Think Twice Before Writing Another White Paper

Someone recently asked me if I thought there was a future for white papers as a relevant source of B2B content given all the new types of content that are being used for marketing.  After thinking about this, my response is “yes”, but with an asterisk as there are a number of issues and alternatives that companies should think through first. 

The original concept of the white paper started in government in the mid-20th century as a way to argue for a specific public sector policy position; later, companies started using the term to educate their customers and prospects about specific technologies or business issues, but the corporate adoption has been over-used to a large extent as a kind of catch-all term for almost any kind text-rich document.  What I have seen in the enterprise software market is that a lot of what is promoted as being a “white paper” is really just product promotion.  This misuse of the term has created a credibility issue among the people who rely on these for education and research – according to a 2012 survey by IDG Enterprise, 81% of respondents said they found it challenging to find trusted information on enterprise IT/security products due to content issues such as vendor bias and sales pitches.  However, in this same report white papers were identified as a frequently used information asset, especially in the early phases of the purchase process, so there is still a place for white papers as marketing assets.

I think a lot of B2B marketers like white papers because they are relatively easy and cost-effective to produce, and they tend to get people to register for them, either on a company’s website or through content syndication sites.  But going back to the misuse issue of this term, marketers should be more selective about what makes a good white paper – the content should be informative and authoritative, providing detailed information and a defensible position on a specific topic.  It should educate the reader without trying to market or sell a product, in order to position the author (and his/her company) as having expertise that would make the reader want to engage further.  By establishing credibility through the white paper, a product/service can then be marketed as part of the sales progression process.

In addition, a truly informative white paper allows the marketer to produce a set of assets around it (blog posts, webinars or podcasts, excerpts) that can be used to drive demand and build a more comprehensive set of content — and, these items can be promoted on sites that don’t work for papers (Slideshare, YouTube, etc.) in order to increase the paper’s visibility.  So, while the white paper is still relevant, marketers should think about creating fewer, of higher quality, and with a supporting set of assets around each one.  And for those marketing papers that are product-focused, use more appropriate terms such as data sheet or solution brief.

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