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How to generate leads with a white paper: tips from Tech Target

Few people on earth have seen more white papers than Jay Habegger and Jeff Ramminger.

Habegger was the CEO of Bitpipe (now TechTarget) which ran the annual White Paper Awards from 2001 through 2004, attracting thousands of entries.

Ramminger knows something about white papers, too.

He was executive VP of KnowledgeStorm, which started hosting white papers online in 2003.

Then he was executive VP of TechTarget after it bought out his company as well.

I asked these two seasoned executives how B2B software firms can use white papers to generate leads.

Here’s the advice these two veterans gave me.


White paper tip #1: Target each white paper precisely

“When a customer says, ‘I’m going to do a white paper, what should I focus on?’ we tell them three things,” says Ramminger.

“Figure out who you’re trying to target, make sure you teach, and make the length appropriate.

“We’ve seen people try to talk to too many people at once, and lose the ability to get the attention of the person they’re really after,” says Ramminger.

“The more targeted your white papers are, the better—especially if you can articulate the precise market segment or job title you’re after.”

Everyone has a different agenda: CFOs look for a different message than CIOs.

Your white paper must speak to your audience’s agenda, or they’ll ignore it.

White paper tip #2: Don’t try to be all things to all people

A VP of marketing once told me, “A white paper is that very rare thing that can be all things to all people.”

He should know better.

“I can’t tell you how many clients say, ‘We just want leads,'” says Habegger.

“But they really want leads in a particular place, which implies a particular audience, which implies a particular message. And that demands the discipline of sitting down and asking, ‘Who is my audience and what am I trying to achieve?’

“That’s where a lot of these companies go off the rails… They’ve never really thought through who their audience is and what they’re trying to achieve.

photo of Jay Habegger

Jay Habegger, Bitpipe

“To put it in concrete terms, if you’re selling a CRM system, the VP of sales probably has to raise his hand and say, ‘I agree.’

“So does the CIO.

“But they each use completely different criteria. So you need to influence both of them with different messages.

“And the person sitting down to write that document needs to understand that.”

No white paper can possibly be all things to all people. The more focused you make it, the more effective.


White paper tip #3: Cater to non-IT readers

Both executives stress that more people read white papers than just IT propeller-heads.

“If you’re a VP of manufacturing, you’re not going to let some IT person make a decision about an application to support your manufacturing process without your people involved,” says Ramminger.

Jeff Ramminger

Jeff Ramminger, KnowledgeStorm

He’s seen this change over the past 25 years.

“When I was selling for IBM in the early 90s, you didn’t always run into a line-of-business person.

“But I dare say now the majority of decisions are driven by people outside IT.”

That means your white paper probably needs to cover more than just the technology under the hood.

It probably needs to explain the business benefits of your offering as well.


White paper tip #4: Teach, don’t preach

Both executives agree that effective white papers focus on educating their audiences.

“Vendors gain the most influence if they use content to educate their different constituencies,” says Habegger.

“The best white papers come at it from an educational tone focused on learning versus a preachy approach.”

Use your white paper to explain how your offering solves a real business or technical problem.

Don’t just declare that you’re the best; prove it.

White paper tip #5: Tell, don’t sell

This point is so important, it’s worth repeating.

The trick is to explain now, so you have a chance to sell later.

In other words, you’ve got to prepare the ground before you plant the seed for a future sale. And a sales pitch masquerading as a white paper will surely fall on barren ground.

“We’ve seen the most success with people who use white papers to educate and teach, as opposed to selling,” says Ramminger.

“A lot of people lose the reader where they haven’t done a good-enough job of teaching the basic concepts, or illustrating how a concept might resolve the business problems that reader has.

“If you do the right job of educating, people come back to you because you’re a source of intellectual capital. At the right time, they’ll allow you to talk about your product.”

White paper tip #6: Fit the length to the audience

“We often run into people who want to put too much content into one consumable. And they are going to lose people,” says Ramminger.

“The length of your white paper has to be relevant to the audience.”

Flexibility is the key here.

“There is no one single answer, because white papers have multiple purposes and different audiences,” says Habegger.

He goes back to his example of the VP of sales versus the software architect.

“What the architect is looking for is highly technical, no BS, no marketing, no talk about ROI, just lots of technical detail that really burrows into the architecture. And those kind of white papers can go to 50 pages and still work well.

“But something like that is clearly DOA for a VP of sales trying to think about his contact management problem. For that type of white paper, any more than five pages is probably too long.”

Ramminger likes things even shorter.

“I can carve out enough time to go through two or three pages,” he says. “And that’s either going to make an impression on me, or it’s not.”

Adding another 5 to 10 pages will do nothing if a reader isn’t already engaged from the first few paragraphs.

In fact, today’s recommended sweet spot for white papers aimed at business readers is 6 to 8 pages; for technical readers, this can be longer at 6 to 12 or even more pages.

graphic of recommended page lengths for white papers

Click on the graphic to see a full-sized version. The pages shown in green are recommended; yellow is questionable; and red is NOT recommended.

White paper tip #7: Make each as granular as possible

Here’s an intriguing rule of thumb: Make each white paper as short and specific as your budget allows. That way, each one is as focused as possible.

So, if you have four key points to make and can afford to publish a white paper on each one, do it.

If you can only do one paper, you’re got to cover all four points in the same document.

More on budgeting later.

White paper tip #8: Pitch topics, not products

“People don’t go looking for products, they go looking for topics,” says Habegger.

“The most likely thing a potential reader will see is a title and a short description. So effective titles are essential.”

He cites a white paper called “What Hackers Know That You Don’t” from wireless LAN security supplier AirDefense. Habegger says its downloads are “off the charts”—partly because it’s good, and partly because it’s got such a great title.

“That title is as perfect as you’re ever going to get: It’s catchy, it’s pithy and it contains a benefit statement right inside it,” says Habegger.

White paper tip #9: Don’t worry about consistent titles

So why doesn’t everyone come up with catchy titles?

As Emerson observed, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Some vendors may want every document in their library to line up in a neat pattern.

But Habegger warns against this.

“If you’re putting together a collateral kit and you have Product A, Product Band Product C, there’s a temptation to say everything for Product A should be called ‘Product A: The White Paper,’ ‘Product A: Our Technology Capability,’ and so on.

“Well, that works fine in the collateral kit,” he says, “but it’s the kiss of death online.”

Why is that?

“We find that any white paper with a product name in the title does anywhere from 50 percent to an order of magnitude worse than if the title contains an educational or benefit statement.”

Ramminger agrees. So leave the product name out of your white paper title and watch your downloads improve.

photo of small clock

White paper tip #10: Use white papers at the right time

Certain information is useful for each phase of the buying cycle.

The proper type of white papers can help move a prospect smoothly along that process.

“In the early phases, white papers make a tremendous amount of sense,” says Ramminger.

“They can be very useful for educating a prospect about a set of concepts they might not understand at that point.”

In the first phase, which Ramminger calls “vision,” a prospect is simply imagining how to solve a business problem.

At that point, a high-level white paper focused on business benefits can help them visualize the possibilities of using your offering.

In the second phase, “planning,” a prospect is trying to map a set of functional requirements to your product.

That’s when a more detailed, technical white paper can help them understand how your solution would work in their environment.

White paper tip #11: Move to case studies at the right time

“By the time a prospect gets to the evaluation phase—looking at who can meet their functional requirements—white papers are not as critical,” says Ramminger.

In the evaluation phase, he says, case studies become supremely useful.

“If a prospect is interested in your case study, it says they believe your system can support their functional requirements. Until then, they’re probably not interested in your case study.”

Ramminger says case studies are ideal for showing off your success.

They can get a prospect thinking, “You know, this company looks kind of like we do, and they’re using this product…” And then, you’re getting close to the short list.

White paper tip #12: Find the right writer

Who should write a white paper in the first place: the product manager? A support whiz? A software architect? An in-house technical writer? An outside journalist?

The best answer here: That depends.

“I think it’s very case-specific,” says Ramminger. “I’ve seen great papers written by internal people, especially someone who is very knowledgeable about the industry or the offering.

“But I feel it’s better to have someone outside the company as the final writer. Someone who has done a lot of writing for periodicals can probably create a more consumable document than a product manager.”

Habegger takes a similar view, more or less.

“I find that the absolute best white papers are written by company insiders,” he says. “But not everybody has an insider who can actually do the authoring. The thing is to find somebody who can write decent prose in a timely manner.”

You want to line up strong writing talent, wherever you can find it.

White paper tip #13: Find the right reviewers

More than one white paper has died on the vine for lack of careful and consistent review.

photo of colored pencils used to review a white paperTo keep the process going, you’ll need two or three well-chosen reviewers.

“People start out with great intentions, but it’s a lot of work to get one of these produced,” says Habegger.

“So they sometimes give up after the first draft.

“Or it drags on for a long time and they wind up blessing the first rough draft.”

Who should be driving your white paper publishing?

“I think it’s a cross-functional task,” says Ramminger. He suggests putting together a small team of both marketing and product people.


“The product people can help tone down—maybe that’s the wrong term—help ‘manage’ the level of marketing information that comes across, to help focus not on shilling the company, but on educating the audience.”

Habegger goes even further.

“To be quite candid, in many cases the marketing department is the last organization you want having editorial control over a white paper,” he says.

“What they will do is naturally try to make it parrot the marketing messages they developed. But if they go in and start dropping marketing-speak into your white paper, that’s the kiss of death.”

White paper tip #14: Kill marketing-speak

This touches on another key strategy: Get rid of the marketing jargon and buzzwords.

Both executives have years of field research to back up that view.

“The worst performers are essentially extended brochure-ware with exclamation points all over the page,” says Habegger.

“You don’t have to read far to figure out if a white paper is well-written, if it has a nuanced point of view, or if it’s all essentially exclamation points: ‘Our product is great!’ ‘Trust us!!’ The IT audience has no patience for that.”

“We find the less marketing-speak, the better,” agrees Ramminger.

“I’m not judging this from what I’d like to see personally. We have proof that better leads are created by content that’s more to the point than by content that has a lot of marketing-ese in it.”

White paper tip #15: Have a realistic budget

Software firms can spend a little or a lot to commission a white paper.

photo of roll of $100 bills“The cheapest way to produce a white paper is to do the writing and graphics in-house,” says Habegger.

“It’s not only the cheapest way, but the best when your paper is aimed at a highly technical audience.”

Naturally, the cost goes up if you hire a freelance writer.

“The next step up is a ‘non-brand name’ freelance technical writer or journalist.

Depending on the expertise of the person and the length of the document, that can be anywhere from a few thousand up to maybe $10,000.”

Another source from TechTarget confirms that small- to medium-sized software firms can expect to pay $3,000 to $5,000 for a white paper from an outside writer.

“Then you get to what I call ‘brand-name’ third parties, Aberdeen and people like that, who do white papers for hire,” says Habegger. “For them, the sky’s the limit.

“I don’t have their pricing sheets in front of me, but their entry cost certainly starts in the teens and goes up from there.”

White paper tip #16: Map out a realistic schedule

“How much?” is usually followed by “How long?”

Again, it depends. How long do you have?

“You know, I’ve seen clients literally drag them out for years and I’ve seen stuff done overnight in anticipation of some campaign,” says Habegger.

“I would say a ‘non-rush’ time frame is probably two to three months, allowing for back and forth, edits and final production.”

This rings true with my experience. Most white papers I’ve done have taken 6 to 8 elapsed weeks, including all the reviews, design, and proofing.

But a “real-world” deadline that can’t slip—for example, tying your white paper release to a particular trade show—gives everyone a compelling deadline.

photo of water cascading through waterfalls

White paper tip #17:
Use cascading papers

How do you nurture someone who isn’t ready to buy?

“One technique we use with complex products is ‘waterfall white papers,’ ” says Ramminger, “which means different levels of information.

“So there’s a first white paper with the general concepts, that leads to another document with the next level of detail, and so on.”

Naturally, this approach works best when each white paper is focused and specific.


White paper tip #18: White papers = content marketing

Using white papers strategically means evolving from old-fashioned “interruption marketing” towards today’s “content marketing.”

Interruption marketing means making cold calls, banging on doors, and phoning people while they’re eating dinner, all in the hope that somebody out there might be interested in what you’re selling right now.

Content marketing, on the other hand, means attracting prospects with a library of useful content, which they find through Google since it talks about the problem they’re trying to solve, not your product.

This content services to draw prospects into your sales funnel at the pace they want to come.

“The biggest thing is to establish that a person is willing to accept content from you, and then to send them content regularly,” says Ramminger.

“And always give them the opportunity to raise their hand and say, ‘Could somebody call me about this?'”

That’s when you call in the sales force and not before.

Until then, white papers can help build your credibility without hype and explain your technology without selling.

This approach calls for patience and restraint.

But using white papers this way can pay off in a steady crop of great leads that blossom into happy customers in the proper season.


Copyright © Computing Technology Industry Association, Inc.
Used with permission.

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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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    How to generate leads with a white paper: tips from Tech Target – That White Paper Guy – Gordon Graham