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White paper success story: Vircom

When Montreal-based anti-spam software developer Vircom released a controversial white paper, their website started getting hits.

A lot of hits.

So many hits, in fact, that they wondered if someone had launched a denial-of-service (DoS) attack against the company.

Why Spammers Spam white paper coverAfter the smoke cleared, the breakthrough report “Why Spammers Spam” had been downloaded 2,200+ times… sparked major media coverage… and generated 21 sales worth an estimated $96,500.

Not a bad return on a single white paper that the company’s marketing team estimates cost only $1,700 to create.

How did Vircom do it? And what tips do they have for other firms seeking such spectacular results from white papers?

I sat down with the company’s marketing team in Montreal to find out. Their answers may surprise you.

White paper tip #1: Don’t make a sales pitch

A white paper is not supposed to be a thinly veiled sales pitch or a brochure slumming as a Word document.

“The term ‘white paper’ has become synonymous with a 24-page brochure on a product,” says Vircom market analyst Michael Spooner.

And readers hate getting a sales pitch when they’re looking for a white paper. Especially readers in IT. Survey after survey proves that.

Vircom’s team gets that. They sees a white paper as a chance to gain mindshare, credibility and name recognition… not to pitch products.

White paper tip #2: Pick an intriguing subject

About three years ago, the first major profile of a spammer appeared. It showed him as this Porsche-driving, mansion-living playboy making gazillions of dollars,” says Vircom’s marketing manager François Bourdeau.

That got him thinking.

“We had never talked to a spammer. So we started wondering, ‘Who are these people?’ We have to know who they are and how they try to trick the anti-spam solutions. That’s at the center of what we do.”

The writers went to the source, which is “Why Spammers Spam” is intriguing to a lot of people.

White paper tip #3: Do your own research

“Why Spammers Spam” featured unusual content, gathered in an unorthodox way.

“We wanted to get real information,” says Bourdeau. “It was all done in a very open way; it wasn’t an undercover operation. I don’t think we would have gotten ahold of those people if we were trying to trick them.”

How did they do it?

“We went to online sites dedicated to spammers,” says Hall. “We approached people and said we’re an anti-spam company looking to get some information for a profile of a spammer. So we sent out an invitation.”

And they got responses, some nasty and some amusing.

After narrowing down the prospects, they settled on the young woman code-named Victoria and two others in her circle.

White paper tip #4: Tell it like it is

Vircom assured all three people they would use their comments verbatim.

The resulting paper was a surprise, especially its descriptions of the spammers’ minimalist operations.

All three young people said they did it to scare up a little cash. Their earnings fluctuated wildly, based on the success of each spam campaign.

But the most seasoned among them only grossed about $60,000 a year.

That rocked the preconceptions of many who believe that all spammers live jet-set lifestyles.

“We’re not saying there is no one who fits the myth of the playboy spammer. But that’s not the reality for most. It might be your son or your neighbor or your nephew who just wants to make some money,” says Bourdeau.

“That’s what made this so interesting. For the first time, we were able to portray our industry as it really is.”

White paper tip #5: Use due diligence

After they work so hard to do their own research, the Vircom team is disgusted by the abuse of statistics they see in many publications.

“I’m sitting here reading that 55 percent of ‘this’ comes from ‘that’… but if I actually try to track it down, I find that number was taken from some press release that says something a little different and that press release was based on someone else’s affirmations, made in another context,” says Bourdeau.

“That statistic ends up coming from nowhere and being absolutely meaningless.”

In other words, don’t believe everything you read on the internet. And don’t pop it into your white paper without confirming it.

Use some due diligence to research and identify your sources. Your white paper will gain from the effort.

White paper tip #6: Build a convincing case

Here’s where a lot of white papers fall down. Just saying your solution is the best doesn’t prove it.

“Everyone goes around saying their solution is the best, but very few put the proof out there,” says Erin Hall, Vircom’s documentation manager and the third member of the marketing team.

“You can fool yourself into buying that message internally, but in a white paper you have to step outside and compare yourself to your competitors.”

A white paper should proceed like a tenacious lawyer, linking indisputable evidence with sensible arguments to build an unbeatable case.

If it doesn’t, a skeptical prospect is bound to dismiss it… the same way a judge throws out a case with insufficient evidence.

White paper tip #7: Design to enhance content

When I comment that “Why Spammers Spam” looks and sounds far different than a traditional white paper, the Vircom team says that’s why it was so successful.

“The format is different from a traditional white paper, but the information contained in it is similar,” says Hall.

“The purpose is to inform, but that doesn’t have to be in a traditional way.”

Why Spammers Spam sample pageThat’s true.

The page design of  “Why Spammers Spam” is different from most white papers.

It’s mainly quotes from three spammers gathered under various headings, with asides from industry experts.

An icon identifies each speaker to help tell them apart.

This unique format presents a wealth of detailed information:

  • Where these three get their mailing lists
  • How they work around anti-spam software and
  • Whether new legislation has affected their operations.

The same info could have been packaged in a more traditional format, but it would have lost a lot of impact along the way.

White paper tip #8: Write and edit tightly

This may seem self-evident, until you start reading some of the white papers out there. Some authors never use one word when five will do.

“Tight writing is very important,” says Hall, who edits all of Vircom’s white papers. “You don’t want a lot of filler.”

Consider these words of wisdom from the classic style guide, The Elements of Style:

Elements of Style cover“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

White paper tip #9: Work out clear diagrams

Developers don’t always value simplicity. After all, they live in a complex mathematical world. When they model that world on paper, it’s usually a mess of lines, boxes and arrows.

But prospects browsing through your white paper don’t want to see all that. Just draw them a simple picture.

“People call our graphics cartoons,” chuckles Bourdeau.

But he doesn’t mind.

“All three of us are allergic to crappy Vision diagrams. So getting a good graphic is really my thing.”

The Vircom team struggles over multiple iterations of each graphic, then tests the results on people who know nothing about the content.

“We put it in front of them and ask what it means,” says Bourdeau. If they don’t get it, it’s back to the drawing board.

White paper tip #10: Assemble the right skillsets

Don’t expect your product manager or lead developer to be the best choice to write your white paper, just because they know a lot about your technology.

“Experts have a wealth of technological information, but sometimes find it hard to put it down on paper,” notes Hall.

Deeply immersed in the guts of your product(s), technical people often lack the ability to step back and start with a big picture, then drill down into the details.

They may forget to define acronyms they use every day. And they may have no clue how to build a convincing argument.

For all these reasons, it’s best to team up your in-house expert with a seasoned communicator who can extract what they need and write it up effectively.

Or partner an expert who can write passably with an editor who can tighten up their text.

In Vircom’s case, their three-person marketing team has a solid mix of research, writing, editing, illustration and design skills. They pass around drafts, argue over graphics and puzzle out the final design until they get it just right.

White paper tip #11: Invest enough time

Don’t do white papers if you don’t want to invest the time, because it will show,” says Bourdeau. “A good white paper is time-consuming to do properly.”

For example, it took 40 hours to find and interview the sources for “Why Spammers Spam.” That couldn’t be rushed without spooking them.

The company’s white paper “Facing Consequences” was even more ambitious.

It involved setting up honey pots to attract spammers, then analyzing all the spam collected over a six-month period. They looked at what time of day spam came in, what it was about, and where it came from.

And they ended up doing a detailed statistical dissection of more than 130,000 spam messages.

Bourdeau says that project took his team 182 hours of overtime: more than a person-month. And that was just the overtime.

White paper tip #12: Promote your white papers to the press

Vircom’s white papers help it stand out in a herd of 200 anti-spam vendors and make them the “go-to guys” for many journalists.

“Our white papers have given us a very solid relationship with journalists who see us as experts on certain topics,” says Bourdeau.

“These people trust our opinion because they’ve read our white papers. Of course, we are here to sell some software, but we also have a mission to inform. We always try to answer one big question in every white paper.”

Journalists have come to appreciate the effort and believe in their results.

And once a journalist has a reliable source, they keep on coming back.

White paper tip #13: Don’t just copy others

Most software companies are desperate to differentiate themselves from the crowd. So why do they publish Me-Too white papers?

“Every time we get a white paper out, some competitor comes out with the exact same thing,” chuckles Bourdeau.

I get the feeling he’s not too bothered: He has enough ideas to stay two years ahead of them all.

“I would say, don’t just do what everyone else is doing. You’re just going to end up in the same pool of useless, boring information.”

So if you want to get noticed, do something different. Like Vircom does.

White paper tip #14: Stretch your marketing budget with white papers

White papers are clearly a part of the marketing mix that pays off handsomely for Vircom.

“Even though we did not intend to use “Why Spammers Spam” as a direct sales tool, the excitement it created resulted in significant revenue for Vircom,” says Hall.

“There’s no doubt we’re a world-class player in anti-spam. But in terms of our financial resources, we’re small compared to some of them,” he says.

“There’s no way we can do all the traditional types of marketing.”

Coming up with timely and compelling content keeps Vircom in the limelight. It doesn’t cost much, but it delivers a heck of a punch.

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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. bradford on September 8, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    Saw a typo under # 3 “…sites dedicate to spammers…” )vs. dedicated)

    ps thanks for the article. Very helpful.

    • Pauline Clark on September 11, 2017 at 1:58 pm

      Hey Brad:
      Thanks for catching that. It’s been fixed. And glad the article was helpful.

  2. Matthew on November 2, 2021 at 3:48 am

    I really enjoyed this article. Especially the part that compares a whitepaper to a lawyer’s argument – embedding evidence into a persuasive text in a logical sequence. This is a really useful parallel for me to have. Thanks.

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