White Papers: Don’t make them Sales Brochures

Posted on October 12, 2008. Filed under: Business, Marketing, Sales | Tags: , , , |

Many businesses are turning to White Papers as part of their Marketing communication strategy. Unfortunately many of them seem to have the wrong idea about what constitutes a White Paper. For a large number of companies it seems that their White Papers are really extended sales brochures. As Steve Hoffman writes in a recent Marketing Profs White Paper, “White papers are not marketing collateral,” he says. “They complement marketing collateral.”, He goes on to state ” A ‘white paper’ that actively markets your company to readers is nothing more than a long, wordy brochure.”

However, many companies just don’t seem to understand this and continue to produce White Papers that truly don’t meet this criteria. Lets examine the reasons why a company would engage in the creation of a White Paper.

  1. The intention to position their company as Subject Matter Experts with regard to a particular service, product or technology
  2. To differentiate themselves from their competitors by sharing knowledge
  3. To drive traffic and/or leads to their website
  4. To reinforce or create an impression with prospects and clients that they are a trusted voice in their industry
  5. To introduce a new concept, solution or technology to the market

These are not by any means the only reason why a company would seek to publish a White Paper but they certainly constitute the most popular reasons. Now given that a company is going to commit time, money and resources to this endeavor with the hopes of meeting at least one, if not more of the aims above then it would seem reasonable that some consideration of the readership, both intended and unintended would be considered.

However, that seems to be the last thing that companies consider when setting out on this path. They start and end with a focus on selling their product and in doing so hamstring their endeavor before it has even started.

Lets examine a typical White Paper from cover to cover and review how so many companies are producing them and make suggestions about how they can do them better.

The cover – Often produced as an after thought, this is where the trouble starts. A large Logo emblazoned on the front of the White Paper, immediately announcing that this is the product of a particular company. Then a title that also includes the company name, e.g. “ABC’s Solution to your Problem”. A reader seeing this has already put up their anti-sales barriers, that’s if they even bother to go any further. Given that most companies ask you to complete a short info form before you can download a White Paper, the reader is now feeling cheated, they have given out their email address and name and possibly other information on the pretext of being given some valuable information, only to find that they are in fact going to be sold to.

  • The Alternative – Move your logo – if you must in fact include your logo on the front page, and I am by no means supporting that, to a greatly reduced size to the bottom of the front page, precede it with “Sponsored by” or “Provided by”. In place of the Logo put a title that fairly represents the content of the paper, it doesn’t have to be bland, it can be catchy but it must most importantly be relevant and should not under any circumstances include the company name. Make sure that the author(s) names are on the front page so that people have some sense of who wrote the paper, include their position or expertise.

The content – Having opened the White Paper the reader is then told how they are going to read in this paper that ABC’s solution is the only one they need to consider. They are told how not considering ABC’s solution will in fact lead them into dire straits, financial ruin, or end their career. That everyone who is anyone in the industry is already using this solution and that only buyers who truly lack vision would be considering anything else. This may seem extreme but I can honestly say I have seen just these tactics used in what was supposed to be a White Paper. Using fear or other “sales” tactics in a White Paper not only doesn’t work, its completely inappropriate for the medium. Using unsupported claims is also pointless, again these leave the reader feeling that they have downloaded a sales brochure and are unlikely to get any useful information from this paper.

  • The Alternative – Make the content compelling. Tell a story, that doesn’t mean fictionalize it, it means have a narrative thread that runs throughout the paper. Lead the reader through your arguments with facts that support your position. Where possible cite studies or quote industry figures that agree with and support your position. Use images where appropriate, but not so many that the paper becomes more like a graphic novel than a White Paper. Leave out any mention of your company. This is the hardest pill for most companies to swallow. “How will the reader know about us”, they ask. We’ll get to the part where you get to pitch, but it isn’t in the body of the White Paper. Provide some proprietary information, give the reader something that they would have to have paid for to get normally. Perhaps its from a study that is only available by subscription (be sure to source it properly) or perhaps its from the companies own data. Many companies fear doing this – “what if our competitors get this information?”, what if they do? Obviously don’t include something that would remove your competitive edge, but revealing some information, even if it goes to your competitors is more likely to strengthen your position than weaken it. So where does the pitch go ? At the very back of the paper, separate page, separate heading, so that it is clearly not part of the paper. A heading like “About the Sponsors” gives the reader a clear indication that this is the pitch part, it gives them the opportunity to read it or not, but it also allows them to clearly delineate in their minds the meat of the paper and the sales pitch, which is more likely to have them read the pitch because after all, you have given them something useful, now they are more likely to give you something back – their time.

The Readership – just because the paper was written with a specific reader in mind, new prospects, existing customers etc. doesn’t mean that is who will read it. White Papers are used by a variety of sources, competitors, market researchers, journalists, and yes new prospects and existing customers. If a White Paper reads like a sales brochure, provides no new information, doesn’t offer a genuine insight and relevant data to a reader how does this meet the defined objectives? Will a company be seen as an industry subject matter expert, will it drive new prospects to a website, will existing customers think of the company as a trusted industry voice, will journalists or market researchers think of them when they next need a quote about the industry?

As a recap, avoid selling in a white paper at all costs, make the body engaging, provide facts that the reader can use, be subtle about the branding of white papers and keep in mind the wider audience that you might reach however unintentionally.

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