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For white papers, size does matter

A client recently asked me to write some “mini-white papers.”

Against my better judgement, I decided to try.

I agreed to write 10 mini-white papers of 2-3 pages each on an array of topics for a technology vendor. That’s less than half the length I normally write.

“Nobody reads long things anymore,” I was assured by the 20-something marketer who contacted me.

I think what he really wanted was a set of short articles written by an SEO jockey to help build web traffic.

Based on my 20-20 hindsight from this recent experience, I’d like to dispel a few common myths about shorter white papers.

Mini-white paper myth #1: A marketer can stretch their budget by doing shorter pieces

If a 9-page white paper costs $7,500 then a three-pager should only cost $2,500. Right?

Not so fast.

No seasoned writer will happily reduce their fees in direct proportion to a shorter length.

There’s still research, interviewing, several drafts to create, rounds of comments to incorporate.

And remember: Writing shorter takes longer. Writing shorter involves extra edits to cut, compress and squeeze down the text to the desired brevity.

A client may be able to reduce their copy budget with an inexperienced writer… or as a one-time experiment with an experienced writer like myself.

But once bitten, twice shy. I’ll never again cut my fee in half to write a shorter white paper.

Mini-white paper myth #2: A writer can save time

Each of those 10 mini-white papers was supposed to be about 50% the size of one of my regulars.

But when I totalled up my hours, each mini took me 80% of my regular effort to create.

I saved a little time, but not nearly as much as I projected. Turns out, I should have priced those minis at 80% of my regular fee.

The bottom line is that mini-white papers are not a great way for any client to save money… and not a great way for a writer to save time.

Mini-white paper myth #3: Busy executives don’t read

Sure, it’s more “fun” to watch a 2-minute video than to read a 6- to 8-page white paper. But who says business is supposed to be “fun”?

In a complex B2B sale, there’s a lot at stake: money, careers, maybe the future of the company.

A selection committee of high-level managers needs more than a video to support a decision. Those people need facts and figures, cost-benefits, and logical arguments to compare and contrast, to weigh and measure, to analyze and debate.

A team making a costly decision requires narrative text that’s simple to annotate, to cut and paste into other documents, and to circulate up and down the corporate hierarchy.

That means they need a document. Not a video. Not a bunch of Tweets. Not reviews from someone they’ve never heard of before.

A document.

Survey after survey for the past 20 years confirms that B2B buyers appreciate white papers.

In fact, according to a study by content syndication firm Tech Target, white papers are the most popular content for B2B technology buyers in Australia, France, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, UK, and USA.

Who is it that doesn’t read anymore? Web designers, maybe?

 

Seasoned executives often read white papers

Mini-white paper myth #4: Shorter is better

By definition, a mini-white paper contains less information, less advice, and fewer insights. That means a mini just doesn’t have enough space to present an in-depth discussion.

By necessity, a mini often devolves back to more of a brochure—a product description of features and benefits—instead of providing the rich educational detail of a full-fledged white paper.

A 2- or 3-page white paper is simply too short to present much research or logical argument.

And after all, a full-length white paper already has a built-in mini-version: the executive summary.

This one-page précis of the key ideas can be scanned in less than a minute by anyone, no matter how busy. Then they can decide whether to invest any more time to read the full-length document.

Mini-white paper myth #5: You can say everything you need to in 2 or 3 pages

I didn’t want to deliver watered down brochure copy to my client.

So I squeezed references, tables, an introduction, conclusions, and a call-to-action into each of my minis. But that made them longer.

Our 10 minis totalled 38 pages, for an average length of about 3.75 pages. But that’s effectively 4 pages. And each had a full-page cover, which made the average mini-white paper 5 pages long.

That’s twice as long as the projected 2 or 3 pages!

Hmmm… looks like you really can’t cover everything in 2 or 3 pages.

Mini-white paper myth #6: The future is here

Anyone born after 1985 has grown up with mobile technology and social networks.

Surveys and anecdotes show that many so-called Millennials prefer to interact online or watch video rather than read text.

Certainly marketing needs to evolve to satisfy them.

And the economy will change as Millennials start making decisions about purchasing big, complex products for companies.

But the oldest Millennials are not quite 40 now.

They’re still a few years away from becoming decision-makers who can spend big bucks on B2B purchases.

And here’s the thing: The older you get, the more of a budget you command, the more you will need to read.

That’s just part of the territory. Executives have to read.

Most white papers are read by people in their offices, on desktop or laptop PCs.

That future when everyone is running around doing all their business on their cell phones: That future may never arrive.

 

handwritten with fountain pen: Know your audience

The bottom line on mini-white papers: Know your audience

But who cares what *you or I* think? The only person whose opinion really matters is your intended prospect.

The first rule of marketing still applies: Know your audience.

If you sell to companies run by young hipsters, maybe you do need shorter and more entertaining content than 6 to 8-page white papers.

But if you sell to medium and large enterprises, not so much.

If your target reader is a typical C-level executive, they didn’t get where they are by watching YouTube.

They’re probably 50 to 60 years old, and they got there in large part by reading, thinking, and debating.

If your competitors have full-length white papers for prospects to sink their teeth into, and you don’t… guess who loses the sale?

So next time you’re tempted to do a mini-white paper, think carefully.

Do you really buy into these myths? Is it really wise to cut the length of a white paper… if that’s going to reduce its impact and lose sales?

 


Have you ever written (or sponsored) a mini-white paper? How well did that work for the company? Please leave your comments below.


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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300+ 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 50+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. And named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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3 Comments

  1. David Lorti on April 3, 2020 at 5:05 am

    Gordon,

    I stumbled across this page when looking for sizing (paper size) for a content asset I was working on. However, I was thrilled by your article. As a Product Marketer, I’ve written a lot of content and I get frustrated when I see the marketing dogma spout off that any piece of content must be short.

    Though one should always keep an eye on the length in respect to what your audience is going to be willing to read, these dogmatic ideas as to length that marketers maintain don’t hold water. Some of the most successful pieces I created – where marketers said they were too long without even having read – were the most successful pieces in terms of demand creation, etc. that we did.

    It’s compelling content as judged by your reader that wins the day. And sometimes the nature of the topic dictates what the piece will end up being in terms of length. Not marketing fluff, or SEO-driven content or herd thinking.

    • Gordon Graham on July 29, 2020 at 4:02 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, David. It’s true: the only people whose opinions really matter are our prospects. If it’s too long for most of them, it’s too long. But if some self-styled “expert” says it’s too long, who cares?

  2. Robert W Bly on August 28, 2020 at 9:45 am

    I have written mini-white papers. For some topics, they are adequate. To introduce a new idea or a complex technology, they are not.

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