White papers got their start in the government sector as reports outlining policy or offering authoritative commentary on a major issue. The origins of the term date back to early 20th century England, where it referenced brief research reports used by the British Parliament.
White papers were short government reports in comparison to longer, more detailed documents that were bound in blue covers and referred to as “blue books.” Since the shorter government publications were bound in the same white paper as the text inside, they took on the term “white papers.” When the use of white papers became standard practice during this time period, the term became associated with a document having a high level of importance.
White Papers Today.
White papers are now part of the corporate world. Klariti, an Ireland-based technical writing firm, offers this definition, “White papers discuss a specific business issue, product or competitive situation. In many cases, they summarize information about a topic; for example, the results of a survey or study and then suggest a proposal for action, with the research data providing the justification for the action.”
Why They Work.
Business people are increasingly searching for quality content. Studies show that company decision makers often use white papers as their initial external information source. White papers are an effective medium capable of educating, informing and influencing your targeted customers and prospects. Done properly, a white paper serves as reinforcement for preferring your company to the competition.
Consider these statistics noted by Senior Reporter Sean Donahue of SherpaBlog:
- In 2008, 44 percent of business prospects said they were reading white papers more often than in the past. That’s an increase from the 39 percent who said in 2007 they were reading white papers more often.
- More than 50 percent of business decision-makers and influencers said they read two to five white papers per quarter.
White papers can serve as excellent relationship starters followed by other thought leadership events such as invitations to webinars, podcasts and conference presentations. They also have terrific pass-along capabilities that tend to cross departmental borders as internal groups collaborate on business initiatives.
Elissa Miller, a senior marketing consultant for Hoffman Marketing Communications, a business and technology writing company, points out that “publishing white papers at third-party information sites such as Bitpipe.com [geared toward IT professionals] generates goodwill and ‘mindshare’ by making research and analysis widely available. In addition, it drives interested prospects to the company, prospects that might not otherwise have known that such an offering existed.”
Why They Don’t Work.
Corporate-sponsored white papers are strategic marketing documents. But that is also frequently the root cause of a white paper’s downfall. It’s fine to carefully weave in positive points for your company through techniques such as case studies, but white papers unravel when sponsors lose objectivity. Most readers will quickly see through marketing propaganda disguised as legitimate research.
Further, many white papers provide an inadequate balance of technical details and the larger business context they address. They sometimes lack a compelling persuasiveness that helps people understand complex issues and how they can apply a solution.
Finally, a lot of marketing types shy away from white papers thinking that their other collateral, from brochures to product sheets, serve the same purpose. If they do get involved, they frequently fail to realize that white papers are unique communication vehicles that not only fill an important gap, but also require writing skills different from marketing communications and even technical writing.
To White Or Not to White.
The evidence is clear that white papers are highly effective thought leadership tools that do not require a huge monetary investment but do require handling with care. You’ll have the most success if you choose the writer carefully, and then develop the white paper through a collaborative process between the writer/researcher and your internal subject matter experts. The entire experience provides an opportunity to delve more deeply into important topics and can be a stimulating professional experience for everyone involved.
By Larry Bauer
Want Expert Advice?
MondoVox Creative Group can help you develop white papers and other components of an effective thought leadership strategy. For more information, email Julia Moran Martz.