White Papers: Tell (and Sell) Your Story

By Chris Birk on 16 January 2011 0 comments
Photo: CDH_Design

Entrepreneurs cobbling together a list of business resolutions for 2011 should reserve a spot for an underutilized yet increasingly powerful marketing tool: white papers. These educational tracts have become essential — not to mention influential — information products that can boost your credibility and marketing capabilities.

Nearly three quarters of business leaders read at least one white paper every six months, according to a November 2009 study from Eccolo Media. The same study found that 84% of respondents considered white papers moderately to extremely influential when it came time to make purchasing decisions.

Consumers and business leaders alike are awash in a cluttered sea of marketing materials. Well-crafted white papers can cut through the fog and illuminate your company and the targeted solutions you can offer. That kind of clarity and purpose of vision is more important than ever before. Decision makers and potential purchasers crave simplicity, authority, and authenticity. Great white papers can help business owners strike that delicate balance.

What Is a White Paper?

Ask 10 different business leaders and marketers and you might get 10 different answers.

Traditionally, white papers were the realm of bureaucracies and government officialdom. White papers were seen as informational and analysis-based, used to help persuade readers regarding a position or a solution.

Over time, business communicators adopted the concept. Today, companies, corporations, and small businesses all use white papers to spotlight their brands, convey key information about their products, and carve out competitive space.

They’re typically documents of substance, anywhere from four to 10 pages and beyond with graphics and illustrations. Consider them research papers written with an eye on the bottom line.

Rooted in education, these messaging tools are meant to provide readers with unique information they can’t find elsewhere. For example, longtime search marketing firm iProspect publishes a laundry list of white papers and studies for consumers and influencers in its sphere. Global real estate firm CB Richard Ellis has its own line of white papers geared toward the distinct needs of its clients and prospective partners.

A quick perusal of well-written white papers leads to an immediate conclusion: These aren’t glorified sales sheets.

The phrase “white paper” conjures an image of credibility, due diligence, and careful consideration. Consumers and business leaders will expect a white paper to offer a high degree of quality and expertise. These documents tackle specific issues and questions. They provide insight and concrete solutions. They illuminate trends.

A top-tier white paper requires a commitment that can tax some busy entrepreneurs. Making time to write these can prove difficult. Paying for their creation isn’t cheap. But the best white papers can serve as significant brand boosters and lead generation machines.

Tips for Maximizing White Paper Potential

You can’t just sit down and bang out a white paper in 10 minutes. These take forethought and planning, not to mention a deft writing touch.

Entrepreneurs also need to ensure they’re harnessing the power of the web and social media to bring eyeballs to their white papers. And, of course, that they’re intelligently collecting and utilizing the contact information that can come from releasing a downloadable guide.

Here are a few tips for maximizing your white paper potential:

  • Tee up the right topic: Consider your target market, your vertical, and what corners have yet to be exhaustively covered. Find a way to interject your own expertise or solutions into existent problems. Look ahead to product launches well down the line and examine ways to lay the groundwork for solutions. Don’t be afraid to offer some insight on a current hot issue.
  • Make it sing:
The writing must be top notch. Half of respondents in that Eccolo Media survey from last fall said that good writing was either very or extremely influential. Entrepreneurs can hire companies like iCopywriter or even individual journalists or writers to produce white papers.
  • Limit the hard sell:
The best white papers provide information, illumination and general solutions and insight. Avoid blatant marketing and self-serving prose. Focus on consumers and prospective partners and ways their needs can be met.
  • Take a journalistic approach:
Don’t be afraid to interview experts in your field as well as in your own company. Garner as much pertinent information as possible to fully flesh out your particular argument or your white paper as a whole.
  • Consider the time:
This is in terms of both the content-production side and the reader’s precious time. Excellent white papers take a good chunk of time from conception to publication, so don’t expect 10 or even 20 hours to be enough in some cases. Also, aim for a final product no longer than eight pages.
  • Make a great landing page:
Build a crisp landing page for your white paper. Consider creating a short video that explains the paper and guides readers through an overview before they download. Capture email addresses through the download process and start building a marketing list.
  • Push them out:
Businesses can essentially syndicate white papers through several outlets and websites. Some are costlier than others. For example, a basic white paper sponsorship at technology hub TechTarget ranges from $10,000 to $15,000 for a three-month posting. You can also use white papers as incentives and giveaways in pay-per-click advertising campaigns.
  • Don't stop at one: White papers can steamroll once you start. And that can be an effective component to an overall marketing strategy. Crank out a half-dozen to 10 white papers and build a separate Education Center or Resource Center on your website to house them.
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