Reporting Progress

The Internet has changed a lot of things, but how we write reports isn’t one of them. It should be.

You’ve just finished up a major new piece of work. Now you’re ready to share it with the world. You open up Word and Excel and start working on your report. By the time you’ve finished writing, reviewing, editing, and formatting you have nearly 100 pages of text, charts, and footnotes, all tucked underneath a lovely cover. Finally you’re ready to publish. You hand off a beautiful PDF to your web team and wait for the press coverage to roll in.

Only, it doesn’t.

If you work anywhere near D.C., you’re probably pretty good at producing reports. In 2015, the U.S. Congress alone officially requested around 4,300 written reports. Tens—perhaps even hundreds—of thousands more are generated inside federal agencies, government contractors, think tanks, and other nonprofits. But the processes that we’ve come to rely on to create all of those reports are woefully behind the times.

The Internet has broken traditional publishing models. The gatekeepers are gone. Your report now competes with a billion publishers creating content across a million channels. And it must find its way to an audience that has adopted entirely new ways of finding and reading content online.

We Read Differently Online

Finding information used to be slow. You had to start by tracking down a physical object—a newspaper, a journal, a magazine, a book. Then you read through long chunks of text to find what you were looking for.

Finding information on the Internet is much faster. Search queries bring us directly to sources that are already ranked for relevance. A click on a link and a quick scan of the text and we have our answer. The Internet is so much faster at finding answers that we’ve grown a bit impatient. We want answers on the first click, and we don’t want to have to do a lot of reading once we make that click.

That means users don’t much like PDFs.

No One Reads PDFs

If your content is inside a PDF, it’s probably not going to get read.

In 2014, the World Bank conducted a study of its website traffic to determine how people were using its reports. What they found is that 1/3 of its reports had never been downloaded. Indeed, only 13% of all World Bank reports were downloaded more than 250 times.

These numbers are pretty typical

Of course we shouldn’t expect a World Bank report to have millions of downloads. They’re niche products, so maybe 250 downloads is pretty good.

Except it really isn’t.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are around 19,000 economists working in the United States. So 250 downloads represents just over 1% of the World Bank’s core American audience. That’s a pretty low bar.

Users Don’t Read Text, They Scan It

PDFs are hard to scan. And on the Internet, users love to scan text. That’s been true pretty much since the web really took off. In 2006, web usability pioneer Jacob Nielsen measured the eye movements of 232 users as they looked at thousands of web pages, a process known appropriately enough as “eye tracking.” Nielsen discovered that users read text in patterns that roughly resemble the letter F.

Three different types of sites, all with (roughly) the same F-shape

Since then, study after study has confirmed that users scan text online. Another Nielsen study, for example, found that users read only about 20% of the text content on a given page. Usability expert Gerry McGovern discovered that only 1 in 15 users could locate an item they were specifically looking for when it was placed in the middle of a page. And Chartbeat — a web analytics company that is widely used by media companies — says that most users will scroll through only about 50% of an article before leaving.

Mobile Is Accelerating These Trends

Americans now do about 60% of their digital media consumption on mobile devices.

Notice that desktop Internet use actually declined in 2015

But because the web offered a terrible user experience in the early days of mobile, users learned to love apps. Today, 7 out of every 8 minutes on mobile are spent inside mobile apps. What’s more, the the average user spends about 84% of her time on mobile in just 5 apps. The table below lists some of the most popular.

Ten most popular apps as of 2015

But apps don’t play well with your PDFs. Indeed, Google Search is the only one of the thirteen apps in that table that will even show your users a PDF.

Finding Content Is Changing

There’s a lot of content on the Internet. Some of the most successful businesses of the Internet era are the ones that provide filters to help us wade through all that content. Search (which is to say Google) lets users enter a topic and then returns a set of pages that contain information about that topic. Social media (mainly Facebook) analyzes our personal relationships, interests, and behaviors, then shows us content that it thinks we will want to see.

To oversimplify a bit, search helps users who are deliberately seeking out specific answers to specific questions. Social media helps users discover things that that are relevant and interesting to them.

Neither filtering method is especially conducive to the way we have traditionally published reports.

Homepages Are Dying

It’s tempting to think of the Internet as a massive series of hub-and-spoke affairs, with each homepage serving as a hub where users land before exploring various internal pages that branching off as spokes .

That model does not reflect the reality of today’s Internet use.

For example, in a much-discussed internal report on its digital strategy, the New York Times revealed that traffic to its homepage declined by about half between 2011 and 2013.

Reproduced from the New York Times digital strategy report

The Atlantic reports a similar trend, noting that in 2012 roughly 90% of the visits to the site began on something other than the homepage. The Atlantic’s Bob Cohn writes that “driving traffic” to interior pages of the site is the one thing that “the homepage is not much good for.”

And yet both The Atlantic and the NYT have seen their web traffic increase even as their homepage traffic has dwindled. For many sites, search and social media referrals account for the majority of traffic, and both predominantly send traffic traffic directly to internal pages.

Social Isn’t “Driving Traffic”

As of late in 2015, Facebook referrals accounted for 43% of traffic to major media sites. Indeed, new media darlings like Upworthy and BuzzFeed were built almost entirely on Facebook referrals.

That said, the heyday of social media driving traffic to websites may already have passed. Facebook — the juggernaut driving so much web traffic — has made it harder than ever for users to see your content. Recent changes to Facebook’s algorithms have reduced the organic reach of “brand” content (aka content that comes from pages rather than profiles) from 16% down to just 2%, meaning that only 2% of the people who like your organization’s page will likely see any given post from that page.

Facebook’s changes cut traffic to Upworthy by almost half over the course of two months.

Twitter is even less helpful. A recent analysis in The Atlantic suggested that the rate of clicks back to an article from Twitter is about 1%. As Derek Thompson writes:

Twitter is worthless for the limited purpose of driving traffic to your website, because Twitter is not a portal for outbound links, but rather a homepage for self-contained pictures and observations.

In other words, Facebook and Twitter—the two sites most government agencies and think tanks rely on for sharing content—are turning into a self-contained gardens that users leave less and less frequently.

What’s Next?

This post examined what people do (and don’t do) when they consume digital content. But if we’re to learn how to do things better, we also need to understand why they’re doing the things they’re doing. The next post in my series will explore the underlying trends shaping online behavior.