Interactive eBook Best Practices

I know this opinion might make me unpopular within the content marketing community… but I’m just going to come out and say it.

I’m so over eBooks.

Let me clarify. I’m talking about traditional PDF eBooks here—the ones that every business and their mom is creating. The ones that usually live behind ugly landing pages with 8-field lead capture forms. The ones that involve 4 steps to get to. The ones that I open immediately and trash about 10 seconds later, or that sit on my desktop for a week before I throw in the towel and delete them.

I’m tired of them because most of them are downright boring. A lot of them are too long. The majority aren’t well designed. And a rare few are actually worth the hassle of entering your information, downloading, and reading.

What does excite me is interactive eBooks, the new breed of long-form content that companies are using to entertain and educate their audiences. They have the potential to revolutionize the content marketing game and save both content creators and content consumers from boredom.

However, while interactive eBooks are a million times better than PDF eBooks, they require a somewhat different approach when it comes to execution. Often, content marketers who get their first crack at creating interactive content use the same method that they followed to create static content. This usually results in a pretty lame interactive eBook, one that doesn’t fully take advantage of the technology or its storytelling capabilities.

It’s my personal mission to make sure that as many marketers as possible have an opportunity to create interactive content, and that they use interactivity to make assets that are considerably more engaging, effective, and awesome. In this article, I’ll cover 5 common pitfalls you may encounter when you’re developing an interactive eBook for the first time.

Are you ready to dive in? All right, let’s do this!

Tip 1: Don’t Get Sucked into PDF Mode

Princess Bride

Source: BuzzFeed

Here’s a quick history lesson for you. Portable Document Files, or PDFs, were first developed by Adobe in 1993 as a way to share documents across different operating systems, preventing any weird display issues from happening. Initially, PDFs supported plain text and images only; over time, they began to incorporate other functionality such as hyperlinks, forms, and plugins.

At their core, PDFs are essentially a way to “port” print content such as books, magazines, or brochures into the digital realm. This made sense in 1993: Web-based content was still relatively new, and technology had flaws and limitations that PDFs circumvented. But we’ve had 22 years since then to figure out better ways to create digital content. And that means it’s time to let go of the PDF security blanket and embrace the brave new interactive world.

Of course, if you’ve been in a content marketing role for awhile, you’ve been trained to write eBooks, whitepapers, and other content within the constraints of PDFs. A traditional eBook usually looks like a textbook chapter: It’s got an introduction, a list of sections, and a lot of text that follows a linear progression of concepts designed to be read in order. There’s usually some kind of summary at the end to wrap things up. This structure has worked for print for years, but it’s not a structure that translates well to the web.

This is where I get up on my interactive content soapbox for a few seconds. We live in the 21st century. The web is a blank canvas. The only limit to what you can create is your imagination. So take what you’ve learned about storytelling and forget what you’ve learned about print. Think about how you can tell stories using images, videos, audio, and animations. Don’t let yourself be fettered by the chains of PDF content any longer!

Tip 2: Don’t Write Tons of Copy

Harry Potter Books

Source: Bustle

I make my living as a writer, so it goes without saying that I’m a firm believer in the power of words. But I’ve also seen how too much content can go awry with online content consumers. For example, the other day I downloaded a static eBook from a marketing company that was 23 pages long. Twenty-three pages. I kid you not. Even if half of those pages had been graphics instead of text (which wasn’t the case), that still would have been 11.5 pages of text. I opened it, looked at the table of contents and page count, and promptly pulled a Hermione (see above GIF).

The truth is, unless I’m reading a book, I’m not going to read 11.5 pages of text—and chances are, neither will your audience. But that’s the beauty of interactive content. An interactive eBook can convey a rich, valuable story without needing 5000 words of copy. Using videos, images, GIFs, animations, and layers of information, you can convey your story in a more compelling way, without needing so many words.

On average, the interactive eBooks I’ve written have been about 800 words—shorter than an average blog post. The length of your content will depend on your topic, industry, audience, and creative concept, but shorter is generally better.

The way I approach authoring an interactive eBook is as follows:

  1. Topic: I choose a topic based on a challenge or interest my audience cares about.
  2. Theme: I pick a creative theme to wrap my content in. This isn’t always necessary, but it can help you get a feel for the visual and writing style of the piece.
  3. Outline: I draft an outline of key points I want to cover in the piece. These can serve as sections or pages in your final piece. As much as possible, I try to make sure each point can stand on its own, without depending on the end user to interact in any particular order.
  4. Write: Once I’ve got a solid outline to work with, I flesh out each point with supporting text and ideas for graphics and videos. If I have something specific in mind, I’ll curate visual content from third party sources; often times, I’ll work with our creative team to source or create visuals from scratch (see Tip 3). I always try to keep my text blocks short so that my designer has flexibility in how they display the content.

Tip 3: Don’t Leave the Visuals for Last

Tangled Painting

Source: Giphy

When creating a static eBook, the content creation process generally goes like this:

  1. You write your content.
  2. You pass it off to design.
  3. They make it pretty and source some graphics.
  4. You review and veto anything you don’t like.
  5. They finalize graphics and export your PDF.

With interactive content, this process doesn’t work because the graphics and design are integral to the story you’re telling. Instead, the process goes something like this:

  1. You brainstorm with your creative team on a visual concept based on your topic.
  2. You give your creative team an outline of your written content. This may include a few short bullet points under each section header to given them an idea of what the details will be.
  3. Your designer will start to research visuals and wireframe a design.
  4. You’ll work together to pair visuals, audio, and copy in a way that most effectively tells your story.
  5. When everyone is happy with the end result, you publish the content.

You may come up with a slightly different process depending on how your team is organized and whether your designer is in-house or external. The point is that visuals can no longer be an afterthought in your eBooks—they should be carefully considered along with your written text. In many ways, writing an interactive eBook is closer to writing a screenplay or graphic novel than a traditional long-form content piece.

Tip 4: Don’t Constrict Your Viewers to a Linear Narrative


Source: Giphy

The typical eBook is designed to be read in a linear fashion. Sure, there’s usually a table of contents at the beginning that readers can use to skip ahead, but in a PDF, this often feels like breaking the rules. (At least, it does for OCD people like me who always read full textbook chapters from start to finish.)

An interactive eBook does away with the concept of a linear narrative. As long as you provide clear navigation and content that works well as standalone pieces, your viewers can explore in whatever order and depth they want to.

A few things you can do to facilitate a more fluid exploration of content include:

  • Creating a persistent nav menu. This makes it easy for viewers to get back to a list of options whenever they like.
  • Giving clear visual cues for how to drill deeper into the content. Some of the devices we use include plus symbols, animated markers, and spelled out calls-to-action (e.g. “click here to learn more”).
  • Designing each section as a contained unit. Otherwise, viewers will be really confused when you start referencing content they haven’t encountered yet.

Tip 5: Don’t Forget a Call-to-Action

Lord of the Rings

Source: Little LOTR Things

Like any good content piece, your interactive eBook should leave your audience wondering, “So where are we going next?” Providing a clear call to action will help guide your viewers in their journey.

The type of CTA you use depends largely on the which stage of the marketing funnel your content targets. For example:

  • If your eBook is a top-of-funnel piece, you’ll likely want to recommend a related content piece or your blog as the next stop.
  • If you’re creating mid-funnel content, you may want to direct readers to explore your website or request a demo.
  • If you’re creating bottom-funnel content, you’ll want to direct people to a case study or other asset that will solidify their purchase decision.

The placement of your CTA is entirely up to you. I’ve used persistent CTAs as part of a footer or header element, CTAs that appear in their own section, and pop-up CTAs that appear after a certain amount of time spent on the piece.

It’s worth testing different formats to see which works best in a given asset. The good news is that with interactive content, it’s much easier to perform these types of tests than it would be to with a static PDF. You’ll gain a lot more insight into how people are engaging with your content, and be able to update your asset based on performance data a lot more easily.

Wrapping Up

Interactive eBooks follow many of the rules that static eBooks do, but certainly not all of them. Don’t let these differences freak you out. Embrace them and use your newfound creative freedom to create something totally new and amazing!


Read more: A Simple Guide to Creating Interactive Ebooks