Since the content marketing movement began, there’s been a steady increase in demand for white papers — they are, to use a favorite phase of an old friend, “the new hotness.” We hear and say the phrase “white paper” dozens more times a week than we did a couple of years ago. They are considered the magic bullet for enticing prospects and clients to engage, the cookies offered up in email campaigns and on websites to draw people in and get them to share information and convert to leads.
Of course, white papers are nothing new. The term has been around for decades, typically used by governments that produced white papers to lay out the painstaking details of a policy position. In the past 20 years they’ve been better known in the high-tech world, written to “speak geek” to IT decision-makers who tune out marketing messaging and want to get down to brass tacks.
But now that marketers are using marketing automation and delivering content across social media platforms and websites, white papers have never been more in demand — and marketers are scrambling to churn them out fast to meet the demands of their lead generation and sales enablement efforts. And suddenly, white papers are seriously sexy.
Deliver the steak with the sizzle
But with this new pressure to pump out white papers brings problems: namely, that there’s content being churned out that isn’t very high-quality. Some of the most common problems we see with white papers:
- They’re chock full of factoids but have no clear narrative.
- They’re not very original and rehash the same content as competitors.
- They’re not presented in an attractive or engaging way (think Word docs saved as PDFs and slapped up online, with long and rambling walls of text and nothing to make people want to dig into them).
- They’re written poorly — plain and simple.
People can easily discern between lazy, unoriginal and painful-to-read content and content that really delivers them value. Even if they “click through” to grab your latest white paper, if it’s not as sexy as you promise it’s going to be, they probably won’t come back again. But delivering quality and value each and every time will more likely turn your reader into your loyal customer.
Make your white papers hot, hot, hot
- Take a position. You don’t have to be controversial, but you have to have a point of view. What’s your unique perspective based on where you sit in the market? What’s your vision for where your industry is going, or your opinion about what your customers need? Weave this point of view into your white paper and ensure that the facts you’re presenting support it.
- Avoid the blatant marketing rub. White papers should be neutral territory; people download them expecting education, not advertising. There’s a way to still promote your own solution, of course, by extolling the “best practices” a prospect should consider and conveniently making them mirror your solution’s best characteristics. But avoid being too transparent about this — your prospects are savvy enough to see through it.
- Include original expertise or research. Have you recently done market research with your prospects’ peers? Do you have a wicked-smart expert on staff who knows more about a subject than anybody you’ve ever met? This knowledge and insight is pure gold. Mine it: interview the expert or analyze the research and package that unique knowledge into your white paper — and make sure you promote it. Your audience will eat it up.
- Hire a writer or editor. Unless your on-staff expert is known just as well for his or her ability to write entertaining, meaningful content, don’t let the expert write the paper — or at least not the final draft. Let a professional writer, with a strong voice and demonstrated ability to turn heavily technical or business content into an engaging narrative, prepare your paper for public consumption.
- Make them easy to digest. White papers are one of the last places in marketing communications where long-form content is acceptable, even preferable. But you still need to format them to make them easy to consume by busy, information-overloaded professionals. Put on your editorial hat and think about enticing headlines, subheads that break up content into less overwhelming sections, bullets and lead-in bold-face phrases that make information easy to skim. People may glance over your paper a few times before deciding to settle down and read it word for word, so these formatting practices help to give them enough information to know the paper is worth their time.
- Design it! Think about your white paper less like the white papers of old — 75-page research papers with hundreds of footnotes and few breaks — and more as entertainment. We had a client once who urged us to create guides that “people would want to take on vacation to read at the beach.” And while that might have been a stretch, it’s the right idea. Think about how to visualize complex information in colorful charts and graphs, and use a template that lays out content more like a magazine spread (callouts, visuals, type treatments) than a dry, colorless paper. It makes your work look more professional and adds to the credibility of the content.
Remember the ways that people will use these: they’ll probably read them between meetings or on the train or bus during their commute, and they’ll share them with colleagues to help make their case for a new solution. If they’re written and designed well, and feature useful information that can support a position, they’ll be very useful to your audience — who will see your company or organization as a credible source for other information in the future and, just maybe, the partner of choice when they’re ready to solve their problem.