New study: Who actually reads annual reports?


The annual report is one of the most important publications of any publicly listed company. However, only very little is known about the readers of annual reports and the things they are interested in.

Researchers from WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) have now for the first time carried out an in-depth study to find out more about the readers of digital annual reports. Over several months, the researchers surveyed more than 23,000 users of digital annual reports. They were surprised to find that in addition to analysts (17%) and private shareholders (12%), the companies’ employees were one of the main user groups (25% of all readers) of annual reports.

The readership of annual reports is much more diverse than many would assume: Private and institutional investors and analysts account for only about a third (32.5%) of all readers. But annual reports, which are often referred to as the leading medium of financial communication, are also read by companies’ employees (25.0%), students and job applicants (14.5%), customers (8.2%), sustainability experts (4.4%), suppliers (4.0%), journalists (2.1%), and NGO representatives (1.0%).

“Aside from the financial community, annual reports are clearly also directed at in-house target groups and the general public,” says Stéphanie Mittelbach-Hörmanseder from WU Vienna’s Financial Accounting and Auditing Group. She argues that, going forward, companies should design their annual reports in a way that reflects the diversity of their stakeholders. “Some large companies reduced their annual reports to mere lists of figures and data in the past few years, neglecting aspects related to design and communication,” she explains. “But it is imperative that annual reports remain accessible to non-expert target groups in the future. The reports need to tell stories and connect with their readers.”

Why people read annual reports

The study also sheds light on the types of information people look for when reading annual reports. When asked about what they were particularly interested in, the respondents said they were mainly looking for information on business development and performance (25.6%), corporate strategy (16.4%), and sustainability-related issues (14.1%). This is followed by information on the company’s management (9.4%), outlook (8.8%), and further information on the company and its shares (8.0%).

Reader survey in online annual reports

For the study, the Vienna-based reporting agency nexxar, in cooperation with WU, included a short survey in the online annual reports of ten publicly listed companies, including several DAX30 businesses. The users who accessed the annual reports were asked a set of questions to find out what reader group they belonged to and what kind of information they were looking for in the report. In the first half of 2021, the reports used for the study were accessed over 300,000 times in total, and as many as 23,538 users participated in the survey.

“Today, people almost exclusively read annual reports on digital screens,” says nexxar CEO Eloy Barrantes. “Many large European companies have started to publish their annual reports online, and some of them center their entire publication strategy around the online report,” he points out. Online annual reports have a number of advantages over printed or PDF reports. For example, digital reports can include multimedia and interactive elements and can be adapted to different devices and display sizes, which makes them conveniently accessible from smartphones, for instance. “In contrast to analog reports, the online versions also make it possible to use tracking technologies,” Eloy Barrantes explains. “By integrating our microsurvey into the reports, we were able to carry out the first study that gives us an accurate picture of who the readers of annual reports actually are and what they are interested in. These results can now be used to develop annual financial reports further and tailor them to the needs of the target groups.”

To the study:

Stéphanie Mittelbach-Hörmanseder, Eloy Barrantes: “Who is using annual reports and why?”

You can request the full study as a PDF file from free of charge.

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