Monday, April 30, 2007

Just What is a White Paper, Anyway?

Remember all those dopey, boring little themes you wrote in sixth grade that started out "According to Webster...."?

Well, now they start out with, "According to that completely unimpeachable source, Wikipedia...."

And, since I've been thinking a lot about White Papers lately (and, in fact, blogged on the topic just the other day), I thought I'd check out what Wiki has to say on the subject:

A white paper is an authoritative report. White papers are used to educate customers, collect leads for a company or help people make decisions. They can also be a government report outlining policy.

I'm sure that I'm not the only marketer on the face of the earth who has used and abused the term white paper over the years to cover any and all sorts of documents. Sometimes the only criterion seemed to be that the piece didn't contain artwork. And even then...

I'd like to see us B2B technology marketers come up with some type of standard definition of what is and what isn't a white paper.

White paper vs. off-white paper:
No, I don't want to join the content police, but can we all agree that the borderline between a white paper and an off-white paper is the introduction of specific feature/benefit information on your product. At that point, whether you want to call it that or not, your erstwhile white paper has become a brochure.

Although I violate this rule all over the place, I'd also like to see some sort of equation around length and depth.

I'm working with one small company and we have all kinds of little 1-2 page pieces that we're calling white papers that really don't have the heft (or gravitas) of a white paper. And that's okay. They're quick opinion pieces on things that are happening out in the real world that could have some impact on whether people would want to use our product. They are interesting, "good reads" (and no, I haven't authored all of them), and give our prospects something to think about. They establish authority and credibility for us, and demonstrate that - at least some of the time - we have our heads out of the clouds of insulated, rarified product development and actually pay attention to what's going on in the real world.

Now on my to-do list: get Company X to rename these critters "opinion pieces" or "briefs."

And funny thing about white papers. I used to say that the only people who read white papers are people who write white papers, and we're just looking for ideas to lift for our own work.

But apparently this isn't so.

As I posted on the other day, white papers are a principal source of information for a lot of tech buyers.

So, just what is in a white paper?
I again return to that unimpeachable master source, Wikipedia, which wisely tells us:

Typical content for a white paper might include:

  • Market Drivers
  • Problem Development
  • Historical Overviews
  • A Generic Introduction to the Solution
  • Benefits
  • What to Look for in an Ideal Solution

It's always nice if you can have quotes from industry analysts, "authorities", and even your customers. Just remember, you're giving them a platform in which to look smart (not tout your product).

And obviously, in an "Ideal Solution" you're not going to introduce too many ideas that conflict with your product's actual feature set. (It may not be a bad idea to add a few elements that a) no one is yet doing, but are on your drawing boards; b) are manageable with work arounds; or c) are relatively minor in nature - i.e., nothing that someone would make a buying decision on. Not making things too much of a slam-dunk will enhance your credibility and position as an authority.

Back to Wiki for things to avoid:

Because of their persuasive nature, white papers should be carefully crafted to avoid the perception of salesmanship. This can be easily accomplished by inserting key educational content that is relevant to the intended readers. White papers should begin by focusing on the needs of readers, rather than the specific solution suggested by the paper's sponsor.

Remember, it's not always all about you.

If your "white paper" starts sounding too much like a brochure or product description, it's not a white paper. Stop fooling yourself into thinking it is, because you can be assured that you're not fooling your prospects at all.

1 comment:

John Whiteside said...

I always try to keep the promotional bit to a footer paragraph: "Fabulous Corp offers solutions for these challenges," etc.

There is, I think, such a thing as a white paper on your own solutions, but it needs to be clearly identified as such.