The PDF is in terminal decline

What will take its place?

With new web technologies and digital storytelling platforms, there are few reasons to publish your content as PDF.

The humble PDF has had quite a run. Produced by Adobe in the early 1990s, the PDF was launched publicly in 1993.

For reference, this is what the web looked like at the time.

Since then, the PDF has become one of the most popular document formats in the world, used for everything from government legislation, employment contracts and mortgages to scientific publishing, annual reports, and marketing collateral.

Why was the PDF so popular?

The magic of the PDF is that it gives content producers — from marketing designers producing collateral to lawyers writing contracts — a sense of control. This ensures (in theory at least) that content will be consumed exactly as the producer intended.

This has been seen as especially important for documents that contain some sort of risk, such as proposals, contracts, reports, and marketing and sales content.

But the PDF has always had major limitations, including accessibility, search, and the fact that they can’t easily be read on phones. Despite these limitations, the PDF thrived — but only because it had no real competitors.

The PDF has been popular because there weren’t any better options — until now.

The web has changed

With the rise of more powerful web browsers, high-speed internet, and digital storytelling platforms, many of the reasons for the popularity of the PDF no longer hold.

Now, organisations can build stunning digital content natively in the browser, optimise it for search, and publish it to the web, without needing to write a line of code.

It is this new reality that enables Oxfam to publish their annual impact report as a beautiful digital story.

What do the BBC, Salesforce Ventures, and Penguin have in common?

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And it's this new reality that enables Imperial College London to publish the content of their alumni magazine, Imperial, as immersive digital stories.

Screenshot of digital story 'Extinction Day'

As these examples suggest, more and more organisations are moving away from the PDF. Why are they doing this? Let's take a look, with 10 reasons why content teams are ditching the PDF.


PDFs are painful to read on phones

For most websites, over 50% of web traffic comes from mobile phone users. This means that anyone publishing their content in PDF will either annoy or — more likely — lose 50% of their readers. 

The fact is, there are no longer ‘special’ kinds of content that don’t need to be fully responsive and optimised for mobile. You can no longer expect people to sit down to read your PDF on a desktop monitor — that era is over. 

And the era of people printing out your PDF is very, very over. 

These days, people read everything on their phones, including longform content. For content producers, the best approach is to assume that your audience is mobile-first, and proceed from there. 

Your content needs to be optimised for multiple devices, and this is simply something that PDFs are not built to do.


Policy is changing

In 2018, the UK Government approved the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations. 

The title is a mouthful, but, as part of these regulations, the government signalled that it will no longer accept PDFs as an acceptable way to publish government content — unless it is ‘paper-first’ content designed to be read in print.  

Accessibility guidelines published at GOV.UK in December 2020 make the new rules crystal clear: “If you publish a PDF or other non-HTML document without an accessible version, you may be breaking the law.”

Their reasons for doing so are much the same as we’re outlining here, and you can read them in full in their 2018 blog, Why GOV.UK content should be published in HTML and not PDF.

Of course, these regulations only impact UK government agencies. But they signal a broader trend for large organisations — including government agencies, universities, and companies — to adopt policies against the use of PDFs.

For content teams, it makes sense to get ahead of this change, and begin the transition to more modern and accessible methods of publication.

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PDFs are not search engine optimised

PDFs perform poorly in search, which means that any content you publish to the web as a PDF will get few (if any) visitors from organic search. 

By publishing your content as a PDF, you cut off the most powerful — and cheapest — form of content distribution you have. 

While some content producers love PDFs for the control you have over the visual design, it makes little sense to invest in slick, well-produced content, only to watch it sink into obscurity. 


Better analytics

Modern content teams are data-driven. On the lighter end of the spectrum, this will involve analysing and reporting on traffic, clicks, and time-on-page data from Google Analytics. On the more heavyweight end, this will include complex funnel-tracking, heat-maps, and statistical analysis. 

Either way, content teams no longer produce content just to fill space on the blog. They have to report on the performance of their work, and they need data to help them optimise and improve every quarter. 

PDFs don’t allow you to measure content performance in any meaningful way. This makes it impossible to properly report on the impact of what has been produced, which in turn makes it hard to make meaningful decisions on future investment.


Readers expect interactive content

As we’ve argued elsewhere, the standard of (some) content published to the web has risen dramatically over the last few years. While many organisations still publish content using their legacy CMS, an increasing number are producing immersive digital stories.

With the rise of digital storytelling platforms, these immersive digital stories are becoming increasingly interactive and dynamic. 

Let’s look at an example. Indonesia’s Sinking Capital from the BBC depicts the fate of Jakarta using interactive illustrations and maps, with animation effects triggered as the reader scrolls the page.

It’s an impressive story, and it obviously can’t be replicated in PDF. And, crucially, it’s a type of story that can be built using modern digital storytelling platforms without writing a line of code.

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Better display of images

Great visual assets can be expensive or complex to produce. Too often, though, they are given short shrift in PDFs, where they need to compete for real estate within the confines of the page. 

With fully responsive digital stories, this simply isn’t the case. Using a digital storytelling platform, you can give your visual content – such as photographs or illustrations – the primacy they deserve.

A great example comes from the Sydney Opera House, who use Shorthand to display a series of gorgeous and haunting photos of the Opera House during lockdown.

Screenshot of digital story from Sydney Opera House
Screenshot of digital story from Sydney Opera House


Third-party tools

One of the most exciting things about the modern web is the diversity of tools that can be integrated into published content. 

From simple YouTube videos and social media posts to graphs, charts, and maps, there are hundreds of excellent third-party tools that can be used in a digital story.

One example comes from FTSE-15 company RELX, a company with over 30,000 employees. In a recent digital story, they included an interactive map to showcase the locations of their environmental grants.

Screenshot of digital story from RELX

Content like this simply isn’t possible to produce within the limitations of the PDF. While PDFs can (awkwardly) manage links, it simply isn’t built to realise the potential of the API-driven modern web. 


PDFs aren’t accessible

According to the UK Government, 1 in 5 people have some form of long-term illness, disability, impairment. It’s a serious problem to solve — and a seriously large audience to leave out when publishing content. 

Modern content teams need to have accessibility front and centre — and PDF’s generally aren’t accessible. They aren’t designed for mobile devices, and they typically don’t work with screen readers. 

Even PDFs that have been specifically designed and produced with accessibility in mind — which is not trivial — are not guaranteed to work on all kinds of devices and software. 

Well-designed websites, on the other hand, can be fully accessible — even when using the most cutting-edge interactive techniques of modern digital storytelling.


The rise of no-code tools

What’s one of the main reasons for the ongoing popularity of the PDF?


Until recently, the most ambitious digital storytelling techniques couldn't be executed without developers. And for most content teams, developers are thin on the ground. Even when they are available, they tend to slow down content projects considerably.

So what did your ambitious content producer do? She turned to the PDF. 

In recent years, though, this calculus has changed. With the rise of the no-code movement, non-developers are suddenly able to build websites, apps, databases to digital stories — without writing a single line of code. 

This radically simplifies content production — and is another nail in the coffin of the PDF. 


There is plenty of inspiration

Digital storytelling is now mainstream. If you’re looking to move away from PDF publishing, there are thousands of stunning examples to learn from. 

Many of the world's largest corporations, governments, universities, and nonprofits are already using digital storytelling for content, including longform content like annual reports that would in the bad old days have been published as a PDF.

At Shorthand, we've built out more than a dozen collections of example stories to make it easier to find inspiration, including NGO stories, data stories, annual reports, and digital magazines.

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