IN WHAT surely ranks as one of the worst web publishing practices, hundreds of companies are posting important disclosure documents on their investor relations websites in formats that prevent people from copying text.
The formats, which are sold by almost all large investor relations service providers, include so-called Flash flipbooks and image-based documents. Companies are paying a premium to have their disclosure documents converted to these unfriendly formats in a mistaken belief that they are more usable than PDF.
Large-scale studies of browser and office software users show that copying and pasting information are among the most common functions that people perform on their computers. By preventing their investors from doing so, companies are at once frustrating their investors by forcing them to retype information, increasing the risk of errors, and undermining the usefulness of their websites.
A common problem
All large investor relations service providers, including Thomson Reuters, Broadridge Financial Solutions, NASDAQ OMX, Computershare, Equity Story AG and dozens of smaller firms are offering to convert PDF documents to these hard-to-use formats. In a recent survey by IR Web Report, 37% of 100 large-cap US companies used one or more formats that prevented text from being copied.
To be clear, companies are not deliberately using these formats to prevent their information from being copied. They are using them because vendors have convinced them that these documents are better than PDFs and because they are unaware of the serious usability problems such formats present.
Companies are paying up to $10,000 to convert a 100-page report to one of these documents, even though the production process is largely automated and the end result is less usable than the original PDF. In fact, companies would be better off using one of several free online conversion services that do enable text to be copied.
Copy and Paste a fundamental activity
The importance of web users being able to copy text from online disclosure documents should be obvious. Analysts, journalists, bloggers and many other users often need to copy information for reuse in their own documents.
In fact, two large-scale studies underscore how fundamental this activity is to computer users in general. In 2006, Microsoft released findings based on 1.3 billion sessions of users who enrolled in the Microsoft Office Customer Experience Improvement Program showing that Paste was the most-used command in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, accounting for 11%, 15% and 12% of total command use respectively. In Word, Copy was the 3rd most-used command, after Save.
Of course, for Paste to be the most-used command, people have to be copying information from somewhere outside of Microsoft Office. That’s where the second study – involving 8,600 users of Mozilla’s Firefox browser in 2010 – is instructive. It found that Copy was the second most commonly used menu item in mouse initiated interactions in Firefox. The most commonly used was Bookmark.
Outside of these studies, there is widespread anecdotal evidence that the ability to copy and paste information is a fundamental need of computer users. For example, when Apple introduced its first iPhone operating system, it did not have copy and paste functionality. Following widespread complaints, Apple introduced copy and paste in an upgrade in 2009.
In light of the research, any service provider that sells a product in 2011 that does not permit end users to copy text is failing its customers and its customers’ end users.
What are the alternatives
IR departments should never publish their information in formats that prevent investors, analysts, journalists and others from easily copying text. This is especially important for reference documents such as annual reports and proxy statements.
Any amount a company spends on such documents is money squandered. IR departments are better off using free document conversion services such as Scribd, Docstoc, or SlideShare to convert their documents as all of them enable users to copy information.
Alternatively, companies should plan ahead and publish their documents in standard HTML text or in PDF, preferably following the standards detailed in the post New ideas and tips for PDF financial reports.
It’s unfortunate that in 2011 we still are discussing such basic usability issues with IR departments and their service providers. Help us end this nonsense by spreading the word.