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Book review: The Content Marketing Handbook

I have plenty of books by Bob Bly—the copywriter’s copywriter—on my shelves.

And every so often, I add another.

Bly is one of a small handful of writers who are equally at home writing both content and copy, writing to explain and writing to persuade.

His recent book The Content Marketing Handbook is a treasure-trove of insightful tips and advice.

Bob Bly

Author/copywriter Bob Bly

Part I provides an overview of content marketing.

Anyone who reads this will understand content marketing better than lots of people working in this field.

Bly explains all the fundamentals along with statistics, quotes from experts, lists, business and personal anecdotes, and lots of sensible advice.

In short, this part is a perfect model of effective non-fiction writing.



Part II covers best practices for specific types of content, from articles to white papers, audio to webinars.

Naturally, I turned eagerly to the chapter on white papers and special reports.

And I was treated to the best 17 pages of advice on writing long-form content I’ve ever seen. This chapter alone is well worth the cost of the book.

Some of Bly’s choice advice on white papers

What about the objection that white papers are passé, and people already have too much to read?

A good white paper isn’t just run-of-the-mill content you can find anywhere else, argues Bly.

“Virtually every B2B sale you make is because someone thinks your product or service is the solution to their problem,” he notes.

“A white paper can help clarify the problem as well as convince the reader that your idea or method is the best of many options for addressing it.” (page 89)

Bly quotes several reports that say B2B buyers like white papers and consistently respond to them.

What may be tired, he says, is the label “white paper”… especially since too many marketers abuse this format by dispensing sales pitches.

Keep using them, he recommends, but call them something different.

I’ve made the same suggestion myself.

Both Bly and I prefer “special report” above all.

And I like to go further and call it “a special report for …” and then give a job role, sector, or business challenge, or even all three, like this:

  • A special report for CFOs
  • A special report for CFOs in B2B software
  • A special report for CFOs in B2B software
    concerned about California’s AB 5 employment law

See how that directs a white paper to a very specific audience?

And once it has a snappy title, a white paper can’t get away with reworking the same old material that everyone else is putting out.

“Look for fresh territory not already exhausted by other white papers, articles, and websites,” says Bly.

I heartily concur.

A white paper must add something to a discussion or explore some new angle on a topic. If it doesn’t, why bother publishing it? Who will it ever impress?

what to include in a white paper

What to include in a white paper

Bly says effective white papers should include three types of information:

1. Anything that helps achieve your marketing objective
You do know the objective of your white paper, right? If not, go back to Square One and figure that out with your client.

2. Useful tips or how-to information
Business people love tips they can apply on the job, right away. Don’t you?

3. Options that steer readers towards your offering
In any problem/solution white paper, I include two sections in this category:

—The traditional solutions

This section lists all the things companies have tried to solve the problem in the past, the drawbacks of these solutions and why they never completely worked.

That clears the field for a new and improved solution from your client.

—What to look for in an ideal solution

This is usually a set of points that only the client can claim to provide.

Don’t include generic statements like “100% committed to customer service” because anyone can claim that.

Do include specific facts and numbers, such as “Used by 25 of the Fortune 100.”

The goal is to slant the playing field in your client’s favor.

what to leave out of a white paper

What to leave out of a white paper

Here’s what to leave out of a white paper, says Bly:

  • Anything the reader could easily find elsewhere
  • Anything that does not help your marketing objective
  • Any extra details that add length but not value
  • Anything that is interesting but irrelevant

This is solid gold advice that applies to any content.

Many white papers wander off-topic or simply repeat material from sources without saying anything new.

I would add one more telling item to this list: Leave out the sales pitch.

Don’t just give away free information

One of Bly’s key points is that content marketing does not simply mean giving away free information.

“Content marketing is not an end unto itself,” he writes, “It is a means to an end—to sell products.”

The popular advice that every company must become a publisher leaves out an important part of the equation. Real publishers get paid for what they publish; content marketers do not.

Content marketing is only justified when it helps move prospects along the customer journey toward making a purchase.

The bottom line: Get this book

handbook of Content Marketing book cover


If you write any type of B2B content, or if you manage any type of B2B content marketing, you really should pick up Bob Bly’s excellent book, The Content Marketing Handbook.

As you can see from these brief notes, it is jam-packed with useful pointers and techniques from an acknowledged master.

This is my absolute favorite of all the books by Bob Bly on my shelves.

Until, perhaps, the next time he outdoes himself with a new title.



About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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