When to use a PDF. When not to.

I was literally just thinking about how I always print PDFs. I was going to say something on Twitter about it, even. And then I opened my new QuickBooks manual, which came in PDF format, and discovered it was 605 pages.

What a PDF does
PDFs (portable document format, originally developed by Adobe) are designed to ensure the recipient sees your document exactly the same way you do — among other things. You can view a Microsoft Word document, save it, and email it to a friend — and even if you are both using PCs and have the same fonts installed, it may appear a little different to them.

And once you move past common system fonts, or cross the PC-Mac divide, all bets are off with original documents. So PDFs make a lot of sense. In addition, you can often convey information much better in a PDF. You can use a sophisticated graphics or layout program, like InDesign or Illustrator, to create graphs and charts that Word, Excel and other common programs can’t create. Then, you make a PDF of your graphics-intensive document, and your readers don’t need to own the original program to view the document — just the free, and commonly used, Adobe Reader.

Design challenges for online reading
Well designed web pages are short, with lots of cues to help you know where to dive in and where to skim — because study after study shows that that’s how we read online. But a well designed PDF often looks and feels like a book.

So when I download a good PDF, I want to read it like a book or manual — holding it in my hands. Marking pages and making notes. That’s the kind of information you commonly get in a PDF — information that requires tactical engagement.

I’m unsure of the value of a 605-page PDF. Actually, I can tell you how much it’s going to cost me. If I print the QuickBooks manual, it will take me 1.08 of my standard HP color cartridges, and 1.25 of my standard black cartridges. $73.19. That’s an awfully expensive manual, no? Instead, apparently I have to keep this 22 MB file sitting around on my computer so I can search it when I need to know something. Because I’m certainly not going to read a 605-page PDF on the computer.

I try to avoid web cliches like this, but this strikes me as an epic fail on QuickBooks’ part.

Consider the format when you’re putting a document together. How will people want to use it? Are you making the information useful?

How to build community around your content

If you’re using the web today to talk to your audience, you have to understand better than they do how they use the Internet.

Great post today from Mitch Joel on building community around your content. If you’re not in the social media sphere, though, that sentence alone sounds like inside baseball. Let me see if I can translate myself into plain English.

Whatever your organization, it’s critical to differentiate yourself from your competitors. We all have competitors — and the Internet has only opened those doors wider. Even local monopoly-like organizations [like an industry association or certain nonprofits, for instance] now have to compete for time and attention with resources the Internet brings to our doorsteps.

For many of us, sharing our insights online becomes a differentiating factor. The transparency and accessibility that social media gives you multiplies your presence. You can have the reach of a larger organization like body sculpting Scottsdale, even if you’re just one person.

But if your customers are taking advantage of the Internet and social media, you can also experience the opposite effect — you are drowned out by the onslaught of sheer volume. It doesn’t even have to be your direct competitors. Anyone, anything that takes your customers away from you is competition.

That’s where Mitch’s insights come in. If you’re using the web today to talk to your audience, you have to understand better than they do how they use the Internet.

Figuring out the best social media platform

All social media isn’t right for all purposes. Examine your goals before you pick your tools.

Chris Brogan has an interesting blog post where he wonders how to fix his Facebook dilemma: There’s a cap of 5,000 friends on Facebook, and he’s close to it. He’s wondering about the best way to stay in touch with both his friends and his fans, and considers how his Facebook fan page may help. It’s fairly well suited to staying in touch with a large group, but it’s not perfect.

In his post and in the comments, Brogan and others debate several social media platforms: Twitter, Ning, Facebook, more. Several people are frustrated with Facebook and its “limitations,” like the 5,000 friend limit, various “problems” with fan and group pages, the “extraneous” clutter [things like Facebook flair and Little Green Patch come to mind].

And while I agree that while these things are potentially troublesome for marketers, few of them are problematic for people. Not that I think Facebook [or any other social media platform] is perfect. But I think it matters what you use it for. Trying to keep in better touch with high school and college buddies, and keep up with local events? Facebook is what you need. Trying to manage a professional brand? You undoubtedly need Facebook plus several other tools — and Facebook likely isn’t even the first thing you need. Instagram is a much better choice if you’re promoting your brand to the younger generation. Nowadays, you can even Buy Instagram followers to boost the credibility of your brand on Instagram.

Are you using the best technology for your purposes? [That’s the question I think Brogan is trying to answer.] Many of us spend a lot of time trying to make our preferred technology the be-all and end-all, instead of choosing the right tool at the right time.

Just like I roll my eyes at people who send me tabular content in a Word document instead of in a spreadsheet, I’m dismayed at the clumsy uses I see of many elegant social media platforms. Kudos to Brogan for trying to figure out the right answer.

It's about your mindset, not your technology*

You could use social media just to talk about yourself some more, but no one will care. Understand how you can use social media’s power for good before you begin.

You know at year-end, everyone loves to compile their best-of lists. Even I sucuumbed with a New-Year’s type post a few days ago, despite my typical aversion to resolutions and best-of lists. As I’ve seen a number of these items in the past couple of weeks, several proclaiming Twitter as the app of the year, I’ve been struck repeatedly by the thought that the technology just doesn’t matter.

[Disclaimer: I love Twitter and think it has a lot of useful business applications, in addition to being fun.]

But it really doesn’t matter if your company is using Twitter, or Facebook, or any other so-called hot social media technology.

Your mindset matters. Kathy Sierra hit on this earlier today when she posted [on Twitter, of course] a short thought on how companies are using social media.

What co’s THINK they do w/[social media]: “We want to know what YOU feel.” What they ACTUALLY do: “We want to know what you feel about US.”

I’ll go further and say a lot of companies are actually saying, “We want you to feel THIS WAY about US.” And in some ways, that’s not all bad. At least they’re out there, trying new technology, new ways to communicate with their markets.

But I suspect many of the organizations leaping to use social media are still missing the forest for the trees. Yes, social media can make connections for you. It can broaden and deepen your exposure in your target market. But unless you’re using social media with the question, “What can I give?” topmost in your mindset, you aren’t likely to get as much in return.

For organizations, social media should be first and foremost another way to listen. Your audience will tell you what you can do for them. But it’s awfully hard to set aside your preconceived notions of what your market ought to want, and instead respond to what they are already telling you they need.

Before you choose your technology, be sure you pick out the right mindset.

* I can say with 100% certainty that there are wrong choices in technology, but I think you’re less likely to make them when you have the right mindset.