When Winston Churchill penned the first whitepaper – a 1922 British statement of policy regarding Palestine – he faced a challenge: how to deliver an authoritative message and not leave the recipients feeling as if they were being sold a bill of goods.
Nearly a century later, authors of whitepapers wrestle with the same dilemma. So, what is the whitepaper’s relevancy in modern content marketing?
“One wrong way to do a whitepaper is to dump lots of information into it,” notes Colleen Jones, author of “Clout” and CEO of Content Science. “Successful organizations understand not only what questions their customers have but also when customers need those questions answered. In other words, successful organizations understand their customers’ journey and plan the whitepaper to support that journey.”
If anything, the fine line between “thought leadership” and “sales pitch” has grown even more subtle over the years. And while Churchill had somewhat of a captive audience for his writings, today’s marketers run the risk of losing their readers in the click of mouse if they don’t get it right.
So how do you produce a whitepaper that gains goodwill for your company without creating the impression of a not-so-thinly veiled marketing spiel?
“The brands that do the best job of content marketing leverage their expertise to give their customers relevant and useful content,” said Paige Windsor, President of the marketing firm iCre8t Results. “They understand what their customers need and want, and that’s what they supply.”
This formula applies regardless of the topic and field of expertise, Windsor said, and as an example she cited The Home Depot … and toilets.
“When The Home Depot, the brand, provides an article on its website about how to fix a toilet, they are essentially giving you brand-agnostic content about a home repair,” she said. “It might as well be written by a journalist. They aren’t saying, ‘Buy this toilet,’ or ‘Buy this pipe.’ They’re more subtle and respectful of customers, saying, ‘Hey, we know you would ask one of our store associates how to fix a toilet, so we’re going to share that very helpful information with you online for free.’”
Of course, should you need any of their products to complete your project, a purchase is just a click away on the The Home Depot website. “Genius,” Windsor said.
Most businesses take a more nuanced approach to the content of their whitepapers, but the need to provide objective, useful information – without pushing a particular product or service – remains an important consideration. “You have to make sure the content is compelling, different, and will advance the conversation,” said Rachel Tobin, who leads the commercial real estate practice at Jackson Spalding, a marketing communications firm. “Start with the premise that you have something worth saying, then make sure it hasn’t been said already,” she said. “Or if has, that you are advancing the conversation, adding to it with new knowledge or experience, or that you have new research to share.”
Although shorter, more interactive content has made a dent in the popularity of whitepapers, they remain the number one source of information for businesses looking to make B2B purchasing decisions, according to a 2014 survey by Demand Gen, a global consulting firm. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they used whitepapers to research those decisions – down from last year, but still ahead of case studies, webinars, eBooks and other forms of content.
“There’s a feeling that the whitepaper has gone the way of the traditional press release,” said Bob Hope, President of the public relations firm Hope-Beckham. “In the craze over digital, companies don’t think of them the same way. The CEO of a company today would rather do a YouTube video than a textbook-style whitepaper.”
But companies who abandon whitepapers are missing an opportunity, he said. “Anytime you can analyze current data and situations and look ahead to what’s next, you can be seen as a thought leader, as an expert,” Hope said. “The industries and businesses that are most likely to read whitepapers are the same ones that are always looking toward the future.”
As an example of how an authoritative whitepaper can have an impact, even if the audience is comparatively small, he cites a report his company once helped compile for a paper plant being built alongside a river in upstate New York. “It addressed the issue of a community’s right to know, and what the company’s obligations were from both a legal and moral standpoint,” he said. “It became a very helpful document for any company with plants located along rivers, anywhere.”
Writing with that level of expertise, in an authoritative, almost professorial voice, enhances the value of a whitepaper, Windsor said. “[When your] audience includes executives who tend to be more trusting of formal academic studies and papers when making business decisions, it’s the right fit for them,” she said.
People spend more time reading whitepapers than other content when researching B2B purchase, the Demand Gen report found. Fourteen percent of respondents said they spent more than an hour reading whitepapers – more than any other content form.
Perhaps the greatest change to whitepapers in the 93 years since Churchill’s essay – which is generally recognized as the first of its kind – is in their presentation. It’s rare today to find a whitepaper that consists solely of black text on a white background; color, infographics, and external links abound.
“It’s not a new concept that people are starved for time,” Windsor said. “But people who are short on time will find time to consume your content if it is useful, entertaining, or connects with them emotionally. Someone short on time (or attention) will consume and recall more if the information has visual elements such as graphics, images, and videos. Hyperlinks take a bit of the sting out of frequent citations. And good design and typography is becoming an imperative.”
Hope, however, cautions against going overboard with presentation. “There’s an old saying in the movie business: the only things that matter are story line, story line, story line,” he said. “Great production is important, but you can have the best production in the world and end up with ‘Water World.’” He continues, “Everyone wants to put all the bells and whistles on their websites, but they’re doing it for themselves. They do the same thing with whitepapers. There’s a lot of junk out there, and people are throwing in everything, just because they can.”
Regardless of your approach to presentation, Tobin notes, the content in whitepapers can and should be “harvested” and used on other platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and in company blogs. “All the parts that have been created (graphics, research, etc.) become reusable and can be part of a larger social media plan,” she said.
After finding the right voice and the right presentation, delivering your content on the right platform completes the equation. But even there a dilemma exists: Should you put whitepapers behind a registration wall?
“I worked with a smart digital strategist who used to say, ‘The greatest indicator of intent is fingers to keys,’” Windsor said. “If you sell golden widgets, and there are people in the world searching online for information about golden widgets, don’t you want your brand to appear in their search results? If you have just one whitepaper, don’t hide it from search traffic.”
According to the Demand Gen report, people are becoming more accustomed to having to register in order to view content. Only 14% of respondents said they would expect to receive access to whitepapers without some form of registration.
Companies should consider their objectives before deciding to place content behind a registration wall, Tobin said. “If you’re trying to create sales leads, then registration is a good idea,” she said. “If you’re trying to exhibit thought leadership, brand positioning, expert positioning or other kinds of brand awareness, then I wouldn’t ask for a registration.”
Regardless of whether the whitepaper lies behind a registration wall, Windsor said, companies should promote it on social channels and within online communities where their potential customers live and play.
“Convert the best of your white papers into presentation decks and post them on Slideshare. Or break it up into a series you can run on LinkedIn,” she said. “After it’s out there in parts, you can offer the all-in-one version behind a registration wall. It’s the best of both worlds.”
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