What you’ll learn:

  • A critical revelation: Learn why white papers are white!
  • Arguments for and against white papers in today’s landscape.
  • Best practices for creating an effective B2B white paper.

In the world of B2B marketing, the white paper has been regarded for a very, very long time as a cornerstone tool for conveying information, showcasing expertise, and establishing credibility.

But like dinosaurs, landlines or the Chicago Bears, is it in danger of irrelevance? Obsolescence? Extinction?

White papers have traditionally been touted as important B2B marketing assets that educated and convinced decision-makers or recommenders in different industries. We know; we’re among the touters.

However, with the digital age and easy access to information, some people might wonder if they still matter.

Let’s take a look at the role white papers have played, how they’ve changed, their ongoing importance, and the pros and cons of how they might fit into a modern content marketing strategy…if at all.

I. The origins and purpose of white papers

White papers have a substantial history going back to the early 20th century. Initially, they were governmental or academic documents that laid out policies and proposals in a clear and concise manner. One of the earliest white paper scribes, in fact? A guy named Winston Churchill.

Why were they “white papers”? Because they were, quite literally, white – official documents meant for public access were color-coded for that purpose by being printed on white paper.

Over time, the business world embraced the notion and adapted white paper to present complex technical and business information in a more digestible format. By the 1990s, white papers had become common tools in the technology sector, allowing companies to explain the benefits and potential applications of their products and services.

So the primary purpose of white papers has always been to inform and educate. Unlike marketing brochures or promotional material, white papers drill down deep into a subject matter, providing data, analysis, and expert opinions. To lend credibility, they’re often written (or at least bylined) by SMEs.

They act as resources that help readers understand complex problems and offer evidence-based solutions, positioning the sponsoring company in the now-classic role as a thought leader within its industry.

II. The evolution of white papers

The digital age disrupted how information gets disseminated and consumed. As internet access expanded and social media platforms emerged, businesses started exploring alternative methods of content marketing. Shorter, visually appealing content gained popularity, leading some to question the relevance of traditional, text-heavy white papers.

However, rather than becoming obsolete, white papers evolved to adapt to changing times. Businesses began to integrate multimedia elements like infographics, videos, and interactive content into their white papers, making them more engaging and accessible.

By combining the depth of a traditional white paper with the interactivity of digital media, companies found a way to cater to modern audiences while still delivering useful insights in ways that were more scannable and “snackable” than before.

III. The perceived challenges of white papers

Despite this evolution, white papers have faced a few challenges that contribute to doubts about their continued relevance. Some of these include:

  1. Attenuated attention spans: In an era of information overload, people’s attention spans have decreased significantly. The idea of reading a lengthy document may seem overwhelming or just off-putting to many, leading them to prefer shorter content formats.
  2. Accessibility: White papers were traditionally published in PDF format, which posed limitations on mobile accessibility and sharing. This constraint made it difficult for businesses to reach wider audiences and hindered the potential for viral dissemination.
  3. Credibility concerns: The ease of self-publishing on the internet has led to an influx – well, let’s say deluge – of low-quality content, causing readers to be more discerning about the sources they trust. Some critics argue that white papers could be perceived as biased or overly promotional, impacting their credibility.

IV. The enduring value of white papers

While white papers have contended with these doubts, if you look at them long enough, you realize their fundamental value remains intact. In fact, these challenges have forced content publishers to innovate creative solutions to enhance their white paper strategies. Here are a few reasons why white papers are still relevant and impactful:

  1. Authority and credibility: Well-researched and expertly written white papers demonstrate a company’s knowledge and expertise. They establish the business as a credible source of information and thought leadership, fostering trust with potential customers.
  2. Lead generation: White papers serve as valuable lead magnets, enticing prospects to provide their contact information in exchange for access to the document. This allows businesses to build their email lists and establish connections with interested individuals who are more likely to convert into customers.
  3. Long-term value: Unlike social media posts or blog articles that may quickly fade away in the vast sea of online content, white papers have a longer lifespan. They can be repurposed, shared, and referenced over time, ensuring a lasting impact on the target audience.
  4. In-depth analysis: While concise content formats have their place, white papers provide the space to delve deeply into complex subjects. They allow businesses to showcase their expertise and provide comprehensive solutions to industry-specific challenges, which helps in solving buyer’s pain points.

59% of B2B content marketers had created and published a white paper in the prior 12 months, according to a 2022-23 survey.

Five reasons not to employ white papers

But to be fair, let’s give both sides of the argument some room to make their points about why you should or should not use white papers as part of a content strategy. Let’s start with the criticisms:

  1. Creating a high-quality white paper requires a lot of time and resources. If a marketing team doesn’t have the necessary bandwidth, expertise, or budget to dedicate to producing one, it might not be feasible to use this strategy. Or the white papers they publish might not do them any favors when measured against better-produced material from competitors.
  2. The demand for white papers within a particular segment might be low. If a B2B marketer operates in a niche industry or has a very specific target audience, other content formats may be more effective in reaching and engaging the target audience.
  3. White papers tend to be lengthy and detailed, a challenge in today’s digital environment. Some B2B buyers may not have the time or inclination to read a lengthy white paper. Before committing to white papers, marketers should consider the preferences and behavior of their target audience.
  4. Even if a white paper is well-crafted and provides valuable insights, it relies on awareness. Basically, it won’t be effective if there are no appropriate channels to promote and distribute it. If a B2B marketer doesn’t have access to an engaged audience or the right platforms to reach their target customers, the white paper may not generate the desired impact or reach.
  5. White papers may not match up well with an existing content strategy or messaging architecture.  If a B2B marketer’s content strategy is focused on more visually appealing or interactive formats, such as videos, infographics, or interactive guides, employing white papers may not align with their overall content approach. It’s important to evaluate whether white papers fit within the broader content strategy and resonate with the target audience’s preferences.

Five reasons why white papers still kick ass

  1. White papers are a great way for B2B marketers to position themselves as experts in their field. By publishing white papers that provide valuable insights, analysis, and expertise, marketers can build trust and attract potential customers. Plus, a good white paper can be evergreen, re-promoted over and over again because it’s still relevant, especially with updates. Plus, it may be an asset the audience holds onto for some time as a useful resource.
  2. White papers can be used to generate leads. By offering a well-written white paper that addresses a specific pain point or industry challenge, marketers can entice potential customers to provide their contact information in exchange for accessing valuable content (though many marketers are turning away from this particular tactic while still making the white papers available). This enables marketers to build a targeted list of leads for nurturing and conversion.
  3. In the B2B space, buyers do a lot of research before making a purchasing decision. White papers can play a standout role in this process by providing in-depth information, data, and analysis for educating prospects about industry trends, challenges, and potential solutions. This helps influence their decision-making process and positions the marketer’s offerings as the best solution.
  4. White papers can also be valuable sales enablement tools. They provide sales teams with compelling content they can share with prospects to showcase the company’s expertise and reinforce key messages. White papers can address common objections, highlight unique value propositions, and provide evidence of success, helping sales representatives build credibility and overcome barriers to closing deals.
  5. Lastly, white papers can serve as cornerstone content pieces within a broader content marketing strategy. They can be repurposed and leveraged across multiple channels such as blogs, social media, email marketing, and webinars to extend their reach and amplify their impact, ultimately driving more traffic, leads, and conversions.

The sum of it? Done right, white papers can still be a versatile and powerful tool for B2B marketers that can help establish thought leadership, generate leads, educate prospects, support sales efforts, and enhance their content marketing strategy. But a white paper that’s “done right” is essential in that.

Best practices for effective white papers

To maximize the impact of white papers in the digital age, content publishers should ponder implementing the following best practices…a sort of Four Commandments of Content for the modern era:

  1. Know thy target audience: Tailor the content of the white paper to the specific needs and interests of the target audience. Conduct research, gather data, and use insights to provide valuable solutions that resonate with readers.
  2. Engage using multimedia: Incorporate visuals, interactive elements, and multimedia content to enhance the reading experience. Infographics, charts, and videos can help simplify complex concepts and make the content more engaging.
  3. Optimize for accessibility: Ensure white papers are mobile-friendly, easily shareable and accessible across various devices. Publishing them on the company website is an obvious method, but there’s also utilizing third-party platforms for wider distribution and improved accessibility.
  4. Balance depth and readability: This can be a bit of a moving target, depending on the audience and the segment, so pay special attention here by maintaining the informative and authoritative nature of white papers while making them readily consumable for your targets. Use clear language, concise explanations, and visual aids to enhance comprehension without sacrificing depth of analysis.

Whither white papers?

In this digital landscape, even though it’s been evolving at what seems hyperspeed, white papers have done more than withstand the test of time. Thanks to the shrewdness of content marketers, they’ve also been adapted to remain relevant. Their role in educating, persuading, and establishing credibility has proven invaluable to B2B businesses out to differentiate themselves in competitive segments.

By leveraging the power of multimedia, by making tools like generative AI a partner in content creation instead of a substitute, by addressing accessibility concerns and by adhering to best practices? Companies can keep capitalizing on white papers as effective tools for thought leadership, lead generation, and establishing long-term connections with their target audience.

In a world where content may come and go, the value of a well-crafted white paper still endures.

In an ever-evolving digital landscape, white papers haven’t just withstood the test of time. Thanks to the shrewdness of content marketers, they’ve remained relevant.

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