Investment, wealth management, and financial planning firms agree that white papers are useful marketing tools. However, they don’t always agree on what constitutes a good white paper. Opinions diverge even more when I discuss white papers with members of the broader community of marketers and writers. These disagreements inspired the white paper survey that I report on here.
White papers should be objective, yet opinionated. This is the bottom line from the survey. If it sounds familiar, it’s because you may have seen the shorter version of this post I wrote for the American Society of Business Publication Editors blog.
Three characteristics of white papers stood out in responses to my white paper survey. Respondents said it is “very important” that white papers
- Are factual – 82%
- Offer “thought leadership” – 67%
- Pose a problem and describe how to solve it – 39%
In addition, these were the only three characteristics for which no one checked “does not apply.”
To explain what these three characteristics mean to respondents, I’ll share some responses to my open-ended question, “For you, what is the most important characteristic of a white paper?”
There’s tension between these three traits and the use of white papers for marketing, so you need to walk a fine line in your white papers.
1. Emphasize factual information
For me, “factual” means based on facts and relatively objective, although the facts in a white paper should be mustered in support of an argument. For example, a white paper about reasons to invest in small-cap stocks should present credible evidence about the broad asset class. It shouldn’t simply tout the sponsoring company’s fund.
Here are some related quotes on white papers’ most important characteristics.
- Intellectual honesty
- Actual education instead of attempting… to sell a product
- Unlike blog posts and small articles, a white paper should be a somewhat seminal, all-encompassing piece on a topic. It should look at the topic from multiple viewpoints and should be an all-in-one resource on the topic.
- That it be informative and give me concise information on a business issue about which I want to learn more (but not get a PhD!)
2. Display thought leadership
“Thought leadership” is a tough term to define. I think it should involve uncovering new information or new solutions to problems. At a minimum, I believe, a white paper should present a distinct opinion or point of view. This is what enables white papers to influence their readers. Here’s another definition of thought leadership: “Ideas that educate customers and prospects about important business and technology issues and help them solve those issues—without selling,” said Chris Koch in a tweet to me.
One respondent said a white paper should provide “real insight into an important area of my work.” Another said, “It must contain an original idea or perspective.” Here’s a reply specific to financial services, calling for “Some genuine blue-sky thinking about something related to the market or our industry.”
3. Pose a problem and suggest a solution
For me, it’s critical that a white paper pose and solve a problem faced by readers. I emphasize this because it gives your audience a reason to care about the white paper.
For example, if you write a white paper aimed at wealthy individuals, you should start by identifying a problem that they face. Sure, it should be a problem related to your business, but if your topic doesn’t hit your readers’ pain points, it won’t command their attention.
Here’s one response from the investment world.
I start with “what do our customers/prospects want/need to know?” Then I connect our expertise to that need. In investment white papers it’s very often economic outlook, emerging trends, or new approaches to old issues. These topics are the ones that people will be drawn to and read.
Here’s a response that also discusses how to organize a white paper. “Take a topic critical to the audience we support and define it. Show why it matters. Issue, at a minimum, a soft call to action for addressing the issue.”
The next quote introduces the issue of marketing along with thought leadership. For this respondent, it’s essential that a white paper “project thought leadership and portray a firm’s associates as industry experts.”
4. Don’t brag about your company or its products/services
The final question in my survey addressed marketing. I offered respondents five choices for completing this sentence: “The company or organization that sponsors a white paper should…” I asked respondents to “check all that apply,” so totals sum to more than 100%.
Here are the questions along with the response rates.
38% 1. Not be mentioned other than one line identifying it as a sponsor.
36% 2. Promote itself only in a “call to action” at the back that invites readers to contact it.
14% 3. Mention its products, services, or programs in the white paper.
10% 4. Pose a problem that it can solve through its products, services, or programs.
2% 5. Discuss itself in detail throughout the white paper.
Respondents disliked heavily promotional white papers, with 74% calling for minimal mention of the company sponsoring the white paper.
Here’s one person’s take on this topic.
I think the most effective white papers sell extremely softly. The harder the sell, the less likely it’s going to do anything for the company. The research itself needs to be as close to straight as possible. It’s incredibly easy to lose credibility in a paper the minute you start talking about the sponsor’s solutions etc. The only exception that works is if you quote an employee as an expert and his advice does not involve say hiring XYZ to build them a new IT system.
I received some great comments on this question, so I’m mulling over incorporating them in a new blog post on white papers.
Note on the survey
This survey was conducted in January-February 2011. Responses were solicited through my LinkedIn Groups, Twitter, and my monthly e-newsletter. As a result, many responses may come from marketers, writers, and financial professionals. I did not collect information about individual respondents.
Do you agree?
Do my survey results fit with YOUR thoughts about white papers?
Feb. 24, 2014 update: I edited this post to delete an outdated link to one of my past presentations about white papers.