The Role of White Papers in a Paperless World

Melody Udell
B2B Marketing
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Key Takeaways
  • It’s a great practice to consider your white paper in “chunks” and figure out how you can distribute it via social or other means.

  • When looking for results, make sure you understand what results are you are expecting from the white paper. 

  • Marketers should focus more on creating fewer, but exceptional, white papers and then truly putting a strong promotional plan behind them. ​

White papers are a fixture in many marketers’ toolkits, allowing B-to-B and consumer brands alike to share thought leadership and subject matter expertise with an audience of content-hungry potential customers. According to the Cleveland-based Content Marketing Institute’s 2015 survey, “B2B Content Marketing: Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends,” white papers ranked ninth among 27 most-used content marketing tactics. Sixty-eight percent of survey participants regularly use them as part of their overall content strategies, up from 64% in 2014, while 58% believe that white papers are effective, according to the study. But are white papers still effective in an age in which even complex, industrial B-to-B brands are making bite-sized mobile and social content key elements of their marketing strategies?

Michele Linn, vice president of content at the Content Marketing Institute, discusses the current role and “next practices” of the white paper in the age of smartphones and six-second videos.

Q: B-to-B white papers most often are used as lead-generation tools, and aim to educate a target audience or influence potential customers. But now that a plethora of channels—blogs, social media—offer a similar avenue to publish such thought leadership, is the B-to-B white paper a relic of a print-heavy world?

A: My background is product marketing for a tech company and we have created digital white papers since I started in the late 1990s. While I no longer work for a tech company, white papers continue to be a staple in many B-to-B marketers’ plans. … [We’ve found that] this most recent year, 68% of B-to-B marketers in North America use white papers and of those, 58% consider them to be effective. White paper usage actually is up a bit from last year: 64% of B-to-B marketers were using white papers a year ago. 

While other channels can be useful for sharing some of the same content that is in white papers, there is no one format that can replace them. Blog posts, even those that are detailed, rarely go into as much depth as a white paper. Social media typically includes bite-sized or visual content, which makes it a great place to distribute pieces of the white paper but a poor substitute for an actual white paper.

Q: Some experts say that widespread adoption, and even abuse, of white papers by marketers trying to shoehorn them into a content plan have decreased their effectiveness. How can marketers use white papers as a results-driven, relevant element of a B-to-B company’s overall content marketing strategy?

A: Good enough is often not good enough in this world of too much content, so white papers that are thinly veiled product pitches or those that could be published just as easily by your competitors aren’t effective, and I’d like to think that they never have been. But white papers can still be a key piece of your content marketing strategy if done well.

Like any piece of content, I suggest you keep your audience in mind and think about the questions they are asking. When looking for results, make sure you understand what results you are expecting from the white paper. What specific business goal are you trying to impact?

Q: While white papers continue to rely on best practices, such as providing clear subject matter expertise and problem-solving, what ‘next practices’ are B-to-B marketers leveraging to boost their white paper efficacy in the digital age?

A: I would like to see marketers focus more on creating fewer but exceptional white papers and then truly putting a strong promotional plan behind them.​ 


This article was originally published in the March 2015​ issue of B2B Marketing.​​​​


Author Bio:

Melody Udell
Melody Udell is the managing editor of the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She can be reached at mudell@ama.org.
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