Are White Papers Dead?
By Robert W. Bly

It's often the case that when a marketing technique is overused, it gradually loses its effectiveness over time. When that happens, usage drops off, and prospects are consequently no longer bombarded by the technique. Example: the AOL CD mailings.

A year or so later, some smart marketer remembers the old technique, realizes it hasn't been used for a while, and decides to test it again. Sure enough, it works, because the market hasn't seen it for some time. Other marketers who use it also start getting good results, and the marketing tool becomes popular once more.

In the consumer sector, sweepstakes is a direct marketing technique that varies in effectiveness over time. Now, in business-to-business, some direct marketers question whether white papers are running out of steam. The concern is that there are too many white papers -- so that the offer of yet another one has lost its appeal. As one white paper skeptic told me, "Prospects already have too much to read; why would they ask for more?"

Yet the numbers tell a different story: namely, that white paper marketing is alive and well and working. "The demand for white papers has never been higher," says Michael A. Stelzner, executive editor of "During business downturns, corporations rely more on marketing to help them acquire leads and establish thought leadership. White papers are the secret weapon for companies. Our organization has seen a major increase in white paper use among businesses of all sizes, but especially those selling costly or complex products."

In a survey of nearly 1,400 IT professionals, the majority said they were more likely to download and read white papers than product literature. Over the years, I've seen a number of direct mail and e-mail tests in which offering a free white paper or other free content increased response rates 10% to 100% or more.

White papers work; more than half of IT professionals say white papers influence their buying decision. I do think, however, that we have to broaden our notion of how to use free content offers, which is essentially what a white paper is: free information designed to educate our prospects and motivate them to inquire about our product or service.

To begin with, I think it's not white papers themselves that are tiring but the name itself. "White paper" signals to some prospects a document that is an obvious selling tool. And with virtually every white paper in the world available for free, white papers have a low perceived value as a giveaway.

The solution is to keep using white papers in your marketing but to call them something else. The mailing list broker Edith Roman used to publish a print catalog of mailing lists. But instead of calling it a catalog, they called it the "Direct Mail Encyclopedia." Offering a free Direct Mail Encyclopedia helped generate more inquiries for their brokerage services.

Copywriter Ivan Levison calls his white papers "guides." Marketer David Yale uses "executive briefing." I'm partial to "special report." For consumer marketing, marketing expert Joe Polish suggests "consumer awareness guide," and for a B2B white paper giving product selection tips, I'd change this to "buyer's guide" or "selection guide." For a white paper giving tips or instructions on a process, I might call it a "manual." If you publish a print version that fits in a #10 envelope and is saddle stitched, you can call it a "free booklet."

All of the above are variations on the free content offer. Direct marketers refer to free content offers as "bait pieces," because they are used to "bait your hook" when you go "fishing" for sales leads. Does what you call your bait piece really matter? I think it does, because calling it a report or guide creates a perception of greater value - after all, thousands of publishers actually sell special reports and booklets for prices ranging from $3 to $40 or more. I often put a dollar price for the guide or report in the upper right corner of the front cover, which strengthens the perception that the freebie has value; I don't think this would be credible on a document labeled as a white paper.

What about the complaint that prospects already have too much to read? I am reminded of a quotation from Rutherford Rogers: "We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge." There is more information on the Internet than you could process in a thousand lifetimes. But good white papers don't merely present information; they offer solutions to business and technical problems. Virtually every b-to-b sale you make is because someone thinks your product or service is the solution to their problem. A white paper can help clarify the problem as well as convince the reader that your idea or method is the best of many options for addressing it.

Every marketing campaign has an objective, yet if you ask most managers what the objective of their white paper is, they probably couldn't tell you. Too many see white papers as an opportunity to merely collect and publish a pile of research material they found on the Web using Google. To make your white paper successful, you must define the marketing objective before writing a single word.

For example, a manufacturer found that consumers were not buying their do-it-yourself (DIY) underground sprinkler kits, because homeowners perceived installing the irrigation system by themselves as too difficult. Solution: a free DIY manual on how to install an underground sprinkler system in a single weekend. Clearly written and illustrated, the manual overcame the perception that this was a tough project, making it look easy.

In the pre-Internet era, bait pieces were mainly paper and ink. Thanks to the PC and the Internet, bait pieces can now be produced as PDF files and instantly downloaded online. But at the receiving end, they are usually printed by the prospect and read on paper.

It may be that what's wearing out is not free content, but the standard white paper format: pages of black ink on 8 1/2 by 11-inch sheets of paper. To make your bait piece stand out, consider using alternative formats: DVDs, CDs, audio cassettes, podcasts, Webinars, tele-seminars, flash cards, stickers, posters, software, games, and slide guides. A slide guide is a cardboard promotional item with a moving slide or wheel that allows the prospect to perform some simple calculation, e.g., convert inches to centimeters or determine the monthly payments on a mortgage.

Most white papers are 6 to 10 pages - about 3,000 to 4,000 words - but you are not locked into that length. You can go shorter or longer, depending on the content you want to present and the marketing objective of the bait piece. The bait piece can be as short and simple as a list of tips printed on one side of a sheet of paper. Or it can be as long as a self-published paperback book.

Free content offers have been used effectively in marketing for decades, and rather than tiring, they have been given new life, thanks in part to the information-oriented culture spawned by the Internet. "Every organization possesses particular expertise that has value in the new e-marketplace of ideas," writes David Meerman Scott in his book Cashing In With Content (Information Today, 2005, p. 8). "Organizations gain credibility and loyalty with customers, employees, the media, investors, and suppliers through content."

About the author:
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 70 books including The White Paper Marketing Handbook (Racom). His Web site is, and, or e-mail him at, or phone 201-385-1220.