For the past several years, multiple studies by different research firms have been conducted to evaluate the most sought-out and influential content for B2B technology customers during decision-making buying cycles, and every time, in every study, the #1 preferred content is the White Paper.
The white paper is the #1 most influential piece of collateral that technology purchasers consult when making or influencing a buying decision for their company, according to a recent survey by Eccolo Media
However, many B2B software vendors still are missing the boat with their use of white papers and have not employed them in ways to engage potential buyers, let alone convert them to customers.
In The Beginning…
Technology white papers find their origins in government briefs that were called white books, alluding to the plain white binding that was used. With the transformation to the technology white paper, experts, lead architects, systems designers used these documents to provide authoritative discussions of key ideas or technologies to show thought leadership and future direction. The classic white paper was very technical and dissertation-like, rich with in-depth details and research results.
Then something happened to white papers when many software companies began to generate them as “product collateral”. White papers were hijacked by many product marketing and marketing groups to directly promote products. Content became thinly veiled product brochures extolling the virtues of the software offerings, highlighting information favorable to the vendor. White papers became just another item in the checklist of collateral to generate for a product launch. Little strategic thinking or advance planning went into creating white papers, including the recruitment of a top tech professional to write the white paper. Well, guess what: software solution buyers do not like that kind of white paper.
When asked what most disappointed in a white paper, poor writing ranked number one.
One surprise in the findings – the respondents said they're more disappointed when a white paper doesn't contain enough technical information rather than when a paper contains too much.
What Potential Buyers Want In Effective White Papers
Quality Quality Quality
Customers continue to call out high quality writing with accurate and useful content as top values for the white papers that they want to read and use. They want plenty of details (tech / business), which means content has to be: tight, clear, compelling, authentic.
The survey also found that the quality of report writing gets noticed. Some 86% of respondents felt that high-quality writing was at least moderately influential and 51% ranked good writing as either very or extremely influential. By contrast, poor quality writing was the most frequent reason respondents gave for decreasing the influence of a white paper.
Less Time to Consume Content
A lot of great content is constantly published on the web, due largely to constant brisk evolution of business needs and corresponding software solutions. Customers would like to consume a large variety of content, so they prefer shorter lengths for white papers. Shorter white papers also allow vendors to generate a constant flow of new content that also keeps pace with business and tech changes. According to most of the studies cited in this article, the ideal length of a white paper is 4-8 pages. (Tech Marketing Best Practices Research Series on white papers states that 86% of tech buyers want white papers under 10 pages.)
Buyers are proactive in the use of white papers:
How to Maximize the Use of White Papers in Your B2B Marketing and Sales Process, released by InformationWeek in February 2009. Its survey of 542 professional buyers found that 93% of IT buyers pass along up to half of the white papers they read/download, and that 54% of those surveyed contacted a vendor for more information after reading a white paper.
No Registration Please
When marketing groups co-opted the white paper another marketing staple was added: requiring buyer registration to be able to download the white paper. There is a strong buyer sentiment that vendor websites should not require any information from the buyer for any content downloads. After all, the sales engagement is buyer-driven, with the buyer deciding when and if next steps will be taken.
A recent survey done by Spiceworks (SMB IT management resource site) addressed the issue of having to register for white papers:
We also found a lot of people – more than 75% – DON'T sign up for papers requiring registration, which means the vendor is missing the opportunity to share and disseminate their knowledge.
How many (vendors) stopped requiring registration as the result of your survey?
A handful so far. The results are pretty staggering. When you remove the "registration wall," downloads go way up. One white paper that was offered without registration was downloaded 500 times in three days!
White Papers and Content Marketing Strategies
Potential buyers visit B2B corporate websites with the intent of finding all kinds of information that will help with purchase decisions. Buyers also look for vendor information on other web venues. It is critical for any vendors who see web presence as a key to success to build a strategy for content marketing. A content marketing strategy for B2B software vendors should focus on providing relevant, compelling, and frequently updated information for target markets and customers/buyers. A high quality white paper is a significant business asset for content marketing: quality content holds its value for reusability, engagement, impact, and vendor credibility.
Adam Needles: Content marketing is the architecture behind information exchanged with the buyer before we can get them to ’sales ready’; it is the rationalization of what content that our prospective buyers need at various stages of the buying cycle and via what media and channels; and it is integral to the nurturing process. Content thus has moved from tactical to strategic.
Many B2B software vendors could benefit greatly from building a content marketing strategy around white papers. Don’t just produce single white papers in a reactive fashion, as a product launch checklist item done in a hurry. Plan, create and publish excellent white papers well in advance of any product launches. B2B software vendors should be publishing white papers with high frequency (since customers want shorter white papers): set the stage for what your company does now and will do in future. Show authentic thought leadership, clear understanding of various customer needs and real problem-solving.
Publishing sets of “companion” white papers is a good idea for vendors targeting buyers with different perspectives such as business and tech buyers, and biz-tech composites. Some white papers can be created to bridge the gap between business and tech, to encourage collaborative definition of needs and problem-solving. Series of white papers that break down a complex topic can be an interesting approach as well. These approaches will show vendor commitment to helping customers understand current technology trends as well as provide guidance for solving problems or for becoming more competitive.
Beyond publishing great white papers is the opportunity for vendors to engage customers in conversations through social media, wherever customers participate. There already is a social aspect to downloaded white papers – customers have a high rate of sharing white papers. Tap into social media for interactive conversations with potential buyers and industry writers. On download pages include links to communities and forums to encourage discussion. Schedule Tweetjams for topics covered in white papers. Comment on blogs that address the topics of vendor white papers, not to directly promote the white paper, but to add to the brainstorm and show command of the topic.
Value of white papers for B2B software vendors:
The Right Industry Professional to Create White Papers for B2B Software Vendors
Keeping in mind that customers have made clear that they want high quality content with extensive tech details, it would make sense to work with a software industry professional with strong tech experience, business smarts, and who can articulate complex ideas clearly and authentically. This would be a professional who has worked with customers, understands both business and tech, has the ability to hold the interest of these readers. And of course, this professional has to be a really good writer.
White papers will benefit from a professional who has decent smarts for several software solution categories and who has good hands-on experience on the tech side of software. The business-technology professional should contribute rich insight, produce creative content and original thinking, see unexpected connections and future trends. Direct customer experience enhances an understanding of how tech will help customer competitiveness, and will enable writing from the customer POV.
Another very useful attribute of the right professional would be one who is inter-connected to individuals throughout the software industry: analysts, practitioners, consultants, writers, vendors. A professional who is in constant conversations with other industry SMEs will be up-to-date on key topics and trends, and will have resources at hand for research and confirmation. Quality white papers will result if the professional regularly writes software industry-related articles and blog posts, participates in new product briefings from various vendors and start-ups, and continually monitors several software solution spaces. A business-technology professional who is well-connected in social media can also provide guidance to vendors for content marketing strategies that target white papers and social media.
The ‘New’ White Paper:
- Reflecting studies cited: high quality and accurate content, plenty of deep details (tech / business), 8 pages or less which engenders content that is tight, engaging, well-written, inspiring
- Often written from the customer POV, using customer language
- Covers trends that matter: new solution segments – transitions of solutions
- Real takeaways that benefit customers whether they buy the vendor solution or not - vendor is associated with insight to solving problem, doing things in new way that is useful
- Inform, educate at sophisticated level to provide real depth
- Create companion white papers when different customer roles come into play for the topic (business, tech, hybrid/composite)
- Passion in the treatment: blogging has shown that writing about software solutions is more engaging if the writer inserts personality into the work – apply this to white papers when appropriate
- Provoke thought about the solution space: new thinking for addressing needs; provoke desire to find out more; provoke a conversation that will lead back to the vendor
- Look into employing variety of buyer scenarios to connect customers to relevance of topic
- Infographics, tech details, guidelines, suggested reading, links to other resources (not necessarily on vendor site) – all add to value in buyer eyes
- Format for readability, flow, quick-scanning, engagement
- Publish on the distributed web – not just on corporate site but share on sites frequented by buyers
- Stir the pot: encourage social media conversations through blogs, Twitter, forums, communities, Facebook; also actively contribute comments on relevant blogs
- Not self-serving brochure-ware solely touting vendor offering – but can address issues that matter to buyers that generally could be solved with vendor’s offering
About the author: Julie Hunt is an accomplished software industry analyst, providing strategic market and competitive insights. Her 20+ years as a software professional range from the very technical side to customer-centric work in solutions consulting, sales and marketing. Julie shares her takes on the software industry via her blog Highly Competitive and on Twitter: @juliebhunt For more information: Julie Hunt Consulting – Strategic Product & Market Intelligence Services