Though the format is sometimes misused (i.e., documents are called white papers when they are really just extended marketing brochures), properly produced and promoted white papers remain an effective and vital marketing tool—particularly for b2b technology companies.
At their best, white papers accomplish two mutually beneficial goals:
- • They provide readers with valuable, actionable, vendor-agnostic (or at least mostly agnostic) information about a trend, concept or topic.
- • They provide vendors with a platform to showcase their subject matter expertise and thought leadership, thereby building brand credibility.
In the lead generation process, white papers can be extremely valuable because they identify prospective buyers while requiring a low level of commitment. In the hierarchy of lead generating assets and activities, white papers form the vital base, as illustrated below.
White papers are intended to provide value to a sophisticated audience, thereby enhancing the credibility and image of the brand behind them. Poorly crafted or overtly promotional white papers can actually have the opposite effect.
Here are six recommendations to help maximize the value of the (often considerable) investment in white papers, for both readers and vendors.
1. Solve a real problem. Too often, white papers topics are chosen by looking inward, reflecting subjects the vendor wants to talk about rather than trends and issues that matter to their sales prospects. There are many sources for identifying topics that matter to your market, including:
- • Search keywords used to find your website
- • Keywords and phrases used in site search on your website
- • Suggestions from your company’s consultants, customer service representatives, and sales people
- • Discussions with current and prospective customers
- • Social media (e.g., discussions in relevant LinkedIn groups, trending topics on Twitter)
- • Industry news sources and blogs
- • Industry analyst reports and briefings
- • Google Trends
To find the most impactful topics, triangulate input from multiple sources.
2. Do your research. It’s extraordinarily unlikely that your white paper will be the first ever written on a specific topic, so before diving in and writing, conduct some research to discover what’s already been written by analysts, journalists, bloggers, and competitors. Citing third-party sources that support your contentions is a great way to increase both the value of the white paper to the reader and your brand’s credibility.
Research also helps prevent potentially embarrassing mistakes. If your white paper adds nothing new to knowledge of the topic, it may not be worth writing. If it contradicts existing articles and reports, you’d better have strong evidence to back up your position. And most importantly, if you are going to cite statistics, try to verify figures between multiple, reliable sources first.
For example, this blog frequently publishes updated compilations of social media and digital marketing statistics. One particular statistic that’s been difficult to nail down is the percentage of companies that maintain corporate blogs. Part of the reason is wide variation between different industries and company sizes; another is the underlying survey methodology (e.g., a survey conducted via social media will inevitably produce a larger figure than one done via email).
But one infographic reported the figure at 95%—no qualification, no mention of who was surveyed or how. Just a cute little graphic showing that 95% of all businesses have blogs. That number is, of course, patent hogwash, and immediately destroyed the credibility of the source.
3. Promote white papers honestly. Use abstract text that is compelling and even creates a bit of intrigue, but keep it real. Don’t mislead potential downloaders or promise knowledge or insights the white paper doesn’t deliver.
Most of all, don’t promise a vendor-agnostic presentation of facts, then devote most of the copy to a product pitch.
There is a place for product information in white papers, of course. For example, one vendor of high-performance database software had developed an entirely new data model; to help prospective buyers understand how the software was different, the vendor produced a technical white paper describing the new data model and how it worked. There’s nothing inherently wrong with producing such product-oriented white papers, as long as the subject material is accurately disclosed on the download page.
4. Use graphics. Images not only add visual appeal and make copy more readable by breaking up long blocks of text, they are often a more concise and understandable way to communicate information.
For example, which gives the reader a more immediate and clear understanding of the trend in traffic growth on a b2b technology blog? A sentence like “after growing at a relatively modest pace, averaging about 8% per quarter for seven quarters starting early 2011, blog visits have increased substantially in past year, increasing by 218% since the final quarter of 2012″—or this graphic:
5. Publicize the white paper across a variety of media (blog posts, search ads, social, etc.). Creating high-quality white papers requires a significant investments of time, cost and effort. To maximize a white paper’s impact and ROI, a similar level of energy and resources should be devoted to promoting it.
White papers provide rich opportunities for repurposing content (and using these repurposed assets to promote downloads of the full white paper), into formats such as SlideShare presentations, infographics, blog posts, guest posts, and media articles. All of these assets, as well as the original white paper, can and should be shared through social channels like Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook. Images and infographics can also be shared on visually-oriented networks like Pinterest and Scoop.It.
6. Think beyond the PDF. Most white papers are still produced in static PDF format. Not only do PDFs have a number of limitations (e.g., they offer very limited capabilities for SEO and aren’t mobile-friendly), but they typically force marketers to choose between two less-than-ideal options:
- • “gating” the white paper behind a contact form generates raw leads, but also greatly diminishes distribution, as only one of twenty (on average) visitors to the download page will complete the form (and even fewer with accurate information); or
- • allowing the white paper to be freely downloaded, which maximizes reach but provides no names to follow up with or way to measure the success and productivity of the asset.
Fortunately, marketers are no longer limited to these two alternatives, as new technologies expand the possibilities for white paper dissemination.
One example is Docalytics, an online platform which extends the utility of PDF documents by adding analytics capabilities (e.g., how long did the reader spend with the white paper? How many pages did he or she read?); one-click social sharing and other follow-on calls to action; and “inline progressive capture”–the ability to display a contact form only after the reader has read the first two or three pages, which can significantly increase conversion rates.
Another option for white paper distribution, which goes beyond the PDF format completely, is Readz, a tool that converts PDFs or articles into responsive, mobile-friendly web content. Like Docalytics, it improves conversion rates and offers rich analytics, but in addition, the Readz platform does away with the need for Acrobat Reader; adapts to display properly on any device; provides SEO benefits; and integrates to popular email and marketing automation systems, like MailChimp and Infusionsoftt–as well as to Google Analytics.
Content published by Readz can be directly shared through a URL. Your prospects or customers click the link or button, and the app opens. You can share the link on your website, blog or social network or in your inbound marketing campaign on a landing page or in email. The company’s goal is to “make it easy to create the kind of content that’s shareable, measurable and usable.”
Readz content is also interactive, unlike PDF files. For example, you can add “action points” that expand into pop-up text boxes when clicked on by a reader. You can imbed SlideShare presentations, videos, or other similar content into a Readz document.
To see Readz in action, check out their white paper The Insider’s Guide to White Papers that get Higher Conversions, which offers helpful tips for how to write a professional white paper, promote white papers, increase readership, improve conversion rates, and more.
Thought the Readz system drives visitors to content hosted on their site, not yours, it does provide flexible options for branding so visitors have a consistent experience, and an option to embed code on external websites is currently in the works.
Danny Brown has written a detailed review of the Readz product here, which notes that “Pricing starts at $25 per month for up to two content pieces/whitepapers 10,000 page views, going up to $300 per month for 50 whitepapers with 100,000 page views.” So, even a modest increase in conversion rate more than pays for the tool.
The bottom line is that while white papers remain a vital lead generation mechanism in a variety of industries, but particularly for b2b technology vendors, the bar has been raised. Users have become somewhat jaded due to the proliferation, and in many cases misuse, of the format.
To stand out today and get the maximum value for the (not insignificant) investment required to produce quality white papers, vendors need to provide high-quality, objective content, promote it broadly, and evaluate new tools that can improve conversion rates, provide advanced analytics, and improve the user experience across desktop and mobile devices.
This is a sponsored post on behalf of Readz. However, all opinions are my own.