The future is virtual for annual meetings
January 2016 | EXPERT BRIEFING | BOARDROOM INTELLIGENCE
Just a few years ago, a virtual shareholder meeting (VSM) was thought of as a novelty, something only for tech-curious first adopters to try. However, increasing adoption in the US indicates that this virtual annual meeting approach is more than just a trend – it’s a viable option for annual meetings.
Many companies including large, well-established household names have chosen to incorporate a virtual element into their annual shareholder meeting. These companies span industries and sizes, proving that a virtual model can be the right choice for a wide variety of public companies.
There are a number of key reasons why early adopters have found that a virtual solution is right for their shareholders. From offering more convenience for participants, to reducing meeting costs to keeping up with the times and going digital, VSM provides a number of benefits worth considering.
Bringing the annual shareholder meeting into the digital age
Some companies may be unsure if investors will be comfortable transitioning to a virtual meeting, however investors are demonstrating that they are ready for the move to digital. Increasingly, online resources are becoming standard for investors to research, buy shares of, and stay connected to companies. A virtual approach to the annual meeting allows companies to connect with shareholders in a way in which they are already accustomed to in today’s digital environment.
Though we live in a digital world, state regulations vary regarding a company’s ability to hold a virtual meeting. More than 30 states in the US currently allow public companies to incorporate a virtual aspect into their annual meeting, making VSM a more accessible and common option for US companies.
Leveraging the convenience of remote participation
A traditional, in-person annual meeting can become a logistical challenge as everyone from board members to officers and executives must be in the same place at the same time. Hosting an annual meeting virtually allows participants to join the meeting from any location around the globe, ensuring minimal disruption of their day.
By allowing shareholders to join remotely, companies are also taking an approach that is widely viewed as inclusive and investor-friendly, as any shareholder in the world can participate. If companies historically have the shareholder attendance they desire at their in-person annual meetings, a VSM may not be the right fit, but could help build participation in the future.
Some companies may be concerned that they would not be able to accommodate a shareholder proposal in a virtual setting. However, there have been cases of shareholders reading their proposal remotely via phone during an annual meeting.
A VSM also decreases the costs associated with having every director and spokesperson in the same location as with a traditional in-person annual meeting.
Managing the dialogue with shareholders
By leveraging the interactive nature of an online meeting, a VSM allows companies to make their annual meeting more of a two-way dialogue, thus promoting shareholder engagement and discussion. The Q&A portion of a virtual meeting allows companies to engage with shareholders in a way that is comfortable for both parties.
As shareholder activism continues to intensify, companies are increasingly looking for tools to implement controls for annual meetings. Unlike in a traditional, in-person annual meeting, companies using the Q&A capabilities in a virtual meeting can prioritise and manage the queue of submitted questions, providing valuable preparation time for company spokespeople while encouraging a dialogue of transparency in their answers. With the ability to open up voting and Q&A when desired, companies are given an extra layer of control that can be beneficial in preparing for the annual meeting.
Finding the right virtual approach
Many companies that choose to incorporate a virtual model start with a hybrid solution, meaning a virtual meeting combined with the traditional in-person annual meeting. A report from a working group, including institutional investors such as Calsters, noted that a hybrid solution helps to calm concerns shareholders may have about losing the typical face-to-face engagement available at an in-person meeting. This hybrid approach is considered by some to be a best practice for annual meetings as it allows companies to reap the benefits of meeting shareholders in person while also leveraging the convenience and engagement provided by a virtual method.
Whether virtual-only or hybrid, virtual shareholder meetings present a great way for companies to conduct their annual meeting. If considering this option from a convenience and cost perspective, a shareholder engagement standpoint, or simply as a way to keep up with today’s digital world, companies are seriously considering going virtual.
Cathy Conlon is the vice president of strategy and business development, Investor communication solutions at Broadridge. She can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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