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When NOT to use a white paper

I believe white papers are the most powerful form of content any B2B company can produce.

But there are times when using a white paper may not be the best choice to reach an audience. 

Whether you’re a white paper copywriter or a B2B marketer, remember that a white paper may not work well in any of these situations:

  • Your competitors don’t have white papers
  • Your prospects don’t want white papers
  • There’s not much to say
  • There’s not enough money in the budget

photo of Stop sign

When NOT to use a white paper #1:
Your competitors don’t have any

If the company has more than one competitor, check out the content they produce by visiting their websites.

If you don’t spot any white papers, perhaps they have some that aren’t available online. Contact those vendors posing as a consultant or researcher to see if they have any white papers available on request.

If not, you have a decision to make.

You can seek to gain a competitive edge by being the first to use white papers in a certain space. In this case, you may want to give these documents a friendlier name such as “special reports.”

Or, you can focus on creating other types of content, such as case studies, that prospects are expecting.

When NOT to use a white paper #2:
Your prospects aren’t asking for them

As you know, white papers can be used from top to bottom of the sales funnel:

  • To generate leads at the top
  • To nurture prospects through the middle
  • To eliminate competitors at the bottom

Prospects often ask for white papers during their RFP process or final evaluation.

But if a prospect has never asked for a white paper, that tells you something. Perhaps they don’t need them, they don’t want them, or they don’t trust them.

To confirm your suspicions, you might want to take a quick poll of the company’s favorite clients or user group.

If none of your clients or prospects want to look at any white papers, think hard before starting one.

When NOT to use a white paper #3:
There’s not much to say

As you may have seen in my article Does your company need a white paper? I’ve found white papers work best to describe a B2B offering that’s relatively new, relatively complex, or relatively expensive.

One of those three may be sufficient; two out of three is certainly enough.

But if a company is selling something relatively well-known, relatively simple, and relatively inexpensive, a white paper may not be necessary. There may be no need for a detailed explanation of what the company has to offer.

In this case, the company may be better served by publishing other forms of content such as case studies, blog posts, FAQs, and so on.

Here’s a real-world example:

I recently spoke to a steel manufacturing company with some innovative products; they were wondering if they should publish white papers. But they already have effective spec sheets that sum up the product features and benefits in brief.

I couldn’t see much need for full-length white papers that would simply repeat the same information.

What they’re selling is not very complex or expensive. Even their new product was simply a better, stronger, more durable version of what came before.

When NOT to use a white paper #4:
There’s not enough in the budget

Almost every B2B marketer wants white papers… but unfortunately, not everyone can afford them.

A white paper is a significant project with numerous contributors that requires a budget of thousands of dollars.

Trying to do one for a few hundred dollars won’t likely generate the results you want to see.

In fact, the average budget to create and promote a white paper is $7,250. You can easily spend more if you need translations, color copies for events, or more extensive promotions.

On top of all that, a white paper eats up staff time for the myriad of tasks involved:

  • Planning the content, digging up background, giving interviews, and reviewing drafts
  • Repurposing the white paper into other formats, such as a press release, blog posts, or slide deck
  • Planning, creating, and tracking promotional campaigns

You can add further costs by running pay-per-click campaigns, posting ads on websites, or syndicating a white paper through a third-party service like KnowledgeStorm.

For a longer discussion of these costs, see pages 75-79 of my book White Papers For Dummies.

The bottom line

If a company doesn’t have the money; has nothing to say; has no competitors with white papers; and has no prospects asking for white papers, there’s probably no point doing one.

Instead, use your time and money to create something that will truly serve your prospects.

Do you agree? Can you think of any other times NOT to use a white paper? Or, have you used a white paper successfully in any of the situations listed above?

Tell us about it in our comments section below.

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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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  1. Vinish Garg (@vingar) on May 6, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    An excellent and very time post for me because I am working on the content strategy for a B2B business, considering White Papers too.

    The product is updated for new features and the cost of updating old white papers is too much, considering the metrics and the value these WP brought of late. I rather suggested product sheets that talk specifically about features. Hmmm, you nailed it pretty well. Thanks for the post.

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