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One of the most effective tools to attract new customers or engage existing customers in a deeper dialogue with your brand is the white paper.
A white paper is long-form content that enables your organization to share technical expertise on a particular subject, insights about a new trend, or a point of view about a specific issue, question or cause.
Organizations use white papers to engage current and prospective customers and influencers with the intent of persuading them to buy a product or service, donate to a cause or vote in a manner favorable to the interests of the organization.
For example, a technology company may use a white paper to persuade other companies to adopt a particular type of technology standard to simplify choices for the customer. A nonprofit might use white papers to share a point of view about an issue or cause to engage existing or new donors. Or a public policy organization may use a series of white papers to influence legislators about legislation on an economic or social policy.
White papers have gained an almost trendy reputation as a form of content marketing. A growing number of marketers and communicators are plugging them into their annual marketing plans, but often with less than satisfying results. The big problem is the focus on the tactic without a clear strategy to provide guidance as to why a white paper should be part of the overall content or marketing strategy. That’s a clear oversight, especially since the average white paper requires about 40 hours of work.
“Many organizations create white papers and other content without a strategy that provides the framework for getting the right content, to the right people, at the right times, for the right reasons,” says content strategist Meghan Casey, author of “The Content Strategy Toolkit.” ‘For the right reasons’ is the most important part of that equation, because without clarity about the ‘why,’ it’s almost impossible to meet a user’s needs or achieve the desired business goal.”
So how can you create more effective white papers that enhance your organization’s reputation and deliver more leads? Here are eight rules to consider:
- Repurpose — don’t think “one and done.”Developing long-form content requires a big investment of time. When done correctly, a white paper involves a lot of research, writing, editing and design. So it always surprises me when an organization makes all of that effort and issues the white paper, but then moves on to other projects.
A white paper provides an organization with a content platform that can be modified to meet the informational needs of multiple stakeholders. In other words, after you do the hard work of writing a white paper, you can chop and dice it into more “snackable” forms of content like an infographic, or you can turn it into a video, podcast, webinar, slideshow or presentation at an industry conference.
- Write for the reader.First and foremost, white papers should look at a problem or issue from the customer’s standpoint. You must demonstrate clear value for the time that a customer or influencer is willing to invest in reading your white paper, just as you would in demonstrating the value of your product or service. Start by asking: What is my customer’s greatest challenge? Build white papers to address your customer’s most critical needs and highlight, ever so subtly, how your organization, its people and your product and service can help meet those needs.
- Market the content.We know it’s important to market a product or service, so why not apply the same principle to your white papers? The intent of a white paper is to build deeper dialogue with an existing or potential customer. If the content adds value to a customer’s decision, then you should market it like a product or service. Consider appropriating a percentage of your marketing or communications budget to promote your white papers, through bylined articles in trade journals, Google Adwords, LinkedIn ads, Facebook ads, email blasts, banner ads on consumer or B2B websites or print ads.
- Seek outside experts.When you’re developing a white paper, don’t rely solely on internal experts. Including quotes from experts outside your organization is important for two reasons: It adds more credibility to the white paper and it allows your brand to tap into the fan base of your experts, potentially exposing the white paper’s content (and your knowledge) to new audiences. Sometimes, it’s helpful to interview a group of outside experts as part of preliminary research to understand if you even need a white paper.
- Provide practical, actionable steps.White papers can certainly address theory or unique points of view, but many readers want specific information that they can act on. In addition to tangible steps, include a call to action. Spell out what you’d like the user to do next in terms of his or her relationship with your brand, cause or candidate.
- Remember, longer may be better.People often ask me: “How long should a white paper be?” My answer is that it should be as long as it needs to be to deliver the value a customer expects. Sometimes that means it’s five pages, and other times, it might be 20. Like any piece of content, it must engage the reader within the first 30 seconds and continue to engage throughout. Contrary to popular thought, research indicates that people often share white papers, along with detailed articles and video presentations (like a TED Talk) at a far higher rate than shorter forms of content.
- Make it “sticky.”White papers should be intellectually challenging, but they shouldn’t be a workout that leaves the reader sore and unsatisfied. In a world where many of us scan first and read second, be cautious about relying on technical jargon and acronyms that can shut a reader down quickly.
Instead, focus on making the white paper an enjoyable reading experience. This doesn’t mean dumbing down your content. Use headlines and language that invite the reader to go deeper into the document. If it doesn’t grab you right from the start and continue to do so throughout, then why read it?
- Think change.What is the one thing that all CEOs must grapple with? It’s change — change in regulations, technology or how products are packaged or distributed. It’s important to think in the present, but it’s equally important to position the information in your white paper in the context of where things will be.
The bottom line is to go back to the basics. Think back to the five Ws and “how.” Spend more time at the start to clearly articulate why your customers need a white paper, how it will advance the dialogue between your organization and your customers, and how it reflects your organization’s brand. Consider how your white paper will make your organization and its employees more likable and trustworthy. After all, people do business with those they know, like and trust. Your white paper should be an extension of who you are and what you want to be.
Stephen Dupont, APR, is vice president of public relations and branded content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a Minneapolis advertising, PR and digital marketing firm. To reach him, visit www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont or stephendupont.co.