Collateral vs. white paper: What’s in a name?

It’s a pretty safe assumption that your marketing plan deliverables list includes collateral and, frequently, white papers. But exactly what is a white paper? Lately, we’ve noticed a trend toward conflating the definition of a “white paper” with all kinds of other collateral.

Set the proper expectations

The truth is, the term white paper has been hijacked, and we think it’s time to take it back. What most marketers call a white paper today is likely just marketing or sales collateral. That’s not a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t set the proper expectations in the mind of the prospect/reader as to what they’ll be reading.

When the subject comes up about how white papers differ from other marketing collateral, talk about how the white paper you want to develop is an opportunity to take your prospects on a deep-dive into the complex issues surrounding a new or updated technology— a vehicle to show how the product or service fits in from an objective viewpoint. That means no selling. Better yet, don’t even mention any products or services by name. While the exact length isn’t critical, we’re talking at least six to ten pages or more for a white paper, in our humble opinion.

Typically targeting executives or engineers, the people who either request or approve a technology solution within an organization, white papers have a solid reason to be in your marketing tool kit. The good news is, a good white paper will include an executive summary: the “tell them what you’re going to tell them” part of the paper.

For marketing teams, this is a great resource for creating “selling” messages

It’s where you’ll provide (or find) a clear, concise, high-level explanation of the problem, the solution(s), and the kinds of products that fit into the equation. We’ve italicized “kinds” because a white paper shouldn’t be a vehicle for tooting your own horn (by promoting your own products), it should be the vehicle you use to educate decision-makers without getting a metaphorical door slammed in your face because your message is too salesy.

While we highly recommend developing a message platform for every company, product, or service, that simply doesn’t happen all the time. Often, that’s because as new ideas emerge, everybody is off to the races. If you don’t have a message platform in hand, a white paper’s executive summary is a gold mine. If it was done properly, this is where you’ll find the reasoning behind the solution and the differentiating messages that will make writing for lead gen and sales enablement much, much easier.

Leverage your white paper

Leveraging a white paper helps ensure all related marketing communications are created based on consistent messaging. And consistent messaging is a proven winner for boosting conversions. Just weave in the brand essence and personality to those messages and, voilà, you’ve got consistent, compelling marketing materials. And to think it all started with a white paper.

Since there aren’t any real standards, do we have any ideas for what these other materials should be called? For long-form company- or product-specific communications (that aren’t white papers) we like Technology Overview or Product Backgrounder. For short-form docs – one to four pages – Technology Brief or Product Highlights works well.

Whatever you call them, use names that set the right expectations for the prospect that will be downloading the doc from your site.

The technical people will appreciate it when they download a white paper that really is a white paper. And prospects that want a to-the-point, top-down view will certainly be more likely to click on a “Download the Product Brief” button than a “Read the White Paper” button. And they’ll likely be a lot happier with what they read. Simple.

By Michael Rosenberg, ETMG Writer

Michael loves creating content. It started with a fascination for science and technology, grew into a career in marketing for leading- and, at times, bleeding-edge technologies, and then morphed into a fervor for writing, editing, and devising content strategies. Today his passion is transforming the intricacies of technologies and scientific solutions into engaging stories. He is also a constant gardener, an avid traveler, and a lover of great food.