Have you ever signed up for a free download or trial that promised big benefits, but completely under delivered?
Or worse yet, the whole thing turned out to be just a thinly disguised sales pitch?
You’ve been burned before so you can't really trust a website screaming “download this free awesome thing!” is actually going to deliver, right?
Well, your own visitors probably feel the same.
To be a successful marketer in the current digital climate, you need to understand that your visitors are just as skeptical as you are.
To avoid stinking of desperation and false promises, there’s another type of content marketing you can use to earn your visitor’s trust, leave them hungry for your content, and eager to hand over their email address.
But it takes some finesse to do this right so let me show you how...
Earn Trust Through Extraordinary Content
I bet you’ve already heard that collecting email leads for your business is important. That’s why we’ve written about how to make cunning opt-in forms and have created Thrive Leads, our high performing lead generation plugin.
But lead generation forms still only convert a small percentage of your website visitors. The rest slip through the cracks and never return, even though your product or service may be the perfect solution for them.
Even so, your responsibility as a marketer is to earn their trust first.
But earning their trust enough to collect their email puts you in a kind of catch-22. It forces you to choose from 2 contradictory strategies, each having its own pros and cons:
This is generally bad for business. Sadly, more than 75% of blog readers never return. You want to bring them back to build a relationship and getting their email address is the best way to do that. If all of your website content is openly available, then no-one has an incentive to sign up at all.
This can be a gamble, because no-one wants to sign up for another mailing list unless they already know your content is trustworthy. If a visitor sees the content they want is only accessible after providing their email address, many of them will just close the tab and leave without converting. It’s simply not worth it to them.
Either way, whether they can openly consume your content or not, valuable visitors are leaving.
So what can you do about this?
Well, here’s a solution that I’ve seen used by top brands such as Quick Sprout, Moz, Digital Marketer, and more.
I call it… The Open PDF.
What an Open PDF looks like
There are two key features of an Open PDF.
1) It’s ‘Open’: An Open PDF is ungated. This means the content is not hidden behind an opt-in form or a log-in. A visitor that comes across your website can access all of the content however they want without giving up anything first.
Think of Open Sandwiches. They have everything that a sandwich does, except the contents are opened and on display. You want to pick out the tomato and eat the cheese separately? Go for it. With both open sandwiches and Open PDFs, the consumer is encouraged to consume them however they want.
2) It’s also a ‘PDF’: Remember how we know that collecting email leads is still valuable for your business? Well an Open PDF is also available for download in a PDF format.
People like PDFs. It stands for ‘Portable Document Format’, and they are favorable because it can live as a single file on someone’s desktop, tablet or even eReader device. It is also print ready, with margins and pagination built in. All of this increases the perceived value of a PDF, and it’s the preferred option for lead magnets.
An Open PDF often has sidebars disabled for easy reading and may have a custom page header. The content is sometimes spread over multiple WordPress pages with chapter links for easy navigation and repeated options to ‘Download as a PDF’.
It’s also not part of your blog so the content should be evergreen, something that isn’t going to get old quickly. Unlike many Blogs, Open PDFs don’t list their publish date so visitors aren’t aware how old it is. This way the website can still benefit from fresh traffic years down the track.
Open PDFs tend to focus on the bigger picture that remains mostly unchanging, leaving Blog posts to comment on recent trends or newsworthy thoughts.
The content of an Open PDF will live as a sequence of WordPress pages that you can link to regularly. Since it isn’t gated, Google can index and show it in search results so visitors can directly link to it and share it online.
Why Even Bother With An Open PDF?
Open PDFs are the behemoths of content marketing and they're a huge commitment to make. If you’re a beginner I recommend you start by writing these 3 blog posts for your site.
But once you’re ready to tackle the beast, hopefully you'll find that Open PDFs pay off because they can get you lots of traffic and leads.
Neil Patel has published more than 10 ultimate guides and has commented that each one has earned him at least 360,000 visits and counting.
But even Neil admits that he borrowed this idea from Moz’s Beginner's Guide to SEO, which has been read over 3 million times according to the 2015 publication of the guide (the guide was last updated in 2021).
Primoz Bozic commented that he’s attracted over 330,000 visitors to his blog by publishing ultimate guides and the website Effortless Gent went from unknown to over 1000 mailing list subscribers just from a single Ultimate Guide to Buying Leather Jackets.
Done right, an Open PDF can attract thousands of visitors, subscribers, social shares, and interest from both targeted audiences and top influencers in your niche.
But I know what you’re thinking:
“If visitors don’t have to download it, then why would they opt in?”
If you’re anything like me, then you don’t mind joining mailing lists that trickle high-value content into your inbox. But you hate joining the spammy ones.
Offering an email address is still a commitment and many of your visitors simply won’t want to do it — unless they know your content is worth reading.
You need to prove that your content is worth their attention. Rather than hiding your promises of value behind a mysterious “Gimme your email” pop-up, the Open PDF puts itself out there so your visitors can decide for themselves if your content is worth space in their email inbox.
In other words, it’s about providing enormous value first.
An Open PDF works because it doesn’t hide behind mystery. Quite the opposite! It flaunts your knowledge and expertise, convinces your readers that you are a thought-leader in your field and creates desire for the rest of your content, products or services.
But Here’s The Big Secret:
An Open PDF needs to be slightly too much information for one sitting. You want your visitors to think “Wow, this content is so good, I wish I had time to read all of it”. In that mindset, they are inclined to download it for later perusal.
Bonus points if your Open PDF also has content upgrades that complement the piece, making it nearly impossible for someone to read through to the last chapter without wanting to download at least one of them.
Open PDFs are confident. They don’t beg for email addresses and yet entice readers to opt-in willingly.
How To Build an Attractive Open PDF
In preparation for this article, I looked at 6 different Open PDFs from large companies run by international teams down to small one-person businesses. I examined each of them carefully to see what they are doing, what works and what doesn’t so I could show you how to make high-converting Open PDFs for your site.
And as luck would have it, everything that makes an Open PDF so effective can be done with our WordPress visual editor Thrive Architect.
Here are the 6 Open PDFs that I studied:
Each of them have their differences, but by looking at them side by side, we can discover a few best practices. Let’s break it right down so you can start devising the ultimate Open PDF and optimizing it for your business.
Open PDFs need to be perceived as high value content. Since your goal is to show off your amazing knowledge and insights first, let’s start by focussing on how to structure and prepare that content.
An Open PDF has to be long. In the 6 examples, 5 of them use the word ‘Guide’ and 3 use ‘Ultimate’ in the headline. All of them are notably instructional. It’s not an essay, and it’s not a news article. They are all Guides.
4 of the Open PDFs came in at 40,000 words… that’s huge! Almost a book ready for printing!
Two of the guides were 10,000 words, a much more manageable length and certainly what I recommend. You can always add extra chapters later to grow your guide.
To give you an idea of what that chapter structure might look like, check out how Zapier’s Ultimate Guide to Remote Work is broken up into 14 chapters, each written by a different author. It’s far easier for a single author to write 2500 - 3000 words than for one person to pump out 40,000 words alone:
Typically, longer content attracts more social shares and ranks higher in Google. That’s why your Open PDF shouldn’t be fewer than 7500 words. If it can be consumed in a single sitting, then there’s little reason for visitors to download the PDF version to read later.
Short vs Long Opt-In Offers
We often advocate for short opt-ins such as cheat sheets, because it can promise a quick win for a visitor when they enter their email address. I still agree with this, but there are other visitors that are looking for a greater proof-of-value first. The Open PDF caters to this way of thinking.
The best practice for attention management in your marketing is to offer both.
You want some short offers to satisfy those visitors looking for instant gratification, as well as longer form content to build trust and demonstrate expertise.
Chapters + Headings
It’s important to have good structure for the headings in your Open PDF. Part of the appeal is that a visitor can quickly skim through your content and see that there are chapters on topics that interest them.
For this reason, it needs to be broken up into logical chapters and explored thoroughly.
For example, Digital Marketer’s Ultimate Guide to Digital Marketing has chapters on Social Media Marketing, Email Marketing and Search Marketing. If someone has a specific interest to learn about one of those topics, then they’ll be excited to see an entire chapter dedicated to it in the Open PDF.
Use major chapter headings to define each area you are exploring, and then use subheadings within each chapter.
One of the great advantages of an Open PDF is that Google can crawl it. Keeping your topical titles in H1s to H4s will give Google a clear understanding of what your content is about and help it rank.
How Many Chapters Should You Have?
I noticed that the larger 40,000 word Open PDFs had up to 14 chapters, but the smaller 10,000 word guides had half that.
The number of chapters doesn’t matter as much as what your chapter topics are. More chapters doesn’t necessarily represent more value. What matters is that each chapter is a separate, clearly defined topic or sequential step.
Our minds like to categorise information so isolating chapters around Bento Box thinking will help your audience grasp the value of your guide and follow along.
All of the Open PDFs included images, diagrams and illustrations. I approve.
If your end goal is to get visitors to opt-in, then the inclusion of images greatly improves their perceived value. Remember, you should expect that most visitors will skim the article first. An endless wall of text will be much less appealing to readers than if it’s broken up with regular images.
You want them to think, “Aww yeah, this looks so chunky and full of good stuff... I need to download it!”
I also noticed that the shorter Open PDFs weighing in at 10,000 words seemed to include a greater density of images. As such, they don’t feel like they’re that much smaller when it comes to perceived value.
Have a look at the use of graphics throughout Chapter 1 of Moz's Beginner's Guide to SEO:
Our Content Planning Recommendation:
Plan your Open PDF first. You can do this in Google Docs or Microsoft word, but since the content is large, you might want to use a dedicated mind mapping tool to begin with.
Mind Mapping is the process of visually organizing information and structuring your content into related chunks. It makes writing big content much easier, and we’ve got two recommended tools to help you do that:
- 1The free open-source software Freemind is an excellent tool for creating malleable information trees that can stretch as far as your mind can go.
- 2Gingko lets you create structured outlines with lists and cards all conveniently nested within each other. Gingko is free for 100 cards or less per month, and for a project of this size, you shouldn’t need more than that.
Aim for creating 7 or more chapters. Start by writing the chapter titles and make sure each topic is clearly defined. Plan your subheadings within each chapter too. Write a design brief for each image you intend to source, be it a screenshot, illustration or photograph.
If you can write 7 chapters with a minimum of 1500 words per chapter, then your final Open PDF will be over 10,000 words. That’s a huge achievement and your audience will be impressed.
An Open PDF presents an impressive amount of information and invites visitors to consume it however they please. That means we need to consider the visitor's experience and how they are able to navigate the content.
One Long Page or Multiple Pages?
The example Open PDFs showcased here handle navigation differently. The four 40,000 word guides were spread over multiple WordPress pages with a single chapter on each page. The two 10,000 word guides were just one super long page with chapter headings throughout.
So should you divide your Open PDF across multiple pages or not?
If your content is huge (20,000 words or more), then laying that all out on a single page is just too overwhelming for readers. 10,000 words works nicely as a single page, but more than 20k should be split up into multiple pages.
Greater than 20,000 words = Multiple WordPress Pages
Fewer than 20,000 words = One Single Page
Although I believe your choice should be based on word count, it also depends on your SEO strategy.
If your content is long enough to be separated onto different WordPress pages, you can optimize each chapter around a specific keyword. If you are targeting a lonely niche, you may be able to get each chapter to rank for particular Google searches.
But if your Open PDF is shorter and condensed onto a single page, then you have a chance at ranking for a highly competitive keyword by providing extraordinary content that beats your competition.
If you're new to SEO, you can also check out our premium Thrive University course called SEO Sprint.
A Note on URL Structure
If you do decide to separate each of your chapters into their own pages, here's a suggested URL structure for you to use:
All of the Open PDFs I examined feature a clickable contents section or chapter box on the first page. This is potentially the most important part of the entire Open PDF. It’s a visitor’s first impression and it sets their expectations.
Your list of chapters should look as enticing as possible. Most of your visitors will read this carefully before they decide to read on, so you want to show the value of the entire PDF front and center. Keep your chapter titles benefit driven when possible.
Most of the Open PDFs I examined understood this and were quite indulgent when describing the contents of each chapter.
Zapier’s Chapter 11 is called “How to Find Your Optimal Work Environment and Boost Productivity” and QuickSprout’s Chapter 9 is called “Drive Incremental Sales Through Affiliate Marketing”. These are both great examples of suggesting a benefit in the chapter titles.
But the 3rd chapter of Sell Courses Online’s guide is titled “Build a Basic Funnel to Acquire Leads”. To someone unfamiliar with the value of acquiring leads, this wouldn’t speak to them.
I would change this to “Build a Funnel that Acquires Potential Customers”, since that makes the benefit more apparent without relying on marketing terminology.
Remember, the value of an Open PDF is that the visitor can engage with it however they please. If they see a chapter title that interests them, the Open PDF structure makes it easy to get to that page with a single click.
Next & Previous Chapter Links
Each of the multi-page Open PDFs used next & previous chapter buttons placed at the bottom of each page. This allows visitors to advance forward or backward through the chapters, keeping navigation clear no matter which chapter they start with.
As an example, look at the buttons on QuickSprout’s Guide:
I’m in favor of mentioning the chapter title instead of the chapter number. Your visitors have enough distractions already and a button that simply says ‘Next’ isn’t as enticing as one that communicates a benefit that's just one click away.
Buttons that simply state the chapter number are relying on the visitor’s faith that the next chapter will be good, which depends on their experience of the current chapter. What if the current chapter was not a topic they cared for? They have no reason to trust the next chapter will any better.
But now contrast all of that to this simple mockup I made in Thrive Architect in less than 3 minutes. It includes both the chapter number and the chapter title:
It’s a small change that may seem finicky, but for a visitor whose interest is dwindling, it could mean the difference between recapturing their attention or seeing them bounce.
Either way, if your Open PDF ends up being spread over multiple pages, then Next & Previous chapter links are a must.
Our Chapter Navigation Recommendation
You must include a chapter navigation box at the start of your Open PDF. Fortunately, if you’re using Thrive Architect, you have 3 different options to do this.
1. Text URL Links: Create a simple numbered list with anchor text URLs that take the visitor to different chapters. Regular links work for multi-page and jump links will work for single page Open PDFs.
2) Table Of Contents: If your Open PDF is a single page, then using the Table of Contents element in Thrive Architect will automatically populate a Chapter Box, based on the headings you use throughout your page:
3) Custom Chapter Box: Use a content box element in Thrive Architect and style it with your chapter titles, icons, images or buttons linking to the respective chapters. If you want to use this on a multi-page Open PDF, you can choose ‘Save as Symbol’ on the content box and then load it on each page. Any changes you make will repopulate on each instance of your chapter box:
Creating Jump Links On the Same Page
If you have a single page Open PDF, you will want chapter links that take the visitor to a different location... on the same page. This is called a Jump Link, and in Thrive Architect, it's really easy to setup.
To create a Jump Link, start by selecting the element you want to jump to, such as a chapter heading. Under 'styles' in the element bar, assign an ID such as “chapter2”. Create a button elsewhere on the page and use a hashtag followed by the ID as the hyperlink: “#chapter2”. When a visitor clicks that button, their browser will jump to the Chapter heading with the matching ID.
Want to see it in action? Click this jump link and you'll be taken to the next section on this page without reloading.
3. ATTRACTING SUBSCRIBERS
Unfortunately, getting visitors to read your Open PDF content is only half the battle. Next, we're going to look at how to convert your ultimate guide readers into email subscribers so you can build an ongoing relationship with them.
Every single Open PDF I examined had one thing in common — there was at least one invitation per chapter to download the PDF. The most common place for this was at the end of each chapter, though some placed it near the start.
This type of opt-in is what’s called a ‘Content Upgrade’. Rather than being a pop-up or a ribbon overlay, this opt-in offer is contained within the content.
Content Upgrades get a high rate of conversion. In fact, Backlinko reported a 785% increase in conversions just by adding Content Upgrades to a post! It works for two reasons:
First, visitors don’t see them as an obstruction to the content but rather as part of the content.
And second, content upgrades are highly relevant to the topic and promise to expand upon the free value already available.
No visitor will complain that you kept offering a download of the PDF while they were reading the content on the page. It’s about as relevant as an opt-in offer can get.
HOW YOU CAN DO IT:
If you’re using Thrive Architect, you have two options to add content upgrades. You can either create a lead generation element on the page, or you can create a Thrive Leads Shortcode and add it to the page with Architect.
The advantage of using Thrive Leads for your content upgrade opt-in forms is twofold:
First, you can set up A/B tests between different form designs. And second, changes you make to your Thrive Leads forms are automatically reflected everywhere they’re displayed on your website... a HUGE time saver!
Sticky ‘Download’ Option
Only two of the Open PDFs that I looked at had a sticky ‘download’ option. This means that no matter how far up or down the content you scroll, there is still an easy-access button you can click on to download the PDF version of the guide.
Since your desired conversion goal is a download, it's important to make it easy. Some of the Open PDFs forced readers to scroll down huge page lengths before offering a download option so I prefer the inclusion of a sticky button that remains ever-present.
It’s likely that your visitors have all kinds of incoming distractions so convenience is your best weapon against digital ADHD.
HOW YOU CAN DO IT:
With Thrive Architect’s Headers and Footers feature, you can make a custom header just for your Open PDF pages. This header will override your theme’s header only on the pages you specify. By enabling it on your Open PDF, you can create a sticky header that stays at the top of the page (even as readers scroll) including a ‘Download as PDF’ button within it.
No matter where the visitor navigates to on your guide, the PDF download button is waiting patiently for them.
Here’s a simple example I put together in just a few minutes using Thrive Architect:
End-of-Session Pop Ups
Your content is huge. It’s unlikely your visitors will consume it all in one sitting, which means they’ll probably mouse up to close the tab after reading some portion of it. In my opinion, this is the perfect time to trigger an End-of-Session Pop-Up.
The simple inclusion of a pop-up that says “In a hurry? Enter your email address and we’ll send you this guide as a PDF” is super enticing for readers.
HOW YOU CAN DO IT:
Using Thrive Architect, you’ll find the option under ‘page events’. From here, you can choose to trigger a Thrive LightBox as the visitor tries to leave. Or, if you’re using Thrive Leads, you can trigger a ThriveBox which gives you conversion tracking, statistics, and A/B testing for your pop-up.
Other Opt-In Offer Ideas
It’s hard to find a better Open PDF example using more tightly customized opt-in offers than GrowthLab’s Ultimate Guide to Starting an Online Business. The single 10,000 word page contains 17 different Opt-In offers — 7 of which are chapter PDF downloads.
Sprinkled throughout the guide are new opt-in offers that perfectly align with each chapter’s topic. Some of the opt-in offers are pretty simple including freebies like cheat sheets, listicles, idea generators, etc.
If you’ve created any other Lead Magnets for your site, find a way to reference them in your Open PDF content and offer them as another type of upgrade (keeping these lead magnets gated, of course). Although visitors can read through your entire Open PDF without opting in, these extra lead magnets do require email addresses to download.
The advantage here is that by reading the Open PDF, visitors will be familiar with the value of your content and ready to trust you with their email address for any additional downloads.
What about GDPR?
If you're not yet familiar, GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulation and it's a new set of rules related to online data processing.
There was a lot of paranoia and misinformation that circulated when GDPR was announced, and many digital marketers began to panic that opt-in forms on websites would no longer be compliant. This is simply untrue. What matters is how you present your opt-in forms.
If you're unsure of what GDPR means for you, then we suggest you take the time to read this article: The Smart Way to Make Your Opt-In Forms & Email Marketing GDPR Compliant
4. SOCIAL SHARING
Once you have a high-converting Open PDF, you'll want to share it far and wide to attract as much traffic as you can. Let's look at how to optimize for social sharing.
Social Sharing Buttons
A common feature of Open PDFs are the addition of social sharing buttons. Every guide except for Zapier included social sharing icons across their pages.
Great ‘Ultimate Guide’ content is the kind of stuff that gets more social shares so it makes sense to encourage your readers for those shares.
Only 3 of the 6 guides examined had a floating social share bar, which I prefer. Floating Social Share Buttons remain glued to the side of your browser as you scroll up and down, making the experience frictionless when visitors want to share.
It’s important not to get too carried away with CTAs and social share buttons. Your visitors are there for your content first and foremost, so filling their screen with too many buttons can leave a bad taste in their mouths.
I think permanently visible social share buttons are useful only if they hide themselves or move somewhere discreet when viewed on mobile. Social share buttons that block any more than 20% of the mobile screen area are going to upset your readers.
HOW YOU CAN DO IT:
If you need another solution, here's an in-depth review of the top Social Sharing plugins for WordPress we published on the ActiveGrowth blog.
Point Your Share Links to the Beginning of Your Guide
If your Open PDF is spread over multiple pages, it’s preferable to point all incoming traffic to page 1. Although Google may point searchers to specific pages, most Social Share Buttons on the Open PDFs I looked at point to the first page, no matter where the share buttons are clicked.
For example, if a visitor is on page 3 and they click to share, it’s ideal for the link that’s shared to take new visitors to the start. If they arrive on page 3, they might not have the context needed to understand your Open PDF. Also, you optimized page 1 with a chapter navigation box to entice visitors to read on, so that’s where you want your traffic to arrive.
HOW YOU CAN DO IT:
If you build your Open PDF with Thrive Architect, then you can easily add the Social Share element wherever you want to on your page(s). Place this element on each page inside your Open PDF and look for the ‘Custom Share URL’ option in the Element Panel.
You will want to enter the URL to the first page of your Open PDF. That way, any visitors that share from any page will still be sharing the link that you choose, driving traffic to the start of the guide.
Consolidate Your Shares
Only 3 of the Open PDFs had a ‘Share Counter’, which helps to generate Social Proof.
But there’s a catch: It’s important that your share counters consolidate shares across all chapters. For example, you want the share counter on chapter 3 to display the number of total shares from all the pages of the Open PDF.
It wouldn’t be right if it was a different share count on each page, since your visitors still consider it to be part of one complete piece of content that they are sharing.
HOW YOU CAN DO IT:
Once again, the Social Shares element in Thrive Architect has got you covered. By enabling both the ‘Custom Share URL’ and ‘Show Share Count’ options, the counter will show the total number of shares to the URL you’ve received.
Set that to page one of your Open PDF and you’ll be consolidating all of your shares under that one URL.
Time To Make Some Cutting Edge Content
Creating an Open PDF is a lot of work, but if done correctly, it will be a high-converting piece of content that attracts social shares, opt-ins and more important than all of that, trust.
4 of the 6 Open PDFs that I studied were accessible either from their website’s homepage or from their main menu. Businesses know to put this content front and center because it’s so damn compelling.
It takes guts to put some of your best content out there for all to see without asking for an email address first. But know that it’s the top businesses in each niche that will get the lion’s share of customers. Creating content this elaborate and detailed helps cement you as the thought-leader among your competition.
Remember, to make the most of your Open PDF:
Will You Rise To The Challenge?
Now that you know how this type of epic content can turn heads, will you accept the challenge? Are you ready to plan your own Open PDF and fight to be recognized as a true thought-leader in your niche?
If so, here's how to take the first step in this challenge:
Leave a comment below telling me the title of the Open PDF you want to create.
If you’re stuck, try this formula:
"I'm going to write The [Beginner's / Advanced / Ultimate] Guide to [your topic] that will [clear benefit]"
And once you've left your comment below, share this article on social media with your new title too! I look forward to seeing what you dream up for your readers!