The Investor Relations Society recently handed out its annual awards for the best investor-relations websites. But when I had a look at the winning sites, I was deeply uninspired. These were the WINNERS? The big question is: when are companies really going to set this medium to work? And I reckon the answer is: they aren't. That's in spite of the internet being the perfect platform for releasing all sorts of information that it was previously impractical to get into investors' hands: earnings forecasts; information about markets, competitors and strategic issues; independent views about the company from analysts, journalists and credit rating agencies.
In fact, there is no longer any good reason why investors should have to wait for six-monthly, or even quarterly, earnings statements. The internet has not only enabled corporate information to be distributed instantly, it has also enabled companies to collect and compile that information instantly. Finance directors know last week's sales by 10am on Monday mornings. So why aren't they releasing that information to us by 11am?
The answer is simple: information is power, and companies don't want to share it until regulatory requirements force them to do so three or six months later.
Instead, we must be grateful for simple kindnesses, such as companies condescending to include earnings projections on their websites, or giving more than 30 seconds forethought as to how to display their annual reports. But for companies that don't want their websites to irritate their investors, I have five suggestions:
1) Just get it together. Have a look at the Investor Relations Society winning websites, including Old Mutual, Signet, Kiln and Holidaybreak. As I said, they are uninspiring. If you can't provide the common elements you find here, you must despise your shareholders. No page should take more than 15 seconds to load, and that includes your share-price chart page. For a real shocker on this front, see if you can get a share-price chart from the Dixons' website in less than two minutes. In fact, don't waste your time with things like charts, which are better done by professional providers. Just install a link to Yahoo or BigCharts.
2) Recognise that PDFs are for downloading, not for displaying online. Whereas PDFs work fine offline, when opened online they are like wading through treacle. I get a sinking feeling every time I realise that the link I have just clicked will take 30 seconds to launch my PDF plug-in, and another 30 seconds to download and display some useless, corporate photograph. So, never make a link launch a PDF document without telling users that's what's going to happen (by labelling the link 'PDF'). Signet, the jeweller, won the Investor Relations Society gong for the best FTSE 250 website. After clicking the link marked 'corporate fact sheet' on its home page, my double-speed broadband took 55 seconds to display a miserable one-page PDF. As Signet's founder, Gerald Ratner, would have said, "It's crap".
3) Be less precious about earnings forecasts. In an era when anyone can get bog-standard earnings forecasts from Yahoo, companies should make them routinely available on their own sites. Less than 10 per cent of companies do so. None of the main Investor Relations Society UK award winners include earnings forecasts on their websites. By contrast, Taylor Woodrow and George Wimpey have state-of-the-art treatment of earnings forecasts.
4) Avoid video and sound. What kind of poor schmuck do you think is going to take five or 12 minutes to watch or listen to a haystack of information already available in print, in the almost certainly forlorn hope that there is a needle of useful information buried somewhere in it? Printed transcripts - they're what we want.
5) Buy yourself a one-year, $2,500 sub to Irwebreport at the website of that name. This seems to me to be the best no-axe-to-grind, no-feet-to-kiss assessor of corporate reporting on the internet.
Going back to the bigger question, by coincidence, I was recently professionally canvassed for my views on the website of a FTSE 250 company. Its site was fine, in general terms, although it didn't do forecasts. Yet the process was illuminating, because the questions asked certainly showed that the company knew what was missing.
"Do you believe the site educates users in the sector in which it operates?", "Did you feel that bad news as well as good news was posted on the site?", "A company's corporate website should be the definitive source of information for investors - did you feel the site met this requirement?" No, no and no. Of course.
Alistair Blair, a past winner of the Business Writer of the Year Award, has worked in investment banking and fund management. He edits the growth shares newsletter, Small Cap Shares (www.smallcapshares.co.uk). E-mail: email@example.com www.investorschronicle.co.uk/nofreelunch