White Papers are Not Dead. They’re on Life Support.

Have Marketers Killed This B2B Golden Goose?

Have Marketers Killed This B2B Golden Goose?

The original purpose of white papers as a B2B marketing tactic was to produce objective information, packaged as quasi-academic research, that might validate a company’s or product’s value proposition. White paper sponsors sought to educate, inform, raise comfort levels and eventually initiate sales conversations with prospective customers.

White papers gained significant adoption as a content marketing tool concurrent with the rapid growth of new technologies that often required explanation or context for non-technical buyers. Over time, however, the market education function was largely assumed by research firms such as Gartner and Forrester, whose opinions carry greater credibility than self-publishers of white papers.

Unfortunately, what began as a legitimate and sometimes helpful marketing tactic has morphed into poorly disguised sales promotion, packaged in a plain vanilla wrapper. The evolution of white papers from bona fide content into self-serving advertorials has been validated by vertical industry trade publications, in which companies, for a fee, are permitted to “feature” their white papers in a special section. White papers jumped the shark when they became paid content.

The outcome of widespread abuse of white papers – driven by marketers grasping for new ways to put lipstick on a pig, or too lazy to produce rigorous research that might empower customers to draw their own conclusions – is that the tactic has lost its franchise as an effective B2B marketing asset class. Increasingly, prospective customers do not believe white papers will be helpful or credible, and as a result, they no longer play a critical role in their decision-making process for purchasing products or services.

Some B2B publications, marketing consulting firms and other 3rd parties with a vested interest in promoting the use of white papers are capable of citing surveys, focus group results and case studies to support the tactic as an effective lead generation and lead nurturing device. And there are still many companies that produce legitimate white papers containing helpful, objective information.

But despite this quantitative evidence and the best efforts of producers of high quality content, B2B customers are avoiding white papers in greater numbers, not only because they are no longer viewed as credible, but also because marketers have erected too many registration barriers that restrict online access to content. Marketers, in turn, are finding white papers to be far less effective as a demand generation tool. Marketers may not have killed the white paper goose, but the tactic is certainly on life support, and is producing far fewer golden eggs.

So if diminished impact is the new white paper reality, then how do companies leverage whatever B2B marketing benefits this traditional tactic may still be capable of delivering? Here are few suggestions:

Repackage the Content: One of my grandmother’s favorite expressions was, “If you fly with the crows, you’ll be shot at.” If you’ve produced credible content, avoid guilt by association with self-serving white papers by publishing it with a different label. Executive Review? Research Report? Market Analysis? Blue Paper?

Scrap the Traditional Format: Regardless of the credibility issue, people simply have too much to read. Instead, produce a video or slideshare version of your white paper content. There’s a greater likelihood that interested parties will sit still for a 3-minute video production than invest 20 minutes laboring over a written white paper. Or create a visual version to serve as a “highlights” teaser that incents readership of the written version.

Grow a Set: Instead of producing the white paper in-house or hiring a freelance writer, engage a well-known, respected industry source to research and produce your white paper…and (here’s the tough part) give that writer complete editorial control. The report may take some shots that you don’t like, but the conclusions will be highly credible and your brand will gain a reputation as a company that can withstand scrutiny.

Slice and Dice Content: Rather than jamming your white paper content into a single masterpiece, allocate and publish the findings as a series of blog post installments. This method will increase readership and also produce multiple opportunities to communicate with target audiences, versus once-and-done publication of your white paper.

Kill Registration Hurdles: Your competitors will always find a way to get a copy of your white paper. Stop acting as though your white paper contains the formula for cold fusion, and use it to generate appreciation of your company’s intellectual capital by all interested parties, including competitors. As B2B internet protocol has evolved, people are far less inclined to provide contact information in exchange for what may be worthless content. Increasingly, registration barriers lose more leads than they generate.

White paper supporters need only be patient. Similar to other B2B marketing tactics that have fallen out of favor through over-use or abuse, the utility of white papers may eventually be fully restored. Even snail mail, long declared dead as a marketing channel, is now enjoying a resurgence as an effective means to cut through the clutter of email.


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18 responses to “White Papers are Not Dead. They’re on Life Support.

  1. Reblogged this on Bill Bennett and commented:
    A great post from Gordon G Andrew on technology White Papers. Andrew writes about them from a marketing point of view and says while they are now less popular and their name may be a problem, the idea of white papers is still valid. I agree, but please, keep them short and credible. No-one wants to read a ten page advertisement.

  2. Brevity is definitely of value as is accessibility. Two things I have been discussing recently is that writing needs to have accessible. whilst searching for specific reading material in the Auckland central Library recently I was amazed at how many books on the topic I was researching, where thinly or not disguised PhD treatises and very difficult looking reads. It’s not about the volume as much as making it easy to share the message. Also agreed on advertorial, that’s one of the things that has put me off white papers in recent years. Instead of the purpose being to share information, they are there blatantly to sell expensive reports or services.

    • Agreed. Thanks for the insight, Luigi.

    • I agree. I used to be a white paper editor/ghost writer for my company (an ERP solution firm.) I can’t tell you how many times I’d get stuff that was poorly written, vague, and full of jargon. When I’d push the expert in question to clarify it was always, “Oh, don’t worry, any ERP Financials professional will understand….”

      I was pretty unrelenting and we produced quality, readable material.

  3. I’ve just redirected my writing career towards whitepapers and your article almost made me cry!

    Then I realized that I can be a catalyst for the revival of the authority of white papers. You’ve reminded me what white papers should be about. That’s the message I’ll communicate to my clients.

    • Wilton,

      My blog posts tend to be a bit over the top…so they grab peoples’ attention. I am not a big fan of white papers, but take heart…the future is all about relevant content. And if you’re a business copywriter, you are certainly in the right place. The market need for content will continue to grow. The challenge is getting companies to pay for it. Good luck, and thanks for your comment. Gordon

  4. I spent the first several years at my current company doing a lot of time editing/ghost writing white papers and I took your points to heart. Too often I would either get: 1. A bunch of technical stuff, screen shots, bullet points, and with some very skimpy extremely poorly written text, or 2. Text which were little more than sales slicks with a thin coat of technical explanation weaved in.

    My goal was to transform those into documents which demonstrated our competence in subject in question while staying accessible to the average, non-technical business reader.

    I tend to agree, however, that attention spans and available time reduces the number of people who will read long-format document. But…

    On the flip side, I might argue that these kinds of documents could be useful for engaging people who are deeper into your sales cycle.

    Final point about registration – You’re right, competitors will get your content here in 2013, there is no doubt about that. However, registration can be a useful way to building your contact lists.

    • Keith,
      I’ve found that one of the toughest challenges in creating a worthwhile white paper is getting your CEO (or client) to understand that it’s not sales collateral. I will admit that on more than one occasion I’ve thrown in the towel. Thanks for your comments. Gordon

  5. Recent DemandGen Report survey bolsters these findings: Prospects want readable copy focused on business benefits (not speeds and feeds) and that is backed up by research. http://www.demandgenreport.com/industry-topics/content-strategies/2087-2013-b2b-content-survey-trust-is-a-make-or-break-issue-for-todays-buyers.html#.Udcs9vnviM6

    • Bob, We’ve both been in the game long enough to know that most surveys are designed to prove a self-serving point. Hell, I’ve even been commissioned to create an “objective” survey or two. But because it’s Friday afternoon, I’ll assume the veracity of the DemandGen Report survey is pristine, so that we can put that issue aside. My contention is not that white papers have no purpose at all, but rather that marketers have damaged their credibility and intrinsic value by turning them into sales collateral. There are certainly well-written, objective, helpful white papers out there…but they are no longer accepted at face value as a trustworthy or credible format. Because of that, many buyers no longer want to go through the process of determining which content is helpful and which is self-serving. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Gordon

  6. Gordon,

    Thanks for your insight. When someone contacted me the other day about writing a few white papers (I’m a free-lance writer), my first thought was “Really? People still read those?” To me, white papers represent exactly what you describe: marketing communications. Sometimes they’re thinly veiled; other times, they’re blatant self-promotion. I just can’t imagine anyone picking up a white paper (knowing that the storyteller is paid by the company) and thinking “here’s objective information about an issue that relates to my business.” I believe that a blend of testimonial/case statement offered by someone credible is a far better way to go. Is it obvious promotion? Absolutely. But someone is putting his/her reputation on the line to say that a particular company or service helped solve a real problem.

    • David,

      Thanks for your insights. We are on the same page with respect to the shortcomings of white papers. I’ve had heated discussions with clients regarding this topic. In the end, after I’ve stated my case and attempted to direct them to a more credible form of marketing, if they persist in wanting to create a sales slick called a “white paper,” I let them have their way. It’s always better to stay in the game, and look for other ways to help them. Thanks again.

    • Keith Thomas

      “I just can’t imagine anyone picking up a white paper (knowing that the storyteller is paid by the company) and thinking “here’s objective information about an issue that relates to my business.””

      There’s no doubt this will be the reaction if the content in question is nothing more than a dressed up sales slick or brochure.

      However, there are fields where you can produce white papers that offer prospects value-added information without being “salesy.” I think these types of white papers can still be valuable assets, at least in certain industries, at certain phases of the lead generation/nurturing cycle.

      Now, there’s a larger question which Gordon hinted at which is, “Is the time and effort needed to do “it right” when it comes to white papers” worth it? Or are those efforts and resources best devoted to other assets (such as say, video.) That I think is a slightly different discussion.

      • Keith,

        Thanks for your comment. There are probably as many crappy videos as there are white papers. The additional challenge with video is that, even if the content has intellectual integrity, if the video lacks top-notch production values and fails to hold viewer interest then people will bail out very quickly. People are more apt to skim through a tedious white paper than totally stop reading it. I’m a big fan of video, but I think when it comes to technical topics, white papers may have a slight edge in terms of communication potential. Gordon

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