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Beyond the PDF: 5 Tips to Leverage CSR Reports for Greatest ROI


By Judy Sandford

With three-quarters of S&P 500 companies creating corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, most major businesses recognize it is a “must-do” communications strategy. However, the return on this sometimes significant investment is falling short. New research shows only 17 percent of Americans said they have read a CSR report in the last 12 months, according to the 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study.

Although CSR reports were originally designed to meet the demands for transparency among investors and key influencers, resulting in dense 100-page PDFs, the marketplace has dramatically shifted. Consumers, too, want to know how organizations are stacking up against promises. In fact, 82 percent of Americans expect companies to report on the progress of their social and environmental efforts. To meet the need of growingly diverse audiences, it’s time for CSR executives to think beyond the PDF.

Companies have the opportunity to bring new life to this valuable data, innovate existing report formats and leverage content for greatest engagement. Americans feel briefly written summaries (42 percent), interactive websites (36 percent) and videos (29 percent) are more effective than a comprehensive written report (18 percent). These preferred formats signal the broader challenge for companies to make their CSR data more accessible, dynamic and compelling to secure a larger return on investment.

To help companies think about how to get more mileage out both current and future CSR reports, here are five tips, insights and examples of companies that are bringing CSR reporting content to new levels:

1. Innovate formats

CSR content should take many forms -- a long-form report is just one execution.

Turn CSR data and metrics into infographics or social media “badges,” transform static stakeholder quotes into videos, or build a custom app for your sales teams to share CSR commitments on the road.

This year, EMC* got right to the good stuff by issuing an Executive Report, providing quick snapshots of commitments with hyperlinks to more detailed information, videos and white papers so those interested could explore even further.

Campbell’s 2015 Update of the Corporate Social Responsibility Report takes the form of an interactive website; readers can scroll through different pillars, hover over icons to reveal more information, read through pop-up testimonials from Campbell’s employees, or scan through more detailed information via toolbars and tab menus.

2. Tell more stories

Although CSR reports are typically chock-full of data and figures, it’s important to balance these metrics with the amazing stories behind successes and progress. In fact, 66 percent of Americans believe a combination of both numbers and/or data and stories of impact are equally important when learning of a company’s CSR commitment or results.

Target’s* new Corporate Social Responsibility Report allows individuals to customize the report and zero-in on the areas that are most important to them. The report is highly visual with extensive use of photography and quotes from partners, employees and nonprofits to highlight the select stories behind the metrics. Stakeholders who want to dig a little deeper can view the GRI Index section of Target’s customized report or check out the 2014 Goals & Progress section of the Corporate Responsibility website.

3. Build for fun, interaction and ease

Don’t let your reader’s eyes glaze over from too many static charts and pages of text. Americans want an engaging and uncomplicated experience, whether that’s achieved through a dynamic website or simplified look and feel.

GM’s report puts readers right in the driver’s seat with a fun, animated introduction to its 2014 Sustainability Report, highlighting the pillars the report will focus on. Johnson & Johnson** built its report for easy navigation by creating a color-coded traveling toolbar; as you scan through the report, the toolbar follows, making it even easier to jump between sections.

Unilever’s Sustainable Living website takes readers on a virtual journey complete with videos, images and eye-catching graphics on the company’s commitments.

4. Get social

Americans spend more time on social media than any other major Internet activity, including email. So make your CSR reports part of the social experience.

Go beyond slapping a Facebook icon at the top of your webpage, and build social components right into your report. Encourage and enable readers to share data points, information on commitments and more as they read – pre-populate posts for an even easier social sharing experience. Empower consumers to do more than push out content and give them a way to voice their own opinions and engage in a real-time dialogue.

For its part, EMC* included a “contact the board” link right in its Governance Detailed Report to facilitate real-time feedback right to decision makers.

Make it 365

In today’s world, things can change in hours or even minutes, so don’t wait an entire year to talk about your company’s CSR progress. Companies can report in real-time by pulsing out information throughout the year, especially around major milestones. Think of CSR reports as turn-key content calendars; create a plan for the entire year while also responding in the moment to news or developments.

Coca-Cola’s Sustainability site updates in real-time as commitments and partnerships evolve, and stakeholders can find new information here throughout the year, in addition to the annual Sustainability Report.

Dow has gone beyond the once-a-year reporting cycle by issuing quarterly reports. The progress reports highlight each of Dow’s CSR pillars with new stories and focus areas while also providing updates on goals through charts and metrics.

While “report season” as we know it may be coming to a close, the potential of CSR reporting is just getting started. Companies can achieve maximum return and cement stronger relationships by leveraging content throughout the year and engaging stakeholders along the way.

*Cone CSR reporting client

** Cone client on other projects

Image credit: Unsplash via Pixabay

Judy Sandford is the vice president of Cone Communications' CSR practice. 

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