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?

To Japan With Love

Yuka just boarded her flight back home.

My family was selected as one of three host families for a Rotary youth exchange student from Japan. Yuka spent this past year immersing herself in American culture, language, and education, and she had the experience of a lifetime.

For my family, the experience was every bit as rewarding. Through Yuka, a joyful, kind, and enthusiastic ambassador for her home country, we caught a glimpse through the peephole into the fascinating world of Japan. For her part, Yuka confronted several challenges along the way, especially early on as she struggled to become fluent in English and understand the nuances of our relaxed communication style.

Now that the tears have dried, I’ve had a few days to reflect on the experience. Several lessons are applicable to marketing communications:

  1. Communicate simply and clearly: Simplicity is always a worthwhile goal in communications, but when dealing with a non-native English speaker, it is particularly important to break your writing down to the core message. What is your goal? Are your sentences and paragraphs overstuffed with purple prose? If you slash all non-essential words and phrases, is anything lost?
  2. If at first, you don’t connect, restate your message: Sometimes I would ask Yuka a question, and be rewarded with a blank stare. This was a sure sign I needed to rephrase the question in a different way, using simpler, more common verbiage. Occasionally it meant I needed to provide additional background information or context. These interactions reminded me there is usually more than one way to communicate with your audience.
  3. Know your audience: In Japanese, there are four distinct ways of addressing people: kun, chan, san, and sama. These various styles range from informal, to condescending, to deferential. Japanese custom requires speakers to address people differently depending on their relative ages and organizational rank. Although the U.S. is a much less formal and hierarchical society, it is still critical to understand your audience and cater your messaging style accordingly. Ignoring your audience’s perspective means at best, encouraging misunderstanding and at worst, offending the reader.
  4. Listen before speaking: Yuka taught me to listen more closely and to have patience. As a non-native English speaker, she would sometimes struggle to find the right word. After much trial and error, rather than quickly jumping in with what I thought was the phrase she was looking for, I learned to let her sort through her mental catalog to find the words that fit her thoughts. I often found she was trying to say something different from what I assumed. This lesson is already helping me in my writing and interactions with collaborators and clients. Even as native speakers, few of us can always, perfectly articulate our thoughts, goals, and messages. It pays to listen, ask follow-up questions, and engage in interactive dialogue before drawing conclusions.
  5. Thank your lucky stars: Those of us living in the English-speaking world have it easy. Not only does a majority of the (business) world speak English, other languages, particularly those native to Asia, are much harder to learn. Consider that Japanese has four separate systems of written language: kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romanj. Kanji, which was imported from China two millennia ago, consists of 2,000 symbols in common use, each representing a different word. Japanese children must memorize over 1,000 kanji by the time they finish elementary school.

My family and I are grateful to Yuka for sharing her wonderful and unique perspective and personality with us for a few months. We miss our host daughter/sister already and look forward to seeing her again, perhaps next time in Japan.

Yoku kaite, umaku iku.
Write Well, and Be Well!