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Why White Papers Still Matter: Their Role in Effective Content Marketing

pen on reportContrary to headlines in the marketing press, the white paper is not dead. While versions of the concept have proliferated and greatly diluted its potential power, if done right the white paper continues to serve as the basis of highly effective content marketing. The question is, what is the best way to leverage this old marketing workhorse given our plugged-in, multi-channel world?

First let’s understand why the white paper has staying power. The best examples include:

  • Rich, substantive content that educates, not sells
  • New ideas that prompt and provoke innovative thinking
  • A clearly communicated point of view on issues that are highly relevant and timely
  • Statistically sound data and well-researched findings

Regardless of the format or delivery mode, these elements are the key to content that resonates with clients and prospects. As Rob Leavitt, Director of Thought Leadership at PTC, puts it, “There is no substitute for well-researched, well-thought-through points of view on issues that really matter to your customers. If you don’t take the time to do that, it doesn’t matter what format you are using. It just won’t be effective.”

Chris Koch, Editorial Director at SAP, emphasizes these themes as well: “You need to do all of the work required for an in-depth white paper regardless of what you want to publish.”

Jettison the fluff

Not all white papers are created equal. Scattershot ideas, poorly researched perspectives, white label third-party reports, rehashed promotional materials, and feature/function descriptions all give the white paper a bad name. There is so much competition for attention in the marketplace, those poorly conceived efforts will quickly consign your content to the garbage bin.

Rethink the potential of the white paper

To revise the model for today’s environment, consider the white paper as the backbone of your content and a road map to engage and communicate about the unique value you bring.

Use the paper to pave the way

A well-crafted white paper can essentially serve as an editorial calendar, feeding a range of entry points to reach your audience in different formats, whether through blog postings, videos, briefings, or other vehicles. Establish your perspective on the topic and define the storyline with the white paper and build a range of accompanying content pieces to expand on key themes, highlight experts, uncover research nuggets, and drive different conversations.

“We break the white paper into ‘breadcrumbs’ of content. I start with the white paper and from there I disseminate the content in other formats and link them together. For each topic, we do a Q&A discussion to showcase the experts and the clients that have contributed to the research. We also create a short briefing document and an eBook — an insight-rich short slide deck. All of these pieces contain links to the white paper and are meant to introduce the topic. The key to this approach is having the work on the in-depth white paper completed up front for these follow-on pieces to be successful. If you haven’t done that work, you won’t achieve the kind of mastery of the topic that will give you credibility with your audience.” —Chris Koch, Editorial Director, SAP

Hone your point of view

The point of view provides the pillar of a good white paper, and represents the opportunity to differentiate your company in the eyes of your readers. Leavitt explains: “Flitting from topic to topic dilutes the impact of your content. Instead focus on presenting, refining, and iterating your primary point of view.”

Koch adds, “Most marketers will never beat the journalists or big content marketing players like McKinsey on their own turf, so they need to do something that is unique.” Finding your own angle on important business and strategic issues creates the lever for the right kinds of conversations and positions your expertise clearly for those who want to engage with you.

“The point of view is what creates the loyalty and the interest. Content marketing powerhouses like McKinsey and IBM get attention and a loyal following for their content, not because of the format they choose. While slicing and dicing material can help engage the readers, the content has legs because it has a really well-developed point of view.” —Chris Koch, Editorial Director, SAP

Connect to your audience

With so many voices in the marketplace, it is more vital than ever to ensure your perspective is relevant to your audience and tackles the challenges and issues your clients care about. As Koch advises, “It is important to create content that is meaningful to the specific audience your company is trying to reach and that content that also fits with your company’s strategy.”

At the same time, your audience has to see you as credible in taking on the subject. While creating thought leadership is a good way to expand your reach into new market areas, if you go too far from where your clients or prospects see you having permission to speak, you will lose credibility as an expert. Leavitt cautions, “Not everyone is going to be credible talking about the same things. When developing your point of view, ask whether it is reasonable for your company to develop thought leadership around a particular topic.”

Involve your clients

Reach out to your clients and customers to collaborate and help to refine your point of view. They will provide the voice of reason on the relevance of your ideas while offering peer insights and information that will strengthen the work in the eyes of your audience. If you are short on research resources, you’ll want to augment third-party data with real-world insights — clients can play the role of expert research panel, adding unique fodder to enhance and strengthen your perspective.

The bottom line is good content makes for effective content marketing. The white paper isn’t dead, but the stakes are higher than ever to get it right. Done well, it can drive your content train and keep you on track.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine. 

Looking to score big points with your target audience? CMI’s 2016 Content Marketing Playbook has tips, insights, and ideas that can help increase your success with 24 of the top content marketing tactics.

Cover image by Benjamin Miller via Free Stock