Reporting Can Impact the Bottom Line—For the BetterOne of the most basic findings of the study, conducted by the Global Reporting Initiative among 2,300 respondents, found that 85% of CSR report readers have a more positive opinion of the company after reading. About a third of respondents also use these reports for decision-making purposes. It would seem, then, that organizations who rely on thought leadership and increased credibility to shore up their customer base would really benefit from such reporting. I'm thinking of nonprofits, consultants and other service-based businesses in particular. But companies seeking capital funding would also stand to gain by producing reports that demonstrate their commitment to long-term sustainable strategies.
Those readers who are spurred to action after reading a company's sustainability report tend to respond with their dollars. Almost 75% of respondents say that reading a company's CSR report makes them want to either purchase the company's products or become a B2B client. That can be a potentially significant ROI, but it's dependent on a few key things:
- The report is accurate and thoughtfully produced.
- Your organization invests in distributing the report as widely as possible.
- You maximize the opportunity by directly engaging readers.
Producing a sustainability report that works for your organizationLike most projects, a sustainability report can be as straightforward or complex as you're willing to make it. But whether your report is a simple two page report or an elaborate multi-page treatise, the process needs to address the specific concerns of your readers.
Define your target audience. Reports geared toward investors will require far more statistics and detail-level information than those aimed at consumers, for example.
Gather accurate information. Knowing what standards to use, and how to accurately measure company initiatives and impact, is essential. Consider asking your audience what issues matter to them before even writing anything down, and think about how those issues dovetail with your organization's environmental and social impact on its larger communities. This will help you create a framework for content. If you skimp on this process, you risk alienating readers and undermining the whole report.
Organize information into meaningful messages. Try to balance your organization's philosophy and policy approach with real-world stories that illustrate those more abstract concepts. While the length of your report will determine just how much information you can include, you should take your cue from the framework you created in the previous step. If you have a particularly green supply chain, for example, you might outline your general purchasing policies, and also profile a specific vendor.
Engage your readers. This is where you capitalize on your report. Respondents to the GRI survey indicated that they frequently want to continue the conversation with the organization in question after reading their report. This could mean including response cards with the report itself, creating an online microsite where readers can join the conversation, or following up with a targeted campaign aimed at expanding the reporting initiative. All of these approaches give readers a specific reason to take the hand you've extended.
Towards a Truly Sustainable StrategyIf the GRI survey gives sustainability reporters cause for celebration, it also reveals a key concern: whatever reporting choices an organization makes, it must converge with an overall business strategy. Successful corporate sustainability rests on an organization's willingness to embrace entirely holistic processes; slapping together a glossy CSR brochure that trumpets your company's recycling efforts ain't gonna cut it. My recommendation is always to start with the why and the what (your organization's long-term values, approach and audience), and use reporting to communicate the how.
By treating the sustainability report as a conversation opener rather than a monologue, you have a better shot of influencing your reader and reinforcing the report's underlying message of commitment. And when your communications become a real-world tool used to engage your audience, it strengthens those relationships at a time when strong relationships can make or break a business.
Shameless Plug™: If you think your organization would benefit from some form of sustainability reporting, give me a call. We can talk about your ideas, and come up with a cost-effective solution that works for you and your audience.