As a marketer, I regularly find myself thinking about the role that content and collateral plays in today’s technology industry. After all, changes in how information is created and distributed have made some kinds of communications obsolete (remember the printed press kit?), while new ones (like Twitter and SlideShare) have come to play a key role in how companies get their messages out to their target audiences.
A few days ago I received an email with a link to a white paper. The topic was something that seemed relevant to my job, but when I opened the file, what I found was a two-page sales sheet filled with unrelentingly positive quotes and stock photos of attractive people shaking hands. It wasn’t a terrible piece of sales collateral, but it also wasn’t a whitepaper–at least, it didn’t map to my understanding of what a whitepaper should be. It got me thinking about what kinds of content should (and shouldn’t) be in a whitepaper, how they’ve changed over time, and if they’re still relevant in the software industry in 2016.
Back in the day, white papers were in-depth explorations of important issues. They often lacked graphics or even tables (hence the name “white paper”) and were geared toward decision makers who were looking for succinct overviews of particular topics. Most whitepapers were meant to provide people with enough information to understand an issue, make a decision, or solve a problem. Businesses would use white papers as a sort of marketing presentation, a long-form explanation of a company’s stance on a particular topic.
Winston Churchill is credited with writing the first white paper in 1922. While the topic was political, the format was adopted by companies to explain complex ideas quickly and succinctly. Business to business (B2B) white papers often follow one of the following formats.
- Numbered list: An itemized set of tips, concerns, or opinions about an issue.
- Problem/solution: A new or more efficient solution to an existing problem.
- “Backgrounder”: Advocacy for one’s new product, serve, or approach
Today, documents called whitepapers are more prevalent than ever before –a simple Google search for the term yields over 206 million results, up from 39.5 million in 2012. Yet many of these are really executive briefings, handbooks, special reports, or sales pitches in disguise. As a result of this dilution, whitepapers are often perceived to be a thing of the past.
Among these millions of documents, however, it is still possible to find a proper whitepaper, the kind of influential document which is passed around an industry to influence billion-dollar business decisions. It can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff because even “proper” white papers usually have some pictures and other graphic design elements, but a relevant one can be worth its weight in gold to a company trying to solve a specific problem. It just takes a bit of hunting to determine which ones are useful and which ones are sales brochures with a fancy name.
But I also wonder, are people still interested in whitepapers today? After all, they can be long and complex, requiring a half hour or more to read completely. Are today’s audience more interested in smaller, more consumable pieces of content? In lieu of a “proper whitepaper” would business leaders rather have something like an ebook, or blog series, or long-form video that might convey the same information but in a less complex format?
Here are Rocket, we continue to both create and commission whitepapers, but are also exploring other methods of delivering information to our customers. What do you think? Are whitepapers still relevant today, or should we be thinking about other content delivery methods? Let me know in the comments.
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