Sales and Marketing Software

Are You Stuck in a White Paper Rut?

By Bob Johnson, VP & Principal Analyst

What should we create for new content? “Give ‘em a white paper” comes the reply. Sound familiar?

White papers do have value to buyers and consistently rate in the top five content types overall. But when looked across assets used for lead generation or nurturing, they tend to be overused for campaigns, often seen more than 70% of the time. So to some degree the perceived success of white papers is a self-fulfilling prophecy. To know what degree that might be the case I took a look and found something interesting.

Despite there being so many white papers available when it comes to inbound traffic, they are used slightly more than other content formats on a download-per-asset basis.  And that is after customers, for years, have been positively sensitized to this content type.  So the adoption by sellers is not matched by preference among buyers. Many customers might be burnt out on white papers but find content creators offer little choice.  Let’s get out of the rut and see if we can evolve to a better, more impactful place.

White paper use exploded with the advent of the web. Prior to that they were mostly deep, dense, technical documents that required considerable expertise to read and understand. With the Internet, white papers evolved, keeping their technical orientation but more vendors sought an independent source, such as an industry or financial research firm to author and help increase asset legitimacy.  A technical document turned into a marketing vehicle. The independent voice is important as the number one complaint among buyers about digital content is the perception of bias. So far, so good right? But the trouble is that was 20 years ago and little has changed other than some adding hyperlinks to speed navigation to relevant sections. Thankfully, the observed average white paper length has gone down, by almost 50% in page count over the past four years but remember the MAXIMUM length buyers prefer is seven pages. If you’re longer than that, face it, you’re trying to say too much or might have multiple assets.

So are you in a rut? Many are and it’s a good time to get out of it. Here’s how.

Segment by Focus: Sure call it a white paper, but label it as a business, financial or technical one and limit your focus in the asset to that area.

Segment by Role: Stop mixing strategic and tactical insight into the same white paper. Talk to the decision maker or recommender, the business functions or IT, but don’t use the cover the water front mentality that adds to length and makes it harder for readers to find relevance.

Call it Something Else: If you want an easy way to segment out white paper-like content, there are a multitude of options. Use 'Brief' for assets that provide a narrow focus and a bit of depth, use 'Update' or 'Alert' for those assets with time-sensitive insight, use 'Overview' for background or contextual content, use 'Review' for comparison discussions, or use 'Summary' for later stage assets geared towards the extended buying team. Just by doing that, you’ll offer the buyer some perceived options that can differentiate your content from others and force yourself to change the structure of assets to better fit topical coverage and depth.

Discuss if you are in a rut that it may be due to a product management led mindset and can overcome the hesitancy to do doing anything outside of white papers. They’re valuable and useful but not the end-all, be-all that many perceive them to be.


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Bob Johnson

VP & Principal Analyst, IDG Connect

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