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The white paper is dead…or is it?

At a webinar I presented the other day  I  said that while white papers were still the staple of content marketing, they’re getting really stale as a communications vehicle for B2B. A few people were so incensed they contacted me to say I was talking tripe. White papers, they said, are still the critical weapon in the B2B marketing arsenal. The comments got me thinking about whether I was correct. 

To be fair, they stemmed from the fact that I probably read a lot more white papers than your average B2B Joe. And if I wasn’t paid to do it, I would certainly read a lot fewer: most are far too long, far too self-serving, far too boring and written so turgidly that just a few paragraphs in, suicide is often attractive. Having said that, I came across some recent research by Information Week that seemed to contradict my opinion. Conducted among over 500 senior corporate, IT and line of business managers working at companies of varying sizes, the research showed:

• 76.3% use white papers for general education on specific technology topic or issue;

• 73.8 % use white papers to investigate possible solutions for the business/technology need;

• 68% use white papers to learn about a specific vendor and their solution technology.

Putting aside the fact that the research was designed to convince B2B marketers to pay for Information Week’s digital download service, I should probably have qualified my comments about white papers in a couple of ways. In our experience, while B2B marketers say that they write white papers to exert some thought leadership, few really do this.

This is backed up by the Information Week data: almost two thirds of readers believe that the white papers they read are too sales or marketing focussed – and only 17% said that the white papers they read were unbiased. That means more than four out of five people are disappointed in the content of the white papers they have taken the trouble to download.

Surely, great thought leadership is about putting your agenda aside and putting your prospect’s agenda at the heart of your piece? Don’t cram your latest widget into every paragraph. If you overkill on your offer  - like most white papers do – you’ll undermine the value of the piece. (Incredibly 70% of Information Week’s respondees said that a vendor representative contacted them before they had a chance even to evaluate the white paper – talk about putting obstacles in the way of downloads.) 

Readers aren’t stupid: they know you have an agenda, but by setting it aside and showing that you understand their challenges you can earn the right to sell to them at a later date. 

The second qualifier is to do with format. In the early stages of sales cycles in information hungry markets, most prospects don’t care about your vision, your latest product or your technology leadership. It’s safe (even sensible) to act as if your B2B buyers are pretty busy – even if most are under tremendous pressure to learn about how new technologies can help their companies.

In information gathering mode, prospects will gravitate to material that matches their concerns and is easy to consume, providing it’s intelligent. Most don’t want to spend hours ploughing through screeds of  pompously-written, self-serving dreck. If you’ve got some leading thoughts to share, why not recognise that we’re now in a broadband, YouTube world?

You can use video, audio or flash or a combination of all three to get your messages across in a couple of minutes. Interview your technology experts in a white board session (making sure the scene is well lit and we can hear what they’re saying of course). Run a round table with customers and partners and film it, editing it down to five minutes or so of the juiciest material. Get your top salesman to interview your best customer and serve it up as a podcast. Production costs these days for this type of material are pretty low. All you need is good ideas and the confidence to put them into action. 

So are white papers dead? Providing they’re not boring, too long and all about you, absolutely not. But we see them as being most relevant when your prospect has a real project and a real budget and when she’s considering your solution as a candidate for a shortlist.

At that point, tech buyers look for as much technical information on a particular solution as they can find (the only time I read computer magazines, for example, is when I’m about to upgrade my machine). In these circumstances, we still see a place for the traditional, highly technical piece filled to the gunnels with product specs and diagrams on integration and implementation.

We still think you need to keep them short – over 50% of Information Week’s survey said they wanted white papers to be shorter than five pages. And because people want this type of information when they are near to making a purchase decision, you could think about whether you should ask for the prospect’s details before allowing the download.

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