PDF: The Responsive Content Problem

PDF: The Responsive Content Problem

April 2019 | Digital Marketing

PDF is still the most common way to distribute content over the web. Why do marketers persist with a file format that isn't optimised for mobile devices?

Mobile devices are important. Anywhere between a third and two-thirds of your audience will be consuming your content on the go, either through a mobile phone or less commonly a tablet. Designers and marketers have adopted responsive design techniques to meet this trend, adapting websites and marketing emails, so they look good at any screen size. Yet, all too often these emails and websites push audiences to consume PDF content that is not mobile responsive and is not optimised for viewing on any screen size other than a desktop screen.

Worse, many Android devices require you to download the PDF file before opening it in an external app. This means that the user needs to swipe away from your site, find the PDF in their downloads folder and open it in Adobe Acrobat Reader before they can even consume your content. It's probably fair to assume they won't bother. As you'd expect, the PDF user experience in Safari on iOS is a lot better. Apple devices generally do open PDF files in browser, but it can struggle with large files or complex documents. This also applies to the PDF viewers used by some desktop browsers, which don't support the full PDF feature set. Firefox is a particular culprit in this regard.

Legacy Technology

Fundamentally, PDF is a 25 year old file format designed for a different era. It was developed in the mid 90s to share desktop publishing documents in a format that could be opened by anybody, regardless of the software they used. It achieved widespread adoption because Adobe made it easy to view PDFs using their free reader apps but difficult to edit unless you had their expensive proprietary editor. This made it perfect for marketers looking to distribute high quality reports and white papers that mix text and graphics. Unlike Flash - Adobe's other famous media format - evolving Web technologies have not been able to come up with a suitable alternative that maintains the advantages of the PDF format whilst minimising the disadvantages. Flash was killed off because new HTML 5 web standards made the technology necessary, whilst also eliminating the many security risks that Flash introduced.

Browser makers have taken a different approach to replacing Adobe Acrobat. Most Windows and Android users still continue to use the Adobe Acrobat desktop app through force of habit, but they don't need to. There are plenty of alternative ways to view a PDF on both platforms. For a start, every major desktop browser now opens PDF files natively, in part because Adobe open-sourced the PDF standard for free in 2008. This allows any developer to create or read PDFs without paying Adobe. Microsoft Word has been able to edit PDFs since the 2013 version, although PowerPoint still can't for reasons known only to Microsoft and Adobe. If you need to edit PDFs these days, there is little reason to fork out for an Adobe Acrobat license, unless you're working with PDF forms.


Their still plenty of use cases for PDFs in marketing. There is a lot of high value collateral where pixel perfect layout is of vital importance, and where sacrificing responsiveness is a perfectly viable trade-off to achieve it. If you're sharing a document that mixes images and text, then PDF is still the best file format for it. In part, this is because many of the applications used to create these documents such as InDesign, Illustrator and Microsoft PowerPoint are not responsive either.

In fact, PDFs can be partially responsive if you enable the format's text reflow features, but this requires giving up a large degree of control over the layout and design of the document eliminating one of the primary benefits of using PDF files in this first place. It is notable that not even Adobe attempt to make their PDF content in any way responsive. If responsiveness and mobile device support are important to you, your only real alternative is to build a web page or a mobile app. The mobile app route for distributing content has prohibitively high barriers to adoption, particularly among less technically sophisticated users or among business users viewing your content on heavily locked-down company devices.

The Value Question

Designing content as a web page results in a perceived lack of value, particularly if the content is sufficiently high value to be gated. There is a general perception that anything offered as a download has a much higher value than something provided as a web page. Marketers have conditioned prospects to think this way, and then there is the lingering perception that web pages should be freely accessible. For many people, filling in web forms is actually a significant investment in time and energy, so redirecting post-registration to just another web page with the standard site header and navigation does lead to disappointment.

The fact a PDF can be downloaded and referred back to later when offline or on a different device is a significant benefit to using them. It automatically gives them a much higher value than the same content in a video format or designed as a typical web page. Yet, this is also a double-edged sword. It takes the visitor outside of your site into a different tab with no clear signpost to the next piece of content. Sure, you can force the document to open in a new tab, leaving the original download page open in the previous tab ready for the visitor to return to. That doesn't mean that they will though. The majority of PDF downloads result in the original page being closed once the document has been read. Unless they're particularly engaged, visitors rarely bother to look for new content on asset download pages because far too often there isn't any. In an era where attention spans are short this can be a real issue.

Extending the Experience

The answer to this problem comes from content marketing tools such as Uberflip and PathFactory, which embed the PDF within a content hub. Acquia, the digital experience services firm owned by the developers of Drupal, recently relaunched their website with the same functionality included in their resource pages. There is also a secondary benefit to this approach - it allows the PDFs to be displayed in the browser across every device, including Android. Embedding the PDF within a web site page also reduces the drop-off caused by PDF documents opening in a new tab. The website navigation is still at the top of the same page, right where it should be. Additionally, it allows you to promote related assets alongside the content - either underneath or in a fixed sidebar, using the UI mechanisms made famous by the previously mentioned PathFactory and Uberflip.

This does have a positive impact on the number of content pieces the typical visitor consumes, extending dwell time and visitor engagement. These binge content consumers are your hot leads – converting far more often than a typical MQL, yet many brands make life too difficult for them by putting dead-ends in front of their visitor journeys. Ensuring that every page visited and every asset consumed has a clear next step is essential in retaining engagement – a precious commodity for busy decision makers in a time-poor economy. Even a few simple design changes can have a big difference to their web experience, and your bottom line.

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.