You may heard that white papers are out of style, like pet rocks and the three-martini lunch. In this age of creating endless reams of content, long-form writing has taken a hit. And you don’t get much more long-form than white papers. You might be asking yourself, “Are white papers worth my time?”
Even when companies want to create white papers, writing them often falls to the bottom of the pile because they require significant time and resources. By putting them off, marketers may not realize just how big an opportunity they are missing.
Proof that White Papers are Worth the Time You Put Into Them
- High-Value: According to a study by Business.com, 60 percent of respondents said white papers are a valuable way to generate new leads.
- Sharing with Colleagues: Demand Gen’s 2016 Content Preferences Survey report found that 79 percent of B2B respondents shared white papers with their colleagues.
- Decision-Making: The 2018 Demand Gen Survey Report, indicated that 71 percent of B2B buyers look to white papers to research a purchasing decision.
- Lead-Generation: Statistics show that out of every four B2B buyers, three are willing to share their personal details in order to access a white paper.
- Lead Generation: DemandGen’s 2017 Content Preference Survey found that 76 percent of buyers are most willing to register for and share information about themselves in exchange for white papers, second only to webinars (79%) and far exceeding eBooks (63 percent), case studies (57 percent), and third-party/analyst reports (66 percent).
The Purpose of White Papers
So we know white papers are important, but what the heck are they?And are your white papers really worth your time? Many people have a wishy-washy ideas of white papers are even if they’re in an industry where they are common, such as technology. So let’s shoot for a common definition.
The Characteristics of White Papers
Originally, white papers were government positioning papers about various policy issues and actions (the “white” color-code indicated that they were accessible to the public). Over time, other industries found them useful for sharing their expertise with industry experts, customers, and leads. They have proven to be worth the time, without a doubt.
Typically, they are in-depth, authoritative documents that share industry insights into a particular problem and advocate a practical solution (or several options) for solving the problem. A high-quality white paper will help a brand build authority, credibility, and mindshare.
Beyond that, thoughts about what a white paper is vary. Based on my background in technology marketing, along with some research into the thoughts of other marketing experts, I would add these qualities to the definition:
Build Your White Paper so it’s worth your audience’s time.
Don’t start off by asking, “Are white papers worth my time?” Instead, apply your the qualities that make it valuable to your audience–so it’s worth their time to read it.
Be sure your white paper is:
Long enough for an in-depth discussion
Solid white papers are around 3,000-6,000 words (maybe six-12 pages), but it could be much longer depending on the complexity of a topic and the industry.
Evidence-based and factual
White papers don’t have to be totally dry, but the narrative is data-driven. The point is to provide useful information to help professionals understand industry issues, solve a problem, or make decisions about policy or purchasing. A well-research white paper should include credibly sourced statistics, facts, expert opinions, and other firm data to support the position or argument.
Easy for busy professionals to digest
People who read white papers are busy and don’t always have time to get into the weeds. A white paper is an in-depth document, but it should also be easy to scan. They generally include a fleshed out introductions or an executive summary that highlight key takeaways.
Educational and insightful
Companies produce white papers for a variety of reasons, including to building industry authority and brand credibility. But the key reason is to help potential customers make purchasing decisions–during the middle stages of the sales funnel.
Readers may be exploring a product category, comparing products within a category, or evaluating specific products. Because a white paper promotes ideas, rather than products or news, they have more staying power than many other types of marketing content.
Read more about the sales funnel here.
Helpful for complex B2B offerings
White papers are useful in industries with complex, high-priced, products, such as computer software and hardware, engineering, healthcare, and finance. Sales in these industries often have long sales cycles, so different white papers may be produced for people in various parts of the decision making process.
Don’t Call These Things White Papers!
I’ve already alluded to the fact that the term white paper is often misused. All too frequently, something called a white paper is explicitly not a white paper, including:
- A thinly veiled brochure or a blown-out feature/benefit piece for specific products
- A collection of facts and figures without accompanying context, insight or expert perspective
- An opinion piece that is more like an editorial article or lengthy blog post
- A piece that is purportedly factual but is poorly researched and lacks credible evidential data
- A rehashing of other people’s reports and research, sometime with little to no credit given
Some might say that it’s natural for marketers for trying to leverage the term white paper to get more traffic and leads. That’s good, right? Not so much. By inappropriately calling something that is not a problem/solution document a white paper there may be an initial gain, but it actually can do more harm than good.
Since most white papers are “gated,” personal information must be given in exchange for access to the paper. The recipient will expect to see a solid educational document based on facts and expert insights. If, instead, they get a puff piece or something that is largely promotional, they can feel frustrated and disrespected—not very good for a company’s reputation. And certainly not good for sales. When you publish your white paper, shoot for 100% satisfaction!
How Can You Get Started On Your White Paper?
Now we know what a white paper is, what a white paper is not, and what it is used for, how can you get started? It’s obviously a complicated process that requires time and resources—but you have to start somewhere. Here are my recommendations:
- Determine the purpose of publishing your white paper. Some common purposes include lead generation, increasing brand authority in the industry, nurturing prospects through the sales process, reinforcing your brand leadership with past and current clients, and creating evergreen content that can be repurposed. Read more about setting goals to create more value.
- Define a narrow audience. The sales process for complex products often includes a variety of functions and managerial levels. For example, interested parties may include users/evaluators, mid-level and senior managers, team leaders, top executives, and selection or purchasing committees. A single white paper will not properly address the different needs of each group.
Some of these people will be technically-oriented and some are primarily business managers. Some will focus on the bottom line and others will look at how it affects their team members. It’s important to home in on a narrow group so that you can pick a relevant topic and write it in a targeted manner. For example:
- IT people generally want to see specific technical details and aren’t as concerned about “slick” production values.
- Executives want to see bottom-line benefits, such as lower costs, better sales, higher profits or improved customer service. More so than with a technical audience, production values will influence how they perceive your brand.
- Line Managers are most interested in productivity, workflow, and how it affects their specific functional area and team members.
- Choose a Topic That Will Appeal to Your Target Audience: As mentioned earlier, your topic should focus on people in the middle of the funnel—after they identify they have a problem, but before they are at the purchase stage. The topic you select should be relevant to where your narrow target audience is in their purchasing journey, as each stage has different information needs. Someone who is just researching a product group will be more focused on high-level issues, while those who are already comparing products will need more specific details.
It may help to do some research, internally or using industry resources, to determine which topics will have the greatest interest, and which ones will fill a “hole” in existing resources.
Skipping Forward–White Papers With a Purpose
Suffice it to say that it takes time, resources, research, and a commitment to developing a high-quality product. But is your paper worth the effort if only a few people see it? That seems like a wasted investment and a missed opportunity.
If you create a white paper, make it count.
White papers are a valuable asset that can be leveraged in a variety of ways to build brand authority, generate leads, and educate your prospects and customers. If you do go forward, focus on a high-quality piece that is well researched and shares unique insights—and promote it so you get all the potential benefits. If you take shortcuts, there’s a good chance that your efforts will backfire. Writing a white paper takes resources and a special set of skills. If your internal resources are stretched, contact a freelance writer or agency with the experience needed to make your white paper count. Contact Westebbe Marketing, (617) 699-4462 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.