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Best Practices for Online Reports, Part 1: PDF-First Publishing

When it comes to publishing reports online, organizations have two basic options. They can post a PDF online and promote downloads on their site via search, social media, and syndication strategies; alternately, organizations can develop the report online in HTML, which allows them to supplement copy with a number of interactive elements that can deepen engagement and impact. Each approach has pros and cons as it relates to workflow, cost, accessibility, design experience, and measuring results. In this article, I’ll explore the pros and cons of the PDF-first approach, and then suggest best practices for some common applications.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll explore the traditional HTML-first approach, with a sneak preview of a platform that our team has been working on that leverages the best of both worlds.

But before we get into all that, let’s cover some basics.

The PDF-first approach to publishing reports is a popular, low-cost approach that should be familiar to just about everyone. At its core, it’s straightforward: create a PDF of your report from an application, then post it online for folks to download and/or read in their browser. There are a lot of benefits to this publishing workflow, most notably efficiency and cost—but there are drawbacks as well.

Benefits of PDF-first Online Reports

Portable, universal, and consistent. PDF does, after all, stand for “portable document format.” PDFs are compressed for portability to pretty much any device, platform, or output format. With PDF, what you see is universally what’ll you’ll get, even in print.

Aligns with conventional publishing workflows. Let’s face it: publishing usually begins in standard software from MicrosoftGoogle, or Adobe, which is then exported for print and web release. The PDF is one of the only publication formats that works for both.

Geared for long reads and detailed graphics. When it comes to long reads and detailed visuals, books are pretty much the most time-tested user experience ever. PDFs attempt to adapt this format to screens, and they work especially well on larger, high-res displays.

Cost effective. When cost is a consideration, it’s much cheaper to post a PDF than invest time and money into translating your publication to a thoughtful online experience. That goes double for organizations that have volumes of legacy documents that can’t easily be adapted to new media.

Drawbacks of PDF-first Online Reports

One size does not fit all. Here, the format’s strength can also be a weakness. A PDF may be portable, but it’s also one big, all-inclusive file that is less efficient to navigate than a well-designed online experience. For example, users can’t easily jump straight to the portions that are relevant to them.

Plays well with others, but on it’s own turf. Because the PDF is so self-encapsulated, interaction and utility are limited to your PDF reader’s feature set. This means functions like social sharing (Twitter) or inline commenting (Medium) aren’t natively available.

Limited analytics. Because PDFs lack analytics and tracking, they provide little visibility into how audiences are using content. Unless you’re working with a platform like Issuu, which allows you to embed PDFs for onscreen viewing and track basic usage, you won’t get much insight into how your content is being consumed—if at all.

Given these pros and cons, a wide variety of organizations may be well served by the PDF-first approach to things like research reports or annual reports. It’s excellent for those with lean teams and budgets who need to get their content out quickly and efficiently. It’s also great for niche organizations that have small but loyal audiences who eagerly read the bulk of their content. PDF-first could also be a good fit for organizations whose audiences aren’t always online, but may benefit from portable documents that can be used in the field (eg. educators, advocates working off-the-grid, etc). There’s also something to be said for printing out long-form reports and highlighting and making notes in the margins the old-fashioned way. While the rationale for adopting the PDF-first approach may be different for each organization, there are some measures any organization can take to maximize impact and engagement for reports with their audiences.

Best Practices for PDF-first Online Reports

  • Be user-centric and plan ahead. Think of your PDF report the way your readers experience them: as an extension of your website. The PDF should provide a seamless transition—both in terms of design and content—from the website into screen and/or print. Although the PDF may precede the online experience in the author’s development workflow, it shouldn’t feel that way to the reader. At Constructive, we are constantly working to equip our clients with the tools and templates they need to streamline their editorial workflow and enhance the quality of presentation to their audiences.
  • Provide highlights and top-level takeaways. “Post and pray” is not a publishing strategy; the best way to make sure PDF content is consumed is to promote it. Provide summaries, pull quotes, stats, and graphic excerpts like charts and figures. Whet the reader’s appetite with a preview, and then deliver with great content in the PDF. Here’s a great example of how the Annie E. Casey Foundation provides audiences with a variety of takeaways from their reports that entice audiences to download them and learn more.
  • Make highlights and takeaways sharable. Just because content inside your PDF can’t easily be shared doesn’t mean don’t want people to share it. Liberate salient content like statistics and by creating individual graphics for TwitterFacebook, and Pinterest. Better yet, integrate tools like ShareThis to capture analytics that can help you track just how far your reach has been extended.
  • Make PDFs searchable. Don’t let PDFs be the place where great content goes to hide; modern search platforms like Solr or SearchWP make it relatively easy to index PDF content and surface more relevant results for users. Make sure you embed metadata and author information directly into your PDF to increase it’s visibility to search engines, and don’t forget to add PDF metadata to the web page in your CMS to provide an extra boost to search engine optimization.
  • Choose the right download link style. Can’t stress this enough—download buttons are crucial. If you’re looking at a report page that has lots of teaser content and other elements that can potentially distract the user, there’s not much that’s more effective than a big red button in the center of the screen that explicitly says, “Download Report.” But in some cases, bold is not what you want; you may be promoting a direct download in a list of other publications or file types. In that case, it’s important to respect the context and work with secondary button styles, icons, or even text links if the application calls for it. If PDF downloads are your main conversion activity it’s an excellent opportunity to A/B test your options.

In summary, there are many other ways to make the PDF-first report approach work even better for you. If you’d like to explore how we can help your organization broaden and deepen the impact of your PDF reports with your audiences, please get in touch. Next up, we’ll be tackling HTML-first online reports—join our email list or follow us on Twitter and we’ll keep you posted!

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