White papers: a powerful sales tool

When your product or service is a commodity or something people choose on impulse, your marketing and advertising efforts probably focus on creating some sort of differentiation that will tip the scales your way at the critical moment. But if what your organization offers is more complex and typically involves a lengthy decision process, or if your customers and prospects may not fully understand why they need it, your task is more likely to focus on education.

If that’s the case, one of the most powerful tools available to you is what’s known as the white paper. Although white papers have been around for many decades (the term grew out of lengthy reports prepared for Britain’s prime ministers), the concept is unfamiliar to many managers.

“A white paper is an in-depth look at a particular issue that’s addressed by your product or service.”

In essence, a white paper is an in-depth look at a particular issue that’s addressed by your product or service. Created to influence the decision-making process (or public policy), these documents normally describe a situation or problem, and offer convincing evidence that a particular solution offers the most sensible response.

Are white papers of any real value? One industry publication recently conducted a survey reporting that 84 percent of businesspeople felt that white papers influenced their decisions about purchases. And, reflecting the fact that many purchasing decisions involve several individuals, 89 percent of respondents said they pass white papers along to others.

One of the biggest mistakes companies make when creating white papers is designing them to be overtly promotional. The papers become a blatant series of arguments for purchasing the company’s specific product or service. Unfortunately, that kind of approach creates very little credibility among readers, who see right through the effort.

A far more effective – and ultimately, more convincing – approach is to focus a white paper on facts, keeping the content fairly general. Of course, you get to select which facts you’ll present. If your company’s veeblefetzer uses the cross-cutting process to core radishes, rather than the spiral-coring method employed by 90 percent of your competitors, your white paper can focus on the many advantages of cross-cutting.

Even the title of your white paper should veer away from anything overtly promotional. Your product brochures might use a headline such as “Process three times as many radishes with our veeblefetzers,” but that kind of headline will repel someone looking for more objective information. Something like “Evaluating processing alternatives for radish production” or “Cross-cutting and spiral-coring: an engineering comparison” will suggest a more balanced approach.

How long should your white paper be? Exactly long enough to cover the information. Typically, that works out to 6 to 10 pages, or between 1500 and 3000 words. Don’t try to stretch it out unnecessarily, because quality of content is far more important than quantity.

A simple, but effective, structure for a white paper is to begin with a short section describing the problem or challenge that your customers face. This kind of opening builds a bond with the reader, as he or she sees that you have a solid understanding of the situation.

Next, the paper can explore the different types of solutions that have been developed in response to the problem or challenge. Often, that will include a historical review. After a general discussion, take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of each of those solutions. Ideally, the product or service you offer will reflect the most advantageous approach.

Match the information you include to the needs of your audience. For example, engineers or technical team members will welcome a host of details, while C-level managers will be more interested in how the choices will affect the bottom line or the company’s competitiveness.

Once all that ground has been covered, include a brief – and I do mean brief – section talking about your product or service, and end with an even briefer sketch of your company. While it’s tempting to get into a lengthy discourse about what makes your product or service superior, doing so will destroy the credibility and impression of objectivity you’ve worked so hard to foster. If the customer or prospect has a good understanding of the facts, along with the advantages and disadvantages of the various solutions, he or she should be able to make the right decision.

The design of a white paper should reflect the serious tone of the material. They’re rarely colorful. Most are simply set up to look like magazine articles, with fewer pictures. If your product or service lends itself to charts or graphs, they can strengthen your message.

To make it easier for readers to navigate your white paper, break the sections into easy-to-read chunks. Use subheads and bold lead-ins to direct readers to each section, and to make it easy for the skimmers in the crowd to find the information they’re after. You can even include a short abstract at the beginning of the paper to summarize the key messages and conclusion, and can also include a list of other references that the reader may find informative.

There are many ways to distribute a white paper. You can use them as leave-behinds for sales calls, mail them to your prospect list, and pass them out at trade shows. One approach that is particularly effective is offering them on your website or through email marketing. While some companies will post a PDF of the paper and allow anyone to download it with a click, savvy marketers will ask for the requester’s name, company name, and email address, and then send the requestor an email with an embedded link to the paper. They can then turn around and make a sales call, or at least send an email offering additional assistance.

While it’s tempting to assign the responsibility of creating white papers to the technical members of your staff who have the information the papers will cover, that’s not always the best solution. Even people who can write fairly well may not be able to articulate the key messages in the most coherent, convincing way. In addition, staff members often assume that everyone in the outside world is working from the same knowledge and assumptions they have.

Many companies outsource white papers to professional writers. In addition to receiving a higher-quality product, the writers come to the process with fewer preconceived notions and internal assumptions about your product or service. They have to develop a thorough understanding before presenting it to the outside world, so they’ll ask questions you and your staff may not have considered. Those are likely to be many of the same questions your prospective customers might ask, so they can help you shape the most impactful messages.