Have Whitepapers Lost Their Strategic Purpose?

As the strategy of using whitepapers has become more common, too many marketers have missed (or forgotten!) their strategic purpose.

White PapersI first encountered the concept of a “whitepaper” in the late ‘80’s while working on a B-to-B technology client at Ogilvy & Mather Direct. Our strategy was to run a full page ad in several prominent technology print publications and offer a free copy of a scientifically-based study — one in which our client’s product performance had been proven to be superior when tested against its competitors.

To help ensure the credibility and integrity of the report, the client hired a third-party research firm to conduct the study, and an outside technical writer had crafted the document with a blind eye towards trying to slant the copy in any direction other than factual reporting. The paper provided some compelling and helpful facts and figures on metrics that we knew would interest our target audience, and it concluded that the client’s product was, indeed, superior.

The paper itself was completely non-branded — it looked and felt like the scientific research paper that it was, and therefore was entirely credible. Thus the term “whitepaper” — as it was an unbiased view based on fact.

As the strategy of using whitepapers has become more common, too many marketers have missed (or forgotten!) their strategic purpose. In fact the pendulum has swung in the exact opposite direction as brochure-ware is now mislabeled as a whitepaper.

Stop calling it a whitepaper. It’s a brochure.

Giant client logos now dominate the document from the first page to the last. Some have gone so far as to take the first three or four pages of the report to provide information on the brand — who they are, what they do, why their products are superior, or profiles of key executives. This defeats the entire whitepaper strategy, and instead of providing credible support to the brand, it is a thinly disguised brochure … and one that isn’t even helpful because it’s lost all its perceived objectivity.

Face it: We all know the drill. An email is blasted to a prospect list offering a free “whitepaper” download on a topic of interest. We click and hit a landing page where we have to fill out a form. (Don’t get me started on the inane questions like “How soon do you plan to make a purchase?” or “How much budget have you allocated?” knowing that if I click on the drop-down menu choices of “In the next 30 days” and “$50 – $100,000” I’ll get a phone call before I’ve even had a chance to download the paper.)

As business buyers, we’re all seeking unbiased information to help us make a purchase decision. We research online, read articles, ask colleagues and peers for their point of view and experiences; we seek out product reviews from industry publications or associations, and try to build a business case for the purchase if we need to get final approval from others.

As marketers, our job is to help those prospects in their journey by providing helpful and timely information that can support the decision to purchase our product. If you can claim your product can deliver “speed that is 3x faster,” then why not pull that scientific evidence together into a real whitepaper?

If your brand conducted product testing in a lab, then why not publish those results in an unbiased manner? What are you afraid of?

Do you fear the reader won’t be smart enough to recognize there is a clear winner? Are you concerned that your product didn’t score 150 percent on every metric? That’s okay — in fact it actually adds credibility to your story.

So for all you marketers who agonize over the creation of valuable content, instead of writing fluff pieces that don’t buy you much of anything but a few eyeballs, try digging a little deeper into your organization to find the real meat for your message. Try crafting a real whitepaper based on scientific fact, and then watch your target actually move your brand into the “consideration” phase of their buy cycle.