Tuesday, April 26, 2016

White Papers: More than Just Sales Brochures. Or Not.

Ah, the current darling of content, the revered White Paper.

I've written quite a few and have read a lot more.

You know what? Some of them are outstanding. A lot of them are ... well, they're kind of like baloney. Not entirely bad, but not very meaty.

White Paper or Sales Brochure?

Apparently, the term white paper was derived from a type of government document that was intended to explain and solicit opinions on a particular policy or process. Depending upon the weightiness of the reading material, the cover was either blue or white. (To read about the Winston Churchill connection, see Wikipedia.) 

White papers have been through a lot since then - and the term blue paper is all but extinct - but the bottom line is that white papers are hot. What are they exactly? There seem to be a lot of different answers.

Once upon a time - in the early days of "content marketing" -  a white paper was a lengthy, heavily researched and fairly balanced report intended to help readers make thoughtful purchasing decisions (about high ticket goods or services).

Today they're marketing tools to be sure, and they've morphed a bit - but I think they're still long-form journalism at heart.

Purdue's Online Writing Lab offers a nice description of today's white paper formats.

White Paper or Report?

Content has been morphing just about since movable type started moving. Case in point: did you ever research a auto purchase by studying Consumer Reports magazines?

Detailing the best and worst of recent car models, it had everything a savvy shopper could want - crash test reports, average repair costs, the most-common problems with specific models, owner satisfaction information, recall history, pages upon pages of well-researched, detailed information. From a (mostly) unbiased source.

The first white papers I wrote were along those lines. At the very end of the annotated report was a lovely two-to-three paragraph summary, gently guiding the reader to ask for more information, or a demo, or a sample of a (typically high-ticket) product or service.

Few reports published today are so thorough. Or subtle. Who has time, right? Today's decision maker - for better or for worse - is more likely to want a link to an infographic than a report. And a call to action? If it's missing, everyone's confused - including the reader.

Don't get me wrong - the old school white paper still exists. But there's a broadening middle ground, which I argue is packed with sales brochures masquerading as white papers.

I'm not sure what we should call them, but that doesn't matter much, because they do what they're designed to do. They're intended to explain more about a product and get leads and email addresses from prospects in the early stages of the sales cycle. Whether you call them light white papers or long-form sales brochures, they're part of the landscape in today's content-marketing world.

Most importantly: they work.

What Does Your Marketing Content Need to Do for You?

As a copywriter and business writing consultant, I've found the first challenge in most client relationships is understanding what the client wants and needs.

Duh, right? In any professional relationship, you have to understand your client's expectations and goals. But when you and your client have two different ideas about what a white paper is, someone is bound to be disappointed.

If by "white paper," you mean that you want a few blog posts and web pages rewritten into a 3-to- 7 page 'report' on your industry, I'm not going to argue about what you call it. I might think of it as a long-form sales brochure, or a customer education piece, but if you want to call it a white paper, I'm fine with that. And if what you're looking for is a 3-to- 7 page finished product, chances are it will be ready sooner, and for less, than the first white papers I wrote way back when.

If you're hoping to get a longer piece, covering research from several different sources, it will take longer, and cost more.

So What Kind of "White Paper" Does Your Business Need?

Your business may not need a "real" white paper. If your business model, product or service isn't truly new or unusual - or highly technical - perhaps what you need is an introduction to your prospects or customers.

If your business has a broad base of established customers, but only a relatively few are taking advantage of certain services you offer, a case study or customer spotlight can spur interest in your business's broader offerings.

A case study, long-form brochure or customer education piece can be very useful. It can, for example:
  • Highlight a product or service currently misunderstood (or underused) by current customers 
  • Introduce a new product or ballyhoo research putting your company or product in a good light
  • Generate great PR - particularly when a customer highlighted in your case study (or "success story") shares the piece with other business associates
  • And customer profiles make great story pitches to trade magazines...
The point is that every long form piece of business copy is not a white paper. And what you call it matters little. What matters is understanding what your business needs, and getting that in front of your prospects.

Want to talk about your content needs?

Free 30 minute consultation when booked by May 5, 2016.  < Sorry; I've been swamped since this offer expired. I may re-issue this offer in July 2016. Please check back then. Thanks ~ Diane

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