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Crafting Long-Form Content: Transitioning from Print PDFs to Digital-First Publishing

Many organizations are grappling with how to provide reports and research online in a way that engages their audiences better than with the dreaded downloadable PDF.

How can you move away from the print-centric model of the past toward publishing long-form reports and research that include rich imagery, interactive elements, and better sharing capabilities?

I’d love to say it’s simple. The reality, though, is that it can be challenging to change the way an organization thinks about publishing. But that’s precisely what you’re going to have to do—change the way you and your organization think about publishing your reports. Your end product will be different: It’s no longer a PDF, it’s the web. The web offers far more ways to engage with your audience. You’ll want to take advantage of those interactive possibilities, because as far as your online audience is concerned, it's not optional.

Here’s the good news! Transitioning to digital-first publishing can scale with your organization, no matter your size or budget. There’s a low barrier to entry and easy steps to progress toward digital-first publishing. Below, I’ve split the scale into high, medium, and low effort for transitioning your organization to digital-first publishing.

Flagship Reading Experience - High Level of Effort

Organizations that publish long-form interactive reports do so for a variety of reasons. Often they’re trying to set themselves up as a thought leader in their sector. These long-form pieces are well-written, evergreen reports that organizations can reference for a while and use to build their organization’s reputation. Long-form pieces also capture an audience’s attention and are more likely to be shared. Steps for publishing digital-first interactive reports and narratives:

  1. Think about the story you want to tell and how you can best tell that story online:
    1. What action are you driving your audience toward - donation, download, or some other conversion point?
    2. What interactive elements will help you achieve your goals?
      1. Do you have a lot of images or data that you want to make available?
      2. Do you want to use a timeline or map to explain a key concept?
  2. Depending on your goals, you may want to find an online tool or partner with an organization that will help you meet your goals. The more complex projects may require you to get some outside help. Here are your options:
    1. Modify your current CMS by creating a new template for long-form content,
    2. Create a stand-alone reading experience like a microsite, or
    3. Develop an experience from scratch with data management for data-rich experiences.

Examples: AAMC-Diversity Facts and Figures (Forum One) 2015 Gates Annual Letter Pew Research Center - The Next America New York Times - Snow Fall We started out looking at the most enhanced and engaging reading experiences for a reason:

longform content

Noteworthy Reports - Medium Level of Effort

Let’s say your organization doesn’t quite have the time, money, or effort necessary for a high-level effort. That’s OK. There are other ways your organization can benefit from adding elements of long-form content into your current CMS. For example, you can work to enhance your current CMS. You can add a new template to your CMS for long-form content that can include features such as rich imagery, interactive elements, and better sharing capabilities. Or, you can create a microsite to complement your current website. This option is best suited for a content type of publications that your organization is known for and content that your organization wants fully available on your website. Steps for publishing digital-first in-depth reports including simple interactions: (Note: These steps are similar to the steps above for beginning more interactive reports and narratives.)

  1. Think about the story you want to tell and how you can best tell that story online:
    1. What action are you driving your audience toward - donation, download, or some other conversion point?
    2. What interactive elements will help you achieve your goals?
      1. Do you have a lot of images or data that you want to make available?
      2. Do you want to use a timeline or map to explain a key concept?
  2. Depending on your goals, you may want to find an online tool or partner with an organization that will help you meet your goals. The more complex projects may require you to get some outside help.
    1. Modify your current CMS by creating a new template for long-form content, or
    2. Create a stand-alone reading experience like a microsite.

Something to keep in mind as you read on: The first report that you transition to digital-first is going to be the hardest. Subsequent reports will be easier – especially if you templatize your first report. Examples: CommunicatingData.org (Forum One) USDA-FNS-Farm to School (Forum One) The Opportunity Agenda - The Opportunity Survey CUPS - Annual Report

Longer Detail Pages of Your Publications - Lower Level of Effort

The lowest barrier of entry is to just publish your reports as HTML in your current CMS. It’s possible that this may make your pages quite long, which might not give your readers the most optimal reading experience. However, at least your content will be online, indexed, and searchable through Google Search. With a little more effort and still using your current CMS, you can publish your content as HTML, and add imagery and sidebars to emphasize key points and break up text. Steps for publishing longer detail pages of your publications:

  1. Convert your Word doc to HTML. Clean up the Word doc with a tool like Word2CleanHTML.
  2. Input your cleaned content into your existing CMS.
  3. Make minor adjustments to your current website’s CSS styles (font sizes, line-height, etc.) to ensure your audience a good reading experience on a long detail page.

Case Study: Center for Global Development

The Center for Global Development (CGD) has made significant steps forward in their transition to digital-first publishing. The only resource they used for the transition to digital was one person’s time.

John Osterman, Deputy Director for Communications and Publications, decided it was time to make the transition to digital-first publishing. He was motivated by the difficulty he saw in making even small changes to a typeset PDF once it was published. Updating the native print files could disrupt a column break or page break and take extra time to fix. He was also motivated by the bad reading experience that the PDF provides on a mobile device. He knew there had to be a better way to get publications to their audiences.

CGD’s process has been one of evolution. At first, CGD was publishing summary pages with buttons linking to the publication's standalone HTML version and to the PDF. Audiences could choose to read the HTML or the PDF. But, that meant a lot of work for the communications department keeping up with edits on two versions—the web page and the print PDF. John does not recommend this approach (nor do we).

Currently, CGD is publishing one of its content types—Briefs—as full HTML text on the web. They created a new layout template and customized it for a better reading experience by enlarging fonts, loosening line spacing, and using pull quotes and imagery to break up text. This template also creates a stand-alone reading experience with less site navigation and ancillary sidebar content to distract the reader.

This new layout has evolved over the last year to create a more enhanced reading experience. More and more digital elements are being added.

longform content

The layout template (left image) is an example of a stand-alone reading experience with condensed site navigation and less sidebar content. The top of the page is quite similar to most other publications on the CGD site—an image of the PDF, title, date, author, “Download PDF” button, and summary section. The template does create room for a longer detail page in which the complete text can be loaded as HTML with call-out boxes of key information and static images.

The template evolution (center image) includes a hero image, less emphasis on a summary section, the addition of pull quotes and static imagery (including graphics, charts and infographics) to break up text, and call-out key information.

The last template (right image) is similar to the previous one, but it goes a step further and allows for interactive data to be embedded within it.

This digital-first approach also allows CGD's communication department to use the online content to create a print version. Yes, you read that correctly. The online version creates the PDF. The browser support for print-specific CSS creates perfectly passable print versions from the HTML and CSS. The department creates the online content first, then prints to PDF and uploads it for users who want to download it.

CGD has made great strides in transitioning to digital-first. They haven’t yet extensively reformed their full process for writing reports, but they now recognize that the final products will be digital and not print. CGD uses the same steps (from above) to publish their content online. They’re now working toward getting the communications department involved in grant meetings earlier to push for digital-first publishing instead of publishing a PDF. Transitioning to digital-first is an ongoing process at the organization.

In summary, digital-first publishing projects are more involved than print-centric publishing. They require more planning because the final output for each project may vary. For example, one report might have an interview recorded that can be embedded on the page with a quote, while another report might focus more on interactive datasets that give readers various ways for sorting through its data. With digital-first publishing, two or three sections of a project can be worked on simultaneously while other elements may need to wait for key components to be ready first.

I assure you, with some planning and some extra effort toward the beginning, digital-first publishing is possible for your organization. It’s just like riding a bike - difficult at first, but after some practice, it'll start to come naturally.

As you can see, we’re benefitting from the immersive experience of long-form content, and so are some of our clients and others. If we can do it and they can do it, why can’t you? 

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