Profiting from White Papers

by Britton Manasco | Aug 27, 2006 | Content Strategy

If you are a B2B marketer trying to generate leads or facilitate the sales process, then you should probably be actively investing in white papers. Research from such sources as Marketing Sherpa and SiriusDecisions suggests that white papers are one of the most powerful and cost-effective tools in the marketer's toolkit. No surprise, then, that the creation and marketing of white papers should become a discipline unto itself.

In two recent books, the secrets of white papers are pretty effectively revealed. In Writing White Papers, Mike Stelzner offers a clear and concise guide to producing white papers that, as the subtitle suggests, will "capture readers and keep them engaged." Robert Bly, by contrast, takes a wider -- if somewhat less immediately actionable -- perspective in his book The White Paper Marketing Handbook. He draws on his deep knowledge of direct marketing to help white paper authors capitalize on their content.

Having worked with Stelzner on white paper projects, I can tell you from experience that what you read in his book is exactly what he delivers to his clients. He is literally -- and generously, as I see it -- revealing the way he operates in a very accessible fashion. You can follow the step-by-step advice he offers in his book and you will be on your way to creating exceptional white papers and winning the confidence of your clients (or colleagues if you are doing it in-house). I was struck by his amazing skill at making complex things simple. Skilled craftsmen have never been encouraged to make their craft truly accessible to the outside world. Better to leave the craft mysterious so that the value of one's skills remains high.

Well, Stelzner has thrown off any veils that might have been associated with white papers. He patiently walks you through the process -- from the needs assessment to the outline to the title to the core content and on to the formatting. He tells you just what he believes. So much so that he may even be giving a little too much of the white paper's magic away.

For instance, he tells writers that they should provide a "What to Look for" section in their papers that essentially sets the criteria that a reader would use when choosing a product or solution. "By providing a list of key considerations, you are essentially telling readers how to shop for YOUR solution, without ever mentioning your product," he writes. That's true. But what happens if white paper readers read this book (or learn about it by reading this review). Won't they begin to discount the apparently unbiased advice in that criteria-setting section?

Ok, never mind. Maybe they will. It doesn't really matter. Ultimately, Stelzner believes that generosity is the name of the game. His philosophy: "If you give readers something of value, they will give you their loyalty, and ultimately their business."

And while I think Stelzner's book is a powerful tool to guide the writing process, I think Bly offers another part of the picture and helps advance our understanding of this tool's value. He brings to his book deep knowledge and experience in direct marketing. In fact, much of his book puts the white paper within the wider frame of a marketer's portfolio.

Bly offers deep advice on developing a white paper marketing plan and using direct marketing techniques to promote the paper. That's critical. It's not enough to merely create great content. You also must understand how to market that content. Otherwise, no one will read it and it will have very little impact.

Bly even dips his toe into the topic of measurement and improvement. While I believe there will be much more to say (and learn) on this topic, I commend him for getting us to confront a topic -- measurable impact -- that is rarely of interest to freelance writers but is at the heart of the white paper marketer's credibility and success.

My quibbles? I simply don't like Bly's term to describe the wider movement that white papers address. He calls it "edu-marketing." That reminds me of "edu-tainment" -- a term that has been derided for schlocky content that is neither educational or entertaining. And why would we want to market our own craft in relation to "education"? That's one of the least productive industries in the economy. We need better marketing than this.

I'm also a little confused as to why he offers long lists when presenting his advice. Stuff like "33 Ways to Get More Bait Piece Inquiries" and "50 Lead Generating Tips" strike me as needlessly excessive. I'd prefer a little more discrimination -- 7 tips is all I ask. Then again, Bly is a clever cat. I wouldn't be surprised if 50 tip offers tend to test better than those promising a mere 7 tips. The thud factor may have more power than I am willing to admit.   

My only quibble with Stelzner (who I refer to as "Mike" in places other than book reviews) is my sense that the problem-solution format he heartily advocates may not be the only path to glory here. I sense that it is possible to create papers that do nothing but discuss the problem in great depth and then, encourage readers get on the phone to engage in a one-to-one dialogue with the paper's producer prior to going into the solution.

How can I know that I have a solution to your problem, after all, if I don't know the full scope and cost of that problem? I'm thinking that, in many cases, it may be premature to discuss the solution in the absence of critical details about the prospect's situation. The opportunity to complete the diagnosis and then, if appropriate, move onto the solution might be the real "call to action."

Anyway, these are two books that should both be on your bookshelf if you care about white papers. And, as I see it, you should. White papers are an essential element in the thought leadership marketing portfolio. When we follow the advice of leading practitioners like Stelzner and Bly, we seize the opportunity to capture the limited attention of our prospects and guide them through a complex and demanding decision. This is where marketing is headed.