Why Everyone Should Webify Their Reports

Have you ever tried eating a salad with a spoon? It’s certainly possible, but it can be so frustrating that if you don’t have a fork, you’re likely to just skip the salad and order a pizza instead.

That’s what it’s like trying to get information from your report out by throwing a PDF file up on a webpage. If some folks really need the information, they’ll download your document and scour through it to get what they need. But they won’t like it. And most people will opt for a different source if it’s available.

A Washington Post article from 2014 put it best: The solutions to all of the world’s problems may be buried in PDFs nobody reads. When the World Bank dug into their website analytics that same year, they found that nearly one third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, and 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times.

While this may come as a shock to some, the reason why is pretty simple: PDF documents were not meant to be used on the web. They were designed to create universal formatting to preserve documents that could be printed from anywhere. As printed documents, they work very well. They are also great legitimizing document for research, with methodology, in-depth case studies, and more.

But on the web, they don’t work well as stand-alone products. Think of the webified version of your report as a spork in my salad analogy -- you get the best of both worlds.

At some organizations, like the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), reports are their main exports. About a year ago, IPS began working with a grassroots movement called the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). The PPC was looking to launch a mass anti-poverty campaign in May of 2018, so they asked IPS to conduct an audit of 50 years of policies that have contributed to our state of poverty in the U.S. today.

After doing intersectional analysis linking poverty with racism, militarism, and climate destruction, conducting interviews with testimonials from poor people, activists, and scholars, and crunching some of their own numbers, the organization ended up with a 140-page PDF report. This report needed to be accessible and useful to the faith leaders and activists who were organizing in 30 states around the U.S., mainstream and progressive media outlets who would be covering the campaign, and policymakers who we hoped would take up the campaign demands.

That PDF on it’s own just wasn’t going to cut it. They decided it was best to create an interactive landing page where the PDF could live as a downloadable resource, alongside information that was extracted from that very large report that was easy and interesting for activists and press alike to access. It was a place where they could draw people in to the content before they decided to leave the page without downloading, as so many World Bank site visitors had done. It included downloadable fact sheets, video testimonials, links to op eds about each section, and much more.

Below are a couple tips you can utilize when exploring webifying a PDF for your own organization.

Firstly, what isn’t going to fly is sticking all of the text from the PDF up onto a webpage. You’ll have to be choosy about which content is front-facing.

The question you want to ask yourself is: who is this resource supposed to be useful for? Is it journalists? Including sexy statistics or highlighting case studies that can be made into stories are good ideas. Looking to reach activists? Make some key facts and findings available straight away. Read through your report and pick out the most useful and eye-catching content for your audience.

After you’ve defined your audience, start cutting. On a report landing page, the full PDF will be available for download in several places, so don’t worry about trying to fit in everything. You can usually cut an introduction section down to just a couple of sentences. And think of case studies as teasers: simply put up a related photo and a quote, and let that draw people in to click a link to read the full story.

You also want to think about how you organize the content. You can choose to put content in a different order than you would in a PDF. In the print version, you may choose to go the chronological route: history, background info, then key findings. Online, you may decide that the key findings should be first, and have the history come later down the page, if at all available on the web version.

A table of contents is also key, but on a webpage, it usually manifests as the navigation bar. Make it a scrolling, or static navigation bar so that it’s easy for folks to jump from section to section, just as if they were flipping pages in the hard copy version.

In the end, the webified version of the PPC+IPS report resulted in more pageviews than even their most popular reports that just included plaintext with a link to a PDF. And, people stayed on the page longer -- an average of 4 minutes and 18 seconds. And the authors reported they were prouder to show off this report to partners.

They’ve started to webify other resources like their annual report, toolkits, and more to better present information in a way that’s most relevant, accessible to their target audiences, and helps further their mission.

Don’t let your solutions to the world’s problems stay buried in a PDF.


Domenica Ghanem, Three(i) Content Manager

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