Does your IR section sell your firm short?

Corporate giants can learn a thing or two from smaller firms when it comes to presenting an investment case online, argues Scott Payton.

 

I recently spent a week judging more than 50 candidates for two online investors relations awards – best digital reporting and best overall digital communications. 

Quoted companies of all sizes entered, from global giants to small-caps. I learned a lot from the exercise, and found plenty of interesting examples of good practice. 

But one thing stood out above all else: when it comes to using the web to make a compelling investment case, smaller firms have much to teach their multinational counterparts. 

FTSE 250 firm William Hill is an example. The UK-based bookmaker’s corporate site has a clear, detailed and engagingly presented Investment case sub-section of ‘Investors’. 

Intuitive click-to-expand panels contain cogent details of the firm’s strategy, market and performance. Informative graphics illustrate the firm’s business model and market share. Clear charts show key indicators covering the past year. A neat table summarises performance over the past five years. Simple, effective traffic-light graphics are used to show the likelihood and potential impact of various business risks. 

UDG Healthcare, another FTSE 250 company, takes a simpler and less detailed approach – but its Reasons to invest sub-section of ‘Investors’ still does a good job of clearly conveying overview information about the company’s financial and non-financial performance, as well as the market in which it operates.  

Compare this to the investor relations sections of the world's biggest companies’ websites – which often don't have an ‘investment case’ sub-section at all, or any kind of equivalent. 

There are some noble exceptions. BASF’s Investor Relations section includes a detailed BASF at a glance sub-section, for instance. It doesn’t explicitly try to ‘sell’ the chemicals company as an investment proposition, but it explains the company’s activities and strategy well. Similarly, Shell’s Investor Highlights sub-section is a treasure trove for financial professionals researching the company. 

But why is such material not more common in the IR sections of the world’s biggest companies? Perhaps many big-name large-caps think they simply don’t need to explain to investors who they are, what they do, what their strategy is, or why all this makes them a particularly sound long-term investment. 

Maybe their IR teams think such material is better off elsewhere on the website (in the About section)  – or tucked away in the annual report. 

If they do think this, I'd urge them to look at what the likes of William Hill are doing and think again about whether similar investment case sub-sections would work on their sites. I think that they would – very well. 

Fashion and good navigation can work together. Maybe.

Anyone who follows our thoughts will know that we’re not big fans of the current trend towards minimalist navigation on corporate websites. We can see the attraction of clearing left menus out of the way, and for simple sites it’s quite fine – but for more complex ones usability always suffers. Or at least it has everywhere we have looked. Apologies if you’re bored with the whole subject, but there may be a way out.

The trend is overwhelming. A few sites have relaunched in the last couple of years with left nav – BP, Total, NovoNordisk come to mind – but they are many times outnumbered by those that have taken the minimalist route. While we would be quite happy if everyone headed back to menu-land, that isn’t going to happen. So let’s keep looking for a compromise.

We have an expression – the navigation challenge – that is all about finding that compromise. Can anyone create a complex site that mixes top usability with ‘no left nav’ on a full size screen (the sort used by most visitors to corporate sites)? We run tests with realistic journeys. For example a jobseeker in the careers section checking out a company’s environmental credentials and history. Or a financial journalist looking first at quarterly results, then the annual report, then the latest press releases. These require horizontal movement, perhaps deep within the site. And that’s tricky when you have got rid of a nicely visible set of links alongside the page.

A few companies do not acknowledge the problem. ExxonMobil makes you click and scroll like anything, especially in an area like Investors that does not have a dropdown menu. But most make at least some effort to tackle it. Big dropdown panels are the most common technique – the best, as used by Barclays, allow you to drill down into the site; and so by extension move across it when you are already deep in it. But you always have to click again to see the panel, and unless there is a breadcrumb trail as well, you cannot see easily where you are. Shell does have a trail, but the panel only goes down one level, so it is hard to avoid scrolling and scanning to move around. A fashionable spin on this is to have a mobile-style ‘hamburger’ menu to display a panel – though I don’t really understand this as it removes the option of having a different panel for each main link.

Other ideas have surfaced. Daimler uses the hamburger thing, but also changes the top menu as you move from the first to the second level: it could be clever, but I find it more confusing than anything. Qualcomm and ABB both use narrow strips down the left – click on different elements and panels pop out with more options. These look elegant, but have the same disadvantage as dropdown panels – you have to click them each time you want to do something.

Then last week we wrote up a particularly promising one in a BC Tip: Verizon’s ‘triple deck’ approach. Double deck menu bars used to be fairly widespread in the old days, though always in combination with a left menu – they were one way of keeping that menu shorter on a deep site. But the triple decker approach is designed to replace a left menu, and it works pretty well – the top two menus are in view when you are at the second or third level, so you can get around a fair bit without having to open up a new menu. But the third level menu does not stay in place when you are looking at a page down there – see for example the quarterly results page. That’s a drawback.

So can there be an answer to the navigation challenge? I think the Verizon approach could come close, with a bit of modification: keep all decks of the menu in view at lower levels, squeeze them together to free up viewable space. Maybe add a fourth deck. ‘Stick’ the menu to the top of the screen. If the links being used are highlighted, you will have a de facto breadcrumb trail. Then see how easy it is to move around. Of course minimalist purists will scoff because lots of links will be in view. Let them I say: it’s the users I care about.

Not all fashion is bad

We may not like what’s going on in navigation, but a trend we do rather like is for ‘looping videos’, particularly on home pages. They bring gentle life to what can otherwise be rather dull pictures – JK Rowling thought them up for her Daily Prophet newspaper, but here they are flourishing on Muggle websites. We wrote about some of them last year and were not enthusiastic, saying that ‘they can be headache-inducing’. But we were talking then about the very short, and thus inevitably dull, Vine videos – seeing the same thing again every six seconds is likely to have you reaching for an aspirin.

But the new generation videos are longer and subtler, with ‘joins’ that are hard to spot. There are several, stacked, on the home page of Verizon’s corporate site: the drone at the top is fun, though I think the low profile videos of kids in a classroom, or even a lady whose head moves a little, work particularly well. If you want more examples, try TNO, Siemens’ current home page, and Tetrapak’s innovation section. There will surely be more; no aspirin needed. 

David Bowen

If you pay your taxes, why not shout about it?

I can't see how the tax spat between Apple and the European Commission is going to leave either side looking especially pretty, but it does show that tax payments are now a big issue. One perhaps that companies that pay up like good boys could exploit? 

The Financial Times carried a story yesterday headed  'Only one in five large large companies in the UK say tax avoidance is acceptable'. Why? Well, some top managers must actually think their employers should pay their taxes; and many more think the risks of avoidance outweigh the benefits. Either way, it's a matter both of reputation management and of its virtuous cousin, social responsibility. Two things for the corporate site, surely.

I started looking around to see what big companies were doing. I began with Apple, and yes, its European home pages link to a compelling letter from Tim Cook explaining why it is Right and the Commission is Wrong. Good reputation management, but there's nothing else I could find on Apple sites about tax. It is not being, to use one my least favourite words, proactive.

I wondered what other companeis were doing, and found a fair bit - but none of it is presented as effectively as it could have been. For example:

  • ExxonMobil, according to Forbes the biggest US payer of tax, has a 'US tax and payments' page under Current Issues. Easy to find from the dropdown menu, but it is very out of date - the headline talks about 2012 payments. Almost embarrassing.
  • Barclays produces an excellent PDF 'Country snapshot', giving a clear breakdown of where and how tax has been paid. You can reach it from this page. But the title gives no clue that it is about tax, and it is well and truly buried in the Reports and Publications bit of the Citizenship section on Barclays.com. It's almost as though the bank doesn't want people to find it; odd. 
  • Shell has a page in its Sustainability report called Tax and transparency. Clearly written, but actually rather light on facts (certainly compared to Barclays), and again well buried - it's in the Working together section. Who'd have guessed to look there?

If all this had been put somewhere more obvious - and in the case of ExxonMobil brought up to date - it would be powerful stuff. 'We are decent' is, we are always being told, one of the most important message to get across to potential employees, shareholders, even customers. So if you are, why not shout about it?

David Bowen


And the winners are ...

The all new Bowen Craggs Index of Online Excellence is out, and you can see the results on our website. In brief, Nestlé is way out ahead - it was second last year but has held its score while others around it - notably Shell - have had somewhat stumbly relaunches. Bayer is second, Eni third. 

To see the full results, see the interactive table on our site. It can be reconfigured so you can see who is doing best in each of our eight metrics.

If you are lucky enough to subscribe to our database, you can see a lot more detail, though as we have been feeding the new material into the database for months, you probably know about it already.

Constant updating is one of many important changes we have made. The underlying developments have been in the database, but the Index has changed as a result: most notably, we now look at the 200 biggest companies in the world, more than twice as many as before, so the pool of best practice is much deeper. The Index is also a brilliant way of attracting much-deserved praise to the teams that are doing the most fabulous jobs. Forbes has already helped, us, with this piece just published.

The most obvious superficial change is the new name. The Index is no longer linked to the Financial Times. We had an excellent eight-year run with the FT, as the FT Bowen Craggs Index of Corporate Website Effectiveness, but it's the right time to go it alone. We are after all always being told by the online comms world that our Index is the gold standard.

A subtler shift in the name is that we now say 'online' instead of 'web'. That is to reflect the increasing importance of social media and other channels. We have included them in our analysis ever since they first appeared, but as we note in our overview piece they have finally (belatedly) become a core part of the corporate communications effort. 

To learn all about the Index, see these pages on our site

Intro and guide to our coverage

An overview piece about the main trends (by me)

Interactive results table

Lessons from the top three

New entrants (We look at a much bigger pool than before, so some companies have never featured)

FAQ and Methodology

All the underlying analysis is available to database subscribers. Learn more about that here.

 

Shell hides its arguments

Shell has been relatively lucky from a PR point of view in Nigeria - it gets criticised regularly, but there is nothing like the publicity that would engorge it if it had similar problems in the US or Europe. But court cases have a habit of bringing these things into the open, and a new one - brought in London on behalf of local communities - again raises the question of who is responsible for cleaning up the oil spills that dog onshore production.

I have no idea of the rights and wrong, and we will be able to read the arguments as they they are played out in the High Court. But I am surprised that the one place people will go to find out Shell's line - its corporate website - has become so silent on the issue. It has recently been relaunched. The previous site had a good section on Nigeria, leading through to briefing notes and other material on its country site, but the only links to these I could find on shell.com are here: Investors > Environmental, social and governance > Environmental and social > Key SRI topics. If it has said 'How can we bury this most effectively?', it could hardly have done better.

What I find most odd is that the Nigeria site provides data that appears to support Shell's main argument - that the great majority of oil spilled comes from theft and sabotage, so it can hardly be expected to be responsible for cleaning that up. Oil spill data, kept admirably up to date, makes the point. Even more admirably, this is highlighted in the tag cloud that still adorns the Nigeria home page. 

As this is an international story, why is Shell not putting its case to a global audience on its global site? The court case will make sure people know about it anyway - why hide your defence? As I have so often, I'd point to the Ask Nestlé section as a model showing how tricky issues, big or small, can be handled in a sophisticated way.

David Bowen

 

Tales of the too expected

Once upon a time there was business trend called "storytelling".

Corporate web managers quickly made friends with it, using journalistic and film-making techniques to try to make their case studies and other online material more engaging.

Some were successful. Look at SABMiller’s punchily written and elegantly illustrated beer “stories” for one example. Or visit the new Shell global site’s absorbing Our Major Projects section for another.

But soon too many people jumped on the "storytelling" bandwagon, and it began to creak.

Some corporate web editors labelled things "stories" when they were in fact merely press releases.

And corporate "storytelling" became a not altogether wholesome industry in its own right, with "experts" of various kinds trying to crowbar the concept into areas where it does not really fit. This recent article, for instance, rejoices in the headline "Stop Conflict At Work Now With The Power of Story".

Not everyone will live happily ever after.

The end.

- Scott Payton