By Ashley Taylor Anderson published September 24, 2015

Beyond the PDF: How Alternative Content Marketing Formats Improve the Customer Experience


I’m usually an even-tempered person, but a few topics get me riled up.

  1. The Oxford comma. (It has semantic meaning! Everyone should use it!)
  2. Low-fat baked goods. (Just … no. I’m sorry if you’re on a diet, but that doesn’t give you permission to ruin cookies for the rest of us.)
  3. Firefly. (Why did Fox cancel it? Why? It had such potential!)
  4. The overuse of PDFs in marketing.

The fourth item is the one I’m confident pertains to you, fellow marketer, and the one I want to explore with you here.

Exploring the PDF universe

My first career was in publishing. Science textbook publishing, to be precise. In my six years as an editor, I spent thousands of hours meticulously reviewing PDF book manuscripts and printer proofs.

I learned that PDFs work well for certain applications, like preparing press-ready files that a printer can use to run off 50,000 copies without having them look like cheap Xeroxes. PDFs are also good for showing you exactly how a print piece is going to look in its final format with nifty things like crop marks, spread layouts, and gutters.



As a marketer, I’ve seen how PDFs also work well for content such as:

  • Printed brochures and other leave-behind materials
  • Direct mailers like postcards and one-sheets
  • Detailed research reports, buyer’s guides, and reference materials
  • Long-form content for audiences with restricted Internet access

Unfortunately, it seems that many marketers, regardless of use case or audience, rely on PDFs as their default format for all their content, including e-books, white papers, case studies, and infographics. While technology has improved PDF web distribution and display in recent years, the truth is that PDFs aren’t always the best format for your most valuable marketing assets.

To think strategically about your content – to create content that performs as well as possible for your company and your customers – you must consider format as carefully as story. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the medium determines the experience as much as the message.

Limitations of PDF content

PDFs are a great option for readers who want to engage deeply and personally with content. As Michael Andrews notes in his article Learning from PDFs, “For multi-session decisions … people appreciate having the ability to gather and compare information, distill important aspects of it, and apply those findings to decisions on their own terms.”

However, many top-of-funnel content marketing assets have a different goal: to engage a distracted audience with unique, relevant content for immediate, one-time consumption. For this type of content, PDFs can be a limiting format for a number of reasons:

  • They provide little flexibility.
  • They give marketers no insight into how viewers interact with their content (or whether they do at all).
  • They’re cumbersome to update and republish, especially when they’re hosted in multiple places on the web.
  • They can be difficult to view for smartphone users who don’t have a PDF-reader app.

By using PDFs for every long-form marketing asset you create, without taking time to consider the best format for telling your story, you run the risk of limiting your creativity, reducing viewer engagement, and losing insight into how your content is performing.

Some alternative digital content formats: Pros and cons

PDF content creation falls well within the realm of the familiar for both marketers and designers. What if we want to venture beyond the horizon of the PDF universe? What types of alternatives will we find there? Let’s explore some other popular content formats.

Example: Web Pages


Source: Moz

Pros: Web pages, such as landing pages, blogs, and microsites, provide a variety of metrics you can use to gauge your content’s performance: Referral sources, page views, time spent, pages viewed per session, etc. From a design perspective, web pages are easy to style in a way that aligns with your company’s branding and visual tone. They also play nicely with smartphones and tablets if you implement a responsive design.

Cons: Web pages aren’t good at unique layouts. In today’s web landscape, most single-column web pages follow pretty much the same setup: Hero section, followed by discrete single-column sections or a long column of text. If you want to do anything more radical, you need to enlist the time and talent of a coding wizard or two. You also need to enlist their help if you want to make any future tweaks to the design or functionality of your content, which can often take a while if your developers are working on other projects.

Example: Online Presentations


Source: SlideShare

Pros: Web-based presentation programs like SlideShare allow you to create content in a format that’s more similar to a traditional PDF page. You can pair text and images without having to worry about how your layout might reflow across browsers. You can also break up your story into discrete, bite-sized chunks that are easy to skim. Some presentation-hosting services provide detailed metrics, such as slide views, link click-throughs, and traffic sources.

Cons: Presentations are restrictive in terms of design because your layout is confined to a standard rectangular dimension. If you create text-heavy slides, they often don’t render well on smaller-screen smartphones. And even if you rock some awesome GIFs and videos, it’s difficult to make a presentation that’s innovative or unique.

Example: Mobile Apps


Source: Red Bull

Pros: An app can be a highly engaging format for reimagining your content for mobile devices. With apps, the sky’s the limit in terms of functionality: You can pull in text, images, videos, audio clips, animations, and quizzes. You can also be confident that your content will work across different mobile operating systems because you’re building code specifically for each platform.

Cons: The downside to apps is the time and expense required to build them. You need to develop separate versions for iOS, Android, and Windows (if you’re feeling generous). Most in-house development teams don’t have bandwidth to tackle multiple app versions. Hiring an external development team is always an option, but it adds time and cost. Finally, every time you make a major change to your app, you need to take time to update it, retest it, and resubmit it to the app stores for approval.

Example: Browser-Based Interactive Content


Source: Red Bull

Pros: Web-based interactive content, usually built with HTML5 and/or JavaScript, sits on the format spectrum between a standard web page and a custom mobile app. Interactive content has all the benefits of a standard web page while using text, images, videos, animation effects, and interactions to provide a more flexible, immersive experience.

Common types of web-based interactive content:

  • Single-page infographics or landing pages
  • Multipage e-books or magazines
  • Quizzes and assessments
  • Calculators and simulations

Cons: Creating interactive content from scratch requires a dedicated development team to code, review, QA, and deploy. This process can take a long time if you’re tapping internal developers, and it can become expensive if you’re working with an external vendor or agency. It’s also difficult to update interactive content after it goes live because every change has to go through the same testing and deployment process as the original code.

The good news is that there are now interactive content creation platforms that circumvent the need for custom coding and cost less than an agency or vendor solution.

Summary: Help expand the future of content marketing

To think strategically about our content, we must consider both the story and the format. As often as possible, we need to look beyond the PDF and explore alternative formats – some new, some well-established – so that we can create more powerful, innovative, and engaging experiences that bring more value to our organizations.

What formats beyond the PDF are working best for your organization and your customers? What challenges have you faced in exploring those alternatives? How do you weigh the pros and cons of all the choices? Please share your insights in a comment below.

Looking to score big points with your target audience? CMI’s 2016 Content Marketing Playbook has tips, insights, and ideas that can help increase your success with 24 of the top content marketing tactics.

Cover image by Viktor Hanacek via

Author: Ashley Taylor Anderson

Ashley Taylor Anderson currently spearheads the content program at Ceros. She has spent her marketing career knee-deep in the B2B technology space. In previous professional lives, she worked as a science textbook editor, interactive media producer, and pastry chef. Follow Ceros on Twitter @Cerosdotcom.

Other posts by Ashley Taylor Anderson

  • James

    Great article Ashley. One great thing about the Web page format is that it can be easily crawled by Google and other search engines. This has an added benefit if you want your content to rank for specific keywords related to your product.

    • Ashley Taylor Anderson

      Great point, James. HTML content can definitely help with SEO.

  • Sam Dounis

    As someone who uses PDF for her opt-in gift e-book, and monthly club content, I take your point that there are alternatives. Which interactive content creation platforms would you recommend? It’d be useful to know how they all work, what kind of content they’re best for etc, but that’s a bit much for a reply to a comment! Perhaps a post for the future?

    In the meantime I’d love a couple of recommendations you think I should check out. Thank you! 🙂

    • Ashley Taylor Anderson

      Hi Sam! I’d highly recommend for interactive content creation (full disclosure: I work for them). I’ve also seen people create some cool quizzes with Qzzr.

  • Steven Davis

    Two additional options: audio and video.

    • Lorraine Shearing Peters

      Great article. I agree with Steven re: audio and visual as other possible alternatives — e.g. a video.

  • Patty Wittnebert Tomsky

    I love love love this! Why give someone a dumb block of stone (PDF) when you can give them a conversation? Well done! Especially the cons lists. Here I go with my heresy–maybe produce fewer pieces of more interactive content to use resources most wisely? Yesss! #contentmarketing

    • Ashley Taylor Anderson

      Thanks, Patty!

  • rogercparker

    Dear Ashley: very helpful pro and con format. Do you have an opinion on embedding mind maps into websites? By providing a visual tool to allow visitors to click on certain links to access desired pages, wouldn’t that provide useful tracking information?

    • Ashley Taylor Anderson

      Hi Roger! I think mind maps are great. With interactive content, you can track all the places someone clicks within the map and gain insight into your viewers’ interests.

    • Charles Nankin

      in my perfect world, wikipedia, or any persuasive presentation of a topic, would be based on an interactive mind map, with ever-increasing details and references as one clicks down thru the levels, eventually ending up with the first-hand, raw materials.

      bonus is if the initial layout of the mind map tree/structure, somehow relays the thought-process or relative importance or inter-relatedness of each of the branches, and therefore the outline of the argument/story you are putting fwd.

      i remember how the early khan academy laid out the whole math syllabus on one map, showing the progression from basic math, with each module as a separate node. after all my school years of bumping my head around the maths maze, that map just lit up my mind 🙂

  • Cindy Ritter

    Hi Ashley – First, I totally agree with your disdain for low-fat baked goods … whoever concocted that idea needs to go back to the drawing board … er, kitchen! Thanks for the good bits of information in the article … all good reminders for this business/marketing writer.

    • Ashley Taylor Anderson

      I know, right? If you want to be healthy, eat a Larabar. If you want to have a pastry, go for the real thing!

  • David Hollings

    Great article and very timely as we’re just starting to work on a new eBook – thanks Ashley

  • Ashley Taylor Anderson

    Wow, hypotext looks really cool. We get the same effect with our interactive content by having show/hide text and layer reveals, but being able to do this in a normal web page sounds awesome, too!

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  • Jason Kintzler

    Pitchengine has been solving this problem since 2009. Funny, what’s old hat for some is new again.