Electronic signature (eSignature), or digital signature, is key to getting contracts agreed without having to meet in person. What are the different ways to make it happen?
Getting contracts signed online is a key process change that enables business growth. But what are the different ways to sign documents online, and what are the pros, cons and alternatives?
What is electronic signature?
Electronic signature is the use of a digital impression, markup or element to signify that the signor agrees to the terms in the contract they’re signing. It can be contrasted with what was historically called ‘wet signature’, where parties to a contract had to physically make a mark on a paper contract with a pen.
Some level of electronic signature has been adopted in most of the world (read more about where eSignature is accepted). eSignature can be used to sign documents in various formats: most commonly PDFs, but also Word documents, spreadsheets, and of course various native browser-based contract platforms, like Juro.
Why use an electronic signature?
Using a digital signature instead of a west signature means that parties don’t have to be in the same room to agree a contract - it can be done over email, or via mobile technology, or in browser using a contracting platform. It’s usually more convenient to sign documents online.
There are other advantages to eSignature over physical signature. If the platform you’re using is intuitive, then the signing process itself should be faster, involving just one or two clicks. And as the eSignature is a digital artefact, is should have a timestamp. You can also automate various actions to accompany the signature - for example, when a contract is fully signed in Juro, all parties are automatically emailed a PDF.
There are security advantages too - a digital signature, securely stored in the cloud, is less likely to be lost, damaged, or accessed improperly than a paper document. Certification of the security standards and audit trails behind an electronic signature help to create uniform standards that businesses and individuals can trust.
Customers moving contracts online into Juro often first decide to do so due to the painful manual processes their contracts have endured to date, like hunting through folders and filing cabinets for hard-copy contracts. Life’s too short - and businesses can recognize significant benefits by moving to digital signatures. Dropbox estimates that businesses can improve turnaround times by 80 per cent and completion rates by 26 per cent.
How do you electronically sign a document?
There are lots of providers who offer specialist software to electronically sign documents (primarily PDFs). These include DocuSign, HelloSign, AdobeSign and SignNow. They all offer basic functionality around signing documents, with low entry-level pricing for the basic feature set.
Contract automation platforms like Juro differ in that they cover the entire contract lifecycle in more depth - from automating the creation of contracts at scale, through approval workflows, in-browser negotiation, native secure eSignature, and post-signature tracking and analytics. This is a better choice for mid-market or larger teams that have higher contract volumes and need a richer feature set.
It’s also possible (if not ideal) to create an electronic signature within the native document format itself. Let’s look at how you do this, and the alternatives, for the three most common formats: PDF, Word and Google docs.
How to add electronic signature to a PDF
PDF is a document format that’s understood by lots of different software platforms and workflows. As such, there are lots of different ways to include a digital signature in a PDF, depending on the software you’re using to read or amend the PDF. Here are four examples of how to electronically sign a PDF.
Electronic signature of a PDF in MacOS
If you open a PDF on a laptop or desktop mac, by default it opens in Preview. To add a signature, choose ‘Tools’ from the menu, then ‘Annotate’, and then ‘Signature’.
Within this menu you can choose to ‘Manage signatures’, adding different digital signature options to the menu by drawing them with the trackpad or mouse. Select the signature you want and it will be added to the PDF, where you can drag it to the right place and save the now signed document.
Note that this is simply a drawing of a signature - not a secure eSignature.
Electronic signature of a PDF in iOS
To digitally sign a PDF on an iPhone or iPad, open the PDF using the ‘Files’ app, and then hit the ‘Plus’ button (+) in the bottom right to annotate it. From here you can choose ‘Signature’.
You can also add or amend your saved signatures here, using the device’s touchscreen to sign.
Again, note that this is just a drawing of a signature, rather than a secure electronic signature.
Electronic signature of a PDF on Android
On an Android device, to sign a PDF you’ll need to download an app, like Adobe Reader or SignEasy, and use this app to add a signature to your PDF.
Similarly to the previous examples, this isn’t a robust eSignature that would meet certification standards and contain an audit trail.
Electronic signature of a PDF in Adobe Acrobat
Adobe has historically been an easy way to get simple PDFs signed. To do it, hit the fountain pen icon in the top menu and choose ‘Fill and sign’ to enable rudimentary signature features. As Acrobat is part of the Adobe offering, it is powered by AdobeSign and as such has a level of robustness to its electronic signature - albeit no contract collaboration, automation nor management features.
eSignature of PDFs: the benefits
There are various reasons why PDFs are such a common choice for users looking to get electronic documents signed.
- PDFs are universal - most common software packages can handle them, and they can be opened and read on almost any device.
- PDFs are portable (that’s what the P stands for) - meaning they’re easy to send and attach via email, or other messaging services like WhatsApp or Facebook messenger.
eSignature of PDFs: the pain points
While PDFs are a good baseline for the most basic documents that need to be signed, they have drawbacks when it comes to handling contracts at scale.
- Lots of devices and software can handle PDFs, but that doesn’t mean they handle them well.
- Looking at the examples above, the majority of signature options are just digital drawings, rather than a robust and certified eSignature standard that has an audit trail.
- Just dropping a drawing of a name onto a document isn’t the same as eSigning it to make it legally binding on the parties.
- Beyond the signature, the options above really offer no functionality around the contract process itself - once a signature is added, will counterparties automatically be notified? Will they be automatically emailed the contract? How will you track key data in the contract, like renewal dates? How will you store the contract and search within it?
- PDF content is unstructured data which is difficult to search, making it hard to know what’s in the contract once it’s been saved somewhere.
Alternatives to electronic signature of PDFs
Juro is a free contract automation tool that enables you to create contracts from templates by navigating a natural language Q&A. You can then collaborate on contracts, get them approved, negotiate them, send them for signing, securely eSign, store and track contracts - all without ever leaving the browser.
This will enable you to manage contracts across all the devices and platforms listed above, but with a rich feature set that helps you achieve your business objectives around contracts quickly - and for no cost. Sign up for a free Juro account here.
How to add electronic signature to a Word document
Word is still the default currency for more than 99 per cent of documents, and therefore for contracts too. There exists the ability to insert a signature in Word, but it’s fairly basic. With the cursor where you want your signature to appear, from the ‘Insert’ tab, choose ‘Text, then ‘Signature List’, then finally ‘Microsoft Office Signature Line’. You can set up the signature at this point, by entering the signing party’s name.
If you’re receiving this document and want to sign it, you can just right-click the signature line and click ‘Sign’, to insert your signature. There is a level of certification behind the digital signature you see in Microsoft Word.
eSignature of Word documents: the benefits
Word is the global currency for documents in general and has various advantages:
- Almost everyone can use and understand it, so in some ways it makes sense to try and handle contracts there.
- There’s almost no chance that your contract recipient won’t know how to open a Word document.
- They’re also just as portable as PDFs, making them easy to send via email or messaging services.
eSignature of Word documents: the pain points
Although everyone can use Word, that doesn’t mean it’s ideally suited for every kind of document. Much of the functionality of Word is still aiming to reproduce the hard-copy experience in digital format, which creates uncollaborative static files. Because of this, contracts in particular face several challenges with regard to Word:
- Word documents are uncollaborative. If people want to change the content of the contract during negotiations, they have to redline it using tracked changes, which always leads to multiple versions, version control issues, confusion and friction.
- Word documents are static files, like PDFs, meaning they are difficult to search within, and to integrate with other systems as part of a data pipeline.
- Word documents lack most of the wider features needed for contracts, like approval workflows, negotiation, mass actions, analytics, and frictionless eSigning.
Alternatives to electronic signature in Word
If you want the rich editing features of Microsoft Word, but need more robust and expansive features to handle the specific needs of contracts, then Juro offers an in-browser editor that was custom-built for contracts.
You can create beautifully formatted documents, just like in Word, but your document is browser-native, collaborative, and has access to all the features of a contract automation platform. The contract exists as structured data, rather than as a static file, so it's searchable and can integrate with other systems too.
It’s free to set up a Juro account - try it here and set up a contract of your own, before sending it for secure electronic signature with the platform’s native eSignature tool.
How to add electronic signature to a Google doc
Google docs are in many ways a much more collaborative document format than PDFs or Word documents. They’re browser-based, built from structured data, and they allow people to collaborate on the same document at the same time.
However the signing functionality in a Google doc is limited. Without using any third-party software, the only way to do it is to his ‘Insert’ from the menu, choose ‘Drawing’, then in the subsequent screen, navigate to ‘Scribble’ and draw an approximation of a signature. Needless to say this isn’t really an eSignature.
To have a certified eSignature, you’ll need an add-on, like the free tool available from DocuSign.
eSignature of Google docs: the benefits
Google docs represent an inherently collaborative way of working - the format is flexible, and easy to send and share.
eSignature of Google docs: the pain points
The native functionality in Google docs doesn’t really allow for a valid digital signature. You can use a third-party add-on, but if you want a free add-on to make Google docs passable for contracts, why not just use a free tool that’s purpose-built for contracts?
Alternatives to electronic signature in Google docs
If you’re using Google docs because you want the collaborative ability it offers, as a browser-based platform, but with the security and rigour of a robust eSignature solution, then instead of meshing together two tools that do a passable job, why not use a free tool that’s specialised for contracts?
Juro is a contract automation platform that allows you to create, edit, negotiate, sign and store contracts securely, all in-browser. Its negotiation and redlining features were designed for contracts, meaning one party can't see the other party's edits in real time. And it’s free! Click the button below to find out more.
For more about eSignature, read this guide to where eSignature is accepted globally.