White Paper On White Papers

By Martin Edic


“Since the early 1990s, the term white paper has come to refer to documents used as marketing or sales tools. Commercial white papers generally argue that the benefits of a particular technology, product or method are superior for solving a specific problem. They may also present research findings, list a set of questions or tips about a certain business issue, or highlight a particular product or service from a vendor.

Commercial white papers are marketing communications documents designed to promote the products or services from a specific company. As a marketing tool, these papers use selected facts and logical arguments to build a case favorable to the company sponsoring the document. Commercial white papers are often used to generate sales leads, establish thought leadership, make a business case, or educate customers, channel partners, or investors.

While some list dozens of different types, there are three main types of commercial white papers:

Business benefits: Makes a business case for a certain technology or methodology.

Technical: Describes how a certain technology works.

Hybrid: Combines business benefits with technical details in a single document.”

- From Wikipedia*

A Resurgence of High Value Content As A Marketing Tool

From a creative point of view White Papers may represent the dullest of options when it comes to marketing communication. They typically contain no glitzy graphics, no glossy photos and offer little in terms of graphic design. Yet, properly used, they are one of the most powerful marketing tools available to any size company or organization, particularly if you are doing business to business (B-B) marketing or any promotion that requires in-depth information to make a decision. Why?

Navigating The Sea Of Information

We are in a content revolution. Ready access to any level of information from virtually anywhere is a given. And the amount of information available is staggering. The problem is finding value in that sea of information. Consider the search engine. Search a phrase related to a problem you are trying to solve and you are inundated with options. The search algorithms are constantly being optimized to do a better job of sorting value, however the results are also being constantly optimized to push various parties’ messages to the top, regardless of relevance.

One result of this optimization battle is the marginalization of content that is not highly relevant in the context in which you find it. A web site may contain what you are looking for but if it is surrounded by graphics and language focused on selling you features (and improving search rankings), it becomes less and less useful. We simply can’t take the time to filter the good from the irrelevant or worse.

“Because of these attributes, a well-written white paper is the marketing equivalent of a guided missile: it goes directly to the heart of a problem your customer faces and addresses it.”

Enter the plain jane white paper. An unadorned document that answers a question directly without overt pitching. Generally brief, written in relatively non-technical language, easily digested and easily shared. This simplicity, combined with a high value proposition, makes this basic marketing tool exceptionally effective in our information-drenched world. Because of these attributes, a well-written white paper is the marketing equivalent of a guided missile: it goes directly to the heart of a problem your customer faces and addresses it. The same attributes mean that it is likely to naturally rise in search rankings, to not be rejected as spam and to be shared with colleagues. It is likely to travel with proposals, be utilized to make a case for a purchase or agreement and to be paraphrased in relevant media.

Simplicity: Understanding The ‘Why’ Of White Paper Marketing

During the research for this white paper we encountered numerous services offering white papers as products. Generally they offer a basic version and an amped-up version with graphic design and covers, illustrations, etc. This is understandable as it enables them to charge more for essentially the same product wrapped in a template that would appear to make it more ‘professional’. In our experience this approach not only is more costly, it is less effective. The hallmark of a white paper is simplicity.

“Though many writers never seem to grasp the point, using intelligent words does not necessarily make you look smarter. The best way to make yourself or your company look smart is to express an idea simply and with perfect clarity. No matter who your audience is, it’s more effective to communicate as people do naturally. In simple sentences. Using simple words. Simplicity is its own form of cleverness- saying a great deal by saying little.”

- From Insanely Simple, The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success by Ken Segall Portfolio/Penguin 2012

The reduction of complex ideas and concepts to simplicity and clarity is the art of white paper writing. As an  example, white papers written by engineers tend to be written for engineers. Unfortunately many buying decisions are not made by engineers, nor are they driven by a purely technological solution. Instead they are driven a personal need to solve a problem. The personal need is on the part of the decisionmaker- will they personally benefit from this choice? Will the solution described here be risky or a no-brainer?

An effective white paper considers the person it is being written for, in the context of where they are reading it. Are they a busy executive catching up on recommendations while traveling? Or getting up to speed on a subject prior to a presentation? Are they a junior person making a case for your product or service to that same executive? Does your white paper work in both situations?

Keeping it simple, understanding the reader’s needs, knowing the context- these are the questions you need to understand before you plan a white paper. The answers will drive tone, technical density, length and the overarching message.

Storytelling Is Potent

We don’t think of business communication as storytelling. Yet it almost always is- if it is successful. What is a story? It has a defined beginning, a middle and an end:

In a white paper the beginning is the definition and background of the problem.

The middle is the approach taken to solving that problem.

The end is the result(s) of that approach- why it succeeded and how, and the benefits accrued.

The story format is potent for two reasons. First, we are hardwired to like stories. It is the most human way to communicate. Dry figures, charts and specs only come alive for a reader in the context of a story. The second reason stories resonate is that they are easy to pass on to others:

“Jane, take a look at this. These guys had a problem with XXXX. They used this tool (product, service, methodology, etc.) and it solved the problem. And they increased profits (retention, market share, efficiency, etc.) this much.”

A white paper gets passed along and gains in influence when the story is front and center.

Going Viral

The viral nature of white papers often exceeds that of other marketing media. They do not require connectivity or even a device. Brochures and ads are subject to what is widely known as ‘banner blindness’, our learned inability to even notice advertising messages that is the result of our constant exposure to them. Web sites are useful though often usability is too complex, requiring visitors to do research to get an answer to their particular problem. Most social media are not suited to longer form communication- we skim Tweets and Facebook posts. However, white papers work very well in the context of these other media.

Once a white paper is available and easily downloaded you can increase its virality by posting links to it across social media, on your websites and as an offer in other marketing. The reason this works is because white papers are not blatant pitches for your product or service. If they are they will not be effective. Most readers of white papers look to them as information sources. When you create a white paper campaign the central tenet is to demonstrate your expert knowledge of your business sector, even when it includes competitor products and services. This gives you the balance to create a white paper that will get shared. So how do you sell or generate leads with white papers?

Expertise Sells

Look at the paper you are reading. Has it been useful to you? Have you learned something valuable? Is it something you would share with a colleague? Does it give you information you can act on profitably?

The creator of an effective white paper has to generate a positive answer to all of these questions, even it if it means sharing a little of the ‘secret sauce’. We’re perfectly willing to share all the secret sauce we have, including the recipe and tips for serving it. Why? Because we believe in the concept of valuing one’s own time and skill set. If you’re not an expert on white paper marketing and read this, a couple of things will hopefully take place. You’ll know more about this useful tool. You’ll understand why it works and when it doesn’t. You’ll start thinking about applying this tactic to your marketing. But you probably won’t do it yourself.

The expertise we’re sharing here helps the reader becomes an informed consumer. This, in turn, qualifies them as a prospective customer for our services. This saves both of us time and money because we don’t want your business if you’ve decided you don’t need our services. As obvious as all of this may seem, a lot of marketing seeks to convince people who may not actually need the product. A white paper shows how it works and helps the reader decide whether to go further with the buying process.

Our Pitch

In a marketing white paper the standard format is to tell the story and then add a brief explanation of how your company can help, should this story resonate with their needs. Just that simple: We write and market with white papers for lead generation and as a sales support tactic.

Note: The astute reader has already recognized our full pitch in the previous section titled Expertise Sells. In it we hold this white paper up as an example of how they work when effective.

Contact Martin Edic at 585-727-3119 or email at martin.edic@gmail.com for more information.

This white paper is approximately 1700 words long, including quotes. 1700 words is generally counted as about five pages (at 350 words/page). The most effective length for a marketing white papers is between 3 and 10 pages. The average speed of reading for comprehension is 200-400 words per minute.

*Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization.

Copyright 2012 Martin Edic/Wing Digital    585-727-3119  martin.edic@gmail.com