White papers that work

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Corporate white papers, marketers' documents of choice to capture C-level leads, are too often relegated to the “read someday” pile. Many are never downloaded in the first place because the targeted reader isn't yet ready to be anyone's sales lead. Want better results? Here are four ways to ensure that your white papers pull their marketing weight: 1. Tell a story. Everyone loves a strong narrative built on conflict, character and resolution. For business readers, a story weaves disparate trends, relevant facts and high-altitude insights into a dramatic arc. It makes sense out of a knotty or threatening situation, and it offers a clear path to safety. The best stories engage the reader emotionally, as they sees their fears, hopes and experiences validated: “Yes, this is my story. This company gets it.” Happily, this storytelling approach also produces a multiyear shelf life. 2. Make the goal learning, not buying. A white paper is far more an educational tool than a selling vehicle. In a few pages, you're trying to establish the long-term context within which decision-makers should think about the problem your product or service was created to solve. You want your reader to come away from the white paper thinking, “Wow, that's a useful way to frame the issue” rather than “This is just another product brochure in formal dress.” Once you've respected the reader's intelligence and provided educational substance, you've opened the door to vendor consideration. 3. Outsource it. However smart and articulate, your own people are too close to their product lines, to their company Kool-Aid and to their quarterly revenue targets. Unfortunately, they'll tend to refashion existing marketing materials into something that reads suspiciously like one of your Web pages. To the outside writer, staffers are key subject matter experts whose war stories and competitive positioning help shape the paper's story line. Plan to invest $5,000 to $10,000 for a compelling contracted paper, with time for research and interviews. 4. Set it free. The white paper lays the conceptual groundwork, validates customer issues and invites a client-specific conversation—but its impact comes early, at the information-gathering stage. One survey found that only one in 10 white paper readers was ready to buy; it's premature (and often counterproductive) to initiate a sales contact at this point. Remove the registration hurdle and allow the white paper to circulate freely: If it truly has educational merit and a story to tell, it will be forwarded to colleagues and build recognition and acceptance. Viral, “read this” referrals are ultimately more valuable to you than nailing a lead today. Daniel P. O'Brien, formerly a senior analyst at Forrester Research, specializes in strategic business writing. He can be reached at [email protected]
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