White Papers aren’t quite dead yet

I got involved, a couple of weeks ago, with some fellow social media/content marketing geeks in a LinkedIn thread about marketing white papers. It started with the hypothesis that white papers are losing their cachet and being replaced in the marketer’s bag of tricks by infographics and video. It was a silly supposition that got shouted down unanimously, and it got me thinking about all the times I’ve heard that blogging was dying out.

Why are content marketing folks so fond of issuing death certificates?

white_paperWhite papers are in no danger of extinction, although I concur in a general way with the suggestion that long-form communication is in decline. White paper authoring accounts for a significant chunk of my business, and I haven’t seen any slackening of demand for these essential tools.

At certain key points in your sales cycle, you’ll get past the stakeholders who are only interested in bulleted summaries, and will find yourself addressing the players who need to know the details. These rarely are the first people you encounter in sales process. They typically are people with functional or budget responsibility — people who can say no.

They’re the ones who have the incentive, and the patience, to read the long-form explanation of your value proposition. It’s been my experience that these people tend to be unimpressed with video as a medium, unless it’s crucial to see the product in action, and they tend to feel infographics gloss over important specifics.

Effective marketing organizations understand the process the prospect will go through in deciding to contract with them, hire them or buy their stuff – what is popularly known these days as the customer’s “journey.” Along the way, just about any buyer is going to have questions that can’t be answered by a glib PowerPoint slide. The trick to making effect use of white papers is to anticipate those specific questions, who is likely to ask them and at what point in the cycle the issue is going to arise.

If your analysis of the customer journey tells you there are five such moments, that’s a signal that you need five distinct white papers. Your target may be a business audience or a technical audience, and business and technical white papers may require distinct editorial approaches. It also is possible that a given adoption issue that you must address to close the deal may have both business and technical aspects that need to be addressed.

The white paper’s job is to answer the question or objection, in a way that establishes credibility, either for your company or for a specific author, as an authoritative expert on that specific issue.

If the document addresses a technical question, it may be appropriate to associate the white paper with a named author, such as your Chief Technical Officer, the inventor of your offering, or an unaffiliated third party such as a widely known industry analyst. (Needless to say, there are costs associated with commissioning white papers from outside pundits, but your judgment may be that the borrowed prestige of the expert justifies that expense.)

For each white paper in your kit, focus on:

  • What your audience needs to learn, and
  • What you need to persuade them to do. A “call to action” is a conventional feature at the end of a white paper.

I have mixed feelings about overt selling in white papers. There’s a conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t – that a white paper is supposed to be above the sales process. If you plan to place the piece with a white paper syndicator or publish it on a third party web site, this makes a degree of sense. But there will be exceptions – if your offering is genuinely unique (I have seen such things), there’s not much point in pretending that you’re referencing/explaining a generic class of offerings. In any event, coyness about the role of the white paper can be overdone. The reader who matters to you is a stakeholder in an organization that is a prospect for your offering. He or she understands that if a document carries your branding, it’s a selling document. There’s no use kidding anyone about this.

The white paper is something you provide either early on, to arm your prospect to sell up through his or her organization, or later when introduced to the potential champion (or a potential naysayer). You need one to address each element of your messaging that is likely to start an in-depth conversation.

When you present a white paper, you’re asking a lot of your audience (a lot of attention, and a lot of time). Introduce the document in the right context, when they’re engaged in the decision process and ready to make that investment. The more you know about your sales cycle, the better you can target the white paper, in both content and delivery.

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