B2B Marketing white papers are dead. Long live the…umm…white paper?

by Tom Goodfellow on December 8, 2011

You’re researching a business issue online. You come across a white paper that might just hold the answers you’re looking for. There’s a snag — they want your contact details. You hesitate. Eventually you register. But the document you end up with is rather less helpful than the description suggested. You bin it. Then comes their dreaded sales call…

Although the origins of white papers lie in government policy, their commercial counterparts started to show up in the marketer’s tool box in the early 90’s. Since then they’ve become the de facto form of content marketing, used to establish thought leadership, argue business cases, and of course to generate those all-important sales leads.

The concept of lead generation white papers makes sense to me, but while I’m a big proponent, I’m painfully aware that all’s not rosy in the land of papers that are white.

Feeding the Pipeline But Failing to Engage the Brain

I believe the relentless pressure to develop content as fodder for lead generation and nurturing campaigns drives some marketers to ignore the fundamental dynamics of exchange: my contact details – email included – have real value.

Here are some of the most frequent white paper gripes:

  • It doesn’t live up to expectations
  • It’s way too long
  • The content is structured in an inaccessible way
  • It’s badly written
  • It’s not visually engaging
  • The content is just not relevant
  • It’s an overt sales pitch

In my mind it all boils down to three distinct success factors:

  • Structure
  • Design
  • Content

In the Age of the App, Structure Has Never Been So Important

Some white papers are a bit wordy, others are downright inaccessible. Many suffer from:

  • Large numbers of pages
  • Huge chunky paragraphs
  • Ambiguous headers and sub-headers (if any!)
  • A lack of graphs, graphics orother design elements
  • Crude execution – frequently just a word document converted into a PDF

Why? In my mind the roots of white papers in government policy and academia are far removed from their function in modern B2B marketing, yet their form frequently goes unchallenged.

In a world where time-pressed professionals consume snack-sized, app-based content in reclaimed moments, their propensity to trawl end-to-end through an unknown quantity (ehem…your beloved white paper) will inevitably decline.

I’m not suggesting that long-form marketing content is dead, just that it has never been so important to rigorously apply principles of good structure and design that enable the reader to:

• Skim-read and instantly understand the message
• Instantly judge relevance and quality
• Delve deeper for more information

Content Can Still Be King….As Long As It’s Worthy

No amount of structure can help if the words on the page don’t resonate with your audience. All too often marketers place more emphasis on having something available to download, rather than having something that is truly valuable to the reader.

To be successful a white paper needs to be highly targeted, well researched, and well written. And of course, it needs to be genuinely valuable.

Why do so many white papers fail on content? Because developing great content isn’t easy! It not only takes significant amount of resource, but also requires a hybrid skill set:

  • Research skills
  • Journalistic sensibility
  • Editorial judgment
  • Strong grasp of the target persona: the need, pain point, language
  • Ability to engage with subject matter experts to extract information
  • Understanding of keyword strategy

The task of creating this content invariably falls to marketers – but marketers come in all shapes and sizes and aren’t always best equipped to take up the challenge.

I’ll be revisiting each of these areas in more details in my upcoming White paper workshop series of posts, and providing practical tips on how to make your papers more effective.

White Papers Need Family Support

While white papers are certainly less trusted than they used to be, people will always be willing to part with their details in order to get something they see as truly valuable. But valuable is the key point. Marketers need to work harder to build that perception of value.

But trying to build credibility and trust through white papers alone is a bit of a catch 22 – because they typically sit behind registration pages. To get people to a point where they trust you enough to part with their details, you need to be engaging them with content that sits outside the registration wall.

More than ever, white papers need to form one element of a suite of content that together drives people through to a decision – web content, blogs, slideshare presentations, videos, podcasts – all based around solid keyword strategy.

There’s actually a big argument for placing your white paper out of the firewall altogether. This is a topic I’ll come back to, but in the meantime there’s a debate raging about this very topic between David Meerman Scott and Hubspot.

Some Quick Sagely Advice To Bring Your White Papers Back To Life

1. Never be tempted to let poorly-conceived content see the light of day. As a marketer you should be a able to judge quality from chaff, as your audience surely will. If you need a brochure, go write a brochure.

2. We all know how long-lasting first impressions are, so make sure your content always provides value to the reader. How do you know if it has value? Ask the experts: market test it to a small group of clients first, ask your sales team, ask your subject matter experts.

3. If you are working with subject matter experts make sure you give them solid guidelines that will help produce an overall consistent piece later on down the line. And make sure they’re aware that you reserve the right to rip their copy apart. Most will thank you for it when they see the result.

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