By Gordon Graham
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. Fair enough. But what’s with calling these “white papers?”
Some people are tempted to call anything they do a white paper. There’s no law against that, but be careful! The term “white paper” carries expectations. If you use it carelessly, you will disappoint your prospects. And instead of building up your firm as a trusted advisor providing useful content, you risk tearing down your firm’s reputation, as disappointed readers blame you for wasting their time.
So how do we know what to call something?
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. Several of these have been articulated by white paper expert Jonathon Kantor on his blog, and I have contributed a couple more.
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, they want something to read—not a YouTube video.
White paper test #2: Is it a substantial length?
I believe most people agree that a white paper should contain useful information to help people do their jobs. This can involve understanding a complex or expensive technology they are considering buying for their business. One or two pages won’t cut it. Kantor suggests six pages minimum. I’d let a five-pager under the wire. A two- or three-page article can be helpful, but don’t call it a white paper.
White paper test #3: Is it a pre-sales document?
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, and your text must be structured to inform and persuade. After a purchase, you’re in the world of technical support, and your text must be structured to document and explain. In most companies, you’re dealing with different teams, different realities, and different budgets.
White paper test #4: Does it contain facts and references?
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 certain 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.
About the Author: Gordon Graham helps B2B software firms tell their story with persuasive white papers. He’s the founder of www.thatwhitepaperguy.com and a frequent poster on the www.whitepapersource.com forums.