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Sales and Marketing Software

White Paper Love Affair

By Bob Johnson, VP & Principal Analyst

White Papers and the Buying Process: It is Time for Vendors and Agencies to Grow Beyond This Historic Love Affair

What is the first content type your organization will propose they create for an upcoming program or campaign? Chances are it is a white paper. But then ask yourself - is that tendency due to buyer preference or the fact that you are in a content type rut and default to white papers time after time? We’ve previously delved into this topic, but as buyers continue to bring us new insight, we’re back to share new trends.

At IDG Connect, we host thousands of technology and service assets that buyers access. Many of them are, guess what, white papers broken out into two major categories, Technical and Market Overview and Trends. Buyers certainly use them, which is shown by our global voice of the buyer research that has them as a top five overall content type, especially in the middle stages of the buying process. But just how valued are they? When we look at the percentage of overall assets white papers represent versus the percentage of white paper downloads that take place, we see that their usage falls short of their inventory percentage by over 10 percent. So, buyers tend to proportionally favor other content types. Wonder why?

First, average white paper length is still too long, as buyers wish for them to be no more than seven pages, but the existing average page count is still almost twice as long. Their length and frequent broad focus makes the buyer work too hard to find the relevant nuggets of actionable insight. They seek assets that provide greater interaction, specificity and relevance so they are very willing to explore other content types. This does not construe that white papers lack importance, they do, but the activity levels versus availability shows a phenomenon we call asset overplay.

The greatest evidence yet that buyers are de-emphasizing white papers comes from IDG Connect’s recent voice of the buyer research into what content types buyers prefer to see offered via links from social media conversations. White papers, whether technical or market view oriented, failed to crack the top ten.  That’s right. Given a choice, buying team members prefer other content types far more often than seeing a white paper served up for consumption via a link. The top three desired content types, in order, are competitive comparisons, virtual events, and case studies.

The primary reason these content types rank so high is driven by buying process needs.  Buyers are in the middle of the buy cycle. They want content that enables them to move the process forward to be discussed and shared, that helps them confirm alignment with their needs, get their questions answered, and accurately compare one option versus another. They want to move, not pause. White papers are most often seen as background assets that give context, not decision drivers, and unless they offer checklists, frameworks or action steps, they fail to offer value that  becomes part of the fabric of the decision making process. On the other hand, a case study can be extremely relevant, especially when it recounts an experience in the same industry or size organization, a framework to conduct a competitive comparison helps level the playing field so as to give a consistent approach to the comparison of alternatives and a virtual event offers the possibility to interact and ask questions directly related to issues and needs.

If you want to stand out, avoid an over-reliance on white papers. Consider briefs, overviews, frameworks, models, templates, and peer-based assets that offer greater comparative context. Think about how the asset can enable traction and action in the decision process. If you extend your asset portfolio and stretch your boundaries, those other asset types also extend more directly to social conversations and will compel buyers to use your guidance and expertise as they make informed decisions, often more quickly with insight better aligned with your positioning and value.

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Bob Johnson

VP & Principal Analyst, IDG Connect

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