Lessons from Warren Buffett and the Rhode Island Foundation
In early 2012, to the market’s surprise, celebrity investor Warren Buffett, the “Sage of Omaha,” bought $10.7 billion worth of IBM stock. He now holds a 5.4% stake in the computer giant.
Mr. Buffett is famous for sitting out the dot.com bubble. He warmed the cockles of many skeptical hearts when he declared, If I don’t understand it, I won’t invest in it. By which he meant Internet-related stocks with their “palace in the air” projections for growth. He likes “old” technologies like railroads and steady-eddies like insurance. He seemed to shun the siren song of all things digital.
Because IBM sent him a copy of its printed annual report.
That’s right: the third richest person on earth rummages through his mail, looking for things of interest.
Mr. Buffett took the annual report home, for a closer look over the weekend. What was he looking for? Mr. Buffett prefers companies offering a well-argued 5- or 10-year opportunity. “He said he had been impressed by IBM’s road map,” the BBC reported after the $10.7 billion investment was announced.
Lesson learned #1:
Make it convenient for your target audience to use the thing. The 82-year-old Mr. Buffett tossed the physical annual report into his briefcase. He sat in a comfy chair at home and read the thing.
Lesson learned #2:
Sell the vision. Annual reports are ostensibly about the year just past: a history lesson, a look back, a chapter closed, a record for the archives. But, as public companies like IBM know, annual reports can be just as much about where you’re headed: your promise … improvements … future gains … progress from today’s not-so-rosy Point A to tomorrow’s much better Point B.
The accidental endowment
Before you abandon your paper annual report completely, consider this true story. It’s about having the right communications item in the right place at the right time.
The Rhode Island Foundation is one of America’s oldest community foundations (est. 1916). Each year, it publishes a well-designed, well-written annual report. It’s available online, as a downloadable PDF; and also in hard copy.
In previous years, the Foundation printed as many as 10,000 hard copies for mailing. But in an effort to save money and trees, Melanie Coon, SVP for Communications & Marketing, has whittled that number down. “Last year, we mailed