One of my freelance projects involves finding interesting technology resources and recommending them on a client’s blog. I read a lot of technology white papers and often pass over quite a few duds before I find one that is valuable enough to share.
The main reason that I will refuse to promote a technology company’s white paper is because the document is nothing more than a 10-page sales pitch. For more information on why a sales-focused white paper isn’t doing you any favours, see “The Biggest Mistake That Technology Companies Make with Their White Papers (A Rant)”.
However, I’ve also noticed that a number of technology companies are referring to articles, checklists and other resources as “white papers”. While these documents can be useful, they are not white papers (at least, not in the traditional sense). I can guess that marketers may choose to call an article a “white paper”, as leads would opt in for a “white paper” over an “article” that contains information they can find online without trading their email to read it.
I’m a big believer in publishing great content – whether you call it a “white paper”, “guide” or something else. I also don’t think that marketers should do everything by the book. However, if you want to break the rules and call something a “white paper” when it is not one in the traditional sense, you must first understand the rules.
So, what makes a resource a “white paper”? While white papers can take several formats, here are four parts that give white papers credibility and make them valuable:
1. Market drivers. In my opinion, this is what makes a white paper stand apart from other types of content and gives it an authoritative tone. This also sets the stage for the discussion about your product that comes later in the white paper, so it’s important to explore the changes and trends that make your product a necessity (without mentioning your product at this point). You should include quotes from industry experts and statistics to make your case. You can even discuss where your market is headed in the future. Without knowing the context, your readers might not understand why your product is valuable.
2. A discussion of your target audience’s pain points. You should explore your audience’s key challenges in just about every piece of marketing copy you write, so this isn’t unique to white papers. However, in a white paper you can delve deeper into a problem than you can in a product web page or a brochure. Use this opportunity to fully explore your audience’s main challenge. You should include support to back up why the problem needs to be addressed, along with the risks of letting the problem go or taking the wrong steps to resolve it.
3. A “things-to-consider” list. The things-to-consider list is the reason why many people opt in for white papers. They want to know “the top 10 ways to do X”. For this reason, it’s important to ensure that your list has some meat to it. However, many marketers promote top 10 lists as white papers but fail to include a well-rounded discussion of the problem, solution or market drivers. A top ten list can be helpful on its own, but it is not as persuasive as a white paper that contains research and background information.
4. The pitch. Many technology companies devote 80% of their white papers to talking about their products. While you should discuss your product and its benefits, this discussion should come at the end of the white paper and take up no more than a page or two. The bulk of your white paper should educate readers about their problems and how to solve them. If you do this well, many people will read on to learn how your product can help.
These are by no means all of the parts that you can include in a white paper. However, including these four components can take your white papers up a few notches and make them more credible.
A final consideration … does the term “white paper” resonate with your target audience? If so, you’ll want to use it in your marketing. If your target audience doesn’t see the value in white papers, or if they find the expression dated, you may want to use a term such as “e-book”, “report” or “guide”.
What about you? What are your thoughts on using white papers as a marketing tool? Please leave your comments and questions below.