Liberate Your PDF Newsletter Content

Red-tailed hawk

If you love your newsletter, set it free.

We’ve all received them—heck, perhaps we’ve even had to (shudder) distribute them. You know what I’m talking about: PDF newsletters, sent as an email attachment to a distribution list or linked on a webpage. In some corners, they still lurk.

I’m just going to say it: People use PDFs for a hundred different reasons, and about 97 of them are wrong. (Rick blogged about some of these content problems in April.) The wrongest of the wrong, however, is to publish an electronic newsletter.

The world is no longer issue-based. News and events do not take turns. PDFs are not made for this always-happening world. They compromise search, sharing, tracking and accessibility. They are not easily navigable, not interactive, not real-time… need I go on? I mean, what is the value to an email like this:

From: [Dean’s Administrative Coordinator]
To: [school e-list]
Subject: December 2010 Dean’s Letter

Attached please find the December 2010 issue of the Dean’s Letter.

Thank you.

[Dean’s Administrative Coordinator]

(Attachment: DLDec10(2) (2).pdf – 386K)

You may have great content, but publishing it as a PDF newsletter does it a disservice. It’s like buying a new car and then putting it up on cinder blocks in your driveway.

You may have great content, but publishing it as a PDF newsletter does it a disservice. It’s like buying a new car and then putting it up on cinder blocks in your driveway. You can’t do print on the web. You need to do web on the web, so your content can actually live and breathe out in the world.

So… Now that I’ve talked you out of a PDF-centric newsletter publishing workflow, what should you do?

Atomize Your Content

Often, a newsletter functions like an explosion. You’ve been saving up content all month/semester/year and finally – finally! – it’s time to publish and share it all with the world. Like all explosions, that is a messy and imperfect approach. By the time your PDF hits inboxes, a lot of that information is out of date. And you’re likely throwing people a lot of information that they may or may not have time for. Also, as far as your website and Google are concerned, that content either never happened or is awfully well hidden.

Rather than saving everything up into a giant content brick, atomize that brick into bits of timely content that you publish on an ongoing basis, scheduled over time.

One solution is a blog. Rather than saving everything up into a giant content brick, atomize that brick into bits of timely content that you publish on an ongoing basis, scheduled over time. Now, your content lives on the web — organized, relevant and shareable — and when you send an email, it can be a front door as opposed to a hoarder’s house. Eric Stoller of Inside Higher Ed recently wrote a great blog post on using WordPress as the backend for a mobile- and social-friendly email newsletter.

And if you like the idea of capturing your content in a blog but want to publish it in a print-friendly format down the road, look into the Anthologize plugin for WordPress. (Hat tip to Michael Fienen for bringing that one to my attention a while back.)

Think Mobile

I take public transit, which means I read a significant portion of my email on the go. If you’re sending me a PDF newsletter, I’m not going to read it. Even if I wanted to, I can’t. And the chances of me following up to read it once I’m sitting in front of a computer are slim. Alas. A perfect opportunity to convey information and value, squandered.

According to research released by the Pew Internet Project last month, email remains a top task for cell phone and smartphone owners. And in the 2011 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations report, 86 percent of students (and 80 percent of parents) report using email. The onus is on us to make it worth their while. This requires us to make email an effective experience in a multiple contexts, particularly mobile. And PDF does not fit the bill.

It’s a big leap from PDF to mobile-friendly newsletters, so how should you get started? Get educated! Dive in to this archived “Mobile Email Marketing 101” webinar from What Counts/Blue Sky Factory. Once you’re a little more acquainted, this recent blog entry on MediaPost provides some good tips for designing mobile-friendly emails. Even if you’re not doing the work yourself, it’s important to understand the considerations.

Integrate Email Into Your Web Branding

I believe that PDF newsletters persist in this age of electronic self-publishing because they are relatively easy to create and distribute. (Two words: Microsoft Publisher.) Of course, ease on the publisher end does not necessarily translate to ease—much less usefulness or usability—on the reader end.

Ease on the publisher end does not necessarily translate to ease—much less usefulness or usability—on the reader end.

But, if a department is sensible enough to realize that PDF newsletters are counterproductive and want to pursue a truly electronic solution, how can we help make the process just as easy if not moreso? We don’t want a newsletter just being sent with a default third-party template, or dollars being shelled out to a vendor to create something splashy but potentially off-brand.

When creating website templates and branding guidelines for our institution, we should extend those to email newsletters, offering templates, headers and anything else that will, one, save these units time and money, and two, reinforce brand consistency.

Share the Wealth

By changing your workflow so that you’re regularly publishing content on the web rather than saving it up for a print or PDF newsletter, you also open the door to more easily sharing content with communications peers on campus by virtue of more ongoing attention to your content.

One department’s newsletter feature story may be one alumni magazine’s class note.

Think of all the pertinent outlets — alumni magazine, central news office, school-wide publication (if you’re within a school), campus social media, even campus distribution lists — and connect with them. (Is there a university content group you can join?) Don’t point the firehose at them, but pull out some nuggets that you feel would best fit their needs. After all, one department’s newsletter feature story may be one alumni magazine’s class note.

Freedom!

Liberating your content from the confines of a PDF newsletter means not only giving the content a proper home on your website, but broadening its visibility and usefulness both on and off campus.

If you’re curious about email marketing and want to learn more, check out these email marketing resources compiled by Email Marketing Info. You may also be interested in Corey Vilhauer’s recent post about email content strategy.

How do you approach newsletters? Have you made the PDF to web transition?

Photo by mikebaird / Flickr Creative Commons

  • RSS
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

Comments

  1. absolute tosh!

    all you have to do is create a html platform and embed the pdf link on the email announcer and bam, you got a ready clickable link.

    not only that but businesses needs even more than before to adapt any newsletter format that is also readable on any kindle device.

    now to atomise the newsletter can be done via Kindle Publishing for Blogs (though I more for the US audience).

    if you talk about high brow readers who are university qualified to the point that they mentally cannot even create a folder on Wiondows 8 and save documents into it much less be ‘link blind’ on a clickable pdf link, I’d understand you have a point….but most intelligent people actually can clearly see that a pdf is still a viable medium to publish a newsletter and it still works wel for them.

    who is to say that rss feeds alone via a blog are just as good? i say blogs have completely had their day (do you know how many blog posts are gathering online dust and never see a single comment?! Blogs are so 2005!

  2. I read this in 2011 and it made sense to me. A lot of my readers weren’t ready to make the move to reading a blog, though, so I went for a hybrid solution. I atomised our newsletter as the RUSTLE blog http://rustleblog.wordpress.com/ but continued to send emails to the many people who were used to getting a link to the old pdf newsletter when a new post was published and still printed some paper copies as a round-up of the ‘best of the blog’ once a term for the people who liked to read it that way. Editing the paper version was now a breeze as posts could be cut to fit with a link given to the full post. Over time more people were reading the blog and I could easily refer people to past blog posts from the website or in emails in ways I never could with the old newsletter… and we got some readers from beyond campus which was great. So thanks for the nudge!

  3. You’ve just inspired me to kick start my newsletter again in a mobile friendly format. Thanks Aaron

What do you think?

*