THOMSON FINANCIAL, the 800-pound gorilla of corporate investor relations services, recently rolled out new features for its hosted investor relations website product that it promises will “transform” IR websites and improve their “user experience.”
In this review, I assess each of the new features and provide my research-based, unbiased opinion on whether they are good, mediocre or bad. Thomson Financial did not help or provide any information for this review. It is based strictly on my own experience over the past 13 years working with investors, researching IR website practices, and advising large public companies around the world on best practices.
But first let me give a nod to Thomson Financial for upgrading its hosted IR website product. The changes have been a long time coming. The current upgrade cycle for hosted IR websites is too long and needs to be shortened. We need to see more innovation and more improvements faster and more regularly. Hopefully, these latest features are just the beginning for Thomson.
With this latest upgrade, the biggest in almost three years, Thomson is trying to make its IR website product more interesting and competitive with the average web experience investors are having elsewhere. Given that Thomson hosts 2,700 IR and PR websites for public companies, these changes impact millions of investors.
It also needs to be said that Thomson’s product is a template-based hosted content management system. My remarks in this review apply to all companies using Thomson’s IR website platform. It also needs to be said that in reviewing the new features, I’ve ignored problems associated with how companies are using them in practice. It isn’t Thomson’s fault when companies do stupid things with its product.
I also don’t comment on the quality of the code or the accessibility of the new features to users with disabilities. Neither is good, but this does vary slightly from site to site.
I am simply focusing on the new features Thomson covers in its video overview. I assess them for their value to investors and their ease of use.
The Good Features
These features either add significant value to investors or are innovations that other hosted investor relations website vendors do not provide.
Most visited links
This is a little box that sits in one of the side columns of a page and shows which pages or links visitors to the site have been following most often over a set period. You can see an example on Millipore’s website. I like this idea because it borders on a social media-style feature and lets people know what other investors — and possibly people inside the company — are looking at.
It’s not a completely new idea. For example, Danske Bank has been doing something like this on its Site Statistics page for about a year now. But it’s a good idea, and may actually provide investors with some useful insights that they currently are not getting. (I will write more about how investors can use this when more companies are using this feature.)
|Millipore’s IR website uses the most visited links box on the left side of its IR homepage.|
A Tear Sheet is the name for a one- or two-page company summary containing key background and financial data. In the old days, stockbrokers would tear pages out of the Standard & Poor’s summary book to give to their clients and prospects. Of course, while tear sheets still have that role, today many investors make their own investing decisions independent of an advisor. In that sense, tear sheets could potentially be useful to investors when researching a group of companies.
Thomson’s tear sheet dynamically pulls together key information and data found in different parts of the site into a two-page PDF download. In the video, Mike Cotter of Thomson says that tear sheets are “only available from Thomson.”
Actually, that’s not true. Ipreo, through its old Hemscott IR website business, has been providing this feature for some time. You can see an example on Wolseley plc’s website. Ipreo doesn’t yet offer its IR website product in the U.S.
Quartal, the European IR website content provider, also offers a similar feature in the form of its Interactive FactSheet.
And if truth be told, Ipreo and Quartal have much better tear sheet offerings than Thomson. Still, tear sheets can be a good feature on an IR site. You can see an example of Thomson’s on CSX’s website.
|The Tear Sheet is a dynamically compiled two-page summary in PDF|
The Ho-Hum Features
These features are not innovations but they do add value to investors. I’d consider them core or necessary features that should be provided by all hosted IR website vendors.
Quarterly results hub
Thomson is now providing quarterly reporting hubs, a practice we recommended five years ago and which has already been adopted by its main competitors in the U.S. and in Europe. With quarterly results hubs, investors going to companies’ websites for quarterly results information are able to access all the materials on a single page rather than in separate sections of the site. It was a no-brainer and it’s surprising it took Thomson so long to do it.
|AECOM uses Thomson Financial’s new quarterly results hub. Oops, someone forgot to write a disclaimer!|
Annual meeting page
This is also a no-brainer and works the same way as the quarterly results hub. It’s an event-based page that aggregates all information relevant to the event. I couldn’t find a useful example of this on a live site, but the example Thomson shows in its video presentation is pretty bare-bones. It’s really up to companies themselves to make the most of this page.
Better email alerts
Thomson has upgraded its email alerts utility to be more competitive with Shareholder.com’s, including providing stock event alerts similar to what its rival has been doing for about two years. And I still rate Shareholder.com’s email alerts as better (if you don’t mind being spied on.)
This is a box on the IR homepage that is supposed to highlight new information that has been posted on the site. If that’s all it is, then I would hardly call this a feature. It’s more a practice point. But it doesn’t do any harm.
The Bad Features
These features should be avoided. They are bad either because they are poor ideas, or because they create problems for users that can harm the effectiveness of a company’s online communications with investors.
This is perhaps the least usable way to provide a calendar on the Web. It tries to take something that works on paper and put it online, which almost always leads to bad usability. The fundamental flaw — the thing that renders this calendar a complete misadventure — is that investors can’t quickly see events that will be happening in future months.
Thomson makes a bad idea worse by using a large number of baffling icons to identify different types of events. It literally requires a manual to make sense of all the icons. The legend, or help menu, doesn’t fit in a single “quick look” box so a secondary vertical scroll-bar is provided. People with mouse skills slightly less adroit than a 25-year-old’s are going to find using this rather tricky.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for the Web: when you need instructions to tell people how to use something, it’s not usable.
And that’s exactly what we have in Thomson’s new calendar. Someone spent a lot of time developing this clumsy application, but their efforts were sadly for naught. See the example from Black & Decker’s website and in the screenshot.
|Calendars like this are the worst possible way to present future event information on the Web. And when something needs a help menu like this, you know it’s not usable.|
Calendars that look like this used to be provided on many blog platforms, but they’ve fallen by the way because they’re not a good device for providing information or navigation.
Companies should avoid the new calendar and use Thomson’s old calendar instead. The old one wasn’t broken and it didn’t need fixing.
Of course, given how much they’ve invested in it, I doubt anything I say will make a difference here.
I thought scrolling text died in 1999! It is so silly and unusable that I’m astonished Thomson is trying to bring it back. You can see an implementation of this on Safeway’s Inc.’s (NYSE: SWY) website. The problem with scrolling text of any kind is that people read at different speeds and companies write headlines and teasers of different lengths. It’s impossible to determine how long to show a particular headline and first paragraph without doing so too fast or too slowly for a segment of the audience. Just a bad idea.
Basically, what Thomson calls a “Quick Look” function is a bit of code that pops up a window when you scroll over some types of links. The pop-up lets you preview the information the link goes to. It is mostly being used for things like bios and news headlines.
I personally find the feature irritating and distracting because it causes something to happen when I don’t do anything to make it happen. Similar comments about almost identical functionality have been expressed all over the web and on many blogs.
I find the popup boxes get in the way when I’m viewing a list of headlines and using my cursor to keep my place as I scan down the list. This is a fairly common habit. It’s likely a holdover from reading books where a finger or a bookmark is used as a vertical guide.
Finally, the feature doesn’t really add value beyond what can most often be gleaned from the link text itself, so it’s redundant and probably won’t be read.
It looks to me like someone at Thomson has been reading blogs with the Snap Shots link preview plug-in installed, which works in a very similar manner to Thomson’s link previews. What the Thomson folks probably don’t know is that this feature is one of the most despised features of all time in the blogosphere.
|Link previews on Qlogic’s website get in the way when investors who use their cursor as a placement tool to skim through a list of headlines.|
Overall, the upgrade is disappointing. Thomson Financial is playing catch-up to Shareholder.com and others more than it is leading. Usability is so poor in some key features that companies would do best to avoid them. Thomson should continue to innovate at a more rapid pace.