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Did Heritage Make the PDF Obsolete?

Key Takeaways: 

  • The Heritage Foundation published an entire report on Medium – turning a series of posts into a single destination.
  • Medium essentially functioned as a microsite – but one that required little design or setup.  
  • Traffic and engagement increased, and Heritage did not have to rely on less-accessible formats like PDFs.

The PDF is dying.  Study after study (some of them published as PDFs) have shown that the format just isn’t working.  Many will remember the much-discussed World Bank analysis, which showed 517 of its reports were never downloaded (warning: that link is to a PDF report).  The format that allowed us to print and attach documents easily just doesn’t work for readers in an era of countless devices and platforms.  

So when The Heritage Foundation sought to publish our 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity, we knew we needed a different approach.  

…this is the first time an organization has published an entire, multi-chapter, multi-part report to [Medium].

Now in its second year, the Index looks at key indicators of the state of our society – everything from the rate of volunteerism to the portion of GDP taken by government taxes.  Some of these indicators are paired with essays and analysis from experts at Heritage and beyond.

The Index has a wealth of valuable data, but its original format (a print book and PDF) makes it hard to digest.  We doubted that many of those who received the book read through a majority of it.  

And what about those who were interested in just a few of the data points, or even a single indicator? Asking them to read through an entire book to get the information they need is simply unrealistic.  We knew that if we didn’t make the information easy to use and find, our audience would look elsewhere.

Our solution was to publish the 2015 Index entirely on Medium.  This was a novel concept.  Medium has been used by many in the political space – and beyond – to publish articles and commentary.  Just recently, Hillary Clinton published a series of posts including one on her college savings plan.  But to our knowledge, and as confirmed by our friends at Medium, this is the first time an organization has published an entire, multi-chapter, multi-part report to the platform.

We started by designing the individual article pages.  We decided on a consistent image style, the headers, section spacing, placement of the charts, and the page hierarchy.  Then, we mapped out the connections between each article, selecting a sequencing approach that would allow each user to seamlessly reach the next article in the report.  In short, we approached publishing to Medium much in the same way we would the information architecture process on a bespoke website.

But a series of article pages wasn’t enough.  We needed to tie together the articles into sections so that users interested in a particular type of data would be able to browse easily.  We accomplished that by simply turning the Medium article page functionality into a section homepage, adding links, header images, and an overview.  You can see the section landing page for the Poverty & Dependence section here.  

To bring it all together we still needed a single destination – a homepage or landing page where users could see what the Index was about and explore its content. To accomplish that, we set up a Medium “publication.”  Formerly called “collections” on the platform, these publication pages pull in articles and allow an editor to lay them out on a page in a variety of sections, orders, and layouts.  

The PDF is still available for those who need it (though few have downloaded it so far).  Visitors to Heritage.org/culture are automatically taken to the report on Medium, and users of Heritage.org can easily find links and pathways to the Index.  But the Index itself lives only on the Medium platform.

The end result was exactly what we were looking for: a de-facto microsite that looks and functions as well as a custom-built destination.  Sure, many of the design decisions such as those around fonts and colors were made by Medium’s template.  But we got a visually-stunning, fully-responsive website.  And we got it up and running using zero web development resources, and in less than a week from setup to launch.

Sure, there will still be projects and content for which we want to build a dedicated digital destination.  I doubt we have done away with the microsite for good.  Still, the performance of the Index speaks volumes.  Over 20,000 views of the Index’s articles and section pages in under 30 days.  Visitors arriving from Google, Facebook, Twitter, and even from other pages on Medium.  Just as importantly, the Index was easy to view and use for users across devices.

We can confidently say that publishing a report on Medium was a worthwhile endeavor.  It also doesn’t hurt moving even further away from the trap of the long PDF.  

Ory Rinat spearheads digital strategy for The Heritage Foundation and its publication, The Daily Signal. Prior to joining Heritage, he helped launch Atlantic Media Strategies, the digital consultancy of The Atlantic. Previously, Ory was National Journal‘s Director of Special Projects. Ory has served as the research director on a United States Senate race, and led a national coalition on a presidential campaign. He is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and has a JD from Georgetown University.

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