siteIQ Founder Marty Gruhn originally wrote this post in response to the growing number of Website teams that wanted to reduce on-site page content to Cliff’s Notes and let PDF brochures do all the heavy lifting.

Here we are, just a few years later, and this vision has become reality. Today, short-form content sets the context while PDF documents deliver the details. Scanning is in, reading is out, and downloading is required. With this formula becoming SOP, it is more important than ever that teams know the pitfalls of using PDF’s as content and the rules of the road to using them successfully.

Marty’s post below just goes to show that great insights never go out of style. Enjoy.

After all of these years in meetings with Web teams, I still get that occasional heroic soul who braves the dirty looks from the content management corner and poses the plaintive question: “I just wanted to get your opinion. Is it ok to use PDF documents in place of content on our Website?”

Until today, my answer has always been simple. Absolutely. Positively. No.

Why? Because it is an awful sales practice. In the real world, it’s the equivalent of walking up to a salesperson and expressing your interest in a product only to have her unceremoniously shove a brochure in your hand and say, “Here, read this. If you have questions, you can call the 800 number on the back.” If I were looking to drop real money on a product, I’d be headed to the booth manned by salespeople interested in talking to me.

And you know what? That’s just what they do on the Web.

Despite my persistent efforts to galvanize a permanent revolt against this bad practice, too many sites still use PDF documents in place of real content.

Unfortunately, I see it most often in Website zones – like services and industry marketing – where real communications and conversations are most important. It also doesn’t escape me that these hard-to-use and digest PDF documents share space with the site’s social media panels that encourage engagement and conversations. If that’s not an oxymoron in action, I don’t know what is.

OK, I give up

So here’s the question. Can teams that are out-manned and outgunned by lazy stakeholders actually devise a formula to successfully exchange real content with PDF documents?  Yep, there’s a trick.

The secret to success lies in introducing the topic – and then setting the context for each download (not a group of downloads).  Luckily, all of this can be achieved with one (or maybe two) well-crafted sentences using information from the document.  Here are some of my favorite ways to connect the dots.

  1. Explain what the PDF document will tell the visitor (great for any document).
  2. Define what the product or service does (great for brochures and datasheets).
  3. Identify the core business problem the product or service solves (great for brochures, datasheets, and case studies).
  4. Combine product or service benefits with the download by using a descriptive file name. Avoid posting PDF documents with file names such as  “service name.PDF”, “service name_date updated.PDF” or anything else that doesn’t identify the document’s topic or benefit (great for any document)

But before you use this nifty little trick on your site’s gawd awful lists of PDF links, consider this sobering fact. At the end of the day, most of your PDF documents are dead end content. Few provide links to additional, up to date content on your Website – and when they do, there’s seldom a graceful way to get from here to there. The vast majority are badly out of date, marginally relevant, and create absolutely no call to action. The best of the bunch might feature your company’s contact information on the last page. The rest? Like I said. A dead end.

Which brings me to a final point. What role should PDF documents play on your Website?  In a perfect world PDF’s should do two things (1) complement and complete the rich content located on a Web page – and (2) act as high value take-away assets B2B buyers and influencers use to vet your products and make a purchase decision.

Present them in context and PDF documents will ring with your visitors. Dump them in a deadly list of links and they’ll be a mountain of file names nobody wants to read.

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