GOOD investor relations contacts pages demonstrate companies’ accountability to their shareholders and give potential investors confidence that they have a reliable avenue to get answers to questions that might come up.
Currently, fewer than 20 per cent of companies in our survey are providing credible IR contact information on their websites. Most contacts pages are impersonal and make companies look bureaucratic, disinterested and even arrogant.
Poor IR contacts pages also leave the impression that companies are disorganized or that they don’t have resources to effectively manage their communications with investors. This in turn can undermine investors’ confidence in the site as a source for current, relevant information and cause them not to use the site again.
Companies with good IR contacts pages, on the other hand, come across as approachable, organized and accountable. Typically, our research finds that companies with good IR contacts pages also tend to have better IR websites in many other respects. In this sense, good contacts pages may are an indicator of companies that have achieved a high level of communication success.
These best practice guidelines for IR contacts pages cover the basics of an effective IR contacts page and a number of innovations that can enhance the experience of investors using the information. We also discuss how to balance being approachable online without opening yourself up to a deluge of spam.
The discussion starts with practices that companies need to avoid. We follow this with guidelines for a best practice investor relations contacts page.
Common mistakes to avoid
Companies make a number of common mistakes when providing contact information on their IR sites. In most cases, these practices make the IR department and the company appear uninterested in hearing from investors.
1. Using generic web forms for investor inquiries
General email inquiry forms are 100% bad. Usability studies with investors and financial journalists have found that web users don’t like completing forms when they want to ask a question. Email forms give investors little confidence that their message will get the attention they believe it deserves. The perception is that the message will go into a bulk inbox that may not be monitored regularly and which no identifiable person is responsible for. Email forms also leave investors and others to wonder about the privacy of their email. Who will see it? How senior are they? Can I trust them?
The impersonal nature of email forms can lead investors to perceive companies as being unreceptive to investors and their questions, especially if competitor companies appear to be more approachable on their websites. Email forms can also leave the impression that the company does not have staff to answer investors’ questions, which in turn will undermine investors’ confidence in the content on your website.
The only time web forms make sense is when they make life easier for investors. Forms are good for ordering print documents, or when registered shareholders need to change their address or conduct a transaction. In these cases, forms ensure that investors provide the company, fulfillment house or transfer agent/registrar with information needed to complete their request as quickly as possible.
However, for investor relations and shareholder services questions, a form is a poor choice because it restricts the user to a set, unfamiliar format and interface. User’s will find it harder to write and edit their message in an online form than in their favorite email program. Some forms provide limited space for messages and use small viewing areas that make it difficult for people to write a long message.
The usability of forms is also often poor for other reasons. Many companies do not properly indicate required and optional fields in forms, or they request information that should not be required. Many forms do not provide information on companies’ privacy policies.
Below we highlight an example of a poor IR contacts page. Not only is the form the only contact information the company provides, but the form itself has several problems.
This is the first page you see when you click on “Contact Investor Relations” in the left menu. There’s no phone, fax or mailing address. Your only option is to use this form. After choosing your inquiry topic, you must provide your first and last name. The form asks you to identify the type of investor you are from a drop down menu. Individual investors dislike these menus because they imply that professionals get preferential service. Then the form requires you to provide your mailing address, even if you only want an answer by email. Finally, when you get to the text box to type your message, you’re allowed only 255 characters. That’s less than half the length of this caption.
2. Pretending to be approachable
We call this the close-but-no-cigar approach. Companies provide a direct phone number and what looks like a personal email address for each IR contact. However, when users click on the email addresses, they’re taken to an email form or the email address turns out to be generic one, such as email@example.com.
This approach is intended to make the IR department seem responsive and accessible. However, people who want to contact a particular individual in the IR department will feel cheated when they realize that their message isn’t going directly to a particular contact.
Companies which do this think they’re being clever, when in actual fact all they are doing is hurting their credibility by being dishonest. It would be better for these companies to provide a main department email address and no personal email information at all.
On this screen, it looks like Swedish Match provides direct email addresses for its IR contacts, including the CFO of its North American Division. Wow! But when you click on the email link…
Instead of your email program opening, you’re taken to an email form that indicates your message will go to “Investor Relations” rather than to the specific individual. In this case, confusion and disappointment could have been avoided by telling people they’d have to fill in a form, and then explaining how their message would be dealt with. On second thoughts, why not just provide the email addresses?
3. Making a general inbox or switchboard numbers the only contact options
Generic email address are just as impersonal as email forms, but experienced investors will know that they are often (but not always) the best option if they want a quick reply to a straightforward question.
However, generic firstname.lastname@example.org email addresses should never be used alone. They should be used in combination with personal email addresses for individual IR contacts, see discussion later in this post.
General switchboard numbers also are unfriendly, especially if people suspect they will be put into an automated attendant system. Like generic email addresses, they should only be used in conjunction with direct phone numbers.
As we said earlier, providing only general contact information makes companies look bureaucratic and uninterested.
Impersonal contacts pages don’t inspire confidence and make companies look uninterested and bureaucratic.
4. Sending people to a general company contacts page
Every IR website should have its own IR contacts page. However, a surprising number don’t, about 28% of the firms in our IR Web Report Global Benchmarks survey, for instance.
Commonly, these companies bury IR contact information — typically a general phone, fax, mailing address and email form or generic email address — in the corporate site’s main contacts area. This is usually accessed via a separate navigation link from the IR navigation.
Not only does this make it harder for users to find IR contact information when they need it, but it also often forces investors to waste time looking for IR contacts in amongst irrelevant contact information, such as customer service, human resources and marketing.
5. Providing more than one contacts page on your IR site
Occasionally, companies provide separate contacts pages for shareholder contacts and investor relations contacts. Usually, the Shareholder Contacts page, which typically contains contact information for the company’s shareholder services department or transfer agent, is put in a Shareholder Services section. This page is not visible until users go into the Shareholder Services Section.
The Investor Contacts page, meanwhile, is typically treated as a main section of the IR site and is accessible from the IR site’s navigation. Often, this page contains only investor relations contact information and none for shareholder services.
This configuration is confusing for users, makes a site more complex to manage and maintain, and likely leads many shareholders to send their inquiries to the IR department because they don’t notice there is a separate shareholder contacts area.
6. Treating investors differently depending on who they are
Individual investors are extremely sensitive to a perceived unlevel playing field between them and institutional investors. Anything you do that emphasizes differences between investment professionals and private investors makes you look bad.
Many IR departments seem to assume that retail investors only have shareholder administration type questions, when the reality is that many are just as sophisticated and interested in your firm’s numbers as portfolio managers and analysts.
While it’s perfectly good to have different IR contacts for different types of investors, it’s best to draw distinctions between the types of questions particular contacts can handle rather than the type of investor that should contact them.
Instead of saying, “Analysts and Portfolio Managers should contact so-and-so” rather say “For financial modeling, accounting and business strategy questions, contact so-and-so.” Many individual investors are sophisticated, so telling them to contact someone who can’t really help them doesn’t make sense.
Creating a win-win investor contacts page
In this section we sketch out a win-win investor contacts page, starting with the positioning of the page itself within your IR page and then the content of the page from top to bottom. We also provide specific advice for avoiding spam to personal in-boxes of IR department contacts.
1. Consolidate IR contact information on a single page
Put all your investor relations contact information on one page of your IR site. A single contacts page is easier to manage and update when staff, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses change.
The phrase Investor Contacts or just Contacts is a good label for the page. The page should be the last primary link in your site’s navigation bar. Assuming you’re using a static left-nav or right-nav bar, it should be at the bottom of the menu. If you’re using a horizontal navigation bar across the top, it should be on the far right of the menu.
Position your IR contacts page prominently in your navigation scheme. Placing it at the bottom of a left-nav bar is a good place because it’s more prominent than putting it in the middle of the menu.
2. Provide FAQ highlights at the top of the page
Often investors and shareholders will have the same reasons for wanting to contact the IR department or shareholder services. A good tactic to reduce duplicate inquiries is to highlight your two or three most common Frequently Asked Questions at the top of your contacts page.
Make sure that you regularly update the most common questions on the contacts page to demonstrate timeliness and proactive communication. If your firm has just announced a reverse stock split and you’re suddenly swamped with questions from shareholders, brokers and others, then you can head off getting unnecessary questions by highlighting a question about the split at the top of your contacts page. Don’t provide the complete question and answer on your contacts page. Instead, just link to the answer in your FAQs from the question.
You should have a process in place to track all inquiries to the IR department and to the transfer agent or shareholder service area. This enables you to track themes to identify which questions should be highlighted at the top of your contacts page.
BMO Financial Group’s IR contacts page is a good example. It starts with links to frequently asked questions under a heading that reads “Questions investors are asking.”
3. Provide Shareholder Services contacts
Provide contact information for your shareholder services department and or transfer agent/registrar. If your company has an international share program, such as ADRs, provide shareholder contact information for the relevant administrators.
Many retail shareholders don’t understand the difference between what a shareholder services department or transfer agent does, so explain what types of questions should be directed to them in a list of bullet points (see example below).
Explain the types of questions your transfer agent or registrar can handle.
Include an email address and web address for the transfer agent, as well as other contact information like a toll-free phone number. Some large companies have special email addresses set up with their outside shareholder services providers e.g. email@example.com. This adds a personal touch and is better than using the agent’s all-purpose email address.
If you offer a shareholder hotline for current news and a stock quotes, provide the telephone number. If you offer instructions for how to use the hotline on another page, provide a link to it. Otherwise, provide the instructions here, but keep them short.
Provide a link to or include your print materials order form
Even if it’s well sign-posted on your site, some people will go to your contacts page when they want to order annual reports or other documents to be mailed to them.
If your order form is long, add a link on your IR contacts page to the order form to direct people to the appropriate place. If it’s short, consider including the form on your contacts page itself, but as the last item on the page.
Offer a link to an online order form for people who want information mailed to them.
If it’s short, consider including your print materials order form on your IR contacts page.
4. Provide a link to your Media Contacts page
Financial journalists often use IR websites so there’s a good chance they’ll look for company media contact information on the IR contacts page. To make sure they find who they’re looking for, provide a link to your media relations contacts page.
If your IR and Media contacts are the same, then on your IR contacts page provide details of the names, phone numbers and personal email addresses of the people journalists should contact rather than making them go to the media page.
5. Link to your Corporate Governance contacts page
Your corporate governance section should have a page that explains how whistleblowers and others can contact the board and the audit committee as well as the company’s procedures for handling this kind of correspondence. It is best for board contact information to be located in the governance area of your site, but a link to it from your IR contacts page will increase its visibility.
6. List Corporate Secretary contact information
Corporate secretaries have become more relevant in the wake of the increased focus on corporate governance. Explain what types of activities and questions the corporate secretary handles. Include the deadline for the current year’s shareholder proposals, along with a link to information about the process for submitting proposals if you have it on a separate page on your site.
Finally, provide personal contact details, including mailing address, phone, fax and email address for the corporate secretariat.
7. Provide general investor relations contact information
Anyone who has come this far down the page and still hasn’t found a source to direct their question to probably needs to get in touch with the IR department. So this is the time to provide them will all the information they might need.
Again, start with general information and work down to specific contacts. If you have IR offices in different locations or separate people handling equity and debt IR or retail and institutional relations, organize the contacts under subheads so that people can more quickly spot who they should contact.
Your general IR contacts information should include the following:
- General email address. Unless people are looking for a specific IR contact or have a very specific request they feel needs someone’s personal attention, they’re likely to use a general investorrelations@ email address. Experience will have taught investors that general questions are typically answered more quickly using general mail boxes than ones for individual IR contacts, who may be out of the office. It’s a good idea to include a note about how often the general inbox is checked e.g. three times a day, throughout the day or some other schedule. If you want people to use the general email, then it’s up to you to make sure investors have a good experience doing so.
- Department phone and fax number. People who want phone or fax contact but who aren’t sure which person to call will try a general IR inquiries number first.
- Mailing and physical address. People who need to mail information or address letters properly, even if they’re emailing them, will want your proper mailing address. Those who are visiting your company for a meeting, might want the physical address (see Consider a Map below).
BMO Financial Group provides general contact information for the IR department before providing individual contacts. If they want an immediate response, investors may try the general email, so make sure you monitor it actively.
8. Provide direct contact info for IR contacts
The biggest difference between good and bad IR contacts pages is how personal they are. Companies that provide personal contact numbers and email addresses come across as more approachable and accountable than those that don’t.
For each IR contact, provide:
- Name and title
- Direct office phone number (with international dialing code)
- Mobile telephone number (if applicable)
- Personal email
Problems with spam have caused many IR departments to shy away from providing personal email addresses. While understandable, it is not a valid reason to fail to provide personal email addresses. Companies have many methods to combat spam that don’t require them to be incommunicado via email.
Denmark’s Danske Bank excels by providing photos, direct phone and cell number as well as personal email address for key IR contacts and the CFO.
9. Provide international dialing codes
Don’t assume everyone who is accessing your site is in your home country or that they know your country’s international dialing code if they’re outside of your home country. The convention for providing international dialing codes is to place a “+” in front of the country or region code to denote the user’s local international exchange access numbers, e.g. +1 for the USA, Canada and the Caribbean or +44 for the United Kingdom. The Danske Bank screenshot above includes the international dialing code for Denmark, +45.
10. Tell people when to expect a reply
Investors are more likely to use your generic email box if you assure them that someone is activity monitoring incoming mail and making sure it is responded to within a certain time limit.
It’s good practice to indicate how often the email is checked, and how long it typically will take the company to reply. A reasonable response time is 24 hours.
11. Don’t abuse autoresponders
Some IR departments send automated replies to incoming general email. These automatic replies typically tell investors that their message has been received and when they can expect a response from the company.
Some autoresponse emails go further and include links to a variety of sections and content types on the company’s IR website. Investors are encouraged to use these links to find answers to their question.
We dislike these more elaborate autoresponses because they disrespect investors. They seem to say, “Don’t bother us, you obviously haven’t looked hard enough. Now go back and look again.”
Worst of all, we have found that this is exactly what these IR departments expect. They don’t reply to emails unless you email them again with the same question. Strange, but true…
12. Consider photographs of IR contacts
We once thought photographs of IR contacts were a little cheesy and vain, but they have grown on us. Perhaps this is because the mug shots humanize IR websites and make them appear more personable.
Photographs on the web are also thought to increase the credibility of a site. People with something to hide tend to be camera shy, so publishing photos is a demonstration of an IR department’s confidence and openness. We don’t see photographs as all that important so this is one item whose merits we leave to you.
However, only use photographs when you are also providing direct phone numbers and emails, otherwise the photographs will make the IR department look arrogant and vain.
Avoid vanity pages like this one from BP. The brief bios are irrelevant to investors. What they really need is contact information, which isn’t provided.
13. Make it harder for spam spiders to harvest emails
While there are reasonably effective filtering processes, you should help these by making it harder for spammers to grab your email address in the first place.
var x1 = “service“;
var x2 = “irwebreport.com“;
document.write(“<a href=” + “ma” + “ilto:” + x1 + “@” + x2 + “>email</a>”)
Another way to achieve the same effect is to use an email formula that people have to put together from the first and lastnames of the person they want to contact. Users are told that the company’s formula for emails is say firstname.lastname@example.org. With names of IR contacts listed, they can then manually type the email address into their message. Many companies in Finland use this approach.
Instead of providing personal email addresses, which would make them vulnerable to spam spiders, Finland’s Kone explains how you can contact an individual by using their email formula, email@example.com
14. As a last resort, consider a personalized email form
If you are going to ignore our advice against using email forms, then at least make sure you set up your forms to go to specific individual contacts rather than into a general inbox. You should also include an option for people to attach files to their email, such as a copy of a research report or news article that they may be asking you to review.
This email form indicates that the message will go to a particular person in the IR department. Users also have the option to attach a file while required fields are indicated by an *
15. Provide links to anchor points on your contacts page
Once you have a single IR contacts area, provide links to it in various parts of your site as well as on other sites rather than reproducing email and other contact information in each instance. This will streamline management of your site in the event that people leave the company or contact information changes.
Links to your IR contacts page should be included in the corporate site’s contacts area, the news or PR section, and the shareholder services area. If parts of your site don’t include your standard navigation scheme, such as HTML annual reports and webcast interfaces, be sure to add a link to your contacts page in them.
You can also link to specific places on your contacts page by asking your webmaster to code in anchors at different sections of contact information on the page. This will let you link to a specific place on the page, such as the IR contacts, corporate secretary contacts, or shareholder services contacts.
You can provide links from anywhere on your site or on the web, including in news releases and in your company’s listings on third-party sites.
16. Consider a map
A local map to your company’s offices is a nonessential feature you can consider adding. Maps are useful for analysts and investors who are planning to visit the company. However, since this is such a small portion of the online audience, we don’t think there is a strong case for this practice. It can also make a company appear parochial as international investors are most unlikely to ever visit the company’s offices.
Again, we leave it to you to decide.
By using a few simple techniques and carefully preparing contact information from the user’s perspective, IR departments can reduce the number of email inquiries they get. The approach we outline is basic and follows a hierarchical structure designed to filter inquiries through a number of contact listings before they arrive at the IR department. Follow the advice here and you should immediately benefit from a reduction in misdirected email, while demonstrating that you are approachable and accountable to investors. A win-win for all.