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 Lon