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PDF: The Research Format That Would Not Die

Insights, Press

The humble PDF still offers research producers a high fidelity canvas for their content (including images and charts), is universally aligned with market standard publishing tools and is easy to shift around to websites, email engines and aggregator platforms, writes Stuart Berwick of Singletrack. But change is on the way.

Like so many areas of business and our lives in general, COVID-19 has left an indelible mark on investment research. The requirement to work remotely, the premium put on virtual analyst meetings, the prevalence of cloud based solutions – these are all things that have changed both priorities and working practices for sell side research providers, from virtual conferences to even how written information is presented. The last element here is the subject of this piece – is the PDF still fit for purpose in today’s environment, what is the alternative and how likely is it that the industry will change?

The PDF – still reigning supreme

The format that has been prevalent for many years is the trusty PDF. Born of the need for a print ready yet screen friendly format as computers gained headway against the old printing press- dependent written reports of yesteryear, the PDF has evolved, but not at the same pace as other technologies available to the research industry.

HTML: A natural successor?

For some time, there has been a view that HTML5 is the heir apparent of research authoring and distribution, as the ubiquitous PDF struggles to keep pace with the way we consume and interact with data. The inherent mobility and interactivity of HTML and the ability to reliably gather fine- grained usage metrics make it an attractive potential replacement, in theory. In recent years, a number of bulge firms – almost all of whom have in-house built systems for research authoring – have modified those systems to produce ‘HTML-first’ content, which they typically host via their proprietary portals, and send ‘teasers’ out via email and aggregators, enabling them to manage access closely and track readership – but also producing PDFs for clients whose internal content management systems are based on the latter format.

Still waiting in the wings

There has been some market response to this: some vendors now offer HTML-first authoring platforms (and indeed our own SMail can be included in this category). Yet take-up has been fairly limited. Fundamentally, the majority of sell-side firms will only make the shift to HTML when it demonstrably adds value for the buyside. In the current MiFID / COVID environment, where buyside research payments are under pressure, and buyside appetite for a sizeable investment in moving their own systems away from PDF is limited, and some of the advantages of HTML are not relevant as we continue to work from home (mobility, for example, is not a huge requirement in the current scenario) this ROI case is far from clear for most sellside firms.

Is PDF simply good enough?

And so, even as a print-era, lowest common denominator format, the humble PDF still offers research producers a high fidelity canvas for their content (including images and charts), is universally aligned with market standard publishing tools and is (as a single binary file) easy to shift around to websites, email engines, aggregator platforms etc. There have also been advances in readership metrics for PDFs (for example, our proprietary PDF reader tracks dwell times, searches, cut & paste actions etc). Its ubiquity also means that content consumers have built their workflows around it and because ALL providers used the same format, buyside firms can easily assemble a single compendium of opinions on a specific stock/sector from multiple providers (by simply concatenating multiple research PDFs on the same stock from different brokers).

Format agnosticism

When Singletrack was founded in 2009, PDF was the dominant format for research content, although we made the reasonable assumption that its dominance would wane over time – towards HTML but also other content formats (Audio, Video, Excel-based data models etc). As such our platform was engineered from day one to be format-agnostic and is (and always has been) capable of handling HTML and all other file types.

A poor user experience

That said, it is difficult to imagine that in another ten years time the PDF will still be the dominant format for written research: it is a compromised consumption experience on a mobile device (which will probably overtake the desktop as the main consumption device in coming years), it does not permit the interactivity or rich content which the market increasingly demands (embedded videos, interactive charts etc.), it does not facilitate fine grained consumption metrics (useful for both buy and sell side – for billing and personalisation purposes) and it is difficult to protect (once a PDF document is out in the wild, it’s difficult to control who sees it without making life very difficult for those paying customers you want to see it).

Complementary formats

But this is no straightforward swap scenario. One could argue that the real progress in ‘digital research’ has not been in research documents themselves at all – adoption of HTML content has been largely limited to email-based products – but in complementary formats such as audio, video, webinars, virtual roadshows and interactive models which are not tied in to core buy-side content management systems and can demonstrably protect and grow sell-side revenues, especially in the current environment.

Written research – pros and cons

In addition to the proliferation of other formats for research presentation, there are, in present times, arguments for and against the value of written research – regardless of delivery mechanism. On the one hand, there is now a premium on direct access to analysts, such has been the increase in demand – this arguably means that deriving value from written research when you cannot get that direct access is more important than ever. On the other hand, there may be a trend towards simplifying research notes in order to generate more high value activity.

A gradual shift

Assuming market conditions stabilise and even improve and sell-side research remains important (its demise has been predicted for almost as long as it’s existed), I do foresee a gradual shift away from PDF as buyside firms replace their PDF-based content management systems and workflows. HTML will undoubtedly be one of the formats that takes over, but it will feature alongside other digital content such as audio, video, models and some formats which we have not yet considered. In any case, I predict it will take 5-10 years for this transition to complete, by which time we could be using a different format entirely.

Fit for purpose

In all the above scenarios, what is key is to ensure that the delivery mechanism for your research and the subsequent analysis of consumption are fit for purpose, with ground-up support for distribution of HTML and other content and/or tight integration with HTML-native content production and distribution systems. Then you are ready to move when market conditions dictate, or to innovate as suits your business.

Stuart Berwick

Stuart Berwick

Published: 12/08/2020