How ESG Sites Benefit Your Brand


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Solving for B°
How ESG Sites Benefit Your Brand

Episode Outline


**This transcript has been edited for readability.

Chris Wilks: Hi, and welcome to Solving for B. I'm your host, Chris Wilks. And in today's episode, we're going to talk about ESG websites. To help me break down this topic, I'm joined by VP of Software Development, Donovan Buck.

Donovan Buck: Hi, Chris, how you doing?

Chris: And Chairman Jonathan Fisher.

Jonathan Fisher: Hey Chris. Thanks for having us.

Chris: Of course. Thanks for joining us today, guys.

What is an ESG Website?

Chris: So as you both know, ESG reporting is gaining more and more traction among brands across a variety of industries, but a potentially unknown or underappreciated tool is an ESG website. So let's start here. What is an ESG website and how does it differ, if at all, from an ESG report?

Donovan: So I'm going to give you two answers, because that question could mean different things to different people. First of all, an ESG report versus an ESG website. So with an ESG report, the simplest form is sharing your company's objectives and past performance on ESG matters, those include things like diversity and inclusion, environmental consciousness, and awareness.

An ESG website tends to have a little more narrative content to support the data that you're reporting on. The other interpretation here might be the difference between a printed report/PDF report or a website. And, of course, with a website, you're able to have something that's much more evergreen.

You can always maintain an ESG site and add information and take away information, or correct information if necessary. And you have room to grow it and keep using it over the years. Also, if you think about it, it's more environmentally friendly. You're not having to kill any trees to get your report out there. So, that's always a bonus.

Chris: Yeah. So you mentioned that there can be more static reports versus a website with more narrative. Would you say that an ESG report displays just the facts while an ESG website provides a little bit of context, and maybe allows you to inject some of your brand into that vessel?

Donovan: It can be, it's all a spectrum. It's analogous to investor relations and annual reports: they're big productions for a lot of organizations, with incredible photography and illustrations with many pages. On the other end of the spectrum, some just report the data you are legally required to report on.

And while there aren't legal requirements around the data that ESG reports need to contain, there are expectations that are set by different standards boards, and you can provide just the facts, or you can expand upon it and talk about your vision for the future. And that's where the real value is.

Chris: Right. Okay, great. So in regards to ESG websites, how comprehensive, if you are going to go the route of an ESG website as opposed to an ESG report, how comprehensive does that need to be, or even can it be?

Donovan: So my belief is, it really depends on how tightly sustainability is coupled with your brand and the value proposition of your company. For example, we have a client who helps their clients handle waste products more efficiently and more sustainably. It's better for the environment after, with these services they provide.

So that's a huge part of their brand and their value proposition. We will help you be more green. We will help your company be more green on their reports. So it's really important that it be featured on their corporate website. And that sustainability perspective is tightly coupled with their brand message and their corporate website. So it really gets rolled in, and there's a lot more supporting content there because it's what you're selling.

For other companies who are being more reactive to market demands, or more expectations from employees, or whoever, those organizations may choose just to provide the data and hopefully show improvement over the years. So it really depends on your brand and the message you're trying to project and convey. What are you selling?

Jonathan: Think of it this way. I think some of it is determined by the stakeholders that you're trying to speak to. So your employees, pressure from a board, maybe competitors. A lot of times these days, the supply chains, these mid-market companies, or even multi-billion dollar companies are requiring a certain level of ESG data to be in their supply chain because that data trickles up to them.

So they have their goals and initiatives, and you are affecting those goals and initiatives when you are in their supply chain. And the degree to which you can competitively improve it more than say, the next guy, might end up in more business for you. So that alone may be the reason you decide to publish your material, regardless of investors, or the perceived risk of your business by the insurance companies and buy your lenders and creditors and things like that.

So I think you have to take a look at those stakeholder audiences. I think another consideration is the type of company you are as it relates to ESG itself. There are supporters, there are partners, there are initiators and there are impacters. And different companies fit into different categories of this type of sustainability model of business that's out there.

So for example, companies that are truly capturing carbon, or doing things to reduce environmental impact specifically with their products and services, those might be impacters for example, whereas say a company that just partners with certain industries to reduce carbon impact or support certain initiatives, they might be in that category of partners.

So I think if you're in that category of supporter, the data you report might be less relevant, for example, but it may be still important if your supply chain is demanding it. Whereas if you're an impacter and you've got these amazing widgets, or services, that are targeted towards global reductions and other sustainability factors, it might be way more important for you to really put out your information.

What Form Should Your ESG Website Take?

Chris: Yeah. And so that leads me to ask: Should it be a microsite, like a standalone, perhaps a sub-domain sort of thing, or should it be baked into your company site? What would be your guys' perspective on that?

Donovan: So, I think, again, you have to consider brand: Does it belong? Does the label "sustainability" belong in my brand's primary navigation? I think that's still, again, what you have to consider, is the relevance to your brand and your value proposition.

From a technical standpoint, you can go either way. We have clients who have content management systems for their website, their corporate website, and some of them are easy to add sections to, and to add content to, and edit the content and bring it up to date, and some of them are not.

I will offer that in my opinion, if it's not easy in your content management system, you have a bad content management system. So the easiest path should be to be able to do it as part of your corporate website.

Chris: Yeah. That makes sense. And do any of these, the websites, need to map to specific ESG standards like SASB or GRI?

Donovan: Yeah. So the easiest one to grasp is SASB because they have standards for each industry. A lot of companies are a little more complex nowadays. They don't just make widgets. They make widgets, they transport the widgets, they dispose of the widgets. So suddenly they're a manufacturer, they're a retailer and they're a waste management company. So they might have multiple industries that they need to report to.

SASB helps you figure out what those things are and what the metrics are that you should be considering. So SASB is a really nice one in that regard. It's a lot more tangible than the others. Some of the others are a little more esoteric, they leave it more up to the organization on what specific metrics to report.

And SASB gives you guidelines on the types of things that you should be reporting about. Being a computer programmer, I like the ones that are tangible, where you know exactly what steps you need to take. So I think SASB is a great place to start, but you may be in an industry that has other standards besides the ones that are most common.

Jonathan: Yeah. There's probably five to seven standards out there that are pretty common. And we see companies that will blend from two or three on a regular basis. We've even seen certain industries create, band together and create their own framework so that all of the competitors are truly aligning against each other in the marketplace.

How do ESG Sites Benefit Your Brand?

Chris: Yeah. Cool. So we've talked a little bit about the technical aspect of it and what are some of the considerations, if you're considering an ESG website, for example. I do want to start talking a little bit about the benefits.

I think one of you alluded to the fact that an ESG website itself is more sustainable than printing out a bunch of papers. You don't have to kill trees to do this. So other than it being a sustainable alternative to a physical printed PDF report, what are some of the benefits of an ESG website?

Donovan: Well, websites are evergreen, and you can always keep them up to date. Sometimes the metrics that you've reported on needs to be updated or changed, because you got it wrong. It's easy to do with the website. It's not so easy to do with something that you've printed and distributed for the world to see, and it's in their hands.

So a lot easier to keep it up to date, keep it current, grow it over time, instead of starting from scratch each and every year. So you've got some good things there that make it not be a one-and-done type of project.

Jonathan: Yeah. I would say, some of the things that come to mind, for example, with the website, are that you can get all kinds of data from the visitors that are going to it. You can see what pages are most popular, what sections are most popular.

You can bake in calls to action, or you can embed videos and see what they watch the more than something else, or you can track downloads from the materials. So there's a lot of good traffic data.

And what we have seen, for example, is that companies that do a website have approximately nine times more traffic and stickiness and visitor activity on a website than they do with just a pure PDF in terms of engagement. So it's substantially higher.

With a website, you get much better search engine optimization than you do with a PDF product. You also get more ADA or WCAG conformance and compliance. So it's appealing to those that are not only handicapped with some disability in that regard, but it's also appealing to the smart devices like Siri and Alexa and Google and your smartphones.

When you optimize for WCAG, you're also optimizing for a lot of the technologies that use the same information to read aloud or to search or find something through those devices. So you're also going to get just higher Google rankings and search results with a website, because you can optimize all the keywords and the data within the site itself.

So you're going to be substantially easier to find with a true website than you are with just hanging a PDF out there, or for that matter, a physical printed piece to go with it. You can crosslink the site between things. I'd say there's literally dozens of advantages to doing a website over a physical report or PDF product, or even just a standalone landing page where you download a little bit of data and get a little bit of data from it.

You can parse the report into just the indexes. You can make the charts and graphs dynamically download in a file format of say an analyst preference. So if they want a CVS file, if they want a JPEG, a PNG file, they can get all that off of the sites, for that matter.

And when you build the site in a content management system, a good CMS, you're going to be able to make those edits on the fly and instantaneously, as opposed to having to go back to a designer who is working in InDesign or word documents, and then making the edits and then saving the edits and exporting the edits, and then going and uploading the edits. Everything becomes one-click instantaneous. So there's a lot of just time and efficiencies that are gained in this process.

Donovan: To build on Jonathan's "nine times" comment. We do have clients that do printed reports as well as websites. So we have clients who we've done both for in some years. So we have firsthand insight into how much more activity there is around the websites and our clients have come to the conclusion, and we've guided them on this and confirmed it with data that the PDF reports are a waste of money relative to the websites, because those websites get so much more traction.

Chris: Yeah. It's funny, as you guys are talking about this, I start to ask myself the same questions or see the values in it. And a website becomes a choose your own adventure sort of thing. So you can really tailor that experience. In a PDF report, it's very linear, you can't cross-link things over, and there's only so much you can do as opposed to in a website.

A site is almost like a living, breathing kind of place where your ESG efforts really live. And then you layer on the story on top of it, D, that you talked about at the top. I think it can be a really compelling case for your brand, if that's something that's important to you and something that matters to you and your audience. So I think it's a no-brainer.

And then on top of that, from an altruistic standpoint, it feels like it fits the spirit of sustainability a little bit better than, again, printing out dozens or hundreds of reports and going out and spreading them across the world.

Donovan: Absolutely.

Jonathan: We had a client that had us do a PDF report, and initially they were just buried on their website. They just wanted to be able to check it off and say they had one and it was done and they really didn't want to put it out there, but after some discussion, we convinced them that it was worth really promoting it and putting it out there.

And when they did, they saw their stock prices jump, I think it was around 20% as a result. The data was really great. And the data was much better than some of their competitors. And it gave investors and analysts confidence and it raised the pricing.

So, it's surprising, I think at first people are a little tentative to this process and they don't really know what they're getting into and how hard it's going to be and what they're really committing to. But what we see is once they get the wheels turning, more people get involved with it, more people get excited by it. And it becomes this thing that every year just gets bigger and bigger.

We've worked with companies four or five, six years in a row, and every year they just want to outdo the last one and add something new and different to the process, because it's got such positive results for them.

Donovan: There's another really cool added value that may not be obvious, but I know that when I went to collect data on BrandExtract, there were a lot of things that I found eye opening and they helped me understand our business better.

But sometimes the perspective that we have as board members or partners, or as employees even, isn't the whole story. And you don't get that whole story until you actually sit down and look at the data. And a lot of these things, if you're not doing ESG reports, you may or may not be collecting this data at all. You may have no idea where you really stand and it can be really helpful and valuable for your organization.

Jonathan: Well, the reason the trend is so popular is because they've proven now through hundreds of studies across numerous industries, that companies that report on ESG generally do better than companies that don't report on ESG, because basically ESG is a prism by which to manage risk, and that which gets measured gets managed.

So this just creates a whole level of operational transparency and risk management for companies that get into doing this. And they tend to generally perform a lot better than companies that don't do that level of analysis of their businesses. So why wouldn't you do this? It's smart business. It's good business to do this, because that's really all it is, is a prism for risk to study it.

Donovan: That actually leads to something I wanted to talk about when I was collecting data for our organizations. Our customers all collect data in ways that you might not expect because there's a plethora of software applications out there that are in the market. We actually have a hard time, sometimes, distinguishing our software from these software packages.

These software packages are designed to help you aggregate your metrics data, and they'll interface with your HR systems and your shipping systems and all the different places where you might be collecting data that contribute to your ESG report.

But the fact is: almost none of our clients, even the really big ones, are using those tools. They're not integrating their ESG report gathering with their ERP system and things like that, that sound awesome, but we have not seen happen anywhere.

So what most companies we see do is they're using spreadsheets and they're walking around the office and they're asking people questions, and they're gathering the data that way, and they're dumping it all into a spreadsheet. So, we've designed our ESG website management software, Artisan, to work in that way.

Artisan can consume an XML dump out of these high-end systems that integrate with your ERP system and all that awesome stuff. But we also can consume a spreadsheet, which is what all of our clients are doing.

And so, we're able to work all those different ways. There's a practical component that I think a lot of the vision around ESG software is missing out on, because those things are expensive and people really don't use them.

What Should You Look For in a CMS?

Chris: Well, that's a good segue to one of my final questions here, which is, let's say we've decided, okay, an ESG website is right for me, because we can gain all these efficiencies. We can be more agile and in some cases be less expensive. What are some CMS considerations?

And I'll throw out a quick caveat that, as Donovan alluded to, we do have our own proprietary ESG website platform called Artisan. So obviously we're a fan of that one, but is there anything else that folks need to look out for? Not necessarily "this one" or "that one," but what are some things that might affect or impact the decision on what CMS you would want to go with for your ESG website?

Donovan: Given the audiences that are concerned, particularly around environmental issues, you want to make sure that your site is secure so that you're not at risk of being embarrassed publicly while displaying this data.

Your ESG report may not be part of your operations, and it's not going to bring the assembly line to a halt. But it is going to affect your public image. So you do not want to let those things get hacked. Be mindful of that when you're considering your content management system. Don't low ball it, don't put yourself at risk that way.

The other thing is some are better than others at making it easy to integrate the metrics data. So, we know Artisan has tools for managing the data right there in the tool or consuming a spreadsheet to present the data. Other systems might not do that. They might not make charts for you automatically and graphs and all those things.

And you're having to have your designers, graphic designers go and produce these visual components instead of just reading the data and building it dynamically. And when that happens, you double your production costs, because rarely do these things get by the lawyers and the accountants and everybody without a whole lot of changes.

So you want something that's dynamic and then you're not having to rebuild from scratch every single time or having to run it past the designers and add those extra steps to the process. So you want to be efficient. So having tools that are purpose-built for this is a really nice thing to have.

With Artisan, you can tell what industry you're in, or industries you want to report to, and it will generate a straw man site that you can then go and populate it, and it'll have all the charts and fields for you to start populating your data and text areas where it describes what should go here. So it has a site generator.

Now that said, all of our clients are special and unique. So it's really easy to go and add pages and delete pages, and remove the things you don't need or add things that you do. And it's built to do that automatically based on SASB standards, we can support other standards, but we do SASB standards out of the box. And that makes it really nice and easy to get started on a ESG website.

Chris: Awesome. Jonathan, anything to add there?

Jonathan: Yeah. I think some other features to look for in the technology is their versioning control and time stamping. In other words, can you see when somebody logged in? Can you see what changes were made and exactly when they made them? And can you roll back changes if you need to, if you're ever in a lawsuit and the attorneys need to justify something or check and see when something was published, or what it was on such and such a date?

Some of this software, once you make the edit, it's done. The thing is, there's no record of it. You don't know who did it or when they did it. So you really want to control the versioning systems that you have there for those compliance standards.

You also want to make sure that if you're concerned about WCAG and issues like that, that you have all those usability features baked into those technologies themselves, and that you're designing for those conformance, or in some cases, compliance requirements.

Jonathan: A lot of the cheaper freeware that's out there doesn't pay any attention to these things. And I always say, there's a reason something's free. So back to Donovan's point about lowballing this type of product, there's a lot of exposure to it out there in terms of being hacked or being sued or things like that.

And the fact of the matter is that products like Artisan just, frankly, aren't that much. The price of a family cell phone plan, I tell people, from a licensing standpoint, they're pretty darn affordable considering everything that's out there, and compared to building a custom website from scratch. Out of the box, an Artisan site takes just a few days, and then you're up and running. And you can make it as bespoke as you want to go with it.

Donovan: These reports have a global audience, and it's important to mention that while we mentioned a few times there aren't necessarily ESG laws to comply with, that's a very US-centric point of view. That's not true throughout the world. So you need to be aware of the specific laws that apply to the places where you're doing business. ESG sites make it much easier to do that.

Chris: Great. Yeah. One final thing I will add here is the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) nature of it. If your job is compliance or conformance and reporting on ESG standards, chances are you aren't a developer.

So speaking of something that is easy to maintain and update, if legal wants you to change this wording or whatever, rather than having to go and tap a developer, or go through a whole process, something that's very easily editable and easy for you to manage, I think is also another thing to keep an eye out for.

Well guys, that's all I have. Was there anything else you guys wanted to add in regards to issue websites? This was great. I really appreciate the time. Is there any final parting words you guys have?

Donovan: I don't think I have anything else to close with, other than that Jonathan was talking about how things can be straight out of the box or completely bespoke. You can also have different levels of effort, each and every year we have clients who come to us year after year, who are starting with a clean slate from the ground up and doing a new design and really making something special.

We also have clients who take that first site that we build for them and build the next site all on their own without even calling us. So, it really varies on what's appropriate for your business and what your capabilities are, but we can work with you either way.

Chris: Awesome.

Jonathan: Yeah. I would just tell people that if you aren't thinking about ESG, you should be, and you will have to be in the near future. This is not a trend that's going away. The numbers of companies that are starting to report are practically doubling and tripling year over year when you go back and look at them.

So, this is something that is coming, and it's coming with force. And if you are not on board, you're going to be left in the dust by your competition. I can pretty much guarantee that. So might as well get in, since it takes a little while to get these things up and running the way you would like.

So for somebody that's really thinking about a window for these projects, if it's your very first report and you're starting from ground zero, could be as little as four months, but it's probably going to be closer to six or even nine months for you.

It's not the publishing part that's the hard part, it's coming up with a strategy, doing the audits to figure out where the data is, determining the frameworks, writing the reports, that's the heavy lifting. You get your report ready to go. We can get it up for you really, really quick if need be.

So just be prepared for those windows and also recognize that you don't have to report everything you discover right now. And that's the good thing. You can report the things that you want to report, things that are relevant to your business and impactful to you and your stakeholders. And over time you can report more and more as you go. So don't be afraid of the process.

Chris: Great. All right, guys. Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate the time and I'll catch up with you guys next time. Okay.

Donovan: Thank you, Chris.

Jonathan: Thanks guys. Thank you, Chris. Bye now.