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.