Back from the Dead

‘Tis the season of vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, and zombies. This makes it a great time to discuss the reanimation of that old content marketing standby, the white paper.

Recently a client asked me, “Do white papers still have a place in my content marketing strategy?”

I get it. In today’s information-packed, immediate-gratification world, the traditional white paper can seem windy, dry, and even a bit boring. Aren’t bright shiny objects like short blog posts, infographics, and 90-second video clips more effective at engaging your audience?

To some extent, yes. Shorter-form, visually-immersive content is growing in popularity, particularly as part of a well-coordinated social media strategy. Yet in the high-end B2B market, the staid, long-form white paper still plays an important role. Consider these stats:

White papers remain the most effective way to attract and engage buyers of high-value, complex products and services. These decision-makers spend hours researching the best solution to their unique business challenge. A properly-executed series of white papers creates a foundation of expertise upon which your firm can build credibility within your target market. Over time, this foundation will harden and begin generating a steady stream of qualified leads and eventually, sales.

That said, white papers are evolving. Here are a few trends I’m keeping my eye on:

  1. Short is sweet: Although I still write a lot of traditional, long-form white papers of 4,000 to 6,000 words (up to 15-20 pages, with graphics), recently I’ve worked with several clients to produce shorter papers of 1,500 to 3,000 words. This format is perfectly designed for today’s busy, harried executive who doesn’t have the time to read a full-fledged white paper. The key is to still provide a meaty exploration of a core business challenge or industry trend.
  2. Seeing is believing: When white papers first became popular in business in the early 1990s, they consisted primarily of plain text set against a white background, with few if any graphical elements, charts, or illustrations. This approach has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, white papers include photos, company logos, call-out quotes, charts, graphs, illustrations, and infographics. Some even include video clips in interactive, electronic formats. It is a welcome change. Today’s “white” papers are much more engaging and easier to digest than those of the past.
  3. Promote, promote, promote! You may have just written the most thought-provoking, scintillating piece of content in the history of white papers. Unfortunately, if you simply slap it up on your website, no one will find it. This is where social media posts, media alerts, press releases, emails to your current clients, prospects, and influencer lists, and sharing on popular white paper sites like White Paper Library and TechRepublic can help get the word out and extend the life and usefulness of your publication.
  4. Reuse … recycle … repurpose: A white paper is the centerpiece of a comprehensive content marketing strategy. If you take an evergreen approach, focusing more on tried-and-true insights and advice rather than chasing the trend of the moment, a single white paper can continue paying dividends for years. The content can be sliced into a series of shorter articles, each focusing on one key topic from the paper, and repurposed endlessly via social media posts, blog posts, live webinars, podcasts, and recorded videos.
  5. Avoid the overt sales pitch: OK, this one is nothing new, but it remains a best practice. White papers are meant to provide a thorough analysis of a specific business problem or market trend and offer a well-considered solution. Buyers do not expect a hard-sell. Leave that job to your product brochures, sell sheets and case studies. It’s acceptable to include a “learn more” call to action toward the end of a white paper, but that’s about it. The white paper is strictly a top-of-the-sales-funnel asset targeted to buyers beginning their research. Once you establish credibility as a thought leader, the buyer will return to investigate your offerings.

The white paper is not dead! It remains an important element of a well-balanced content marketing strategy, particularly for firms offering high-value, high-cost products and services. Is it time to make it part of yours?

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