Why the White Paper Isn’t Dead

Why the White Paper Isn’t Dead

White papers have been facing impending doom for years. Why? Because the measure of success for almost everything in marketing these days is speed. Can you get your point across in 140 characters? Can you do it with headlines that are less than 5 words? Better yet, can you do it with a picture and a short (think one or two words) caption?  

Misplaced assumptions about white papers

Driving the need for speed is the misplaced assumption that we have no attention span anymore. We’ve all seen the statistics about how the average attention span shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015 (which is supposedly less than a goldfish’s). It’s an assumption that has led sports leagues, like the NBA, to consider shortening game times and marketers to put white papers, which are one of the longest pieces of collateral in a marketer’s arsenal, on the chopping block. 

But attention span is a false driver for change. It’s not the shortening of attention spans that has caused shifts in behavior, but the increase in options. For example, while it is true Americans under the age of 30 watch 50% less television now than they did in 2010, that doesn’t mean they aren’t consuming content in other ways. In fact, consumers spend more time than ever with digital media (7 hours and 50 minutes a day by some accounts), watching TV, streaming content, playing video games, surfing the Internet, listening to music, connecting on social media, etc. (In the U.S., consumers spend an average of three hours and 13 minutes a day just on their smartphone!)  

The fact is all these options make it harder to capture and hold the attention of consumers and buyers. So, it’s not speed that we need to focus on, but engagement. The more prospects and customers engage with you, the more likely they are to buy from you and be loyal to you. That is, of course, assuming the engagement provides value and good experiences. 

The white paper is an important part of the marketing mix

Very rarely is a business-to-business (B2B) customer ready to sign on the bottom line after reading a Tweet or watching a 1-minute video. An enticing headline can get their interest and draw them in, but it’s what happens next that determines whether they buy or not. B2B customers want more from you. They need substantive content and interactions that help them see why they need you, and why now. This is true for almost everything we do as marketers. 

The foundational elevator pitch is designed to tell your story in a minute, which is the time it would take you to answer, “So what is it you do?,” in an elevator ride. But the goal isn’t to get the contract signed in the elevator, it is to get the rider to be interested in finding out more. The ‘more’ may be delivered in any number of ways – it may be a follow up meeting, demo, case study, brief, video, report, white paper, among other options. 

And, research shows, customers are willing to take that time when it benefits them. As Dr. Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, points out in a BBC article on busting the attention span myth, “It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.” 

When people feel they are getting something of value from the content or experience they keep going. The moment that perceived value falls away though, they stop and go elsewhere because there are simply too many other options (and not enough time). 

A white paper is one of the best tools you have to engage and influence buyers. A TechTarget report found that 91% of IT buyers found white papers the second-most effective type of content in the buying process, ranking higher than video, webinars, and social media posts (the first was product literature). It is also one of your best weapons when trying to establish influence or thought leadership, helping you convince others through a well-thought-out case that you know your stuff and have thought through the issues.  

This is increasingly important given how self-reliant B2B customers are getting. Accenture found that B2B “sales environments are becoming more digital and less human” with customers “57% through the buying process before the first meeting with a company representative”. This means the information they get about your company, product, or service, has to be good. 63% of B2B companies see white papers as one of the most effective forms of content they use in their organization. 

What makes a white paper good

By their nature, white papers are more serious, in-depth pieces. (Interesting fact, Winston Churchill is credited with penning one of the first with the Churchill White Paper in 1922). When written well they educate and sway audiences, explaining or promoting often very complex ideas, models, or technologies in a simple, credible way (not salesy). 

A white paper takes time and thought to create–you can’t just throw it together in a few minutes, or even a few hours. Readers know and appreciate this. They see it as higher value content, which is why they are usually willing to give us something (e.g., name and email) when we gate them. 71% of B2B buyers turned to a white paper to research their purchasing decision because they saw it as a credible source.  

But informative and substantive doesn’t have to equate to boring. The best white papers are compelling and engaging, telling a cohesive story that brings the reader along and, if persuasive enough, ends with the reader convinced you’re right (or at least a legitimate authority). To accomplish, they should include: 

  • A clear, interesting storyline. There has to be a point. Why should the audience care? How will this information help them be better, faster, more efficient, more innovative, etc.? Figure that out, and you will have your audience turning the pages for even the most boring topics or complex technologies.  
  • Stats, facts, and figures. These add credibility to your claims and arguments, providing additional back up for your story. Original research is always the most powerful because it’s something that no one else has, but any third-party references will help you build authority. (A mix and match of third-party and original research works too, which is what ServiceNow did in their white paper on how to make workplace services work for employees.) 
  • Visuals and illustrations. Imagery breaks up the text, giving readers the space they need to consume the information. Sometimes it can be as simple as a really good layout, but the best visuals are those that help you articulate or explain your points and reinforce what you are trying to say.   
  • A call to action (CTA). The white paper is another step on the customer’s journey, so where do you want them to go? What do you want them to do next? Make a purchase, start a free trial, sign up to join the community, etc.? If they are at the end of the paper, it’s probably your best chance to get them to act.  
  • A plan. The white paper isn’t a silver bullet; it’s just one component of the customer’s journey.  To make the most of your investment, your white paper needs to be part of a larger, cohesive story and plan. Derivative content (e.g., infographics, 1-minute white papers, videos, webinars), cross promotions and links, landing pages, email and social pushes are all part of the white paper’s world and instrumental in helping you convince customers to buy. 

When done well, the white paper is one of your best, most influential tools to drive engagement. For example, this white paper from Medigate by Claroty, the leading medical device management and security company, helps biomed engineers understand why they need to care about clinical zero trust (CZT) strategies, which are usually only the domain of security teams. 

I happen to know that this paper, which is one of their most downloaded, along with complementary blogs, social posts, advertorials, and webinars on the topic helped Medigate by Claroty make their case for their platform, further their customer relationships, and increase their visionary leadership within healthcare. 

The evidence? As a private company, I can only publicly point to recognition from KLAS, Gartner, and Frost & Sullivan, but I can pass along what Beth Ellis, Chief Marketing Officer of Medigate said, “White papers like this one help us move the conversation along with our prospects and customers. They provide an educational format that customers appreciate and want, as they are trying to understand how to combat the increasing risk of cyber-attack and our unique approach and technical differentiation. They are without question an important part of our marketing mix.” 

I couldn’t say it any better! 

What story do you need a white paper to tell? You can reach out to me at sarah@aventigroup.com and set up a 30-min consultation to go through ideas and create a quick creative brief for a specific white paper that will help you move the needle in your marketing.

Is it “white paper” or “whitepaper”?

Have you ever given any thought to the correct way to write “white paper/whitepaper”? Is there a correct way? Well, after some debate amongst colleagues, we turned to Google to find an answer. In short, both “white paper” and “whitepaper” are correct (although “white paper” is more commonly used and your spellchecker may not agree with “whitepaper”). However you choose to write it, just remember consistency is key.

Written By

Sarah Sorensen

Sarah Sorensen works with companies large and small to build and execute strategic marketing and sustainability strategies designed to amplify their voice and impact in the market. She brings an impartial perspective, as well as hands-on expertise, based on more than two and half decades of experience marketing consumer and business-to-business brands in technology, cybersecurity, cloud, and SaaS spaces, to ensure companies are getting the most from their marketing investments. She's the author of the O'Reilly book, "The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet."