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!
Value of white papers for B2B software vendors:
Part 2 covers approaches vendors can take to establish the “new” white paper as an important part of content marketing strategies, and further examines what constitutes the “new” white paper for B2B software companies and who should create it.