As communicators we spend considerable amounts of time crafting strategies and appeals to better connect audiences with our causes. Why do we then get in the way of good communications by choosing the wrong delivery tool? More specifically, in the online world, why do we still use the PDF document when it’s not the correct tool in most circumstances?

The Portable Document Format was developed by Adobe Systems back in the early 1990s as a way to convert documents, forms, and graphics into a format where they look like they would if printed. As we all know, the main benefit of the PDF is it can be easily shared and opened by just about anyone.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Adobe products including Adobe Acrobat PDF creator and its many uses. Quite a few of us wouldn’t be able to work without it and have come to rely on the PDF. However, there is a time to use it and a time we shouldn’t.

In Jakob Nielsen’s PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption article he states, “PDF is great for one thing and one thing only: printing documents… For online reading, however, the PDF is the monster from the Black Lagoon. It puts its clammy hands all over people with a cruel grip that doesn’t let go.” Jakob goes on to outline the “PDF usability crimes” users encounter when dealing with PDFs online and that, ultimately, the fact is these users hate the PDF. So, why do we keep doing this to our audiences and work against ourselves?


Why do we depend on the PDF?

  1. It’s universal. The PDF is viewable on multiple operating systems and devices (plus the many other reasons as outlined by Adobe).
  2. We’re familiar with it. The PDF has been around for more than 20 years, it has embedded itself into our business and communications culture.
  3. It’s easy and we don’t know what else to do. There’s a saying “you don’t know what you don’t know” that comes to mind. Because the PDF is quick to create and is so ingrained within our communications culture we might not know that we’re making the wrong decisions when using it as a communications tool. We’re operating on habit.
  4. We have a vested interest. We spend time and money on branding and graphic design for our brochures, flyers, advertising, donation appeals, etc. and we want to maintain control over how material is viewed.


Don’t use a PDF online

Simply, if you are communicating online, don’t use PDFs to communicate. PDF versions of your marketing communications materials, those multi-fold marketing brochures or flyers, really shouldn’t live as hyperlinks on your website to download. Instead, these documents should be re-constructed as web pages. In PDF format, information is harder to navigate for users, is less findable by search engines, file downloads are not always captured by website analytics, and PDFs are problematic for social media sharing.

For additional insight, PennState has a really great guide they use internally to help their employees determine the appropriate uses for the PDF. The guide touches upon usability, accessibility, technical aspects (including how browsers treat the PDF), and the problems PDFs create for the content owners (management, version control, etc.).


Do use a PDF when a document is meant to be printed

To paraphrase the PennState guide, if a document is meant to be printed, PDF it. This would pertain to reports, manuals, whitepapers and other publications that are very long and cannot easily be reconfigured for the web.


Make online readers a priority

Whether it’s on a computer, tablet, reader or smartphone, moving forward we know the amount of information read on a screen will only increase. Factor in social media and the influence of curation readers like Flipboard, the way we read, learn and share information has already changed. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the humble PDF to be part of this online world (although I’m sure Adobe continues to work on it). And, when recent studies find that 40% of time spent online is now mobile device-based, with estimates of that shifting in a year or so to 50/50 or even 60/40 in favour of mobile over PC, we need to adapt and change some of the tools we use now.


Make a gradual shift from PDFs 

Can’t make the PDF to online shift overnight? Try blending your models to start. A good blended example is HeretoHelp, a project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. What I like about their resources is that they optimized the information for online consumption but still have the PDF version available. Individuals and professionals are going to their website for different reasons (self-help or to give help) and HeretoHelp provides the resources they need, in the formats they want.


Budget and plan for online publication

All this shift from print-PDF to online is changing (and has) how traditional marketing communications budgets are allocated. Many years ago a significant portion of the budgets I managed would go to printing and physical distribution of materials. Now, the majority of those dollars have shifted to website development to incorporate online publishing models or content marketing strategies. As an example, we’re seeing more nonprofits providing annual report information online and leaving the traditional print-PDF model behind, like what Tides Canada has done.

To drive that point home further, Director of Marketing and Communications Stephen Streicher shares in his article about why New York Cares moved to creating an online annual report, “Another advantage of an online report is that we can track readers much more accurately than with a print/PDF-only version, and we’ve seen thousands more visits to the site than we’ve had with printed copies distributed and PDFs downloaded in the past.”

The first step in changing our communications habits is acknowledging that there is better habit to replace it with. Some days will be more successful than others but what’s important is to keep at it. Work at using the PDF when it is meant to be used and eliminate it when it’s not. Eventually, you will create a richer and more positive experience for the people who want to support and learn about your cause. In the meantime, watch out for the monster from the Black Lagoon.


Marnie Grona
Marnie Grona is a marketing communications professional with a broad range of expertise in business-to-business and consumer-facing initiatives. She recently founded Social Good Marcom to help charities, nonprofits and other social good entities to shine a light on their cause. Her career has been in support of the broader charitable sector, having worked at Imagine Canada, and the business of the arts with her work for institutions such as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Marnie Grona
Marnie Grona