Flipping Out Over Digital Publishing

Many organizations wrestle with how to make their material available on multiple platforms online. How can this be?

Why are organizations not just publishing all their content in html? After all, content published this way is flexible, fast-loading, accessible, searchable, and, built on a responsive framework, scalable to any device. And theoretically, much cheaper and faster to produce than other media. It’s the end of print, and all that…

So what happened? The amount of non-html content on the web, particularly in the B2B and professional services space, is astounding.

The reality is, barriers like lack of technology infrastructure, human resources (internal and outsourced), reporting standards and regulations, along with information and design complexity conspire to make some content really difficult, or undesirable, to produce and view as web pages.

There are a few ways organizations currently deal with this issue. Enter digital publishing and its pros and cons.

The ubiquitous PDF

PDF is a 20 year old file format developed to create and share documents independent of software and operating system.

The PDF format affords a high degree of design control, as PDFs are often created from the very production files initially used for print. The PDF format is very useful for content that you want to remain static and in one place. These documents can be stored and read without an Internet connection and printed and shared, as whole entities, fairly easily. It’s not easy to share or use parts of the document for other purposes though. The content isn’t flexible.

You can make a PDF viewable on practically any device, just as long as you don’t try to get too fancy. Enhanced features like rollover effects, video and hyperlinks are possible, but getting all that to work properly on the myriad PDF readers installed on all the different devices available is a different story. It simply can’t be done.

Blame the tablet

“We’re about to usher in a golden age of PDFs on the iPad”
~ Paul Ford, @ftrain

The tablet, and the smartphone to a degree, promised an exciting and progressive way to deliver and consume information. Some magazine publishers jumped in to create rich experiences with full-screen photography, illustration, animation, video, audio and all kinds of interactivity. Many publications created for the tablet however, are nothing more than PDFs housed in a customized reader.

In every case mobile users must download them in the form of an app from a third-party vendor like Apple’s App Store or Google Play. For most organizations, this is not an ideal method for getting content in front of audiences. It would likely require mounting an awareness campaign in the hope of getting people to download it.

Now even the publishing giants are having a hard time convincing readers that their digital magazines are more worthwhile than their print versions and websites. The readership of these ‘enhanced’ publications is on the decline.

Why are people shying away from digital magazines? A lot of these publications are beautifully made; with great photography, video and other media that works really fast and intuitively on the tablet. But it’s a closed system, meant for media consumption only. People can’t share or interact with the content the same way they can with websites. It’s the antithesis of the read-write web.

Content with the most potential reach is flexible enough to be shared on social media platforms and picked up by story aggregators like Flipboard and Feedly. A tablet publication app is not going to do that.

The Page Flipper

The ‘page flipper’ has been around for years as a way to repurpose fully designed print publications as virtual books that a person can ‘flip’ through on the desktop. It’s an overly elaborate way to repurpose PDFs that have been created for another use.

These systems generally don’t work on mobile devices. Rather, they’ve become popular again as a way to approximate the mobile experience on the desktop. But without the tactile finger gestures and natural flow of reading on a tablet, documents reproduced this way are confusing to navigate and hard to read. A lot of zooming in and out is required to read small text and orient oneself to the layout. These systems occupy a no man’s land between website and PDF, two frameworks readers already know how to use well. Why introduce a third?

Current (best) practice

None of these solutions are perfect. In fact, because they behave differently on different browsers and on different devices, many organizations end up employing a mix of things. Sometimes for the same piece of content.

So should everything just be created in HTML? Documents like sustainability, annual and quarterly reports are records of point-in-time information that never change, and also have very specific and limited audiences. Does it always make sense to build or convert what can be hundreds of pages into HTML every period? And then have those pages archived year over year? Regulatory laws mandate that corporations must make printed copies of these reports available, so it would require a lot of costly additional work with little value.

PDFs certainly have their place but it’s a good idea to limit them if possible. Besides regulatory and legal information, it makes sense to leave policy documents, instruction and user guides, and other similar material in the PDF format. These types of content tend to have small, sporadic audiences and are also likely to be printed for reference.

The best way forward is to employ responsive technologies backed by strong content strategy. Responsive systems are cross-platform and device agnostic, getting you closer to the create once, publish everywhere ideal. It’s an investment in time and money but much more efficient in the long run.

The final word? Employ PDFs when it makes sense to, and please, don’t flip out.