Is the long report solution really a one page PDF?

Cartoon: We spent weeks making the best PDF our audience has ever read. So what's the problem? Our audience doesn't read PDFs.

Each morning, before I even put on the coffee, I check my pdf archive. Then I go to work, start up my computer, and immediately check my work pdf archive. Then I keep it on all day, sitting in the background letting me know when I have new pdfs to access.

Of course I need to access to my pdf archive on the go. So I have a smart phone which allows me to check my pdf archive when waiting for an appointment, traveling, standing in line or in any other situation where I have a little down time.

PDF archives have really revolutionized the way we communicate with each other.

Oh wait…

I’m not thinking about PDF archives at all. I’m thinking about email. I always get those two things confused.

Are we out of touch?

For the record, I really like PDFs. And so do digital audiences, at least when you offer the pdf in the right way, in a proper context, and for the right reasons.  They’re also fun to design.

But why do we rely so much on PDFs for reporting? When reading PDFs is not our audience’s primary goto communication channel, why is the PDF our default?

I guess we should start with how we got here.

The PDF’s heroic story.

Years’ ago there was a thing called print.

If you hired the right designer, you could do a lot with print. You could create something really sleek and professional.

Then web came along.

And web was ugly. Like really ugly, no picture/boring font ugly.

Not nearly as pretty as print.

But soon everyone was using web, because it was easy, and web got slightly prettier (albeit with flashing icons, ugly colors, and overly fancy fonts).

Still, the print thing was cleaner, sleeker, and more “professional.”

So why not take a picture of the print thing, and make it easily downloadable on web? Something that is simultaneously print-ready and accessible on the web. There we have it, the PDF and professional reporting, a perfect match!

So what changed?

There are two big issues that kind of make the PDF a not so great a choice.

One is the continued rise of the mobile web and the overall increase in the ways we can connect. Many people want something that can be read on a desktop, laptop, tablet, and mobile phone. This is not an area where PDF excels.

The second is that while internet access has seen massive growth, only some have access to high speeds.  And big “download required” image files (a.k.a. PDFs) can act as a barrier, even for short one-pagers.

What to do instead?

Many of the alternatives to a one page pdf are not expensive. They’re just different, requiring a tweak to your approach.

Here are four to consider.

  1. Say it in an email: If you can say what you need to say in one page, you can do the same thing in one email.
  2. Create an email autoresponder series: If you want to walk the reader through the report, why not try an automated series of short emails that start when a reader opts in.
  3. Take advantage of social media: Use a series of small featured image infographics to launch your report into the world.
  4. Use a blog: Sleek looking blogs can be incredibly easy to create and build.  Easier than a sharp looking PDF.

So what do you think?

Are you sticking with the PDF? Is it just a habit, or have you really thought through all the options? Or maybe you have already switched to a new approach?

Write a comment, I would love to hear what you think.


  1. Amanda Makulec on February 17, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    I always love the anecdote / stat that around 2/3 of World Bank report PDFs on their website had never been downloaded – not a single time! – when they did an audit of their web traffic. Think of the immense investments in resources to develop something that few people ever read.

    Something I would add to your list that’s more time consuming and resource intensive, but can be very valuable is considering how you embed your narrative and the graphs (along with some interactivity, which you can do through Drupal, HighCharts, Tableau Public dashboards, or other basic coding) directly onto your web pages and then offer a PDF download option for those who want that report to archive and save. Even the Gates Foundation has moved to doing this with their Annual Letter, which is built as a parallax site (I think) and then offered as a download.

    An example from JSI: on our SPRING Nutrition project they do this frequently, finding ways to make information accessible both to readers on the web without creating the download barrier, as well as producing great reports. An example of something that very few people would ever download: a lit review. Lots of other great examples on their website too that you’re welcome to explore.

    • Chris Lysy on February 17, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Nice Examples Amanda 🙂

      I remember that World Bank Report. There was something that always nagged me about it, because I think the finding was too quantitative for its own good.

      After seeing the report I went to the World Bank site to their pdf archive. There is tons of duplication, because each report is written in a bunch of different languages. Also every report goes up there, whether or not the intention is to disseminate each one digitally.

      Many of the reports could have been email or printed and served their audiences quite well.

      The point though, still holds true, whether or not zero people read the report or 100. We can reach much larger audiences of stakeholders than we currently reach using different approaches.

  2. Kylie Hutchinson on February 17, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    Great ideas Chris, keep them coming!

    One idea re: sending an email is to use an e-newsletter program like Mail Chimp or Constant Contact that provides you with simple mobile templates to make your emails “prettier” and more engaging. You likely get them all the time from retails and other private sector businesses.

    Another bonus is that with these programs you can track who on your distribution list has opened them, clicked on links, or forwarded to colleagues. This is helpful when you want to know if a particular decision- or policy-maker that you really hope reads your results.

    • Chris Lysy on February 17, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      Definitely a good point Kylie. It’s also a really easy way to collect ongoing feedback from a stakeholder audience. It’s like the business saying “people vote with their wallets” > “people show engagement through their clicks and opens”

  3. Bernadette Wright on February 17, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Good points. It really depends on the specific situation and audiences. A one-page PDF can work well to distribute to participants at a conference or to board members at a meeting. A blog post or tweet is a better way to reach a wide audience on the internet. People who see the blog or tweet and want to know more might want to see a one-page PDF or even a 25-page PDF.

    If you want to reach multiple audiences, you may need multiple ways of disseminating results, such as a a blog post, a newsletter article, a tweet with an infographic, a one-page PDF, a detailed report, a journal article, a conference presentation, and a poster.

    • Chris Lysy on February 17, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      Definitely Bernadette, there is no one magic formula. Everything depends on context 🙂

  4. Laura Budzyna on February 18, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    I read your intro aloud to my coworkers and got a big laugh – loved this, and particularly loved the idea of an e-mail series.

    As an internal M&E manager, I rarely use the PDF. My main goal is to deliver lessons and results to the people who need them, and that usually takes the form of a more informal sensemaking session, presentation, meeting/discussion, or e-mail.

    Still, I sometimes find that the informality (or perhaps the impermanence?) of these delivery systems can actually undermine the authority of my results and make my audience dismiss them more easily. There’s something about a PDF that gives a sense of “truthiness” to findings that doesn’t always come across in an e-mail or blog. Clunky though they may be, the clunkiness itself might give your results the “weight” they need to be taken seriously!

  5. Joyce on February 22, 2016 at 11:04 am

    One plus of the PDF is that it can be printed and disseminated. My reports are sent/downloaded by advocates and community mobilizers. They not only read and pull information themselves but also provide them to others. The information is presented in the way that it was intended rather than a possible misrepresentation when they re-work information from an email or social media. The PDF one-pager or report looks professional whereas a print-off of an email or social media does not.

    As others have said you can provide multiple formats since they do have different uses. The email may have been good to transmit the information to the advocate but the PDF is good when that advocate walks into the mayor’s office with a professional looking document.

    RE: PDFs – I thought the PDF format was created to overcome all of using different programs which did not talk to each other, particularly word processing. Every one can read a PDF whereas not everyone can read a Xyz program file. At home I have a computer where graphic messages are difficult because they take too long to download. I can download a PDF much faster and will be able to read it offline.