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I've been fascinated recently by the power of e-books. My own e-book, The New Rules of PR: How to create a press release strategy for reaching buyers directly, has been downloaded a remarkable 75,000 times since it was released in January. Imagine how much you would have to pay to get an equivalent number of people to pay attention to an advertisement! Millions of dollars perhaps.

E-books are a tremendous resource for buyers who want to learn about solutions to a market problem. But for many people and organizations, an e-book also has an effect that's less tangible: E-books do much more than just sell product; they directly contribute to an organization's positive reputation by showing thought leadership in the marketplace of ideas. This form of content brands a company, a consultant, or a nonprofit as an expert and as a trusted resource to turn to again and again.

So what is an e-book? For the purposes of marketing using web content, I define an e-book as a PDF-formatted document that identifies a market problem and supplies an answer to the problem. The best e-books don't sell a product; rather, they brand an organization as a thoughtful leader in a defined market space.

E-books have a bit of intrigue to them. People instantly see the value in what they have downloaded for free. In the B2B world, e-books are like the hip and stylish younger sister to the nerdy whitepaper.

I recommend that e-books be presented in a landscape format, rather than the whitepaper's portrait format. Well-executed e-books have more white space and interesting graphics and images; the copy is typically written in a lighter style than the denser copy of whitepapers. In my view, e-books (as marketing tools) are free, and I strongly suggest that there be no registration requirement.

Here are some examples of successful e-books to get your creative energy flowing:

To develop an e-book, follow these steps:

  • Most important, do not write about your company and your products. An e-book is thought leadership, not a brochure or sales pitch.

  • Define your goals for the e-book. Do you want to drive leads? Get people to donate money to your organization? Encourage people to buy something?

  • Think like a publisher by understanding your audience. Consider what market problems your audience has and develop a topic that appeals to your readers.

  • Write for your audience. Use examples and stories. Make it interesting.

  • You will need a great title that grabs attention. Use a subtitle to describe what the e-book will deliver.

  • Hire a professional editor to do a second draft and a proofreader to finalize the copy.

  • Have the e-book professionally designed.

  • Promote the e-book like crazy. Offer the e-book on your site with easy-to-find links. If you have a blog, write about it there. Add a link to employees' email signatures. Get partners to offer links.

  • To drive viral marketing, alert media, bloggers, and analysts that the e-book is available and send them a download link. (Don't send the PDF directly).

This is a new world for marketers and corporate communicators. Never before has a media allowed an idea (or a product) to spread to millions instantly in the way that the web does. E-books are true thought leadership at work and hold the potential to influence many thousands of people in ways that traditional marketing cannot.

To embrace the power of the web and the blogosphere requires a different kind of thinking on the part of marketers. We need to learn to give up our command and control mentality. It isn't about "the message," it is about being thoughtful. It isn't about "segmenting consumers," it is about conversations. Marketing is no longer advertising; instead, marketing is about telling stories.

Done well, e-books deliver authentic thought leadership, branding an organization as one to do business with.

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image of David Meerman Scott

David Meerman Scott, B2B marketing powerhouse and fandom strategist, spotted the real-time marketing revolution in its infancy and wrote five books about it including The New Rules of Marketing and PR, with more than 400,000 copies sold in English and available in 29 languages.

Now, David says the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of superficial online communications. Tech-weary and bot-wary people are hungry for true human connection. Organizations have learned to win by developing what David calls a "Fanocracy"—tapping into the mindset that relationships with customers are more important than the products they sell to them.

Prior to starting his own business, he was vice president of marketing for several publicly traded B2B technology and information companies.