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.

Death by Whitepaper

As a B-to-B marketer, you should be very familiar with the strategy of whitepapers. But that doesn’t mean you are designing or using them appropriately for your business. I should know, as I’ve seen, read, created, written and rewritten literally hundreds of them. And I’ve often been so bored after the first paragraph that I wonder why I bothered to download the document.

As a B-to-B marketer, you should be very familiar with the strategy of whitepapers. But that doesn’t mean you are designing or using them appropriately for your business. I should know, as I’ve seen, read, created, written and rewritten literally hundreds of them. And I’ve often been so bored after the first paragraph that I wonder why I bothered to download the document.

According to Wikipedia, a whitepaper is an authoritative report or guide that helps solve a problem. They are typically used to educate readers and help them make a decision.

In the early 1990’s, marketers started to leverage whitepapers as a way to present information about a particular topic that was of interest to a marketer’s target audience, but written in a voice that sounded like a third-party, subject matter authority. It may or may not have even mentioned the marketer’s product or service. Instead, it provided in-depth, useful information that helped readers solve a problem or expand their understanding of an issue.

In 2012, whitepapers have often been used as the lazy marketer’s brochure-ware: A forum where the product/service attributes are extolled, at length.

Sometimes they are poorly designed, or not designed at all—just pages upon pages of text (“because,” as one client informed me, “they’re supposed to be white papers”). She wasn’t kidding.

I particularly hate it when a marketer designs a whitepaper with a full-color, full-bleed, front cover (thanks for soaking up all my printer toner!). As a result, I carefully print beginning on page 2, which often means the contact information for the company which was on the front cover (website, sales contact, phone number and email address) are not included with my whitepaper when printed.

It seems that whitepapers are a lost art. So here are a few tips on whitepaper best practices that every good B-to-B marketer should follow:

  1. Start planning a whitepaper topic by identifying your target’s pain point, or determine a timely issue that would interest your target. It should NOT be focused on your company’s product/service benefits, however those could be woven into your story as a support to your point-of-view, or to demonstrate a solution to an issue.
  2. Make sure it’s well researched, with footnoted facts and figures that support the point you’re making. Include the most current data to keep your topic timely.
  3. Your writer should be an experienced whitepaper writer, not necessarily a copy writer or the named author. It’s most important that the paper is well written, well presented and interesting. It should NOT include sensational headlines, exclamation points or product demos.
  4. Include an Executive Summary: A pithy, 100-word-or-less overview that allows readers to scan and determine if they’re interested in reading more.
  5. Break up reader monotony by including well-crafted subheads, large call-outs (interesting statistics or quotes), visuals (that support the copy), charts/graphs or even icons. Eyes need a resting place when they read a long document and visuals help retain interest.
  6. Number your pages please (so much easier when the reader forwards it up the food chain and includes a note that says to the CEO, “some interesting insights on page 4, 2nd paragraph”). After all, isn’t that your ideal scenario?
  7. At the end of the paper, include an “About the Author” to provide credibility. Your author credentials don’t need to include the name of a high school or favorite pet, but they should include years of experience, where/how they gained their knowledge, the names of articles/books they’ve written, etc.
  8. Include a short paragraph about your company, positioning it in the most relevant light as it relates to the topic. Include a link to a relevant page on your website to learn more (i.e., www.xyzcompany/resources), and an 800 number and email address. You’d be surprised how many people actually want to learn more after reading a helpful whitepaper.
  9. Make sure it’s easily navigable when viewed digitally, but can also be easily printed. And, please don’t bleed my toner dry by including lots of black or lots of bleeds.

B-to-B Marketers Gone Wild!

All text and no fun makes Jack a dull B-to-B marketer. What’s fun about shopping online is that B-to-C retail sites often use video to make their products look more interesting and provide more information than you’d see in a static picture. Since B-to-B brands often sell a service, solution, or product that’s not easily demonstrated in a video, there will be reams of product information to convey, white papers and/or case studies to read. And who declared they have to be all text and dull, dull, dull?

All text and no fun makes Jack a dull B-to-B marketer.

What’s fun about shopping online is that B-to-C retail sites often use video to make their products look more interesting and provide more information than you’d see in a static picture.

Since B-to-B brands often sell a service, solution, or product that’s not easily demonstrated in a video, there will be reams of product information to convey, white papers and/or case studies to read. And who declared they have to be all text and dull, dull, dull?

Whether you’re targeting IT managers, security administrators, hospital executives or CFO’s, no one asks you to present your information in the dullest way possible.

Let’s look at 3 simple, but effective options:

  1. Design product sheets, white papers and case studies to be visually pleasing. Eye tracking studies prove that site visitors spend most of their time looking at visuals—faces in particular. And common sense tells us that when something is visually attractive, it will garner more attention. Which of these two B-to-B white papers would you rather read: All text or visually compelling?
  2. Use flash animation to liven up statistics and tell the story. Or if it’s too complicated, use animation to “hit the highlights,” then give readers a deeper understanding with a text/PDF option. Here are some fun examples to see flash in action.
  3. Add a simple involvement device to engage your site visitor: Online calculators let them see how much they could save, or determine what your product might cost given a few variables. For example, this is a simple but engaging one for college students to determine whether or not they should skip class today, while this data loss calculator demonstrates the negative financial impact an organization may face as a result of a data breach or theft of identity data. This one for a BtoB insurance product helps you see how much income is at risk if you became disabled, and ultimately helps calculate how much the insurance product might cost based on your age and other factors.

To Gate or Not to Gate, That Is the B-to-B Content Marketing Question

There’s a spirited debate in B-to-B marketing about whether it’s best to give away information (aka “content,” like white papers and research reports) to all comers, versus requiring web visitors to provide some information in exchange for a content download. In other words, to gate your content or not to gate. The debate involves aspects of both ROI and philosophy. Here’s why.

There’s a spirited debate in B-to-B marketing about whether it’s best to give away information (AKA “content,” like white papers and research reports) to all comers, versus requiring Web visitors to provide some information in exchange for a content download. In other words, to gate your content or not to gate. The debate involves aspects of both ROI and philosophy. Here’s why.

I know that plenty of very smart and well-respected Internet marketing experts line up with dear old Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who famously said in 1984 that information “wants to be free.” The underlying assumption there is that people buy from companies that they trust—a valid point, to be sure. Casting a net through free—unimpeded—distribution of content encourages both trust and, perhaps more importantly, wide dispersal and sharing of information. You’ll get to a much bigger audience, who will be educated on the solutions to their business problems, will be grateful for the free info and, one hopes, will think of you when they’re ready to buy. So far, so good.

The problem is that this model—which lives under the umbrella concept known as “inbound marketing”—leaves marketers in a serious quandary. We don’t have any way of knowing who is reading our informative, educational and helpful content. We are left sitting on our thumbs, unable to take any proactive steps toward building relationships with these potential prospects. All we can do is wait for them to contact us and, we hope, ask us to participate in an RFP process, or, more likely, give them more info and more answers to their questions. Is that any way to sustain and grow a business relationship—not to mention meet a revenue target? In my view, it leaves too much to chance.

Let’s look at the numbers. The ROI model for inbound marketing says that distributing the content to a wide audience will eventually result in more sales than gating the content and marketing proactively to a smaller universe. Let’s look at how these numbers might actually work:

To start the conversation, say that wide distribution would put your content in front of 10,000 prospects, via free downloads and pass-along.

In contrast, we might similarly assume that by gating, and requiring some contact information in exchange for the content download, we would only get 1 percent of that distribution: 100 prospects. These are now legitimate inquirers, and we can conduct outbound communications to them. By applying typical campaign conversion rates, we could predict that of 100 inquiries, 20 percent will qualify—producing 20 qualified leads. Of those, we’ll be able to contact 50 percent (or 10), and of them 20 percent will convert, resulting in 2 sales.

But how many sales will we get from the 10,000 with whom have no direct connection? It’s hard to say. When inquiries come in, we can ask where they heard of us, and certainly some will say they read the white paper, or whatever content we put into circulation. But this data tends to be unreliable. Inquirers usually don’t remember how they heard of you, or they just make up an answer to get the question out of the way.

This is exactly why business marketers debate the subject with such vigor. We have data, and thus proof, on the gating side. But we only have conjecture on the other. So it boils down to which side you believe. It’s tough to do sustainable marketing on faith.

Myself, I grew up as a marketer in the world of measurable direct and database marketing. So it’s no surprise that I favor the gating side of the fence. I like marketing campaigns that provide predictable results. Where I can stand up in court and show a history of my campaign response rates, conversion rates, and cost-per-lead numbers. And most important, where I can reasonably expect to deliver a steady stream of qualified leads to my sales counterparts, who are relying on me to help them meet their quotas.

So that’s my argument for gating content in B-to-B marketing. I understand the logic of the other side. And I see clearly situations where it makes sense to let the information run free-as a teaser, for example, to persuade prospects to come and get the richer information that is so useful that they’ll be falling all over themselves to give me their name, title, company name and email address. But what about you? Where do you sit in this debate? It’s a biggie.

A version of this post appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Are Your B-to-B Social Media Strategies Socially Appropriate?

There’s lots of talk these days about how to leverage social media for your business. And with few exceptions, I’m a big believer that B-to-B marketers should subscribe to a strict division of “church and state” when it comes to Facebook and business relationships. Business colleagues/associates/clients/brands are part of my LinkedIn life, while my family and my “I’m interested-in-trivial-things-about-you-and-your-kids” peeps are part of my Facebook life. So I fail to understand why any B-to-B brand would even consider having a Facebook page.

There’s lots of talk these days about how to leverage social media for your business. And with few exceptions, I’m a big believer that B-to-B marketers should subscribe to a strict division of “church and state” when it comes to Facebook and business relationships.

Business colleagues/associates/clients/brands are part of my LinkedIn life, while my family and my “I’m interested-in-trivial-things-about-you-and-your-kids” peeps are part of my Facebook life. So I fail to understand why any B-to-B brand would even consider having a Facebook page.

It’s true that Facebook is the most popular social networking site. But it’s also true that it’s a place where I reveal some personal facts (my birthday, for one) and my latest family vacation photos. While I can’t control any of the comments written on my wall, I also don’t worry because I know the only people who can see them are those who are part of my personal tribe.

So how can you leverage social media for your business?

I think it’s time to go back to basics. And, not to be insulting, but if you can get these basics right—which so many B-to-B marketers do not—you can graduate to a more sophisticated use of social media.

Smart B-to-B marketers have already discovered that their websites need to be well organized and segmented by target audience—whether by vertical segments, company size or some other segmentation strategy that’s appropriate for your business/industry. The goal is to help your site visitors navigate your site quickly and easily in order to find information most relevant to them.

Savvy marketers take their websites one step further and create pages directed at each targeted “segment” and include useful content beyond just product/service descriptions or purchase options. Whether it’s a series of case studies that clearly lay out the problem and how their brand/product provided a solution, a topical white paper, or the results of a current research study, the goal is to stimulate engagement such that the visitor thinks, “I can clearly see how these guys understand my business needs and how their products/services can help a company like mine.”

The next step should be to refresh the content on a regular basis. By doing so, it gives you the right to invite your site visitors to register for updates with the promise of emailing them when new content is available.

There are two ways to leverage that email message: You can craft a short, pithy email with a focus on and a link to the content itself, or create an email with a link to the page that contains the content. If you’ve updated your site with lots of new content, I’d choose the latter strategy, but if you’ve only added one or two new items, just provide links to that content directly (the less work you make for your target, the better).

Now that you have an easily navigable site, good core content and regular updates, the next goal should be to drive new prospects to your site so they can begin to engage with your brand. As I mentioned before, I am a firm believer that Facebook is simply not the place to be trolling for B-to-B prospects. So instead, here are a few tried and true strategies for starting socially appropriate relationships online:

  • Guaranteed Lead Program: Using a third-party media provider, place one of your most current white papers in an online media property where you know your target seeks information. It costs nothing to post and you’ll only pay for those leads that download your white paper. Chances are that these information seekers have some sort of problem they’re trying to solve and they’re in the right mood to be gathering intelligence on potential solutions. To make sure your white paper gets noticed, have a professional copywriter craft the headline and word-limited description in order to “sell” the white paper without a big sales pitch about your company. Remember the goal at this stage of the game is to start trying to make a connection with a potential customer; it’s not the time to offer discounts, freebies or other “offers.” Once they’ve downloaded and you’ve acquired their contact information, it’s appropriate to send them follow-up email and invite them to view additional content on your site, or offer an additional white paper or case study related to their particular industry. This is a productive example of how to get social with your prospects.
  • Expand your reach: Contact the editor of your industry trade publication(s) and, using a current white paper topic as a hook, outline an article you can offer as content. It’s important that your white paper NOT be self-serving (i.e. a blatant attempt to simply push your brand or one of your products), but rather an article written from a third-party perspective about the industry or a trend. Your business/product can be mentioned, but so should other products from other companies, otherwise an editor is not prone to accept the article as it’s more of an advertorial and should be part of paid content. This places your company in the right “social” setting and lays the foundation for the credibility of your brand.
  • Seek out speaking engagements: A knowledgeable expert is always a draw at an industry conference. Identify those in your organization who have the ability to speak intelligently about a current trend—perhaps they were quoted in or authored your white paper. If they don’t have great speaking skills, get them enrolled to gain superior presentation skills, and then leverage them across many industry events throughout the year. During and after the conference, there are plenty of ways for your speaker to participate in social events and swapping business cards over a meal is certainly a better way to be building future relationships than pithy notations on Facebook.
  • Leverage the company blog: Reach out to the company blogger and provide a truncated version/extract of the white paper and then link to it from within the blog. Tweet about the blog topic and provide a link, then link that tweet to your LinkedIn update. If your blog allows outsiders to post comments about the topic, that’s a great way to start engaging with a potential customer.
  • Increase LinkedIn connections: Once sales start a dialogue with a prospect, it’s appropriate for them to reach out and invite that prospect to connect on LinkedIn. Don’t use the default copy on LinkedIn to connect! Instead craft an appropriate message that’s meaningful to the target to make it feel like a worthwhile connection. I’m always surprised when someone I don’t know invites me to connect on LinkedIn without identifying a reason within an appropriate context. My first reaction is to reject the invitation because I think it may be spam—and, is a good example of how NOT to be socially appropriate.
  • Video on YouTube: If your company provides products that require instruction manuals, consider developing a series of “how to” videos. Host them on your website, but also on YouTube. These types of videos can help increase the post-purchase engagement factor and, are often one reason I make a purchase in the first place. It’s gratifying to know that if I get “stuck,” there’s an easy-to-view solution at my fingertips vs. the dreaded customer service support line. You’ll also find many viewers will post supportive comments about the video—again, a great way to use this social media to build support from customers and prospects.

Never, Ever Outsource Your Content Marketing Strategy

Should you outsource your content marketing strategy? Don’t—unless you want your blogs, whitepapers, videos or webinars to blend in with those of your competitors. Good, effective content marketing cannot be outsourced. No matter how much you’re struggling to create a constant stream of content that effectively generates leads, keep it in house.

Should you outsource your content marketing strategy? Don’t—unless you want your blogs, whitepapers, videos or webinars to blend in with those of your competitors. Good, effective content marketing cannot be outsourced. No matter how much you’re struggling to create a constant stream of content that effectively generates leads, keep it in house.

Let’s be honest. All of us are racing to “produce quality content” and distribute it on blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social platforms. But what does “quality content” really mean and why is so much of it failing to generate leads for B-to-B marketers? And what can you do to make sure your articles, videos, white papers and webinars (content) produce leads? Keep it inside.

Despite what “the experts” say, effective content marketing has less to do with frequency or how often you produce it. Blogging often (and getting that blog retweeted) earns the fleeting attention of prospects at best. Content that generate leads:

  • Solves problems and/or dramatizes the emotional end benefit
  • Is designed to induce behavior (sometimes addictive)
  • Translates customer need (analyzes and feeds it back into design)

Eschew the “Experts”
Relative to these key success principles, having a constant stream of content emanating from your business will not produce sales. Despite what “the experts” keep saying, the most effective content is not that which gets discovered in search engines and gets people to your website. Nor is effective content that which has “your voice” or “reflects your culture” or “is authentic.” These qualities do not define effective content because they never have.

Content marketing is about as new as custom publishing (it’s not new at all). The most effective content produces measurable outcomes—leads and sales. Period.

I can hear the social media gurus screaming. OK, OK. Are all those things I just mentioned important pieces of the puzzle? Yes. But over-focusing on them will cause you to put far too much faith in them.

For instance, take frequency. Making content marketing produce sales is not purely (or even mostly) a numbers game, nor a matter of how much attention you earn from search engines or blog visitors. Believing this to be true will only cause you to—that’s right—outsource it!

The Key to Success
If leads and sales are what you’re after with content marketing, then you’ve got to come to grips with the truth: Effective webinars, blogs, videos, etc., take your target market beyond the realm of useful information. Sure, providing information is essential but you’ve got to go the extra mile—you’ve got to provide new, previously unknown knowledge that tells customers how to avoid risk or exploit opportunity.

Think about it this way: It’s difficult enough to hire an employee that a) understands this concept; b) knows enough about your competitive environment to know how and where to find what your customers truly need to know; c) can actually execute the research needed to produce effective (behaviorally provocative) content—and produce it over time. Good luck finding someone on the outside who can do all of that well enough!

Want your content to look like your competitors? Just outsource it to people who repackage information your customers already know. They’ll take your money and in return pass off what they create as thought leadership or insightful information. And then you’ll pass that junk on to your customers.

The Honest Truth
Ninety-five percent of content marketing is generating worthless information that everyone already knows surrounded by buzzwords. Need proof? Search the Web for whitepapers and give them a scan.

“I’m a huge fan of earned attention,” says Edward Boches, chief innovation officer at Mullen. “And owning content. And being in the publishing business. But the one downside of everyone and anyone—and that includes brands and companies—being a content creator is that just like cable television, the good stuff becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of all that’s out there.”

Want your content to produce leads and sales? Hire people who know how to produce written or multimedia materials that make readers/viewers say, “Hmm, I never thought of it THAT way … that’s scary” or “I see the opportunity in that, I better get in touch with these people to take action!”

This is what good social media marketing and content marketing does—induces responses that you can nurture toward an eventual sale.

Marketers, Stop Ignoring Your Content Marketing Strategy

As I write this, I’m on the plane heading back from DMA09. While I was moderating the Search Marketing Experience Labs, one common element ran through every site review: When you ignore your SEO content marketing strategy, you’re hobbling your conversions, ignoring your customers and forfeiting your search engine rankings. Here’s why.

As I write this, I’m on the plane heading back from DMA09. While I was moderating the Search Marketing Experience Labs, one common element ran through every site review: When you ignore your SEO content marketing strategy, you’re hobbling your conversions, ignoring your customers and forfeiting your search engine rankings. Here’s why.

Seth Godin had it right when he said, “The best SEO is great content.” A well-written product page can skyrocket your conversions. A fantastic blog post can gain your company new leads and incoming links. The right Twitter tweet can gain not just followers but evangelists for your brand.

It’s really that important.

I’ve been in the SEO industry for 12 years. During that time, I’ve seen companies spend six figures on design, embrace five-figure monthly PPC costs and chase the latest “sexy” online marketing tactic.

Yet unfortunately, these same companies will ignore the foundation of their SEO and conversion success—creating customer personas, developing a keyphrase strategy, and developing useful, keyphrase-rich content that helps prospects across the buy cycle and engages customers.

Instead, the content becomes an afterthought. The one piece—heck, the only piece—of a company’s marketing strategy dedicated to engaging with customers becomes, “Isn’t SEO content supposed to be stuffed with keywords in order for me to get a high ranking?”

And that’s sad.

Think of your SEO content marketing strategy as your online salesperson, enticing your prospects to learn more and communicating with your audience. Your SEO content strategy could encompass many things, including:

  • Product/service pages.
  • Blog posts.
  • Articles, FAQs and white papers.
  • Twitter tweets.

Every word you write is a way to engage, inform and, yes, sell. But most importantly, a content marketing strategy helps you communicate with your prospects on multiple levels.

Fortunately, some companies “get it.” Forbes reported in its 2009 Ad Effectiveness Survey that SEO (and yes, that includes your content play) was the most effective online marketing tactic for generating conversions. Furthermore, Mediaweek reports in its article, “Marketing Must-Have: Original Web Editorial,” how AT&T created more than 100 how-to articles targeted to small business owners. Paul Beck, senior partner and executive director of Ogilvy Worldwide, is quoted as saying, “Having a core content strategy is the secret to engaging an audience.”

And at the end of the day, isn’t engagement what it’s all about? The company that engages, profits. The company that doesn’t—even big-brand companies that dominate the brick-and-mortar world—get left in the dust.

My monthly SEO & Content Marketing Revue posts will show examples of companies who “get it”—and what they’re doing right. I’ll share what’s worked for companies like yours, as well as what to avoid.

Most of all, I’ll share how the right SEO content strategy can gain your company the SEO and conversion “win” you may have been missing up to now.

And I’ll answer your questions (because, yes, you will have questions,) showing you how to leverage the power of strong, customer-centered content.

Stay tuned. This will be fun. Promise.