So, what could possibly be the problem with uploading content made for print in a digital context? (I’m looking at you PDFs)

I’ve heard every reason for why this is a good strategy including: it already exists—and my personal favorite—people love to print out our content. While both of those scenarios may be true (or they were true at one point) they fail to address how your audience’s needs have changed or advanced.

I’ve outlined a few reasons below that might make you reconsider your tried-and-true methods.

1. Print content wasn’t made to be viewed on a screen. If you’ve ever opened a PDF eBook on your phone, you know just how true that is. If you just focus on format alone, many eBooks are landscape oriented and sized to be viewed full screen on a desktop computer. This means that users on a mobile device find themselves having to zoom in and out while scrolling side to side just to read the content.

And it’s not hard to imagine the fail rate there, for how many of them abandon your content based on usability alone. We’ve seen a consistent and steady increase of mobile web traffic, so logically the demand for responsive truly digital content is also on the rise. One 2020 study found that, in the UK specifically, over four-fifths of time spent online is now spent on a mobile device.1

If your content is not easily consumed on the devices your audience is using, they just won’t engage with it.

2. Accessibility—it’s much easier to make digital content accessible than a PDF. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, just under 20% of the workforce in the United States has a disability.2 If not done correctly, PDFs can be entirely inaccessible for users who have a vision-based disability.

Common issues are:

  • Screen readers can tell disabled readers the PDF is blank, even when they know there is content there
  • A lack of navigational elements makes finding specific content difficult
  • Users can miss important information that is only shown in visuals if it doesn’t have appropriate alt text descriptions

In fact, in a recent study, the vast majority (75.1%) of respondents indicated that PDF documents are very or somewhat likely to pose significant accessibility issues.3 In contrast, the dynamic nature of digital content means it can be optimized to best support your audiences needs without impeding their ability to access your content.

3. Other than a download metric, you don’t know anything about the usefulness or impact of your PDF content to your audience. Unless you conduct in-depth research studies on every piece of content you produce, you won’t have metrics or insights that can tell you where they spent the most time in your asset, or where they lost interest and abandoned it. Digital content can easily track standard or custom engagement metrics by embedding the same type of analytics tracking codes you’d use to understand engagement on your website. This means it’s now possible to gain deeper insights into the value of your content and where there is room for optimizations.

All of this is to say…the PDF isn’t without value, especially for offline use cases. If your audience is a) in a market with limited internet bandwidth, or b) your long-form content is deeply technical and requires a deeper level of audience consideration, a PDF might be the right format for you.

However, it’s worth taking a second look at your content and your audience, and determining if it’s providing as much value to them as you want it to. 


1. The 2020 Ofcom UK benchmark found that, in the UK, over four-fifths of time spent online is now spent on mobile devices. As time spent on mobile phones increases steadily year on year, rapid diffusion of household smart devices has driven up this figure over the last couple of years. In fact, in 2020, over a fifth of UK adults had a smart speaker in the home. 

2. Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics, 2021

3. WebAIM, Screen Reader User Survey #8 Results