PDF as a format surfaced in the early 1990’s as a solution to a common problem. At the time there were so many computer programmes that you could use for creating documents and each of these used its own, proprietary format. This created problems when sending and receiving documents. Even if you had the same programme available, you might not see the images correctly (they may have been linked to files you didn’t have) and without the same fonts, the whole look of the document would change. If you wanted the receiver to see the document as it was originally created, often the only recourse was to print it out and send it by courier or post.
PDF solved this problem by creating one, standard format that contained everything you needed to view the document exactly as it was intended. It could be sent electronically and viewed on a simple reader application. It was ideal for design-rich documents such as brochures, manuals, flyers, newsletters and catalogues – anything that needed to be branded or have a high visual impact.
Over the years the World Wide Web has developed into a media-rich environment – one that can adapt to different platforms and display branded content in an impactful way. So many types of marketing material are now delivered via the Internet; brochures, catalogues and manuals are hosted on a website, newsletters and flyers are sent via electronic mail.
So is there still a role for the humble PDF?
Where it is used a lot (and why it's not dying as a format anytime soon)
One area where the PDF format is very much alive, and in fact is almost indispensable, is in the design industry where it has become the de facto standard for delivering artwork for printing. Printers like it because it contains all they need to print the artwork, in one file. Because PDF is a well-developed standard, any number of programmes can create PDFs that will print correctly and as expected.
Other areas where PDF has advantages are in legal documents which can be digitally signed, and in the creation and distribution of electronic forms.
What are it’s unique strengths?
But what are it’s strengths and weaknesses for B2B marketing? To answer this, let’s look at the issues with hosting content on a web site:
- You need to have an Internet connection to view it
- It needs to be a fast, reliable connection for complex content
- Despite the development of standards it may not look as intended – it is likely to look different in different browsers, and different on different platforms
- Fonts are still an issue (although this has improved with the introduction of web fonts)
- You can’t ‘take it with you’ – to read on the train for example
- It is very difficult, sometimes impossible, to print out
- You cannot send it to someone (although you can send a link)
- It tends not to be finite – it doesn’t feel like a ‘thing’
- It can also feel very ephemeral – when you return to it, it may be different
These last two are harder to quantify, but when viewing content on a website, it is difficult to get a sense of how much there is, where you are in it, how much more there is to view. It can be very difficult to work out where one piece of content ends and another begins. Web-based content can change and appear differently on subsequent visits. Now, there is no doubt this can also be an advantage – content can be updated and tailored to the viewer’s needs on each visit. But it is a very different feel to a book, magazine or brochure, which has a clear beginning and end, and exists in a form that is both reliable and constant.
So the strengths of the PDF format for content are:
- It is easy to get a sense of how much content there is
- It is easy to see where you are in the content
- You can send it to someone as a complete item
- You can view it without an Internet connection
- It will always look similar on any device – preserving the branding and design
- If necessary, you can print it out easily
- It feels like a ‘thing’ (and may therefore have a perceived value)
In essence a PDF document is a different beast to website based content, with its own unique advantages and disadvantages, and therefore suited for different forms of content.
So what can it be used for?
Probably the most obvious use of the PDF format in B2B content marketing is to distribute downloadable e-Books. The book can be designed, laid out and produced in the desktop publishing programme that a designer is familiar with, and with a couple of clicks it can be saved as a PDF ready to be hosted on a website, linked to a Call to Action and downloaded by a prospect or client. And here is one of the key advantages of the PDF format – as it is downloadable, it has a perceived value and therefore gives you an opportunity to capture contact details, allowing you to use PDF eBooks as lead generation tools.
Because the format of an eBook is quite different to a set of blog posts, you can showcase your knowledge of a subject in more depth. Crucially, the fact that it remains faithful to the design doesn’t just mean it can be reliably branded, it means that complex information can be presented correctly and in the best arrangement; safe in the knowledge that the delivery method won’t change that by rendering the carefully designed page incoherent and unclear.
As well as informative eBooks that answers a prospect’s needs when they are researching, PDFs can also be used for instruction and training manuals, help guides, industry reports, white papers and more.
The PDF format is far from dead, and in B2B content marketing it’s a great way to provide valued, downloadable content that potential leads will happily trade for their contact information. Here is one we prepared earlier.