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  1. How to survive an annual review

    • By Emmelie Brownlee, Bioregional

    “Yay, it’s time to do our annual review!” Said no comms professional ever.

    We all dread it – a long, drawn-out process, filled with many stakeholders to please and the back and forth sign offs that, let’s face it, can take months. But it doesn’t have to be this way…

    Rewind to 2015

    I had just joined Bioregional and my first job was to proofread our annual review. In a busy year, it had got a bit neglected and we were way behind schedule in producing it. My job was to get it published before it got too embarrassingly late to do so (let’s not discuss whether I managed this).

    There was no clear strategy for the review, nor an effective process for producing it. I spent hours going back and forth between organisational leads to get sign off, and the content got longer and longer. We ended up with a 45-page report that wasn’t much more than a write-up of what we had done. It certainly wasn’t helping us achieve any of our communications objectives.

    A fresh approach

    With Bioregional’s wide range of audiences, from retailers and developers of new-build communities to local authorities, it’s challenging to create a catch-all piece of content.

    So, in 2016, we decided to go back to basics:

    • What’s our comms strategy? Who do we want to reach, and what do we want them to do? How can we make sure our annual review helps us achieve our objectives?
    • How can we make the process easier for everyone?

    Over the next three years, we created shorter reports tailored to our audiences, as well as refining the overall process – culminating in our first ever digital-only review in 2019.

    The three things I learned

    1. You need information from your audiences

    In 2018, despite being much more strategic in our approach, we still found that a PDF on our website alongside a printed review wasn’t cutting it. It was only downloaded about 100 times in a year and it was hard to track what people did after reading it.

    We also had too many printed copies left over at the end of the year – not good for an environmental organisation that champions conserving resources…

    I asked our business development manager, our fundraising manager and a few other ‘frontline’ staff what they wanted from an annual review. The answer was simple: all they wanted was digital links to information that they could send on to partners and funders.

    I also asked our Head of Finance what he needed – his only wish was a PDF narrative of our year to accompany our annual accounts for Charity Commission and Companies House as part of our statutory requirements.

    But what did our external audiences want?

    Recent user testing of our website had shown that the people we engage with wanted easily accessible case studies about our work. Not one of them looked for our annual review. They also said that downloading PDFs was a barrier.

    Essentially, we were creating something that wasn’t getting used.

    So, we decided to trial a very short digital annual review using an Adobe Spark webpage with the highlights from our year.* It would be embedded on our website and link to more information eg existing case studies, blogs and other content.

    2. You need to get colleagues on-board

    Making this decision in the comms team was one thing – now we had to make sure our colleagues were happy too. 

    Caption: The ever-brilliant Helen Reynolds (NB we did get management buy-in).

    We all know pushback from colleagues about doing things differently is a big challenge. But they’re not doing it to be difficult (well most of them anyway).

    My biggest takeaway from our recent website design was the importance of understanding your colleagues’ needs and perspectives. Issues arise because they don’t know what comms best practice is or feel like their needs aren’t being met.

    I knew that our CEO would be concerned about a digital-only review, because she likes handing out hard copies of materials in meetings. Another colleague would worry that the short text wouldn’t provide enough detail.

    Knowing this meant that I could put together research to demonstrate why this new approach would work. I also reassured them that their needs would be met by offering them alternative ways that we could do so.

    For example, with the money and time saved, we’ve managed to create four new substantial pieces of content tailored specifically for audiences they had identified as priorities.

    3. You need to get the process right

    Digital or not, annual reviews are inescapably a source of the term that will strike horror into the soul of any comms professional – ‘back and forth sign-offs’.

    If you only take one thing from this blog, read Sarah Richards’ invaluable book on content design. Using this a starting point, and through a lot of trial and error, we’ve found a system that works for us:

    • Booking 20 minutes face-to-face with colleagues to get the info about our key projects from the year (and provide any reassurance needed)
    • Sending them a clear brief beforehand, including what we’ll leave the meeting with and what decisions need to be made
    • Starting the meeting by helping them think about audience and purpose – user personas are handy for this
    • Providing a firm deadline and insisting on one person for final sign-off

    For those colleagues who want more input into the final copy, you could try pair writing (from Sarah Richards’ aforementioned book) where you sit side-by-side and write together. I have found it’s a lot easier to explain why you are removing someone’s jargon while you are doing it!

    The results

    The results speak for themselves: after spending only six weeks from start to finish producing it, we published our annual review in early June.

    Download and enquiry conversions increased 100% in the week of its launch, and we had dramatic increase in people opening the report compared to 2018’s PDF downloads (400%). We were also able to easily track click-through rate – which is about 40% – and see where people went next.

    “You get the high-level information and then you can click through to what you are interested in – like the menu of a website. I can use this to send relevant information to funders.”

    Bioregional’s Fundraising Manager

    So not only do we have an annual review that works for us, we’ve also had far more time and money to create other useful content for our audiences.

    But the best thing is that everything we’ve done this time around has benefits that go wider than just the annual review – from reminding us what our audiences and colleagues need, to making the process of content design a breeze.


    *Lots of ideas for digital platforms for creating annual reviews here – https://superhighways.org.uk/latest/10-online-tools-to-create-smal/

    Emmelie Brownlee is Digital Communications Manager at Bioregional, a sustainability charity that works with partners to help create happier, healthier lives for everyone within the limits of our one planet.

    Our thanks to Emmelie for contributing to our blog this week. If you have any similar stories to share, please comment below.

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