San Diego Freelance Writers

"Does My Company Need a White Paper?" Four Different Answers

Marketing communications writers hear this question a lot. It's one of our favorites, right up there with "Does this dress make me look fat?" And, whereas there is no safe answer for the latter, there are several safe ones for the former.

But first, a bit of heresy: If you don't know what a white paper is, that's all right.

In fact, you may be better off not knowing too much about white papers, because it's not worth getting wrapped around the axle over a particular format, whether it's white papers, technical articles, Web content, micro-sites, e-books or technology overviews.

The thing to keep in mind is that you need to tell your story in a tone and format that will honor your ideal reader's intelligence and time. If you're working with professional marketing communication writers, you should be able to explain this and let them tell you whether the white paper format is right for you.

That little heresy behind us, let's answer the title question, "Does my company need a white paper?"

  1. "Yes, because our audience expects one." (In other words, pull.) The essence of marketing communication is to start and maintain a conversation with your customers, so you'd better converse on their level. If you've created a new enzyme and only 25 companies on earth have the expertise and market reach to buy it, their engineers will be keen to have a look under the hood. They will demonstrate that keenness by asking, "Can you send me a white paper on it?" A white paper detailing the technical, clinical and business benefits of your enzyme can do that.
  2. "Yes, because we want people to see how smart we are." (In other words, push.) If IBM is partnering with you for your natural language platform, and you want to describe how you're going to take over the translation world with them, you need a white paper. (If IBM is suing you over patent infringement, you don't need a white paper; you need a press release. And an attorney.) Be careful how you describe this partnership in your paper, however, because it's easy to get bogged down in the how-smart-we-are and lose sight of the reader's how-does-it-solve-my-problem. A good marketing writer will help you keep your balance.
  3. "No, because our audience doesn't expect one." Why would anybody at Gerber stand up in a meeting and state, "Obviously, we need a white paper on strained peas. Mommies will go crazy over it. Get to work on that, Bob." If your sales effort does not require education and persuasion in tandem, then you're probably better off with other marketing materials like brochures, direct mail, Websites and social media content.
  4. "No, because people don't like white papers anymore." Well, we're all seeing more evidence of that with each passing Website. The problem is that too many companies repurpose their brochure copy, lay it out differently, type "White Paper" on the cover, and put it onto their Website. Or, they fill 15 pages with windy descriptions of how smart they are and how smart you'll be if you buy their products, type "White Paper" in the heading, and put it onto their Website. Then, apparently to keep the content away from their competitors, they have the cheek to put the paper behind a form-fill. As a result, well-intended prospects visit the White Paper link on the Website and have their time and intelligence dishonored by someone's bad idea of valuable content. These companies do themselves a big disservice and the term "white paper" a bigger disservice, because people sour on the concept.
It's a good idea to keep white papers in mind. But often the better question to ask is "What kind of content does my company need to tell its story persuasively and engagingly?"

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It's dirty work, but somebody has to do it. He also publishes a newsletter with more tips on working with your writers.
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