Why Is Your Association Still Sharing PDFs Online?

Across the internet, PDFs are generally seen as a faux pas for most types of documents. Still, associations use them for all sorts of reasons, including to share articles and press releases. If this describes your content strategy, here's a plea to change your approach.

PDF files are like nicotine for nonprofits: Some associations just can’t quit them.

During ASAE’s Membership, Marketing & Communications Conference (MMCC) last week, this point came up during “5 Website Improvements to Make in 5 Minutes (or Less),” a session hosted by McFadyen Solutions’ Ray van Hilst and the American Association of Diabetes Educators’ John Tyler.

It actually was brought to light by someone in the audience: Kasia Chalko, the American Student Dental Association’s marketing manager, discussing her org’s shifting content strategy, said what was easily my favorite line of the entire conference:

As a journalist, I spend a lot of time perusing websites in search of news. I’ve run into thousands of PDFs that serve no purpose other than to echo a press release that could just as easily be a web page. The reasons for the practice seem to be to highlight the association’s stationery, make the document available to print, or perhaps give extra weight to an issue because it appears in letter form.

All that these PDFs really do is create an extra layer between you and a journalist who wants to write about you, or a prospective member who’s trying to learn about something relevant to your industry.

But here’s a secret: A lot of journalists wouldn’t print something like this, because both their audiences and workflow are 100 percent digital. That benefit isn’t there anymore.

As a result, all that these PDFs really do is create an extra layer between you and a journalist who wants to write about you, or a prospective member who’s trying to learn about something relevant to your industry. That’s triply true if you’ve created a PDF in which the text isn’t selectable.

You should be making it easier for a reader to share your content or quote from it, not harder.

A 15-Year-Old Critique That’s Still Relevant


(Nielsen Norman Group)

Jakob Nielsen (shown above), a prominent usability expert who came up in van Hilst’s session, addressed the problem with using PDFs in media centers in a 2009 blog post. Long story short: It makes journalists less willing to cover you.

“If journalists can’t find what they’re looking for on a website, they might not include that company in their story,” he wrote. “Journalists repeatedly said that poor website usability could reduce or completely eliminate their press coverage of a company.”

Nielsen has long complained about the issues that PDFs create for users. Some articles on his company’s site date way back to 2001, when the internet was a far different place.

“PDF is great for distributing documents that need to be printed. But that is all it’s good for,” Nielsen wrote in June of that year. “No matter how tempting it might be, you should never use PDF for content that you expect users to read online.”

It’s worth noting that some things have changed since Nielsen said this. For one thing, the leading browser, Google Chrome, has a pretty decent PDF reader that helps take away some of the more technical headaches that these documents can cause. Those headaches were particularly bad during the era before Windows XP and Mac OS X.

Despite that, a lot of what Nielsen wrote 15 years ago rings true: These files break convention and create a jarring experience, taking the user from a web page to something very different.

And a poorly optimized PDF full of images can be one of the most painful experiences you’ll run into with a web browser, especially when you get stuck waiting for that file to load.

Search Engine Considerations

One thing that’s surprising about PDFs is that they don’t do poorly on search engines if set up correctly. They can be optimized with smart titling and effective metadata inside the content. But I have a hard time believing that associations posting content online in a PDF format are going through all the recommended search engine optimization steps.

And some SEO experts, like Marketing Mojo’s Janet Driscoll Miller, say they shouldn’t be your first option. Here’s what she wrote for Search Engine Land back in 2014:

In the end, PDFs are clearly not the best option for SEO. This doesn’t mean they are bad for SEO, but they simply don’t put the control for SEO in the hands of the webmaster per se. To realize the greatest benefits from SEO, where applicable, I do recommend moving content from PDF to HTML site pages, giving webmasters greater control, flexibility, and the best opportunity at SEO and visibility and tracking advantages.

So, yeah, not exactly a major endorsement.

When PDFs Work

Sometimes, PDFs aren’t the worst option for a given offering. White papers make a lot of sense in the format (though I would recommend an HTML-based alternative if you go that route), and they remain a favorite for sharing research or studies with the broader world.

It’s a common marketing strategy to give people something they value—say, a study or e-book in PDF form—in exchange for something the organization values, such as the user’s email address.

And session handouts for your events, which clearly are meant for limited uses? Those are probably OK as PDFs, because users know what they’re getting.

But those exceptions stand in stark relief to the media pages where press releases are published in PDF format, despite the fact that it would be infinitely more useful and SEO-friendly if that content were placed inside a CMS and published as a web page.

Another example: Letters to congressional officials, signed by various associations and trade groups, often get reported on by insidery Washington media outlets such as Politico and The Hill. But if the story takes off, the letters will probably be scanned and shared more widely as PDFs, and if the text isn’t selectable, reporters looking to quote the letter have to manually type quotes into their stories, introducing both hassle and the possibility of human error.

All this stuff requires some education of your staff and a rethinking of how you store information and share it with your audiences. But it should be done.

Jakob Nielsen nailed the problems with PDFs 15 years ago. It’s way past the time to listen.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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