As a copywriter who specializes in white papers and case studies, I hear plenty about both. I attend content marketing workshops and talk to my clients about their content marketing strategies. Alternately, I’ll hear that the white paper is dead, then I’ll hear, “Long live the white paper!”

So which is it? When I dig into both sides of the coin, I hear five common white paper myths, all phrased differently but meaning the same thing. I’m going to debunk these myths, one by one.

The white paper is outdated.

Allegedly, white papers have been around since 1922, when the Churchill White Paper was published by the British government. You know what else has been around longer? Automobiles, coffee, and the written word itself. Just because something has been around for a long time doesn’t mean it’s outdated. As with the aforementioned examples, we’ve been making constant improvements on them: power steering, dark roasts, and new words added to dictionaries every year. White papers are no different: they’ve come a long way from dry government documents.

You can’t do anything with white papers.

This is like saying you can’t do anything with a bag full of espresso beans. Sure, in their whole bean form, and if you don’t know what you’re doing with them, they’re pretty useless. But when you grind them up and brew them, they create a versatile espresso base for all sorts of caffeinated delights.

It’s the same with white papers. You can commission a white paper and have it languish on your website, or you can put it behind an email capture form and use it for lead generation. You can slice it up and turn it into a bunch of teaser blog posts that give out just enough information to get prospects to download it. You can even print it out or save it to a bunch of branded USB drives and hand it out at trade shows. White papers are the strong espresso on your content marketing menu, a solid base for your strategy. Use them to create content lattes, cappuccinos, Americanos, and macchiatos.

[tweetthis]White papers are the strong espresso on your content marketing menu, a solid base for your strategy.[/tweetthis]

Nobody reads white papers anymore.

This is true only if your white papers are putting customers and prospects to sleep. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 63 percent of B2B marketers say white papers are an effective part of their content marketing strategies. From that same study, 71 percent of respondents noted that they’re using white papers. Somebody’s reading white papers: B2B technology buyers who are trying to solve a problem. Not providing them with this valuable content could cost your company some serious sales.

White papers have to follow a certain formula to be effective.

The traditional white paper (trends, problem, solution, specific solution) that runs about 2,500-3,000 words has its place in any content marketing program. But so do non-traditional white papers that are based off lists (5 deadly sins of SaaS, for example). The only “formula” that white papers need is relating problems to solutions, and that can be done several ways. You’re not limited to one type of white paper, just like you’re not limited to one type of coffee bean.

White papers have to sell products.

The one type of white paper that you don’t hear much about is the backgrounder white paper, which is a hard-sell piece used at the end of a sales cycle. Those white papers are few and far between; white papers today have evolved to aim for the top of the sales funnel. That means taking a very light approach to selling. Mention the products at the end of the white paper, and don’t take up more than a quarter of the piece to explain products. That’s what the generic solution section is for, and I’ve seen it woefully underutilized.

[tweetthis]White papers with a hard sell are like browsing in a clothing store and being steered toward $120 yoga pants.[/tweetthis]


At the top of the funnel, prospects don’t care about a specific product. In some cases, they don’t even know what the problem is, exactly, and that’s what a white paper does: educate the prospect on the problem, get the prospect to nod and say, “Oh, that sounds like the issues I’m having with my API,” and keep reading for the solution, which isn’t a hard sell. (I can’t say this enough: if you’re targeting the top of the funnel, hard sells are going to backfire. It’s like walking into a clothing store to browse and having a pushy salesperson steer you over to the brand-new $120 yoga pants. I might not be in the market for yoga pants, but I might want some running shorts. Let me browse first. If your products are compelling enough to solve my problem, like needing a pocket for my GU, I’ll buy.)

What myths have you heard about white papers? Comment and share, and if you want to talk more about your own white papers, you know where to find me.