readz, you can offer flipbooks, import from InDesign or create your own custom responsive publication from scratch.
RE-USABLE CONTENT BLOCKS
If you create your digital annual report from scratch, then a superb time-saver is the possibility to use ready-made layout blocks. These blocks are generic groups of elements that are frequently used in many types of publications.

With some small modifications and style adaptations, these blocks will fit in nicely with your online annual report.
To illustrate what blocks are, here is an example from the digital publishing platform Readz, showing what generic blocks can look like.
DETAILED ANALYTICS
Analytics are important. They allow you to see how people interact with your content so you can adapt and improve even further. And also, in today's world of ROI, analytics are a powerful tool to show senior executives the value of the worj you are doing.

If you use PDF's or flipbooks for your digital annual reports, your statistics will be very limited. You are likely only going to get the number of downloads.
But with a web-based solution, you can connect Google Analytics, which offers you a detailed view of all visits. And some tools like Readz offer you their own set of statistics on top, which can even show you conversions.

A final word
In conclusion, you really have three options to publish a digital annual report: PDF, flipbook and web publishing.
PDFs will give you mediocre results and using this technology will affect your brand image negatively.
Flipbooks are a great starting option. They are still easy to make, and are likely going to improve your results.
Web publishing will give you superior results and will help you establish an image as a leader and innovator. They will require extra effort however.

Platforms like Readz offer both flipbooks and a web publishing platform, and combined with time-saving tools like InDesign import and ready-made blocks, Readz is a very effective solution for your digital annual reports.
Bart De Pelsmaeker
Bart is a digital marketing veteran and co-founder of Readz, a platform used by brands of all sizes to create superior content experiences. His writing has been featured in Sparksheet, Business2Community, Skyword and other martech publications.

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digital publishing solution
With Readz, you can offer flipbooks, import from InDesign or create your own custom responsive publication from scratch.
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