Is the White Paper an Endangered Species?

by Wiz

With the demise of the Borders Books chain, the closest physical book store is now about an hour’s drive from my home. I was bemoaning this fact to a neighbor, who replied simply: “It doesn’t matter – paper books are outdated anyway.”

This conversation came to mind as I was reading a blog post recently. The author (who was unfamiliar to me) was taking the stance that the traditional white paper is losing its effectiveness and therefore is slowly going the way of the paper book. The popularity of video, today’s shorter attention spans, and “social media” were all cited as reasons. I couldn’t tell if he sincerely believed this, or was just trying to start a discussion. He did succeed, though, in getting me to think.

As Karen discussed earlier, white papers – “true” white papers, that is – are information packages that provide answers to questions and/or solutions to problems. They are limited in scope yet very specific, both in content and in the audience to whom they’re addressed. They may cite research and offer additional resources. But they are self-contained documents. You should be able to read one and get the answers that it promises – and some specific actions you can take.

If a white paper can do that, nearly any member of that audience would gladly exchange contact information for a copy – and be thrilled about it.

Not “Overused”, but “Misused”

If – and I say “if” – white papers are indeed losing effectiveness, it’s not because of video; it’s not because of social media; it’s not because of short, energy-drink-charged attention spans. It’s not even because of over-use. Rather, it’s because they’re misused.

In other words: it’s not that there are too many white papers out there – it’s that there are too many bad ones.

Case in point – I recently signed up to receive a white paper by a software company, offering tactics to improve a specific metric in paid search campaigns. The first half defined the metric, explained why it was important, how it was calculated and how it was managed. Mildly interesting, but not in itself useful.

In the second half the discussion finally turned to the advertised tactics. And yes, I did learn a few things I could do – but only if I used their software. A full eight pages were devoted to showing me how their software would help me do my job faster. That’s not a white paper: that’s an advertisement.

People aren’t tired of white papers – they’re tired of brochures masquerading as white papers.

“But I Need a Call to Action!”

Of course you want to show the reader their “next steps”. Readers get that. And if the white paper is crafted correctly, the reader’s response will be, “Wow! That’s great! Can you help me do that?”

But you don’t get there by standing up like a carnival barker hawking your wares. You get there by giving the reader a solution – one they can achieve for themselves without your assistance. And then you end with an “if you’d like help with this, here’s what we can do” offer.

It may be counter-intuitive, but it’s true: show people how to solve their pressing problems on their own – and you’ll be the one they turn to for help.

White papers and paper books may or may not be evolving. But if you continually provide true value, your white papers will always be in demand – no matter what their form.

Related posts:

Top 5 B2B White Paper Mistakes

Acquire your target. Take aim. Fire.

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