Published in Business -

Why tracking your annual report is a matter of good governance.

The best not-for-profit boards understand that good governance is about good oversight. In part, oversight is about anticipating what’s coming and detecting trends early. It’s about monitoring and adjusting strategy, mitigating risks, and making the best decisions based on these factors.

Good information makes such decisions considerably easier.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with annual reports – or tracking, for that matter. Well, it all comes down to the purpose of these reports and how they’re perceived by those who read them.

An annual report is an expression of an organisation’s performance. The members, employees, patrons, regulators, and myriad other stakeholders who consume a report expect it to be a kind of informational flagship for the organisation. It seems logical, then, that they use it to assess a governance team’s “stewardship of the resources of the organisation“.

A stakeholder might seek something as broad as the organisation’s purpose. They might look for something far more specific: information on progress within a single stage of a particular project. Or they might read and interact with the report in multiple ways. Whatever the case may be, the central expectation that the document will be a reliable repository of data pertinent to them and their interests never changes. But the stakeholders’ definition of pertinence absolutely does.

In short:

How people read such a document offers clues—a guide, even—to what stakeholders are interested in and how that interest changes over years.

Now, we’re not suggesting that an annual report can become a single point of truth. Or that it should be considered some kind of not-for-profit board oracle, capable of dispensing incomparable wisdom. But for some organisations, it’s likely a more valuable data wellspring than it might initially seem.

It could be a highly useful additional source of insight for a board constantly seeking to make better decisions.

Why does tracking help?

A good (but not necessarily complicated) analytics setup can track how readers interact with an annual report and extract vital data. That data can help a board understand what’s relevant now, what may be relevant in the future, and what is losing relevance or is not as apt as it once was. We’re talking, as we’ve mentioned, about relevance to stakeholders, but that may (and very often will) reflect relevance to a sector, to communities, and even to society at large.

The questions the tracking seeks to answer may be simple on the face of it. But the answers could have potentially profound implications.

  • What are readers focusing on?
  • What are they skipping?
  • Is what the organisation thought would be important to readers (and so brought to the fore) in fact worthy of its prominence?
  • Could ‘heat’ on a particular section be a way of determining the rising concerns of a group of stakeholders – and is that likely to generate questions – at an AGM, for instance?

Tracking, in combination with careful analysis, allows you to answer such questions. And even if those answers don’t point to a universal or industry-wide trend, they will still have utility.

An annual report is a significant undertaking. Tracking will help the team responsible for its production understand how to allocate resources within a recurrent project. They will gain insights that point to what content needs to change, what media works best for particular messages or sections, and even what can be left out entirely.

In that way, tracking and analysis has a dual purpose. It can:

  1. Provide governance-level yardsticks that speak to trends and shifts at a macro level. (Example: a high proportion of readers navigating straight to a section on modern slavery.)
  2. Offer practical, operations-level insights that create efficiency and lead to a document that is simply easier to produce. (Example: readers on the whole spending far less time on an employee Q&A section than they were three years ago, suggesting it may have run its course as a regular report feature.)

How to get started with tracking.

It may be obvious, but it bears underlining: tracking is only possible when your annual report is web-based.

For an organisation used to producing hard copy reports, this may seem like a daunting change. But keep in mind that very few people read printed annual reports anymore, and the proportion who read PDFs is declining. Quite aside from any benefit gained from tracking, opting for a digital report is a sound strategic decision for any organisation that values the reading preferences of its stakeholders.

And as highlighted by Guide Dogs’ success building an efficient, replicable process for digital annual reports, there are a multitude of additional benefits gained by shifting from a traditional format to html. The most important in the context of this article is the ability to access out-of-the-box tracking – from Google Analytics, for example. Straight away, you have data at your disposal that gives you a good base for understanding reader interest.

This includes:

  • User, session and view tracking. This allows you to see the total number of visitors (or users), how many total visits (or sessions), and how many times pages within the report were viewed.
  • Time on page and time on site. This gives you an idea of how long a user spent on the annual report and pages within it.
  • Engagement rate. This is a new metric, introduced in Google Analytics 4 (the latest, and now the only, version of the platform). It measures the percentage of engaged sessions, which are times when a visitor spends more than 10 seconds on a page, has at least two page views, or when there’s a conversion event (anything from a file download to a form submission).

Taking tracking a step further.

Custom tracking allows you to get more specific and to dig deeper into the behaviour of your report readers.

Among many options are:

  • Scroll tracking. This can be based on scroll depth, expressed as a percentage of the total length of the page, or it can be based on when particular elements become visible within the visitor’s browser screen (a section heading, for example).
  • Virtual pageview. In the case that your annual report has a single-page structure, it’s helpful to introduce code that triggers when people reach or navigate to a certain section of the report. Using virtual pageview, the document goes from a monolith (which can be difficult to glean data from) to individually assessable segments within a whole. Crucially, this makes some of the more basic tracking mentioned above (user, session, engagement) far more meaningful than it might otherwise have been. The number of visitors to a discrete part of the annual report will likely be more useful than the number of visitors to the entire webpage.
  • Interaction tracking. This shows you not just where people are on your report, but what they’re doing as they read it. Are they using buttons to access additional information? Are they clicking on email addresses or phone numbers? Are they hovering over a certain section of the report or copying particulars segments of copy to their clipboard?

This isn’t a technical article, so there’s no need to go into further detail. The point is that relatively simple tracking can give you a good sense of what parts of an annual report stakeholders are concentrating on. It can also show you how that compares with internal expectations, as well as previous reports.

An extra string to the oversight bow.

An annual report, by its nature, is an important governance document. The mandatory inclusion of financial information alone makes this unavoidable. Most well-produced reports also answer questions, detail progress, quell concerns, explain courses of action, and address major decisions. In a more general sense, they reassure, enthuse, celebrate, and more.

This importance – the document’s very weight – makes it a potentially bountiful source of data for a discriminating governance team. It’s an information source that stakeholders take seriously, and so how people interact with it is worthy of analysis.

Is tracking such a report ‘bulletproof’? Not by any means. Tracking is by its nature limited – it tells you how people are reading your report, but not necessarily why. In the same way that no board can look into the future and cover every possible eventuality, no tracking implementation can tell you everything you need to know about how your organisation is perceived.

It won’t be for everyone. For smaller organisations with a relatively low risk profile, a barebones approach to a public report might well be the prudent option.

For organisations exposed to a higher level of scrutiny, however, tracking an annual report is not just feasible, but has the potential to be highly advantageous.

There’s no such thing as a perfect information picture; there will always be gaps. But the bigger and more numerous those holes, the bigger and more numerous the risks. Tracking an annual report is not a data panacea, but it can be another string to a governance team’s oversight bow.