See? See? No one is reading your bloody PDFs

Forum One, a Wash­ing­ton and Seat­tle based dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tancy has found a report on a World Bank report on… usage sta­tis­tics on its own reports which are dis­trib­uted in PDF.

While the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment (which is, itself a PDF) steams through 32 pages of blah de blah try­ing to cor­re­late teeny tiny down­load sta­tis­tics with other pub­lish­ing fac­tors like the cost of the study, the sub­ject mat­ter, the clar­ity of the expres­sion of the paper's devel­op­ment objec­tive, they note, but pro­ceed to ignore this very basic fact.

Almost no one is down­load­ing their reports. I'm bor­row­ing the Wash­ing­ton Post image to show you.

As they point out, 517 reports – about a third of their total out­put – have never been down­loaded. Not even once.

Another 40 per­cent of their reports had been down­loaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 per­cent had seen more than 250 down­loads in their life­times.

Now this is the World Bank. Entire economies rise and fall on what they think. The health and the wealth (or intractable, abject poverty) of nations is deter­mined in sig­nif­i­cant part by what they say. And these reports are a large part of it.

And despite all that import, the weight of the con­se­quences of these doc­u­ments' find­ings, of the sum total of the media, gov­ern­ments, busi­ness, non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, acad­eme, etc, the doc­u­ments' pub­lish­ers have a one in ten shot at hav­ing more than 250 peo­ple read them.

Imag­ine what it's like for the care­fully crafted tomes of an orga­ni­za­tion (like, say a trade union, maybe) that does not con­trol whether coun­try A or B gets to keep its health care sys­tem or what­ever.

I totally agree with Forum One CTO Kurt Voelker's prog­no­sis:

  • Sub­stan­tive, per­ma­nent con­tent (what we used to call posi­tion papers, guides, man­u­als and the like should be on the inter­net.
  • This con­tent should be cre­ated for the inter­net first. As HTML. The pages can be made print­able and, when printed may assem­ble into a hard copy first. But as Voelker puts it, make print the by-prod­uct, not the pri­mary prod­uct.
  • Con­tent pro­duc­tion needs to be geared to this. Plan to pro­duce web con­tent. Think of all the fun you can have: info­graph­ics, ani­ma­tions. Videos.
  • Edu­cate authors, or hire peo­ple who get it.