White papers are viewed as one of the most effective content marketing tools by both B2B marketers and buyers, according to a report issued last year.
The survey of members of the B2B Technology Marketing Community on LinkedIn found that white papers are seen as the sixth most effective tactic (out of 30 choices), far ahead of channels such as social media, blogging, and infographics.
Yet, the same report found white papers have seen the biggest drop in perceived effectiveness since 2012—moving down from second place to sixth.
What’s going on? Are white papers losing their mojo?
The answer is absolutely not; white papers remain highly effective when done properly.
The problem is too often these days they are not being done right.
What does “right” mean? Basically, that white papers succeed only when marketers properly take into account both function and form.
In particular, here are some key things to pay attention to for each:
Don’t Be Too “Salesy” - For you, the primary goal of creating a white paper is probably to ultimately boost sales. That is important, of course, but never forget that your readers are coming because they want to be educated and/or are looking for thought leadership.
This means that you must be vigilant about prioritizing providing quality information above all else. Yes, you should use lead-gen landing pages and sprinkle calls-to-action throughout the piece, but never make the actual content too “salesy.”
You may be tempted to spin data in your favor or use unnecessary superlatives about your product in your white paper. Don’t do it. Above all else, that is why the tactic is increasingly viewed skeptically by buyers. Be transparent and be honest in your presentation–this will garner you far more goodwill with readers than trying to turn the piece into a sales brochure.
Provide Original Ideas and Insights - The white papers that are actually read and widely shared usually provide original data and/or insights. Of course, this is hard to do (extremely hard, in fact).
Given the challenge, you may want to use a content crutch, such as summarizing other people’s thoughts or recycling previous data. Again, don’t do it. There are plenty of other content marketing tactics where you can curate and reuse–such as blogs and infographics. White papers are primarily a medium for truly original information.
This means that when creating a white paper you must allow for enough time and budget to collect fresh data and/or refine new ideas. You should also make sure that the people in your organization with valuable insights and knowledge are either actually writing the white paper or are at least providing the core ideas.
Make Sure Your Content Is Useful – A white paper can be both honest and original, yet still fail from a content perspective.
Why? There are a myriad of potential pitfalls, from choosing the wrong topics to publishing at the wrong times.
In order to make sure that your white papers are both good and useful, you should use analytics heavily to measure everything from the number of readers to what sections are actually being consumed (and abandoned).
Doing this doesn’t mean that none of your content will fail–chances are some pieces will fall flat, especially if you are taking chances with what you publish. However, it does mean that you will learn from your mistakes, and be able to consistently refine your offerings.
Keep It Short - A survey of B2B buyers conducted by Pardot last year found 70% believe written content, including white papers, should be under five pages in length.
This means that your offering very well may not be read if it is too long. Therefore, make sure you are always cognizant of the length of your white papers.
Of course, some pieces may need to be longer than five pages, especially if they are covering complicated topics or products. Still, make every effort to edit down as much as possible.
Make Sure It Is Readable and Accessible - As we’ve covered in earlier posts on our blog, too often marketers create content without thinking about readability and accessibility. This is especially true with white papers, which are usually released as PDFs.
While those documents may look great on your large desktop monitor, the experience is far from ideal for many other readers.
In particular, PDFs often appear with tiny fonts and graphics on smaller screens. This means that all the time you spent formatting your beautiful white paper may be for naught–a large number of users will be unable to see the actual content without squinting or pinching/zooming.
Moreover, on many devices–including most mobile phones and tablets–actually accessing PDFs is a pain. While this may not seem like a big deal when you’re thinking of an individual user, it can cumulatively significantly reduce your audience size.
Pay Attention to the Need for Speed - Why does Google rank fast-loading pages higher in search results? Because, according to the company: “Fast and optimized pages lead to higher visitor engagement, retention, and conversions.”
These are the exact same reasons why you should care about the speed at which your white papers load.
Again, this is particularly important because many white papers are released via large PDFs. These files, often bulky because of images and charts, can take quite a while to load, especially on a slow connection. Unfortunately, with each second that passes you are losing readers and potential leads.
Of course, as I noted earlier, you need to pay attention to both the form and function for your white paper. Without excellent content it doesn’t matter how fast your offering loads. Conversely, your white paper can be exceptional, but if isn’t optimized it won’t be read.
That said, when they are done right–when they are honest, original, useful, short, readable, accessible, and fast–white papers are still in many ways the ideal medium for content marketing.
After all, they are relatively inexpensive to create, have minimal distribution cost, and can be highly shareable. Ultimately, that is a recipe for success.
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photo credit: Mr.TinDC