Among the digital marketing tools, the white paper is an asset that too few SMEs think of exploiting. Deemed too complex or too long to produce, it struggles to find its place among the communication tools of small businesses. Yet it is a great way to attract more prospects and build credibility. Let’s see how to incorporate this key element into your B2B content strategy.
White paper: what are we talking about?
Before we explain why you should invest in creating and delivering a white paper, let’s take a few minutes to clarify what a white paper is (and isn’t).
Wikipedia gives an already illuminating definition:
A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that concisely informs the reader about a complex issue while presenting the author’s philosophy on the subject. It generally aims to facilitate or guide decision-making.
A white paper is therefore an educational or informative report that deals with a complex issue, identify problematic areas, and proposes solutions. It usually presents a position or a specific solution to the problem raised. It is longer than an article, but far from the length of a book. Rather, it’s an essay like the ones you were supposed to write when you were in school.
Origin and evolution
Originally, the term referred to an official publication of a national government. First famous example: Winston Churchill’s 1922 white paper which dealt with the political conflict in Palestine. Anecdotally, the white refers to the thickness of the report which was insufficient to justify the blue binding usually in use.
Although White Papers take root in government policy, they have become a commonly used tool to introduce technological and product innovations. On a “white paper” type query, Google will return millions of results, many of which will focus on technology-related issues.
Since the 1990s, marketers have grabbed hold of it. This powerful marketing tool is thus used to help decision-makers and influencers to justify the implementation of solutions.
In digital marketing, the white paper is a relatively short premium content (8 -16 pages max) downloadable from a company’s website in exchange for the name and email address of the person who wishes to read it. It is also a key element of inbound marketing to generate leads, as shown in the survey carried out at the end of 2016 by the American agency Demandwave.
White paper vs commercial brochure
A white paper aims to provide concise information, preferably neutral and factual, to convince by data and evidence and not by mere opinions or commercial arguments.
The non-promotional and customer-oriented nature of the whitepaper gives the white paper a value that no sales brochure can achieve. Do not confuse the genres, you could disappoint your readers.
White paper vs case study vs e-books
To show your expertise, the white paper is not your only option. There are many other equally effective content: blog posts, case studies, or ebooks – each with its specificities and logic. What sets these different types of content apart is the size, look, and time spent on each one.
- A blog post offers advice, an opinion, or an update on a particular topic. Its average length is between 500 and 1,500 words. A little more for the best referenced. Its creation takes at most a few hours.
- A white paper offers a more in-depth analysis. It is aimed at people who already know the topic. Its argument is enriched with data, expert opinions, studies, and statistics. It will be understood that this requires much more research and time.
- Ebooks are usually more generic and longer. They are aimed at a larger and less specialized audience. The information is broken down into easy-to-read chapters. They can be from 20 to 200 pages depending on the scope of the subject. Often rich in illustrations, quotes, and easy-to-share content, they provide useful answers to the neophyte.
- The case study is premium content particularly appreciated in B2B. It is a special form of white paper that is used to prove the value of a solution, highlight points of differentiation from competitors, or present the business history of a company. Unlike the customer testimonial that typically serves as a teaser, the case study delivers real results.
- Customer testimonials are also very popular. Usually shorter (2 to 4 pages), it is written in journalistic style and enriched with photos and quotes from the client. This type of content is all the more interesting when a success story gives voice to the customer who uses a product or implements a solution.
White paper vs podcast or video
Even if white papers still have a bright future ahead of them, we are seeing the emergence of new formats that meet the expectations of young generations, eager for fast and accessible content everywhere. It is in this context that podcasts and videos emerge.
Today’s decision-makers and buyers alike have less and less time to read. This is why some turn to podcasts, which they can listen to even in traffic jams. As for the video format, it is greatly appreciated by the youngest because it is more visual, more direct.
Be careful, however, not to adopt these new content formats without thinking, just because they are fashionable. Before anything else, check which channels are used by your audience. Who do you want to reach? Young or old? How do they seek information? Text, audio, or video?
Regardless of the modes, it is your audience who decides which communication channel to favor (but you can of course multiply them to reach a larger audience).
Omnichannel communication is the norm. This means that you have to vary the content and formats to reach different audiences. And it is quite possible to translate a white paper into video or audio format.
Specifics of white paper 2.0
Beyond the similarities to these other types of content, the whitepaper has its logic.
Coschedule sums up its specificities in 4 points:
- Professional tone and formal, almost academic style
- A precise focus: a single subject that you will explore in-depth
- Based on facts: no unsubstantiated claims
- Backed by data: numbers and benchmarks to strengthen your arguments
The digital white paper occupies a special place in the panoply of the company’s communication tools. Halfway between technical documents that are often dry and reserved for specialists (such as technical manuals, research reports, etc.) and commercial documents intended to attract and convince new customers, the white paper borrows certain attributes from one and the other category. Like technical documents, it informs readers with specific data and facts. But it wants to be lighter and more digestible. Its appealing presentation aims to entice the reader to respond to the call-to-action that you are sure to include.
Why create a white paper?
Creating and disseminating inspiring content adds value to your products/services and helps position your business as an authority in your field.
Why is content so effective? Because, to be successful, a transaction must be based on trust. And your content helps you gain the trust of your audience. Indeed, the regular distribution of valuable content positions you as an expert in your field, thus increasing your credibility and therefore confidence in your business. And it is because they fit perfectly into this logic that white papers are a powerful medium.
According to a study conducted by the North America Content Marketing Institute in 2018, 71% of B2B marketers create white papers, almost on par with case studies.
If so many are using it, it’s simply because this concise and to the point premium document is cost-effective and relevant to a targeted audience.
Concretely, a white paper can have 3 distinct objectives :
- Generate leads that you can then qualify (for example by a series of automated emails) so that your sales team can add this new contact to their prospecting pipeline.
- Show your expertise and increase your credibility by providing qualitative information that helps your readers solve their problems.
- Give a positive image of your business. By definition, this premium content is free. All you ask for is a name and an email address which will then allow you to get in touch with those who have expressed an interest.
Who reads white papers?
White papers are read by those considering the purchase of a relatively new, complex, or expensive product or service. These readers can take on several different roles, such as:
- Leaders (decision-makers)
- Financial or technical advisers
- Operational directors and managers
A US survey of IT managers showed that they read between 30 and 50 white papers per year, for various reasons:
- Keeping abreast of new trends (76%)
- Obtain information on products and suppliers (69%)
- Compare products (50%)
- Help justify purchasing decisions (42%)
- Develop a shortlist of qualified suppliers (33%).
When do you read a white paper?
Professionals are interested in white papers at different points in the buying journey :
- In the discovery phase, when they are trying to solve a problem.
- At this point, the white paper helps to better identify the possible solutions to this problem or to understand which solution would be the most suitable for the company.
- In the evaluation phase, when they are considering a purchase (acquiring or replacing equipment), the
- prospect actively examines a set of products.
- In the decision-making phase, when they establish a shortlist of suppliers. In this case, a comparison guide can help. Or a case study showing the application to a client.
- After the purchase, they remain useful to generate a repeat purchase or to supplement customer knowledge. Creating a library of white papers on your site is a valuable source of inspiration and knowledge for both customers and prospects.
The longer the sales cycle (or the customer journey), the more white papers will have their place. They serve as a guide throughout the course and facilitate decision making.
In digital communication, each type of content has its uses and characteristics. And is more or less suited to one or the other stage of the buying journey.
Ebooks work well at the “awareness” stage of the buyer’s journey when they gather information about a particular product or service and seek to gain a holistic understanding. At this point, consumers are more concerned with the “problem” part of the equation. Rather,
White papers target people in the “decision” phase of the buying process. When a person already masters the basics and seeks to validate a concept to fuel their purchasing decision. (cmswire).
How much does a white paper cost?
There are many costs associated with the production of a white paper:
- Copywriting: research, writing, and editing
- Design: layout, illustration, and animation
- Translation, if applicable
- Printing, if applicable
Each of these costs can be outsourced or managed internally. It all depends on the budgets and skills available.
According to some sources, US B2B marketers spend $ 5-7,000 on content and $ 1,500 on white paper design. Translation, printing, and promotion are extra.
However, I can hardly imagine a European SME spending between 5 and 10,000 € for a white paper of ten pages. Especially since you must not neglect hidden costs such as the time spent by your experts to answer questions from editors or to proofread, correct and validate successive versions.
A white paper is undoubtedly a major project. Squeezing budgets risks hurting its performance. Fortunately, hiring freelance copywriters and graphic designers can already give good results, provided you have clearly defined the scope of the project and provide the necessary data and repositories.
The ingredients of an effective white paper
A white paper is premium content synonymous with expertise and quality. In any case, this is what your readers expect from it. Don’t disappoint them! This professional document is intended for professionals. Few will read it like a novel, paying attention to every sentence. The professional reader has little time. This is why he tends to jump, scan, and hover especially if he is reading on the screen. This means that your white paper should be designed for rushed, quickly distracted, overloaded readers.
More than once I have downloaded a white paper whose subject seemed interesting or whose title had captured my attention, only to realize that it was an empty typo. What a disappointment! In these cases, my reaction is clear: I immediately unsubscribe from the list to which I had subscribed so as not to be bothered by a company that is not worth it. How do you react?
When you create your white paper, be aware of this important parameter. Above all, do not disappoint your reader. This marketing tool is powerful but it does not support amateurism! Finding clients is undoubtedly the holy grail of any entrepreneur, but clients are demanding. Only the quality will convince them.
A relevant and targeted topic
If you are telling the same story as everyone else in your industry, there is little chance that you will be read. You must devote the time and energy necessary to produce truly unique content.
Finding the right topic involves knowing who you are talking to and what interests your reader: provide them with solutions to a problem they are facing; analyze and decipher a new concept for him; offer him a comparative guide to help him choose between different solutions, etc.
The relevance of the topic determines whether or not your reader will read your white paper.
A flawless structure
Traditionally, white papers develop their argument within a fairly conventional framework.
- Section 1 – Introduction
- Introduce the topic objectively. Discuss the different points of view, approaches, or solutions and explain where it is today.
- Section Two – Context
- Provide the background or history of the issue by explaining how it got there, the issues facing us, the events that affected the issue or exacerbated the issues, and summarize those issues.
- Section Three – Solutions
- Detail the solutions to the problems identified in the previous section. Since problems are usually multi-faceted, there will likely be multiple solutions.
- Section Four – Perspectives
- Talk about the future, go over the main points of the document, and indicate what the perspectives are for each.
- Section Five – Connection and CTA
- Discuss your company’s commitment to the issue, its accomplishments in this area, and reference any useful material. Don’t forget to include a call to action (CTA) to encourage your reader to extend that first contact.
Writing adapted to the web and your audience
- The fundamentals of web writing apply of course to the white paper.
Whatever the subject is chosen and the type of content to produce, be sure to adapt your style to your target audience :
- If you are talking mainly to technicians, be aware of technical details. They tolerate long, unadorned content, as long as the data is precise and sharp. A more visual or colorful format would even tend to make them suspicious.
- If you are speaking to decision-makers or buyers, point out the financial benefits (reduced costs, increased sales, or improved service). Discerning readers expect a neat layout, with clear graphics and an airy presentation.
Choose the right length
There is no standard length. At most a range: between 8 and 16 pages (always multiples of 4 in case you want to print it). Usually, it is expected to be long enough to give more than an overview of the topic, so that the information has some density and depth. Below 4 pages, this is no longer a white paper, but rather a blog post.
Find a title that hits without soliciting
No need to call your white paper a white paper. The title of your white paper is like the subject of your email. If you choose a good one, your conversion rate can skyrocket. Otherwise, little chance of emerging, especially in competitive markets. According to a Nielsen study, the longer a title, the better it performs.
Master the tone and style
Remember that most readers expect a professional, non-promotional tone.
- Avoid phrases that you cannot justify, such as “this is the best solution” (better to prove it, without saying it). Also, avoid flowery adjectives and rave adverbs.
- Avoid making it a boring retreat! Or use jargon and refer to yourself in the third person to “be serious”. Forget about the passive voice too… it makes people passive!
- Adopt the usual style of your brand. And don’t forget that using the same language as your reader is the best way to communicate with them.
The essential SEO optimization
As with any digital content, optimization for search engines is essential. Yet it is often overlooked, as the writing and illustration of the content have received all the attention.
However, it is not enough to embed a white paper on your website for it to be seen and read, you must also create an environment conducive to conversion.
- Take care of the <title>, <alt> tags and meta-descriptions to improve your SEO.
- Structure your document with titles, subheadings, quotes. Consider the density of keywords, etc.
- Add a landing page to your site. Explain what your white paper will bring to the reader and provide an overview of its content.
Tools that simplify formatting your content
Accessible to everyone, free and collaborative, they are a precious help for small businesses without a large communication budget.
Most of the time, you will be using Microsoft Word or equivalent in the preparation phase. This makes it easier to keep track of corrections and to share and comment on different versions. However, when you get to the final version of the document, I advise you to work with one or the other online graphics tool, to have a more original layout. Here are some tools available to non-graphic designers:
- It’s my favorite tool. There you will find many white paper templates that you can customize as you wish.
And you will find on the Canva site, a page dedicated to the creation of an e-book.
Like Canva, Crello is a free online graphics tool. It offers more than 250 white paper (and e-book) templates created by professional designers (divided into thematic categories). Each template features 5 different page sizes to help you create a complete book – front to back. Making your e-book becomes child’s play.
Explanation on the Crello site on the page “creating electronic books has never been so easy “.
No success without promoting your whitepaper
In the end, you will only achieve the results you want – more awareness, more leads, or more traffic to your website – if you promote your whitepaper properly. Because publishing it is not enough for it to attract crowds.
Here are some actions you can take:
- Take care of the landing page on your site to increase the conversion rate: airy and coherent presentation, highlighting the advantages of the document to be downloaded, etc.
- Multiply the calls to action on your site (on your homepage, on the sidebar of your blog, as a reminder in various key places.
- Create an emailing campaign to your customer and prospect base.
- Mention it in the signature of your emails
- Create blog posts around some key ideas.
- Create a LinkedIn ad that directs the target audience to your website. As an example, see what LinkedIn Marketing Solutions is doing. Their sponsored ads are smartly designed to drive traffic to their ebooks, white papers, guides, etc.
- Publish your white papers to specific forums, communities, and groups. It’s a good way to boost your credibility.
- Talk about your white papers at conferences and events. Ask experts at your business to talk about it and explain your thoughts on the direction the industry is heading.
- Distribute it at trade shows
- Send your white paper to other experts and influencers and ask them to cite it from their publications. For example, if you publish an LB on the blockchain, you can contact the experts you cite in your LB and ask them, if they find it interesting, to share it on their social networks.
In short, the best way to promote a white paper is to treat it like a product launch. Do whatever you would do to launch a new product, and your whitepaper will be on the road to success. And the more effort you put into promoting your whitepaper, the more likely it is to be successful.
Is the future of the white paper interactive?
Because white papers are denser than a blog post and address complex issues, they are often more difficult to read and struggle to hold the reader’s attention.
So, even if the PDF format is still in great demand, some have imagined a more dynamic response to the expectations of modern readers. The interactive white paper turns the passive reading experience of PDFs into an engaging and dynamic user journey.
Interactive elements such as ratings, infographics and surveys can be integrated to provide a personalized journey through the content and help the user arrive at a more relevant conclusion or solution based on the information provided throughout experience.
An interactive white paper actively engages the reader in the learning process, removing all irrelevant information and allowing the reader to get right to the point and gather the information necessary to aid their purchasing decision.
Why switch to the interactive white paper?
- You can integrate all kinds of media and widgets that help you create a better experience for users while learning more about your readers.
- You can track and analyze everything (number of views, clicks, opt-in, progress in content, and conversions on call-to-actions).
- In the age of attention loss, mainstream video content, and interactive media, the interactive whitepaper makes this type of content more engaging and less boring to modern audiences.
6 things to remember if you’re embarking on writing a white paper (what you should do!):
- Target a specific audience whose mode of communication you will adopt.
- Respect the codes of the genre. Avoid self-promotion. It has no place in this kind of publication.
- Include facts, data, examples, quotes, graphics. Anything that can prove that this document is the result of in-depth research and that it brings real value to the reader.
- If differentiate an angle or an original approach while showing your expertise
- Promote, promote, promote. With perseverance and measure. On all the channels used by your target.
- Ensure a well-controlled follow-up thanks to marketing automation. The contact obtained will not turn into a customer without work.