When is a white paper NOT a white paper?
by Gordon Graham, That White Paper Guy
Here's a headline I spotted recently: "Big Truck TV Launches a New Online Video White Paper Channel."
Naturally I was curious.
This turned out to be a set of online presentations with a talking head giving advice to trucking companies.
So what's with calling these "white papers?"
Some people are tempted to call anything they create a white paper. There's no law against that, but be careful?!
The term "white paper" carries certain expectations.
If you use it carelessly, you will disappoint your best prospects.
Then instead of building up your firm as a trusted advisor providing useful content, you could do exactly the opposite...
You could tear down your firm's reputation by disappointing readers and wasting their time.
I believe there are several reasonable tests we can apply to any document to see if it's fair to call it a white paper.
♦ White paper test #1: Is it a written narrative?
Almost by definition, the term "white paper" suggests a narrative presented as text. Text is easy to review, skim, scan and skip.
To me, the term "video white paper" is nonsense. Our brains simply don't process video the same way as text.
When executives need to make a big decision, you better believe they want something in their hands to read and discuss—not simply a video on YouTube.
♦ White paper test #2: Is it a substantial length?
Most people agree that a white paper should contain useful information, not a sales pitch.
This means helping the reader understand a complex technology, solve a nagging problem, or do their jobs better.
To accomplish that, a document needs a certain heft. One or two pages won't cut it. White paper expert Jonathan Kantor suggests 6 pages minimum.
I might let a 5-pager in under the wire. And a 2- or 3-page article can be helpful, but please don't call it a white paper.
♦ White paper test #3: Is it for pre-sales?
Internet marketing guru Perry Marshall names 40+ types of documents that he treats as "white papers" including application guides, cheat sheets, installation guides, manuals(?!), optimizers, pocket guides, troubleshooting guides and tutorials.
But much of this list is documentation used AFTER a purchase when you need help to install, use or troubleshoot some product.
Take it from someone who wrote these for years: They may be useful, but they're not white papers.
To my thinking, a white paper is a document used BEFORE a purchase. In the pre-sales stage, you're in the world of marketing where your writing must inform and persuade.
After a purchase, you're in the world of technical support where your writing must document and explain. In most companies, you're also dealing with different teams, different realities and different budgets.
♦ White paper test #4: Does it provide referenced facts?
One final consideration. I believe a true white paper presents a logical argument supported by facts and figures, quotes from industry experts, impeccable statistics and credible reports.
A white paper is not just a long, opinionated rant. It is a dignified and carefully reasoned examination of a topic.
So when is a "white paper" not a white paper?
Hint: When it's a video, when it's only two pages long, when it's documentation, or when it's an opinion piece unsupported by any facts.
Please use this term carefully, so that it continues to signify a worthwhile document of value and substance.
♦ Key characteristics of a classic white paper
Note that white paper expert Jonathan Kantor has articulated some minimum standards for a "classic" white paper in an interesting post on his blog.
I have no argument with any of his points. To sum up, here's a list of all our criteria in one place.
A white paper must be:
- A document that contains narrative text
- At least 5-6 pages long in portrait format
- Educational, practical and useful, NOT a sales pitch
- Intended for use BEFORE a sale, not AFTER a sale
- Provide referenced facts, NOT just opinion
- Include an introduction or executive summary.
If a document in question meets all those criteria, you can very reasonably call it a "white paper." If not, please call it something else.
What do you think? Got a comment or question?
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Written by Gordon Graham, this article appeared in the July 2009 edition of the WhitePaperSource Newsletter.
To repost this article on your Web site, e-mail a request to Gordon@ThatWhitePaperGuy.com.