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seesaw with brochures vs white papers

White papers versus brochures

White papers and brochures are almost complete opposites.

Here’s why.

Back in the day, every B2B vendor printed up glossy brochures for every major product. These were handed out at trade shows, left behind after sales calls, and even mailed out to prospects: all to create interest and desire.

An effective brochure pushed “emotional buttons” such as fear, greed, envy or vanity. They were generally colorful, flashy and filled with promises.

These days, about the only place I still see brochures is in car dealerships.

Everywhere else, printed brochures have evolved into salesy product webpages. Different format, same approach: sell the dream.

White papers, on the other hand, are persuasive essays that appeal more to logic. A good white paper is more informative, substantial and dignified than any brochure or product page.

If it’s plain, it’s a keeper

Some self-styled marketing “experts” urge vendors to make their white papers as flashy as brochures. This is nonsense.

A white paper should look much plainer. Making it look like a sales piece is the kiss of death for a white paper.

There’s a time-honored ritual many IT people do when they get home from a trade show:

  • Sort through the pile of vendor materials
  • Get rid of anything that looks too flashy
  • Keep anything that looks plainer and more informative

Guess which pile the brochures go into?

The key differences

In any case, this table sums up the key differences I can see between a brochure and a white paper.


Brochures or
salesy webpages
White papers
FocusCompelling promises
about a product
or service
New solution to an
old problem, or
benefits of some
product or service
MessageBuy now!
Buy now!
Here's a better way
to solve this problem
Length2 to 4 pages5 to 12 pages
FormatSlicker: lots of
color photos
or graphics
Plainer: PDF with
good design and
a few graphics
LifespanUntil the product
changes enough
1 or 2 years,
then refresh
Time to create4 to 12 weeks4 to 12 weeks
When to useWhenever you want
to "sell the dream"
Whenever you want
to provide useful
Why to useA sales pitch to
compel prospects
to buy
To generate leads,
engage prospects,
or explain product
or service


Never pretend a brochure is a white paper

Some marketers are tempted to reformat a brochure and call it a “white paper.”

This is a silly waste of time that can easily blow up in your face. That’s because no one who downloads a white paper is looking for a sales pitch.

Most readers become quite irritated when they see that a vendor has renamed a brochure as a white paper. Some will be so disgusted they take that vendor off their shortlist.

Combine a brochure with a datasheet

A more useful approach is to combine a brochure with a datasheet.

You can devote the front and middle pages to the dreamy copy of the brochure, then use the back page to list all the technical specifications, modules or system requirements of the product.

This gives both some emotional appeal, and the factual details about the product, all in one document.

Do you even need brochures?

To my mind, it’s debatable whether printed brochures even count as “content.”

I’d call them more like “advertising.”

And if your budget is tight, you can probably eliminate them entirely.

I believe nearly all B2B vendors will get better results from investing in white papers and case studies.

At an event like a trade show, you can collect business cards in exchange for a well-executed white paper or some compelling case studies. These will likely generate more interest and credibility than yet another brochure or salesy webpage.

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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. […] Graham, G. (2017). White papers versus brochures | That White Paper Guy – Gordon Graham. Available at: […]

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