By Kevin Gault
You’ve got a lot of information to present in your white paper, but exactly how long should the paper be? Will 5 pages be enough? Will 15 be too many?
We asked some expert white paper writers for their opinions on the ideal length for white papers.
“White papers have been steadily getting shorter since I started tracking them in 2001,” says Gordon Graham, veteran white paper writer at ThatWhitePaperGuy.com. “Today they’re usually four to eight pages long for two main reasons. First, everyone is suffering from information overload—we all have too much to read and too much to do. Second, more white papers are aimed at a business audience rather than technical readers. Technical people seem to be able to tolerate a longer document, but a business audience won’t. I recommend no more than six to eight pages for a white paper, and if you can wrap it up in four, so much the better.”
Marketing communications copywriter Ed Gandia (www.edgandia.com) provides a different perspective: “I don’t think writers should get hung up on the number of pages as much as they should worry about making a convincing case. The more complex the idea, the longer it’s going to take to fully develop your argument.
“In the interest of brevity, some writers will cut corners. Their argument will be half-baked and the reader will feel cheated because the paper gave them nothing of value. To put it in terms of pages, it’s very difficult to be thorough and convincing with anything less than four or five pages.”
Don’t Give Too Much
Jonathan Kantor, principal and founder of the Appum Group (www.whitepapercompany.com), feels that a medium-length paper is most effective. “I tell my clients that the minimum is six pages and the absolute maximum is 12 pages,” Kantor advises. “You need a minimum of six to provide enough background information to bring the reader up to speed on the topic.
“Twelve pages, however, can be too much for today’s short-attention-span reader to read in a single deliverable. The ideal length is eight to ten pages, and it seems that eight pages is the most popular length for most clients.”
Steve Hoffman, president of Hoffman Marketing Communications (www.hoffmanmarcom.com), says in his article The Myth of the Two-Page White Paper that slightly longer papers do the job best. “Some people are convinced that a four-page or even two-page white paper is what they need. Although a document of this length may suffice for a sales brochure, press release or an executive or product brief, space constraints render it unable to accomplish the objectives of a white paper.
“While other forms of collateral can achieve their goals in a few pages, white papers’ ambitious purposes cannot ordinarily be realized in fewer than 8-10 pages. Conversely, longer white papers challenge the attention span of most readers.”
Make It More Focused
If you’ve written a paper that is too long to hold the reader’s interest, Graham offers a tip: Instead of creating one long paper, make it two. “It’s more effective in every way to publish two shorter, more-focused white papers than a longer, less-focused one,” he says. “This gives you more options in terms of publishing and targeting the documents.”
Although their opinions vary on the best length for white papers, top writers agree that while a white paper must give the reader enough information, it’s important that it doesn’t give too much.