By Val Swisher published June 29, 2012

The Key Skills You Need to Create Killer Corporate eBooks

corporate eBooks, CMIBack in the olden days, say 4 or 5 years ago, things were simple. Writers wrote. Artists drew. Videographers filmed. The rest of the team knew who to call for each piece we needed in the content development process.

Nowadays, things are different. Technology has advanced and consumer expectations of content have changed dramatically. Gone are the days of reading long-form content. Really. Our customers are expecting — nay, demanding — experiences. Experiences? And you thought you were just creating a white paper. Nope! Not anymore.

White papers, as we know them, are a dying breed. Yes, folks. Long-form writing and reading — anything longer than this blog post — is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. What you need now are eBooks. They are the new shiny experiential objects and they are all the rage. So, let’s take a look at them from a couple of perspectives:

  • Where do eBooks fit into your content strategy?
  • What skills does it take to create a compelling eBook?

Where do eBooks fit into your content strategy? 

In our practice, we see three distinctive business use cases for corporate eBooks:

  • Promotional eBooks
  • Knowledge base eBooks
  • Commercial eBooks

Promotional eBooks. A promotional eBook looks and feels a lot like a white paper, except that it is a whole lot more visual, designed to be skimmed, and, ideally, is crafted to fit into your lead generation strategy.

Great examples of promotional eBooks can be found all over the web. We particularly like these from HubSpot and MailChimp.

A really good, targeted eBook is one that is short on words, visually dynamic, and more spatially oriented than the paragraph-after-paragraph of words you’ll find in the average white paper.

Tip: Don’t just click the “Save As eBook” button on your former white paper. Rethink it for multimedia and interaction. That way, your formerly boring (to everyone but you) content will hold your reader’s attention and get you the results you need.

Knowledge base eBooks. Knowledge base eBooks are designed to take a repository of knowledge and make it available to someone while she works in the field. Typically these types of eBook are enhanced with multimedia, as they often contain more interaction than an eBook designed solely for promotional purposes.

Your objective with a knowledge base eBook is to make your field personnel more productive.  Done well, knowledge base eBooks can even save lives, which is why you see companies like Boeing transitioning away from paper-based “flight kits” — which pilots used to lug into the cockpit by the pound — toward putting all such knowledge onto iPads.

Take Dozuki, for example. Dozuki has created a platform for knowledge base eBooks that you can use to provide multimedia, experiential instructions to field service people. Imagine being an auto mechanic and rolling under a broken car with your iPad in hand. Rather than a static description of how to change the oil, perhaps with a picture or two, you can follow a video as you accomplish each step.

The goal with knowledge-based eBooks is to make knowledge available “at your fingertips” — a concept Bill Gates spoke about way back in 2000. Well folks, we can now actually deliver on that concept.

Commercial eBooks. The final category refers to eBooks designed for commercial distribution. The majority of commercial eBooks are self-published. Why, you ask? Typically, when a publisher such as O’Reilly, Packt, or Wiley gets involved, they handle the eBook production as part of their overall package of services.  However, if your technology is more specialized, Wiley may decline the opportunity to publish “______ for Dummies” (insert your technology in the blank), leaving self-publishing as the only viable option. Another reason clients decide to self-publish is to emphasize thought leadership. A third reason is for branding purposes.

One of our clients, a consulting firm, was among the first to publish a book and then make it available as an eBook. The topic, “The Art of Product Management,” was thought to have too narrow an appeal for a publisher to take on. Meanwhile, the title has been very successful both as an eBook and as a traditional book.

What skills are required to create a compelling eBook? 

To create a compelling eBook, start with strategy. Figure out the business use case for your eBook — most likely, it will fit into one of the three scenarios we described above.

Once you have determined that an eBook is the way to go, you need to focus on having it created.

Back in the day, when you needed long-form content you typically turned to a writer to help you create it. Nowadays, we find it takes a village to create an eBook. In addition to copywriting skills, you need people on the team who understand the front-end and back-end technologies, illustration, motion graphics and/or application design, and the ins and outs of the specific devices used to deliver your eBook to the world.

Another complication is that developing an interactive eBook that you intend to distribute through the iBook store requires a different skill set than developing the same material for Kindle. Why? Because the operating systems on these devices are fundamentally different. While you can adapt the content to fit both, to take advantage of cutting-edge interactivity features, you often will need to write code that is specific to the device itself.

What we find works best is to put a strong project manager at the center of our eBook projects. The project manager is someone who understands the content strategy and the eBook development process, and can also provide leadership to the rest of the team. We look for project managers who are astute about technology, have a deep understanding of the subject area at hand (or can develop it quickly), and understand the value of letting go of words.

Letting go of words means just what it says. Often we find that a photo, illustration, or video persuades much more so than words. We look for writers who understand this shift (a picture is worth a thousand…) to put at the writing helm of our eBook projects. Also helpful is a basic understanding of human interface design, the science of persuasion, and how interactivity can enhance understanding and knowledge retention. 

What are you waiting for? 

So, now you know about the three different use cases for eBooks. You know where each type of eBook fits in your strategy. You know what to expect from each type of eBook. And you know how to get started staffing your project. Perhaps it is time to revisit your overall content strategy and see where you can use eBooks to enhance the experience your customers have interacting with your content. Go on, it’s easy to jump in!

Want more content marketing inspiration? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.

Author: Val Swisher

Val Swisher is CEO and Founder of Content Rules, Inc. Her firm operates across the entire content life cycle from content strategy, to content development, to what she calls GG&R – governance, global readiness, and ROI. She blogs at http://contentrules.com/blog and can be found on Twitter @contentrulesinc.

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  • rogercparker

    Dear Val:
    Thanks for providing this valuable overview of change plus the great examples.

    I love your quote, “Letting go of words means just what it says. Often we find that a photo,
    illustration, or video persuades much more so than words.”

    Roger

    • http://www.contentrules.com Val Swisher

      Thanks, Roger. As a recovering writer, myself, I am still relearning the fine power of less words is more understanding! ~ Val

  • http://twitter.com/kent_ong Kent

    eBook is very good in positioning strategy. Especially when you want to position as an expert in your field.

  • Mary Lou Joseph

    Hi Val, Great article.  We have been using ebooks in place of white papers for about a year now and are really seeing a great response, especially from more senior level executives.  My challenge is finding a good partner for executing the ebooks.  The one we have been using is overwhelmed, and I’m challenged to find somemone who can create a promotional ebook with interactive parts.  Can you suggest any firms that provide the technology and graphic design skills needed?  ML

    • http://www.contentrules.com Val Swisher

      Hi Mary Lou; I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I’d love to talk to you more about your experience replacing white papers with eBooks. Perhaps we can compare notes. Also, I’d be happy to discuss your specific projects more at length. I’m on Twitter at @contentrulesinc if you’d like to connect that way or via LinkedIn. Best, Val