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Sustainability Reporting: How to Increase Engagement with Different Audiences

Heather Craft

Heather Craft

CEO, North America

If you’re anything like me, when reading any kind of lengthy report, you’ll start at the ‘key takeaways’ section and then work backwards from there. When the report author doesn’t provide them, it can turn me off from delving into the detail. A study by Microsoft revealed that the human attention span has dropped to eight seconds – shrinking nearly 25% in just a few years. That is said to be shorter than a goldfish. 

That brings me to sustainability reporting. As demand for businesses’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) activities continues to increase, the audiences that are interested in related content, specifically a company’s sustainability report, are diversifying. So, if you want more people, including your customers and employees – as well as the typical investors, raters and rankers – to take note, a creative, audience-first approach to sustainability reporting is required. 

Why is it important to present engaging sustainability reports?  

I’ve half-answered this question already. But if the facts and figures are to be believed, customers are basing their purchasing decisions, at least in part, on a brand’s sustainability practices, while employees are using a similar barometer to guide their job seeking.  

It also stands to reason that employee buy-in is key to a company’s successful sustainability efforts. And the reporting of your sustainability efforts can help instill pride and engagement among employees, job seekers, and the communities in which you operate. 

Ultimately, it’s up to communicators to determine how to make a brand’s sustainability content relevant, discoverable, and of interest to these different stakeholders. 

It’s something of a two-parter: first, you’ve got to work out which issues your sustainability audiences care about the most; then, understand the best way to convey these results, creatively speaking, to each of them.  

Creative ways to make sustainability reports more engaging 

I can’t tell you what matters most to your audience – not without a bit of market research first anyway. But I can plant some seeds to get you thinking more creatively about sustainability reporting. From the skim readers to the sceptics, you want to win them all over with your sustainability reporting. Let’s look at how you can bring your ESG activities to life: 

Prioritize transparency

So, in addition to being open and transparent when stating your progress towards goals, you’ll also want to be authentic with your visuals. instead of relying on stock imagery, break up your report with some original, truth-telling visuals that show your ESG activities in action and align with your brand values.  

Create slow scroll experiences

Most readers will skim a report first before deciding whether to give it more of their time. If they’re just presented with large blocks of text, they might move on without as much as a quick scan or “zombie scroll”. With appropriate visual cues and intuitive design, you can increase the time your visitors spend in the company of your report. Build in infographics, add quote boxes, and use imagery and illustrations to make key points pop.  

Tell a story

Perhaps the most effective way of increasing engagement is to turn your sustainability efforts into a clear and compelling narrative. So, instead of starting from the report data, start from your overall business strategy and communication story that you need to tell as a brand. A great way to show ESG initiatives achieved is by highlighting case studies. These can be short in length with imagery to tell the story and support each of the material topics the business reports against. Examples can include: health & safety, environment, people, community etc. 

In other words, bring your sustainability reporting in line with your other marketing activities and take an audience- first approach. A great example of digital storytelling is shown in the recent sustainability report from Downer. 

Less is more

When it comes to sustainability reports, less is more. The standards organization Global Reporting Initiative recommends a maximum of 30 pages for issue-based annual reports, although some have reached upwards of 800 pages, according to the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.  

This is not about packing in as many keywords as possible – overly wordy reports only serve to turn off readers and could even raise suspicions among fact checkers who can’t get a grip on the reality of what’s being reported due to the excessive detail.  

Navigation matters 

Direct your different audiences to where you want them to go through customized navigation that takes the guesswork out of the experience and guides people to the right content, fast and easily. Something as simple as a clickable table of contents will ensure readers will be able to get the information they need quickly.  

Another modern approach for digital marketers is to build a microsite for your sustainability activities, where you create a unique user journey for visitors depending on what information they want to consume. 

Measure, analyze, iterate

How will you know if you have succeeded in driving deeper engagement with your report content? Make sure that you have a way to measure your reach and engagement so you can analyze the results and make changes as needed – levelling up the creativity of your approach based on what your findings tell you.   

We encourage leveraging learning agendas to ensure you’re moving away from reactive research towards having proactive insights about the types of assets, messaging, and channels that are most effective with our audiences. An established testing and measurement structure enables brands to continuously learn about the behaviors of their audience, which should influence how omnichannel experiences or content is delivered to them.  

Ready to put your sustainability in the spotlight?

A succinct report that balances transparency with dynamic content and engaging stories, while easy to navigate, is a good start. If you find your customers talking about it, employees sharing it, and investors referencing it, you know you’ve nailed it. 

Looking for guidance on ways to make your sustainability reports more engaging for your audiences? Contact Hotwire for expert sustainability report communications strategy, messaging, design and launch support. Reach out to us to find out how your business can achieve your ESG goals in partnership here. You can also check out my recent podcast interview with PRovoke to gain more in-depth insight!