How to keep your publication afloat

I’ve always considered myself a swimmer. So when I decided to swim laps as a way to add variety to my winter fitness routine, I thought, okay, I’ll just jump in and go. I lasted three minutes, probably less, before stopping, gasping for air at the poolside.

That experience got me thinking: just as I considered myself a swimmer, anybody with a blog or a website is a publisher. Trouble is, like swimming, being an effective and efficient publisher takes practice and skill. And that’s why many publications are sinking. Long on words and short on readability and usability, websites and corporate reports of all kinds are leaving readers exhausted and frustrated.

Websites: too much dud content

Let’s start with corporate websites, where content continues to pour online unchecked. According to Gerry McGovern, founder and CEO of Customer Carewords, the online publishing model no longer works. Why? Too much dud content, says McGovern. Content that should never have been published in the first place isn’t being removed because of a “cult of volume.”

“Giving a website to a communicator or a marketer is like giving a pub to an alcoholic,” says McGovern. “It’s happy days. It’s publish, publish and be damned.”

A 2012 survey conducted by McGovern polled over 1,000 people, 94% of whom either work with or consult to organizations on their online presence. When asked to rank the top five principles of managing an online presence, the top-ranked answer was: “Ensure customers quickly and easily complete their top task.” “Keep content as concise and simple as possible,” was ranked fourth.

How effectively are these principles being applied? Not very, according to McGovern. “Many, many websites we work with, when they delete 80–90% of their content, conversions go up by 100%. Support requests go down between 30% and 40%.”

McGovern isn’t alone in this assessment. According to web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, users skip 72% to 80% of online content. Why? The most common complaint is that it takes too long to find relevant information. Other problems include poorly planned information architecture, ineffective writing, complex design and needless images.

Annual reports: static and stale content

Paddling over to the corporate reporting lane in the information pool, we find annual reports similarly awash in words. Reports have doubled in length to 103 pages in the past 16 years, according to a survey of annual reports by Deloitte. In 2012, words overtook numbers, as narrative made up 51% of the report and the financial statements 49%. The study found that longer annual reports require “a serious level of content, cohesion and connected thought and information.” However, only 14% of companies produced a report that Deloitte considered cohesive.

The quality of annual reports is improving, but far too much content is still boilerplate. That may make interesting reading for accountants and regulators, but not for the average reader. According to Deloitte, annual reports contain six pages, on average, of accounting policy statements that repeat the requirements of new and old standards. Static risk management disclosure generally adds another four pages, and a massive 32 pages in one instance.

Unfortunately, the push for greater disclosure may be impeding clear and meaningful communication. It also creates a major challenge for annual report preparers, as nobody has the authority, much less the courage, to remove or find a better home for static and stale content.

Sustainability reports: content for experts only?

Diving into the next lane, we find a relative newcomer to the information pool: the Global Reporting Initiative or GRI. A non-profit organization that promotes economic, environmental and social sustainability reporting, the GRI provides a reporting framework that is increasingly used worldwide as demand grows for such reporting. The question is, how much is enough?

The GRI apparently thinks more is better, as it plans to issue new expanded G4 reporting guidelines this summer. Trouble is, the majority of readers and reporters are worried that more is anything but better.

According to a summary of 649 public comments received on the proposed guidelines, of those responding to the survey questions, 67% agreed that the proposed guidelines achieved a proper balance between economic, governance, environmental and social indicators.

Significantly, only 27% agreed that the guidelines will drive cost-effective preparation of sustainability reporting for all organizations. And just 28% agreed that the guidelines would apply to organizations of various sizes in their region. In other words, readers and reporters both expressed reservations about added length, higher cost and lower relevance.

Indeed, concern about the next generation of sustainability reporting persuaded Lucinda Hensman, head of sustainability communications at Coca-Cola Enterprises, to post an opinion arguing that the average reader is, or is about to be, overloaded with sustainability data.

“In short, there is a danger that we are creating an industry in which sustainability professionals write for sustainability professionals – one which preaches to the converted,” comments Hensman. Amen to that.

Rescuing publications

While we’re waiting for the information pool to be drained or bailed, let’s look at a few floatation devices for struggling publications. Ideally, these need to be custom fitted. Generally though, publications should have at least the following four qualities to prevent them from sinking.

Reader focused. Effective content or communication strategies start with answers to a deceivingly simple question: Why? Why are we publishing this report, web page, paragraph or sentence? Why will the audience find it valuable or relevant?

Answers to “why” have a way of helping you focus on the purpose that how, when, where and what can’t touch.

Clear navigation. The structure of websites and reports are quite different, of course. In each case, plan a structure that fits the purpose and audience, and then keep it consistent. That way your audience will more easily navigate the publication and convert information into knowledge.

Shorter, sharper copy. Cutting copy by 50% will, in most cases, double the usability of web content in terms of reading time, reader recall and satisfaction. Look for big blocks to cut or to avoid publishing.

Start with a bang. Make the first paragraph or section a summary rather than an introduction, especially for long documents.

Cut anything that doesn’t help your audience complete their top tasks. If in doubt, choose the shorter, simpler word. And get rid of the clutter. Clarity is the goal.

Recognize, however, that cutting copy will be a fierce battle, especially copy written by others. So celebrate small victories.

Easy reading. What you can’t cut, make reading easier by:

  • Using scannable copy with informative headings and subheadings and short lists, which can improve readability by 45–50%.
  • Removing promotional language, which forces the reader to pause or filter out hyperbole: this can improve readability by 25–30%.
  • Avoid jargon, which alienates readers, who will quickly leave rather than decipher corporate code.

And that, gasp, is it. Now, back to the pool and my swimming lessons where, hopefully, I can learn to glide, roll and breathe.

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