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.