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Best Practices for Online Reports for Nonprofits, Part 2: Digital-First Publishing

When it comes to nonprofits who publish long-form reports online such as research reports, policy reports, annual reports, frameworks, and toolkits, there are two standard options: post a PDF online and promote downloads on their site via search, social media, and other channel strategies. Or, nonprofits looking to move beyond the limitations of the PDF, that publish reports can take a “digital-first” approach to producing reports using HTML, which allows them to supplement content with a number of interactive elements that can deepen engagement and impact. Each approach to publishing long-form content reports has pros, cons, and trade-offs when it comes to workflow, cost, accessibility, design experience, and analytics. So, if you’re a nonprofit looking to publish your reports online, what is the best approach?

In Part 1 of this series, we explored the traditional PDF-first approach to publishing reports online. Beyond traditional approaches, we also recommended a few ways that nonprofits can make their PDF reports better so that they are more effective. Here, in Part 2 of this series, we’ll explore the pros and cons of the HTML-first approach to long-form nonprofit report publishing, and then suggest best practices for nonprofits looking to do more with the reports they publish.

The HTML-first approach is growing in popularity, both among shorter publications and longer publications with high value audiences. At its core, the approach is simple: rather than post a PDF of your report to your website, your website is the report. That digital experience often means deeper scrolling sites, and the structure could be anything from a single-page site to a multi-page mini-site broken down by chapter and section. There are a lot of benefits to this publishing workflow, especially when it comes to accessibility and flexibility—but there are some drawbacks as well.

The Benefits of Publishing HTML-First Reports

Ready for anything. Perhaps the biggest difference between PDF-first and HTML-first online reports is that the latter is designed to be consumed online and can be responsive. That’s critical, given that the majority of our time is spent on mobile devices, which have historically been a poor user experience for consuming PDF content.

Increased “finability” and SEO. In addition to being more accessible to humans, HTML-first reports are also more accessible to machines. Not only are they easier to index and navigate, but mobile-friendly sites and content typically ranks higher for popular search engines like Google.

More shareable. With HTML-first reports, nonprofits can significantly increase visibility of their content through social media. First, a nonprofit can share any page from a research report, policy report, or annual report in their feed, directing users to specific content (instead of just the whole report). Social media platforms will then display the meta-content for the page, providing greater insight into what the page offers audiences. Even better, with social sharing built into a nonprofit’s report, audiences can spread the word for them.

Greater accessibility. When it comes to ADA compliance (see section 508), though PDFs have made great strides in accessibility, it’s much easier to maintain accessibility standards with live HTML content. Being able to design responsively means that mobile-friendly web content will also reach a wider audience. What’s more, support for screen readers and other assistive technologies are built right into operating systems like iOS and Android.

Always up-to-date. One drawback of online PDFs is that once they are released, they’re out there; users download once and that’s generally it. With HTML reports, content can be updated and refreshed, providing a more natural environment for living content and continued audience engagement.

Greater insights. With PDF reports, the download represents the final trackable event for audience engagement; with online reports, technologies like Google Analytics and Clicktale can get valuable insights throughout content consumption process, so you know who’s interacting with what report content and for how long. That’s an invaluable feedback mechanism for publishers, and can also provide extensive insight into how reader-focused initiatives like social media campaigns might influence engagement and other goals.

More engaging. Last, but not least, nonprofits who create their reports as interactive websites instead of static HTML can make their content far more engaging. From standard things like animated transitions and calls-to-action that help keep readers engage to more advanced features like data visualization and integrated donations and marketing opt-in, interactive reports create a richer, more rewarding experience.

The Drawbacks of Publishing HTML-First Reports

HTML-first requires an investment. While most publishing teams can easily support a PDF-first workflow, HTML-first can be a bit of an adjustment. It requires authors to think as web designers and structure their content around an engaging user experience, rather structure a pleasant PDF-based experience around the content. Until the team gets up to speed with a new workflow, the HTML-first approach can mean greater overall effort, time, and budget than creating an equivalent PDF-based experience.

Printing is second nature. PDFs are meant to be printed; HTML is meant to be consumed online. It’s not always possible to print web-based content with high quality, so it requires one of two approaches. Publishers can create a direct-to-PDF workflow that translates web content to PDFs via print style sheets or javascript based technologies like jsPDF; the caveat here is that unless you are working with non-interactive, lossless graphics like SVGs, the results may be compromised. Alternately, you could create a parallel PDF-output workflow from a source application like InDesign and post your PDF alongside the HTML report, but that means developing content in two separate environments, requiring additional time and money.

Long, sophisticated reads are more challenging online. Online users have notoriously short attention spans—most readership drops precipitously after about 500 words. Longer reads can compound the cognitive load, especially when the sophistication of the content requires information to be processed contextually. The best way to counter any adverse effects on the user experience is to chunk content into bite sized pieces, create a navigable and intuitive structure, and offer callouts and takeaways to create a more visually robust presentation.

Printable PDFs feel more permanent. There is a persistent perception that while anyone can post any content online, PDFs are official and somehow more permanent. Even when the content is exactly the same, PDFs are the “digital hard copy, “and that probably won’t go away anytime soon. However, there are innovative ways to have your digital report dynamically generate PDFs on-the-fly, something we’ve integrated into Exposition, our platform for producing beautiful, high-impact digital reports.

Given these pros and cons, we believe that many nonprofits would be well served by the HTML-first approach. It’s an excellent option for organizations with smaller and simpler publications who can adapt well-designed graphics to web layouts and complement them with web-only formats like video. It’s also a great option for organizations who publish longer reports for large audiences that could benefit from robust interactive elements and analytics, such as the IPCC’s National Climate Assessment. While the rationale for adopting the HTML-first approach may be different for each organization, but there are clear best practices that allow any organization to adopt to maximize the impact and engagement their reports generate with their audiences.

Best Practices for HTML-First

Whatever your preferred approach, it’s a good idea to start with some solid ground-rules. While it probably merits a larger discussion that’s based on your specific needs, here are a few things we’ve found helpful when helping nonprofits publish their reports online.

  1. Break your content down into bite sized pieces. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course. Chunk your reports into small pieces; make them as appealing as possible by offering provocative graphics, pull-quotes, and other visual devices. The public has a voracious appetite for online content— we just need to make it easier for them to nourish themselves.
  2. Embrace the familiar. Common mental models and content structures can help decrease the cognitive load and help users focus on what matters most. When in doubt, it’s hard to beat the standard three-act structure to ensure your reports have a beginning (setup), middle (confrontation), and end (resolution).
  3. Set your content free. Great content wants to be shared; make it easy to share your content by creating content blocks for images, stats, pullquotes, charts, and other graphics. Off the shelf technologies like ShareThis provide an easy way to configure sharing for multiple media platforms, and provide a fairly robust analytics layer so you can see how these resources are performing beyond your website.
  4. The user is always right. While the HTML-first approach has great value for mobile users and the publishing organization, some readers simply prefer PDFs and print. Make it easy for them by providing prepackaged PDF versions of the report and make sure that they do justice to the HTML version; there’s nothing worse than making users feel like second-class citizens based on their format preference.
  5. Nudge users towards preferred behaviors for continued engagement. Speaking of preferences, don’t forget that a well-placed call to action can bridge the gap between audiences who are merely informed and those who advocate. With a PDF report, the best you may get is to have someone pass the report on; with an HTML report, you can have users share content through social media and directly with contacts; they can sign petitions, contact stakeholders, and make donations to drive impact for your cause.

Of course, there are a lot of ways to approach publishing reports online if you’re a nonprofit looking to share research, thought leadership, or a year to remember. Check out Exposition if you haven’t, and if you’d like to have a conversation to explore how we can help, please get in touch!

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