White Papers Aren't Dead. They're on Life Support.
The original purpose of white papers as a B2B marketing tactic was to produce objective information, packaged as quasi-academic research, to validate a company's or product’s value proposition. White paper sponsors sought to educate, inform, raise comfort levels and eventually initiate sales conversations with prospective customers.
White papers gained significant adoption as a content marketing tool concurrent with the rapid growth of new technologies that often required detailed explanation or context for non-technical buyers. Over time, however, the market education function was largely assumed by research firms such as Gartner and Forrester, whose opinions carry greater credibility than self-publishers of white papers.
Unfortunately, what began as a legitimate and sometimes helpful marketing tactic has morphed into poorly disguised sales promotion, packaged in a plain vanilla wrapper. The evolution of white papers from bona fide content into self-serving advertorials has been validated by vertical industry trade publications, in which companies, for a fee, are permitted to “feature” their white papers in a special section. White papers jumped the shark when they became paid content.
The outcome of widespread abuse of white papers – driven by marketers grasping for new ways to put lipstick on a pig, or too lazy to produce rigorous research that might empower customers to draw their own conclusions – is that the tactic has lost its franchise as an effective B2B marketing asset class. Increasingly, prospective customers do not believe white papers will be helpful or credible, and as a result, they often no longer play a critical role in their decision-making process for purchasing products or services.
Some B2B publications, marketing consulting firms and other 3rd parties with a vested interest in promoting the use of white papers are capable of citing surveys, focus group results and case studies to support the tactic as an effective lead generation and lead nurturing device. And there are still many companies that produce legitimate white papers containing helpful, objective information.
But despite this quantitative evidence and the best efforts of companies that produce high quality content, B2B customers are avoiding white papers in greater numbers, not only because they are no longer viewed as credible, but also because marketers have erected too many registration barriers that restrict online access to content. Marketers, in turn, are finding white papers to be far less effective as a demand generation tool. Marketers may not have killed the white paper goose, but the tactic is certainly on life support, and is producing far fewer golden eggs.
So if diminished impact is the new white paper reality, then how do companies leverage whatever B2B marketing benefits this now traditional tactic may still be capable of delivering? Here are few suggestions:
Repackage the Content: One of my grandmother’s favorite expressions was, “If you fly with the crows, you’ll be shot at.” If you’ve produced credible content, avoid guilt by association with self-serving white papers by publishing it under a different label. Executive Review? Research Report? Market Analysis? Blue Paper?
Scrap the Traditional Format: Regardless of the credibility issue, people simply have too much to read. Instead, produce a video or slideshare version of your white paper content. There’s a greater likelihood that interested parties will sit still for a 3-minute video production than invest 20 minutes laboring over a written white paper. Or create a visual version to serve as a “highlights” teaser that incents readership of the prose version.
Grow a Set: Instead of producing the white paper in-house or hiring a freelance writer, engage a well-known, respected industry source to research and produce your white paper…and (here’s the tough part) give that writer complete editorial control. The report may take some shots that you don’t like, but the conclusions will be highly credible and your brand will gain a reputation as a company that can withstand objective scrutiny.
Slice and Dice Content: Rather than jamming your white paper content into a single masterpiece, allocate and publish the findings as a series of blog post installments. This method will increase readership and also produce multiple opportunities to communicate with target audiences, versus once-and-done publication of your white paper.
Kill Registration Hurdles: Your competitors will always find a way to get a copy of your white paper. Stop acting as though your white paper contains the formula for cold fusion, and use it to generate appreciation of your company’s intellectual capital by all interested parties, including competitors. As B2B internet protocol has evolved, people are far less inclined to provide contact information in exchange for what may be worthless content. Increasingly, registration barriers lose more leads than they generate.
White paper supporters need only be patient. Similar to other B2B marketing tactics that have fallen out of favor through over-use or abuse, the utility of white papers may eventually be fully restored. Even snail mail, long declared dead as a marketing channel, is now enjoying a resurgence as an effective means to cut through the clutter of email.