If there has been one constant in the ever-transient paradigm of marketing on the Internet, it is that "content" is the key to attract a steady stream of the uninitiated as well the converts.
What kinds of specific content serve that purpose cost-effectively keeps the grey cells of those with an interest in content and marketing functional.
In my view, good white papers (vendor-generated, or commissioned ones by neutral third parties) serve to generate awareness about a product/service/organization, and more importantly cause people to inquire and potentially buy the product/service in question.
There are some obvious advantages to creating and using high-quality white papers as part of a company's marketing mix (apart from the $40 million evidence presented by the takeover of white paper aggregator BitPipe by TechTarget some time back):
- Additional content on the company's Web site: If you are not in the business of aggregating or publishing proprietary content (like a news site, for example), keeping a site fresh with some new content on a regular basis is a constant challenge. Here, white papers can add a bit of depth and variety to your Web site content. You can either write these yourself, or commission a third party to produce it for you; and the benefits of having additional relevant content are fairly well documented.
- Ease of distribution: White papers can be easily distributed for almost no cost to the organization. Readers of white papers are more likely to pass along the document to their colleagues or friends. How often does one hear of regular ads or other marketing collateral being circulated?
Moreover, there are a number of white paper aggregators around that would be happy to list your white paper for free. In such cases, you are only paying for the creative and distribution service (if doing it through a PR firm). But unlike traditional online advertising, you are not paying for the real estate as well. The advantages of having the links to the white paper and to your site are quite obvious.
- Format: The format of preparing a white paper is fairly simple, and therefore the turnaround time can be much faster. Typically, white papers don't go through numerous cycles of "I think that picture should be moved to this corner" and "the brand is not prominently displayed" kind of critical review sessions. With most other collateral, brevity is another constraint that one has to contend with.
- Perception: There is a perception (rightly or wrongly) that white papers are absolutely objective and factual, almost like scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals. A certain academic weight and bent is placed on a white paper, and specifically for that reason white papers should be used for marketing sparingly and intelligently.
- PR value: A white paper is treated as content and not advertising. Editors are most likely to include quotes from white papers; you can bet they don't write about ads.
The White Paper Don'ts
Once you decide to produce white papers, some basic cautionary steps need to be exercised to ensure that their effectiveness is not diluted:
- Don't overuse white papers, or they will lose their value. The same rule applies to press releases—or, for that matter, pretty much anything in the marketing mix or life!
- Don't make the paper a multi-page text ad. That is, don't attempt a hard sell with a white paper. Present the facts, and don't make claims like ads do. You might be better off paying for a good ad made rather than doing a white paper that attempts to be an ad with out its attention-grabbing flair.
- Don't ignore the external environment. The white paper shouldn't be all about a company, product or service; it has to be set in a much broader context. A white paper has to analytical and seen to be informative and educative.
When getting down to actually creating the white paper—after completing the prerequisites such as defining the objective, the scope and the timeframe—consider two aspects of the white paper, "physical" and "intellectual."
- Length: Aim to keep the length of the paper to less than 20 pages, though some others recommend not more than 10 or 12. (The figure 20 is not based on a scientific study, but purely on anecdotal evidence and observation.) While the length has to be determined by the extent of detail you feel is necessary to successfully communicate the message of the paper, remember that with each page the challenge to keep the reader engaged mounts.
- Graphics: Relevant visuals—schematic diagrams or graphs and charts—undoubtedly have to be mixed with the text. However, many organizations begin their white papers with rather esoteric visuals that are an attempt to trigger curiosity and interest. But from a white paper reader's perspective (and especially those from a cost-conscious small company), these graphics do nothing more than add to the number of pages to print and are therefore an avoidable cost.
- Weight: The file size is another key factor, which is of course dependent on the two factors mentioned above. Keep it light, as a heavy file could potentially kill one of the key advantages of white papers—the distribution (or email pass-ons). People don't want to be receiving and risk sending too heavy a file.
The content of the white paper, which I call the "intellectual" attributes, ultimately dictates its success in meeting your objectives.
At a very broad level, a white paper is a document about a phenomenon change, from a problem state in the present to the problem-less state in the future, and therefore it can be structured as follows:
- What is the prevalent problem that is being attempted to be solved?
- What are the common solutions that have been attempted and why have those not yielded the desired results? (Note that the objective should not be to do a competitive comparison, but instead to reiterate to the audience the gap between what is and what ought to have been.)
- What is the technology/product/service/phenomenon that closes the gap and solves the problem? Statistical or visual or other strong evidence will be the key to driving home your message here. While proving it beyond reasonable doubt may be a tough ask, one approach is to think through the solution being presented in an FAQ mode.
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