Is it Time to Shred the White Paper?

I recently talked about white papers as a good market for medical writers to tap into. And I additionally wrote this guest post on writing white papers for the medical industry.

But not everyone is a fan of this old favorite!
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What’s the Problem?
They tend to get a bad rap. Painful, dull, and overlong are just a few adjectives that I’ve seen used to describe these important documents. Yet they’ve been around for some time, and their academic voice remains a high-impact asset in marketing.

Not all white papers are created equally though. Their quality varies widely, depending on the author. When written properly, they can be extremely effective marketing tools, even in simple PDF format. The flip side, however, is that when written poorly, they merely come across as a big old sales pitch in disguise (and sometimes not even in disguise!). A small bias is expected (it’s a document that aims to grab a sale, after all), but if the overwhelming message to the reader is a forceful sales pitch, it may just fall on deaf ears.

One problem with a white paper is its short half-life – once sent out, that’s it, it’s gone. And the reader may not even finish reading it. Another problem is inflexibility of content delivery – even if the reader likes it, he still may not be motivated to contact a sales representative.

Interestingly, many people believe that white papers may be on the way out due to the advent of new 2.0 technologies. Our ever-increasing immersion into the fast-paced digital era has, for better or worse, reduced our attention span. As a result, some feel that traditional white papers are less appealing, whereas digital information delivery allows the reader to become more involved in researching a product, thus enhancing product curiosity.
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What Alternatives are There?
Consequently many feel that the traditional, thesis-like white paper may be outdated amidst today’s technology. Some businesses are therefore now reaching out to their audience via different platforms, and building client relationships in a more interactive way. A few of these include:

  • Microsites: These can be used to create a marketing message for lead generation. Information that would typically go into a white paper can be placed on the site, but in a more readable and interactive format. Information can be shared there in various formats (such as via a blog, surveys, webinars, and discussion forums to name but a few), and can also be updated as necessary.
  • Twitter: Social networking is becoming another useful method for reaching a target audience.  Twitter is a growing platform for this, with Twitter chats being increasingly used for marketing.
  • eBooks: Their landscape format is favored by some, supposedly because it makes for easier reading. Throw in some embedded links too, or interactive media “bells and whistles” such as video or animation. The finished product may then better engage the reader, increasing his interest, and making him more likely to finish reading it.

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Where Does the Future Lie?
Having said all this, however, white papers have stood the test of time. After all, companies are still using them, and often still in their very traditional, bland form. Some critics argue that our reduced attention spans actually allow a paper document to function better than digital material. For instance, many people visit many websites, but how long do they stay to read them? Additionally, the viral “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of much digital material these days could work against its effectiveness as a delivery platform for product information.

Personally, despite seeing the value of new technology, I feel that white papers will remain steadfast. I think most of us would agree that attention-grabbing content remains king, regardless of format.  And likely the customer, not the marketer, will have the final say on whether white papers should be axed. At the moment though, there is enough evidence that they remain a valued marketing tool. So although change is always good as a process evolves, I suspect most companies will retain a special place in their heart for these documents. After all, marketing is still marketing, and the factors that drive sales haven’t really changed.

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So what do you think? Is creativity the new white paper?

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Image credit Photostock at Free Digital Photos

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Posted on February 2, 2012, in Freelance Writing, Medical Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Hi Nicky: Of course you know I am going to be a bit biased on this one since it is a big part of my business. ;-)

    You nailed it when you said Not all white papers are created equally. I think the success of the white paper is very much dependent on the quality and the content. They can have an extremely long shelf life if the topic is more evergreen. For example, Mike Stelzner often shares the story that his white paper on white papers is still being downloaded today, years after it was 1st released. If the white paper is one on specific technology, we know how quickly that changes. :-)

    I found this report from the Content Marketing Institute that shows there is still an appeal to white papers, albeit they fall below other options. The report also shows a 19% increase in white paper usage. http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/2011/12/2012-b2b-content-marketing-research/

    For purely selfish reasons, I’m hoping they are around for a looong time.:-) I’m all about simple and brevity, but sometimes you just have to have more details.

    • Cathy, your comment finally appeared tonight in my spam folder! What a bizarre delay! And you’re the Queen of the WPs, so you’re quite entitled to be biased! Thanks for the article link too – interesting, and mostly not surprising that they continue to still maintain a presence. I think there’s something to be said for these “bland” documents, especially in some arenas – the healthcare industry, for example, just begs to have facts stated clearly and simply. No bells and whistles required. I too hope they’re around for a long time to come!

  2. Apropos to nothing you’ve just written–I like the new name! Well done–you took the plunge. Be sure to share if it improves your readership.

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