Sad PDF Floppy Disk Converted to Happy Responsive Website

Does your nonprofit suffer from PDF as Default Filetype Syndrome (PDFS)?

Does your nonprofit use lots of PDFs on your website. Once you’ve read this, you’ll understand why you should often avoid them and know how to start getting rid of them!

Why Nonprofits Loved PDFs

Nonprofits and PDFs go way back. Once it became easy to create newsletters, annual reports, and other documents, PDFs were the fast and easy way to get that information online.

Save as a PDF ⇒ Upload to the website ⇒ Link to the file ⇒ Done

In the time before WordPress made it so easy to update your website, the allure of PDFs was too much to pass up. PDFs also rose to prominence in a time when websites were harder to make look good. The guaranteed-to-look-the-way-you-want nature of PDFs was a bonus for many staffs and graphic designers.

Why PDFs are Bad on the Web

Now that the web is better, the benefits of PDFs have faded and even become liabilities. If you’re using PDFs for certain content on your website, you’re almost certainly serving fewer website visitors than you could otherwise.

PDFs are the wrong format for most web content for many reasons:

  1. Not responsive. Ever tried to read a long PDF on your phone? It’s not good.
  2. Slower to load. PDFs require opening a new program (or a bulky browser add-on) so take longer to load than an optimized web page. Slower sites mean less engagement and more frustration.
  3. Less searchable. It’s harder to add PDF search on your site and PDFs created in certain programs are fundamentally unsearchable.
  4. Written for print. Most PDFs are designed and written for print. Writing for the web requires different techniques to serve your visitors.
  5. Locked up. Think about a print newsletter as an example. It has the equivalent of 4 or 5 individual blog posts. When stuck together in a PDF, those posts can’t be linked to in an email, shared on social media, or simply found by the person looking for their grandson in the picture with the last story on Page 5.
  6. Forgotten. Even if you still think it’s easier to make a PDF and put it online, most PDFs languish once posted, slowly becoming out of date and neglected by staff. Web pages are much easier to update.

Simply put, a PDF stands outside the rest of your site. And it’s not simply a difference in file type. A few years ago, the World Bank discovered that 517 PDFs on its website had never been viewed once. (Irony alert: that linked report is a PDF.)

PDFs are inconvenient for users and encourage you to communicate in print-friendly ways, not for the web.

(When to still use PDFs)

PDF stands for Portable Document Format. (This is where I apologize for atrocious the title of this post.) That “Portable” is key. That refers to the ability to take a PDF with you by saving or printing it easily. Both saving and printing web pages aren’t always good experiences (though they can be!), so providing a PDF for cases that need accurate and consistent printing and saving are OK.

Converting PDFs to Web Pages

There are a few fairly common uses of PDFs that can be replaced with web pages, often without too much effort.

Basic Information

Lots of nonprofits have PDFs that could just as easily be web pages. They should be, given how easy it is to add a new WordPress page.

  • A 1-page FAQ.
  • A program description.
  • A 2-page case study.

Any PDF that is short and mostly text almost certainly should be converted to a web page ASAP. These types of documents are also the most likely to become inaccurate. Worse, a general information PDF often contains important information that visitors actually want! Give it to them in the natural format of the web.

Newsletters

Quarterly or monthly newsletters originally sent in the post site lonely and unread on many a web server. This is a huge missed opportunity for nonprofits. Most of the effort in creating a print newsletter is in the writing time, and it only take a little more energy to re-use this content online! (Remember, WordPress was originally built for blogging, so it lives for this!)

Rather than posting PDF newsletters to your website, break each article into a blog post and publish them over time. These posts will get read more, are easier to find, and can be shared on social media where they bring traffic back to your website.

Review Alert: Scroll back up to the section on why PDFs are bad with an online PDF newsletter in mind. You can really appreciate the shortcomings of PDFs on the web.

Publications

For nonprofits that do research, PDFs are the most common format for publishing long-form information to web. It’s unlikely that someone will read a 45-page webpage and it’s also more likely that people will want to print or save these files. A PDF may be a good choice in these cases.

To get the most out of PDF publications, though, create a page devoted to each document, listing the author, publication date, and a multi-paragraph abstract or summary. This information (that’s easily searchable!) will help visitors evaluate the documents without having to open them. Even if it only takes 20 or 30 seconds, downloading a PDF is a time commitment when compared to browsing a few web pages, so you owe it to your visitors to help them confirm they’ve found the right document before downloading it.

Forms

Finally, application forms are a tricky case.

Some forms are simple enough that they should be provided as an online web form. (If you don’t know how to make forms on your site, check out the recommended WordPress form plugins on Nonprofit WP!) Many people prefer web forms, and they certainly take less time to fill out when they’re short. Yet even when providing a web form, it may still make sense to provide a PDF form in addition as an option.

On the other hand, there are multiple legitimate reasons not to convert PDF forms. Don’t convert a PDF form if it:

  • contains sensitive information that shouldn’t be stored in your WordPress database (HIPAA, etc.).
  • needs to be delivered in person or isn’t intended for submission (e.g., a self-evaluation).
  • requires a very long time (hours or days) to fill out.
  • is “fillable” and can’t be replicated easily by a web form.

Remember the big advantages of web forms and then work backwards from there to determine if a PDF form shouldn’t be a web form.

Don’t Panic. Get Started.

If your nonprofit has relied on PDFs for years, converting them may take a while. That’s ok! 🙂

Websites are never done, and this is just one small piece of keeping your website happy and healthy. Start with the easiest conversions which are often the most valuable (FAQs, program summaries, etc.). Next, work into your archive for as far as you think is valuable to your visitors.

More importantly, think about how you and your colleagues can change your work habits and website workflows to avoid putting PDFs online in the future. Your website visitors won’t know they’re benefiting, but they’ll just stay on your website longer and leave satisfied.

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