Are white papers dead?
In B2B, white papers are considered a staple of content or inbound marketing. But in recent years, as content formats proliferate, screen sizes get smaller and attention spans reduce, some have questioned whether there is still room for white papers in the marketing mix.
The case against white papers
Critics of white papers argue that there are too many out there, and they are often too long, boring and self-serving.
It is true that many white papers sink without trace, often because they are focused on selling rather than informing, are poorly written and designed, and have not been promoted properly. It is not unusual to find white papers which are jargon and text-heavy, difficult to read and housed on poorly optimised landing pages. The worst examples are little more than thinly disguised sales pitches.
In recent years, more accessible formats such as eBooks, webinars, video explainers and blogs have gained in popularity compared to white papers. Research suggests that B2B buyers are more interested in content which conveys information more quickly and requires less of the reader.
A key drawback is that many white papers are published as PDFs – a twenty-year-old legacy file format which is not responsive. If a large proportion of your audience are on mobile, this presents a potential problem:
• Because PDFs are fixed layout documents, they can be difficult to read on smaller screens – readers will need to pinch and zoom and pan around
• Therefore, you could lose a large proportion of your mobile views due to readability issues
PDFs are less easy to track or measure:
• They can’t be improved or optimised based on data
• You lose track of how they are distributed once they have been downloaded
They have reduced SEO benefits:
• Search engines can crawl, index and rank PDFs but they lack the data needed to be ideal SEO assets
• Click-through from SERPs to PDFs tends to be lower because of the way the link appears on the SERP
• Links in PDFs are not processed in the same way as links on webpages – they don’t pass the same authority
However, there are ways to ensure some SEO benefits:
• Make sure the landing page on which your PDF is located is fully optimised for search – e.g. with relevant keywords and supporting content to capture search queries
• Break down the contents of a lengthy PDF into a series of blog posts which link to the full PDF
The case for white papers
On the other hand, others argue that the reason white papers remain a staple of B2B marketing is simple – because they work:
• A 2018 report from the Content Marketing Institute found that 50% of B2B marketers consider white papers to be amongst the top three most effective techniques for reaching customers and making sales
• A DemandGen survey suggests that 76% of B2B buyers would provide their personal information in exchange for a white paper
• Forbes cited a poll showing 79% of B2B marketers share white papers with colleagues
• Research suggests that 62% of C-suite decision-makers request calls or meetings with companies which produce high quality thought-leadership content
A key reason for their effectiveness is that, for complex topics which need thorough explanation, white papers still serve an important purpose:
• They offer an opportunity to showcase in-depth studies on specific technical problems and their solutions – where compelling evidence with selected facts and logical arguments can be laid out
• The format helps readers understand complex issues which can’t be communicated in a series of tweets or a short blog article
• People who read white papers are actively looking to understand a solution in more depth
White papers provide an ideal showcase for original research. You can present your research with visual elements, supportive discussions and helpful strategies which address your prospects’ pain points.
White papers play a specific role in the B2B customer journey. Unlike activities traditionally used to create awareness, such as advertising, PR or content optimisation, most prospects will download a white paper when they are further into the decision-making process.
In a typical customer buying cycle – awareness, consideration, preference/intent and purchase – an informative white paper would typically fit into the third stage. This is where the prospect has heard of your brand, is considering your service, and now needs that final piece of persuasive content to trigger action.
In other words, white papers are most often used towards the bottom of the funnel to help prospects make their final decision. They are one of the key solutions to help B2B purchasers make purchase decisions.
A clear benefit of white papers is that the content they contain can be cut and spliced into different formats. You can repurpose them – for example, into infographics, slide decks, presentations, webinars and blog posts.
Types of B2B white paper
B2B white papers tend to fall into one of three categories:
• Problem/solution papers – a persuasive argument that uses facts and logic to present a solution to a business or technical challenge
• Backgrounders – an in-depth look at the features and benefits of a product or service
• Numbered list – a set of numbered points or tips or questions and answers on a topic
So, are white papers still relevant?
Oban believes that yes, white papers are still highly relevant in B2B marketing – especially in those sectors where audiences crave depth of analysis, detail and rigorous argument. A well-executed white paper does a good job of persuading and convincing senior decision makers, at the pre-sales stage of the funnel, using strong written arguments based on tangible proof points.
Newer content types don’t always convey the big picture in the same way as a white paper, which can offer a balanced perspective by providing readers with well-researched data and viable solutions to industry problems. Executed properly, white papers play an important role in building credibility, establishing thought leadership and ultimately converting customers.
Remember: white papers are most relevant when your prospect has a real business need or project, a real budget, and is considering your product or service as a potential solution.
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The key to winning in any saturated marketplace is to outcompete your rivals. So, when planning your white paper, make sure you are offering real value or providing something your competitors cannot. To find out how Oban can help you to produce B2B content tailored to local audiences, please get in touch.
Az Ahmed | Marketing Manager
Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.