10 Tips for Effectively Using Whitepapers

Whitepapers are among the most overused and abused promotional tactics short of news releases. The consistently made mistake is they are merely revised sales literature and don't deliver a clean, clear, informative story. Self-publishing is an inexpensive and effective tool for tech marketers but just don't call product promotional stuff a “whitepaper.”

However, whitepapers can be successful communication tools if the sponsor is delivering valuable content to a specifically identified and understood readership. They can be a great way for tech marketers to demonstrate expertise as part of an overall thought leadership strategy. The creators just need to put their education hats on rather than only pushing features and benefits.

Teaching and helping are essential in the whitepaper development phase. Topics that make life easier for your customers and prospects are the starting point. How to use a product or why to use a category of products that obviously includes the ones you sell are good directions. Naturally, any content will be either under or over the understanding levels of some percentage of an audience. Here are some guidelines that will help you be more successful in creating your next whitepaper:

  1. Write for the mid-level understanding and don't be afraid of adding a definition of terms for neophytes. Assuming “everybody knows that” will always get you in trouble.
  2. Respect readers' time by keeping to the subject. Less is more. Extended length doesn't necessarily make the item more valuable. If you have more to say on the topic, write another whitepaper.
  3. Outline the content. Know where you're going.
  4. Stay narrowly focused (see No. 2 above again).
  5. Pick a topic that hasn't been done. Search for what others have written and don't repeat these.
  6. Find a content expert who can write. Failing that, find someone who can write and feed them the content or hook them up with the content expert for the project. Avoid pure content experts who aren't effective writers. A former trade publication editor or reporter with appropriate domain expertise would be one way of nailing both criteria. Otherwise, hire a writer (a PR pro or journalist, not somebody's friend) with strong professional writing credentials. Quality counts and shows.
  7. Plan on how you're going to use, distribute, and promote your whitepaper. It's not much good just sitting hidden on your Website.
  8. Consider working with a publication that covers your business sector and making the whitepaper into a contributed feature. Even a small local business can benefit from being published nationally and linking the story to its site, then getting re-publication rights for either electronic or print reuse. Remember, an existing publication gets far more eyeballs and greater credibility than your Website ever will. (For more on this see: How to Write, Pitch and Place Bylined Articles.)
  9. Plan a series of whitepapers (or contributed articles). One whitepaper does not equal a marketing campaign. Schedule production so they appear within a reasonably close time to each other, perhaps monthly. A series demonstrates far more expertise than a single item and provides a way of engaging and nurturing prospects toward a purchase.
  10. Turn the whitepaper content into a presentation that can be delivered live as a Webinar or an interview. Valuable information is applicable across a variety of media. Don't get hung up on just one way of delivering content and demonstrating your brand's expertise. Get more mileage out of the original idea. Content reuse in various media makes plenty of economic sense and provides a degree of communications consistency to your campaign.

8 comments on “10 Tips for Effectively Using Whitepapers

  1. Cryptoman
    July 6, 2012

    Coming from a technical background, I often find myself looking for whitepapers with the hope that I will get technical information. However, I have been disappointed with many white papers written by marketing and sales people that seriously falls short in meeting my expectations. Most of the time you access such whitepapers via web links that are indicated with an eye catching technical title. This is where the readers are intentionally mislead. The sales people know that the technical people will be looking for the technical title they have come up with and therefore that link will get many hits. However, it still does not deliver the content expected by the readers. Worse is that you often need to provide a valid e-mail address to be able to download such white papers. Therefore, while looking for a seemingly useful white paper, you not only end up with a blank paper in your hand in pdf format but your inbox starts to fill up with more spam messages because you had to give away your e-mail address!

    I am much more cautious with whitepapers these days – especially with the ones that require an e-mail address before giving you access to information.

    I think the tips for writing a useful white paper are all great but how many people will actually adhere to those useful guidelines when there is so much pressure on people to sell stuff?



  2. bolaji ojo
    July 6, 2012

    @Cryptoman, You summed it up nicely. If the White Paper isn't worth the readers' time, then don't give them. The whole idea has been abused but it can still work.

  3. Ford Kanzler
    July 6, 2012

    Cryptoman – Thanks for your agreement. Bolaji, you bet the tool has and is being abused by tech marketers daily. Its almost as poorly applied as the news release. Self-publishing too often lacks reader-focused editorial direction that independent publications typically demand for any content.

    The answer to Crypto's closing question is:

    When marketers become aware that demonstrating expertise and providing informative content via a white paper or many other media formats, in fact, helps “sell stuff.” A degree of communication subtlety often works far more effectively than full-frontal, blatant product promotion. Teaching wins over telling and a sales hype dressed as a white paper merely allienates the prospective customer.

  4. t.alex
    July 6, 2012

    I often look for white paper which typically provides concised summary of some new technology. Some are too lengthy and go into much technical depth. But most are mere marketing brochures in disguise. Typically a 2 to 3 page would be sufficient.

  5. Ford Kanzler
    July 8, 2012

    It would be interesting hearing from people about their length preferences and also about the use of video as an aid to text or still images. White papers can be rich media documents, not just text only.

    What do you think?

  6. t.alex
    July 8, 2012

    Yeh why not. Would any company spend the effort to make a white paper with video ?

  7. Anand
    July 9, 2012

    White papers can be rich media documents, not just text only.

    @Ford, that is a very interesting concept. To be frank I havent come across any such white paper which uses rich media content.  But I am sure rich media content in white paper will make it more interesting for the end user.

  8. mfbertozzi
    July 9, 2012

    Well, speaking for myself, according to Ford's editorial, whitepaper is in pole, but the battle involving paper or media depends on the task and the original scope from end users for example. If you have to study or if you have to learn or if you have to teach, paper is absolutely necessary, become humans work by store&forward paradigm, instead of cut-through. If you have to listen to some news, video-media could be enough, because it brings a bit of info just for the time slot needed.

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