The Innovative Marketer's Blog

Content Overload: The Problem With White Papers

Posted by Matthew Cook


I think it’s time we gave it a rest with the white papers. So many businesses sink so much time, work, and money go into these content marketing monstrosities, and for what?

Sometime around the birth of content marketing, we decided that what B2B buyers are really looking for in content are wordy, overly-general sleep aids. I think this was a mistake. I think we forgot one crucial step: checking with the buyers.

There are three reasons, in my opinion, white papers rarely make effective content:

  1. They’re too long
  2. They take on too much
  3. They’re no fun

Too Long; Didn’t Read

crumpled_white_paperI wrote last week about the need for content marketers to treat their audience not just as buyers but as human beings. This doesn’t require a deep understanding of the human psyche. You already have a pretty good model of how human beings think and act; you are one yourself (except you, Googlebot).

Think about how much work you have to do in a given day, how many emails you receive, how many meetings you have scheduled, how many blog articles you have to write. How easy is it for you to find 15 minutes to read a 2,000 word paper? How about an hour for a 5,000 word one? That’s one-eighth of your workday.

I have worked on dozens of content projects with a number of businesses in a wide range of industries and almost every time, the longest single step in the process is not writing the content but waiting for the client to read and comment on the content. This is because, given everything else they have to do to keep their businesses running, my clients are having difficulty finding time to read. And these generally aren’t people who confine themselves to 40 work hours a week.

I don’t think my agency’s clients are atypical. If we don’t have time at work to dedicate to reading long content pieces like white papers, how can expect our prospective buyers to?

Think of it as the golden rule of content creation: “Create content for others as you would have them create content for you.”

Too Much; Couldn’t Process

The inbound methodology was supposed to represent a break from the traditional approach to sales and marketing, the approach that annoyed, pressured, and overwhelmed buyers. Why is it, then, that so many white papers continue these behaviors in print?

The sales instinct is to sell as much as possible. The B2B buyer’s instinct is to buy as little as is necessary to solve a problem. In content terms, that means readers want to read as little as is necessary to find solutions to their problems.

One of my agency’s partners—a veteran business owner—told me as much in a recent email: “I find the best content is task specific. Rarely in business am I looking for something thought provoking or expansive. I have an issue. I need an answer. The content that delivers that answer with the most expediency and correctness is my champion.”

White papers are by nature dense, long, and cover a lot of territory. When done well—strong positions supported by solid research and logical arguments—white papers are decent vehicles for making the case for organization-wide change. But that’s not what most B2B buyers are looking for, at least not right away. They’re looking for a simple solution to a single problem. Note that you may believe strongly that your buyers’ problems are more systemic than they realize, but that doesn’t mean they’re prepared to hear that message.

Content is most effective in chunks. Start small and gain trust by helping your buyers solve their individual problems. There will be time for the sweeping changes later on, once they’ve gotten to know you.

Too Boring; Zoned Out

Boring_Boring_BoringI think entertainment value is vastly underrated in content marketing. Yes, I know this is the B2B world and B2B is serious stuff, but what I’m suggesting is, does it really have to be? With so many businesses opting for stuffiness as their official content tone, imagine the relief a prospective buyer will experience when he or she stumbles across a piece of content that’s actually a pleasure to read.

What I’m saying here—and really, throughout this article—is that good content asks as little as possible from its readers: as little time, as little effort, and as little attention. In return, good content pays its readers back for that minimal investment with something of immediate value: a direct answer to a question, a simple solution to a problem, maybe even a moment of levity in an otherwise dreary work day.

White papers do the opposite of all this. If your business has limited resources to dedicate to content marketing, I believe they would be much better spent blogging.

Alternatives to White Papers

So, if white papers are out, what’s in? Next week, I’ll look at some alternative forms of premium content. Subscribe to the blog by filling out the form on this page.

Topics: Blogging, Content Marketing