Why no one cares about your white paper

Solomon Radley14/01/2019

Publishing a white paper that flops is a rite of passage for many content marketers, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to make sure your next B2B white paper cuts through the noise and flies off the shelves.

Let’s be honest: there are a lot of crap white papers out there.

Place a quick Google search for your industry and we can pretty much guarantee you’ll uncover a trove of boring headlines, unproven claims and questionable design.

It’s not uncommon to see editorial that’s confusing or laced with jargon, landing pages that are bland and uninviting and front covers that look like they were created in Microsoft Word.

Worse yet, many of the white papers we’ve seen are little more than sales pitches in disguise!

Of course, if your content team has ever produced something like that, you already know white papers like these don’t work.

Done right, B2B white papers can form the backbone of your content marketing campaigns. They will establish your brand as an industry expert, attract qualified traffic to your site and help you curate lists of qualified prospects that are interested in your brand.

In fact, 71 per cent of B2B buyers have used white papers to research purchase decisions in the past 12 months.

That’s why UK content marketers ranked publishing white papers as one of the top three most effective marketing tactics in the Content Marketing Institute’s 2018 benchmarking survey.

But somewhere along the way, many B2B marketers seem to have forgotten what it takes to publish effective white papers. So today, we’ll outline exactly how to drive business results with white paper marketing.

The problem is that producing white papers has become a box checking exercise for a lot of marketers. Content creators are told they must churn out a set amount of them each year, with little thought given to how they’ll be promoted or the strategic role they will play in the marketing loop.

Unfortunately, that’s generally not the best approach – especially when you’re trying to engage highly discerning business decision‐makers. As the white paper marketplace becomes increasingly saturated, it’s getting harder and harder to make an impact.

“The truth is, the competition out there is fierce and getting fiercer,” says marketing guru Mark Schaefer. “The only way content will work today is if it is transparent and helpful, seamlessly integrating into the needs and lifestyles of our customers.”

Almost all executives are open to receiving brand content. But, their time is too precious to waste on something that doesn’t offer real insight. That’s why 37 per cent tend to save their attention for brands they already trust, and a further 23 per cent tend not to engage with a brand’s content again if their first experience is a negative one.

Oversupply has created a buyer’s market. Prospects are quite happy to shop around to find the content that best meets their needs.

It’s no longer enough to just be publishing white papers. Brands increasingly find they must promote their content intelligently and offer more value than their competitors to stay in the game.

As you’re about to see, it takes a very specific set of skills to publish white papers that deliver results in this content environment. To succeed, you need the right approach to both content creation and distribution.

How to create white papers that deliver results

The way to win in any saturated marketplace is to outcompete your rivals. So, the first thing to do when planning a new white paper is make sure you’re offering real value or providing something your competitors can’t.

Placing content behind a data capture form sends out a clear signal to prospects about the calibre of insight they should expect.

But, a value exchange of this kind depends on trust. Substandard white papers will receive fewer downloads – and prospects who are disappointed by the quality of the content they receive will be unlikely to engage with your brand again in the future.

Solve a problem your customers face

The first step to creating a quality white paper is to ensure that it addresses a genuine customer pain point. That may sound obvious, but research from Annuitas suggests that half of B2B marketers still aren’t doing this.

Develop buyer personas to identify the challenges your customers care about most. Then, combine that information with search and social listening insights to identify fertile content opportunities.

“There has to be a distance between what the reader expects or knows and what you present to them,” says Charles Arthur, a former The Guardian technology editor. “Discovering an ‘angle’ is discovering where that gap in knowledge, and hence interest, lies.”

Remember, it’s easier to be different than better. Topics no one else has covered well or in‐depth are prefect for establishing your brand as an authoritative industry voice, so long as your chosen topic still relates back to the services you provide.

Alternatively, commissioning original research can be a great way to uncover fresh insights on a specific theme that you brand can own.

Deliver editorial excellence

Anyone can promise to solve a problem for their customers. But to follow through on that promise, you’ll need to combine industry expertise with editorial excellence.

Write the way your audience speaks, avoid unnecessary jargon and choose an attention‐grabbing title that tells prospects exactly how downloading your white paper will improve their lives.

Use the smallest number of words possible to convey your point. But, make sure the point you’re making is substantial.

You’ll typically need around 3,000 – 5,000 words if your focus is narrow and well‐defined, while a comprehensive guide to a board topic will need to be much longer.

To begin with, put the question of word count to one side and plan out what chapters you’ll need to lead the reader naturally towards your conclusion. Remember that the best B2B content is useful, unique and deals with a pressing issue facing your customers right now.

The best white papers will then go a step further and help the reader identify the right solution for them. Highlight the limitations of potential remedies that fall short of the mark. Then, use research, statistics, case studies and quotes from industry influencers to make the case for your preferred solution.

Seal the deal with premium design

Many marketers barely give the design of their white papers a second thought. But when it comes to engaging business decision‐makers, you simply can’t afford to ignore the way your content looks.

Our research into the content consumption habits of 500 European C‐suites shows that “distinctive or eye‐catching design” is the one factor that’s most likely to entice an executive into reading your content. Meanwhile, poor design and a lack of mobile optimisation are ranked as the two things executives find most irritating when they engage with bad content.

Think of design as the ‘premium packaging’ of the content marketing world. If you want people to believe your white papers contain real insight, you must make them look valuable!

To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order or even to edit. It is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade and perhaps even to amuse.
Paul Rand, graphic designer

Of course, creating a great white paper is just half the battle. It’s a start, but it’s also the minimum requirement if you want your campaigns to succeed.

The best content in the world is still no good to your brand if no one ever reads it. So, once you’ve created something your audience will be dying to get their hands on, the next step is to put it in front of them.

Making sure the right people see your content

Launching a white paper may seem simple on the surface. But, there’s an art to testing your assets and chosen mix of distribution channels to ensure they generate the maximum impact.

Some marketers will simply create a landing page and use owned channels like email or social media to drive traffic to it. But even if that’s the extent of your content distribution plan, there are things you can do to boost the performance of your campaigns.

Optimising your landing pages should be your first port of call – and this is where all the effort you put into developing a genuinely valuable piece of content will come into its own.

Ensure your guide title is displayed prominently above the fold and display the guide cover clearly on the page. Then, concisely summarise the key things your prospects will discover when they read your white paper, stressing how they will benefit from each of the insights you have to share with them.

The better you can make your landing pages, the more efficient your entire campaign will be. So, it’s often worth split testing different copy, design and technical improvements to get them performing at their best.

Once you have a strong enough landing page, you can look to run paid campaigns in your audience’s preferred social media channels. When doing this, make sure your targeting is as precise as possible to ensure your ads reach the right audience segments.

At the same time, look to run native ads promoting your new report on your own website and blog. For best results, run these ads alongside content dealing with the same themes as your white paper.

Of course, there will always be some prospects who either don’t know what they’re looking for, aren’t yet engaged enough to want your white papers or just aren’t prepared to part with their personal data to get hold of one.

In recent years, some have experimented with getting rid of data capture forms altogether to reach these audience members. However, this approach forgets the strategic role white papers play in the B2B marketing funnel.

While ungated formats like blog posts are great for building awareness of a business challenge and showing why it’s important, white papers tackle a topic in‐depth and help buyers address the challenge in question. They are primarily for prospects who have already identified that they have a specific need and help you guide them towards the middle of the funnel.

Not only will these audience members be happy to share their personal details in exchange for these insights, they will likely be interested in discovering more about the topic in question in future.

Data capture forms are essential for recording that interest so you can share further relevant content with them when they need it.

Instead of ungating everything, consider repurposing sections of your white papers into more bitesize formats like blog posts, infographics or social cards. You can then use these to convey key messages to less engaged audience members, who are more likely to sit at the top of the marketing funnel.

In this way, you can still inform these prospects’ thinking and prompt them to engage with other content pieces as their business needs evolve. After someone has consumed some of this bitesize content, they may even decide they want to share their data and access your full report.

But for any of this to work, you still need to start with a quality product. The sheer volume of brand content produced today means the bar for quality has never been higher. That’s why it’s so important to use the steps we’ve outlined here to create insightful content that will genuinely help your audience.

When your white paper is crap, it doesn’t matter where you promote it, whether it’s behind a content gate or how cleverly you promote it – your campaign’s still going to flop.

Key takeaways

  • Great white papers combine editorial excellence with subject matter expertise to solve a challenge a specific audience is facing.
  • Design should never be an afterthought. Eye‐catching design is a powerful tool for getting executives to engage with your content.
  • Run targeted campaigns to distribute your white papers in a range of channels and formats to meet the needs of your whole audience.