Beyond best practices in white papers: let’s talk best propositions, preoccupations and prospects.

Given how many manifestations white papers have today, talking about best practices can be a challenge. It seems like the lines are becoming more and more blurry among white papers, e-books, case studies, research papers, and even brochures. So what are the best practices today?

Rather than lay down a rigid white paper template and restrictive definition, I wish to offer up a set of best propositions meant to free your mind, best preoccupations to keep your wheels on the tracks and best prospects for providing content that breaks through and supports your business goals.

Best proposition: Give readers what they want, but not what they expect.

Your readers need specific information that helps solve their problems. It depends on what stage of consideration they’re in. Ask your sales people and ask your prospects what that is. Provide the answers readers need and your company will be a hero. Here are some tips to help you avoid the 3 B’s (big, broad and boring) in creating your white paper.

  1. Pick an angle. Go beyond the broad theme and speak directly to your prospects’ pains and burning questions. Look for a highly relevant slant that isn’t being featured elsewhere and you’ll have a ready audience. 
  2. Focus on fresh, not evergreen. I love the value of a white paper that prospects will want and download for years and years. It’s the ideal. But let’s face it. Things are changing fast. Information gets outdated quickly. The competition is quick to imitate our successes. Be specific rather than broad. Zero in on a hot topic rather than trying to produce the definitive guide. So maybe adjust your expectations to a 1 or 2-year shelf life as opposed to 10.
  3. Satisfy the snackers (while offering readers a real meal.) Be kind to your ADD readers by making your copy scannable: Include an abstract/executive summary at the beginning as well as an introduction, write subheads that identify the topics addressed in sections and chunk your copy into digestible paragraphs. That said, don’t hold back on giving the real readers a deep dive into the details of your topic. Do these things and you’ll provide an experience that satisfies all readers. Learn more about How Copywriting Contributes to a Great Customer Experience, in my recent TMSA post on the topic.

Best preoccupations: respect your readers and honor their trust.

The two biggest questions I see with clients are how long a white paper should be and how promotional it can be be. 

The first one is easy. Let value be your guiding light on length. If you can provide value in a one-page “major events affecting the transportation industry” white paper, great. However, if you’re introducing the world of third-party screen, test and repair services, it might take 5,000+ words. Make your white paper as long as it takes or as short as it can be—whatever it takes to educate readers.

The second question of “how promotional your white paper can be” is a little trickier. It’s an important question. I mean this is “content marketing” and it has to market your company in some way; however, there are degrees to which one might do this. At one end, you have information free of any promotional bias whatsoever. And at the other end, you have white papers that are essentially brochures.

I’ve seen good white papers from both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. The thing they all have in common is that they focus on the readers’ interests. Readers are expecting to find value in your white paper. Not providing worth and simply selling your product or service is a betrayal of trust. Not a good thing when two of the prime goals of white papers are to build trust and establish authority. 

I think it’s good to start a white paper project with a percentage in mind for how much of the content will be promotional. This will be determined by the stage of the sales funnel you’re writing to (i.e. awareness, consideration or decision.) For example, your promotional percentage in the awareness stage might be 2%, amounting to just having your logo on the cover and elevator speech at the end. A way to boost this slightly might be to add links to pages on your website or quote your company’s subject matter experts. 

The degree of promotionality of a white paper in the consideration or decision phases could be 10%, which usually means simply including your offering in with the list of potential solutions. Or it could be 100%, if for example, your product or service is unchallenged in the category or you have a totally new technology that warrants explanation. In all these cases, the value to the reader is your priority. 

Best prospects: think big, go beyond.

By establishing your authority and generating leads, white papers and content marketing in general, do great things for your business and brand. So how do you build on benefits like that? Lots of ways. 

I see smart clients using white papers as the centerpiece and foundation of extended campaigns. Companies will leverage the white paper content by splitting it into a series of blog posts, webinars and one-sheets. And in addition to promoting the whitepaper on their website, they’ll post about it on social channels and run ads for it. In doing so, a company might produce four white papers a year, promoting each one for a quarter. It’s a great way to juice a hot topic and create synergies that stretch the reach, value and momentum of your white paper. Running concerted and cohesive campaigns like this also helps you “own” the topic. 

Another thing I’m seeing is companies branding their white papers as a series as opposed to one-off publications. By having a consistent look and title structure, you encourage prospects to come back to your “library” for authoritative white papers on other topics they care about. The success you have in one rubs off on the other content you provide—and your brand.

Color yourself successful in your white papers by consistently focusing on the value you provide to prospects and by looking beyond the initial lead-generating potential. For an outside perspective of your content strategy or help keeping up with the demands of your content calendar, set up a short call with me to discuss how I might assist.