Gordon Graham is known as “The White Paper Guy” and with good reason. No one has more inside knowledge about writing successful white papers. In this exclusive interview, Gordon gives us a glimpse into what is to come and how B2B copywriters can benefit by offering white papers to their clients.
Q: One of the things I found particularly interesting in your discussion on white papers was your definition of white papers because I thought I’d never written a white paper. But then you explained that position papers, special reports, and other similar types of copy are types of white papers and I realized I had written something similar to a white paper before. Do you think that transition into writing white papers may not be as big a leap as some people think it is?
A: That’s true! They are really a long-form factual narrative, article, or report. So if you’ve done anything like that, it’s really similar.
Q: Those that haven’t heard your presentation may worry if there is enough demand for white paper writers. What is your perception of the demand?
A: In my book White Papers for Dummies, there is a table where I went through all of the SIC codes and looked at the number of companies that are more than five employees that are in the most traditional areas that use white papers. So they were equipment manufacturers, software companies, and other companies that make heavy gear such as electronics. Some professional services. All of them offering products or services that are new, complex, and expensive. I’m pretty sure I got over 400,000 companies in the U.S. alone. And there are over 600,000 companies in that category in the English-speaking world.
These are the prime candidates for using white papers. They may not all be using them now, but all of them would benefit from them. These are the prime sectors where white papers are in use. I put in the big consulting and accounting companies but didn’t include attorneys or other professional services that may use them too.
There is a vast market for white papers. People ask me if I’m creating my own competition by teaching copywriters how to write white papers. But for years, I’ve had more leads than I could possibly deal with. I’m not worried at all about the market drying up in the future.
I’d say just in general there’s an incredible untapped market for writing these things. And I don’t see any end in sight because a good effective white paper really helps people understand an issue, make a decision, or solve a problem. Business executives need to do that all day long.
They need to understand what’s going on in their market space, they need to understand what might help their company, and they need to understand what their competitors are doing. That’s not going to go away.
They need to solve problems in their business and make decisions about where to take their company, so a good solid white paper will help so much more than social media or some sales letter or some blog post. These are really meaty, fact-packed types of documents that people spend time with. They spend hours going over the information.
Q: It seems to fill a niche in the marketing world that nothing else does. Tweeting may have a benefit but it can’t do what a white paper does. It just doesn’t have the gravitas needed when making a multimillion-dollar decision. Is that what you see?
A: You’ve got it. A tweet is here and then gone in an instant. A blog post lasts a bit longer but you’re not likely to make a big decision about your company because you read a blog post. Social media is great for promoting white papers, but it’s not great for summing up any weighty knowledge. It’s more of a pointer to information than a provider of it.
Q: Are white papers so complex that copywriters need to specialize in them or is it something they can add on to their current offerings?
A: I think it’s hard to do the kind of sales-y copy stuff in the morning and then in the afternoon do more journalistic type stuff. I think it makes sense to focus on one or the other. But case studies, blogs, and white papers fit together nicely. Anything that is content-related is a good fit.
I don’t know anyone that does both types of copy — maybe Steve Slaunwhite — but generally, you have to focus on one or the other to be the best in either. I have a journalistic background so the content side, writing white papers, is a natural fit for me. I’m just not as good at sales copy. Plus, it’s just easier. The information is there — you don’t have to dig up stuff or be creative — all of the information is just there. And with Google, the research phase is easier and faster than ever.
Q: What do you see as the future of white papers? Do you see more multimedia including video?
A: There’s a chapter in my book titled “The Past, Present, and Future of White Papers” where I talk about three or four possible ways they could evolve. And they have already.
Initially, white papers were text only, very bland. No graphics and no design elements. Now they add pictures and diagrams and many are much more visual documents. I try to put at least one good graphic into each white paper now. I’ll maybe add some stock photos, some charts, and graphs. Those have a real place in these documents. There is more color and more branding. That’s happened in the 15 years I’ve been doing white papers. We’ve made them more visually appealing. They have to be in order to get people’s attention.
They’re PDF documents now, and are often downloaded or printed off to read later. But the thing that I’m pretty fascinated with is what you can do now with a PDF document. A PDF can contain animation, audio, and video by just plugging it into the PDF. I think that one likely way they will evolve is adding rich media within the container of a PDF, making the information livelier.
There are many ways that could happen. You could have an executive that gives a video introduction or executive summary. They could give a conclusion and invite the customer to take the next step in the journey. There could be little snippets of video case studies as a sidebar. These additions are not yet mainstream, but they are very possible to do. They don’t expand the file size much and most people don’t realize you can do it.
Most marketing people aren’t used to using that type of rich media yet. So when they say video, they think of something they would put on YouTube or something they would put on their website as a stand-alone piece, but white papers have the potential to consolidate that in a narrative format where everything is adding to the main message. I can see that happening anytime.
Another possibility is for these to evolve more like micro sites. And there are a few examples of those where the white paper or narrative is the core of the micro site, but it’s all delivered on the Web with video, graphics, and links to relevant pages. They are pretty interesting because they present a report that is built on a white paper but they provide video and other stuff that makes it a whole site that the prospect can visit.
Another possibility is for these to become more like apps. The prospect would have an app that is downloaded with built-in information including links and rich media. It’s less like a document and more like mobile access to information.
I don’t have a problem with any of that because the point is still to deliver a thoughtful, informative, and persuasive piece of knowledge to B2B prospects. Anyone who is good at writing print white papers will be able to shift and use other media.
We may not all need to become app developers or video masters. One of the most useful people in a video production is the writer. Often a director or producer will have all this footage and they need someone to put it together into a story with a beginning, middle, and end — and that’s writing. Generally, in a lot of video productions, the editor is a writer — he puts together all the raw footage and makes it a presentation. So those skills of storytelling and organizing information are going to continue to be absolutely in great demand. Why not build the basic structure and put those skills to use however it’s needed in any format?
Q: It sounds like there is plenty of opportunity going forward. And that now is a great time to start offering white papers so you can be ready to take advantage of the expansion as it happens.
A: I’m reading some books about how the Web is affecting some people’s minds and how we get information and it seems that some people are letting themselves be so interrupted that they are less able to focus. But there are times when a business person HAS to focus.
What focuses their attention is big gobs of money. If you have to make a decision about something that’s strategic for your company, you’re going to lock yourself away in your office for an hour, you’re going to think about it on your drive home, you’re going to block out everything — you have to block out everything and make a wise decision.
So maybe everybody is reading less or scanning more, but there comes a time when an effective executive has to focus. Maybe when today’s 20-somethings are older and in management roles, they will be less into reading and more into watching video or whatever. I guess I feel like work isn’t supposed to be play.
Some people say, “Oh, everything should be video” or “Everything should be mobile.” But big companies aren’t run by people who want to play all day long. Those companies are run by serious people who can focus. I’ve been there. I’ve met these people. I’ve been in meetings with these people and they don’t come in and say, “Hey, watch this video” or “Read this tweet” or “Read this blog.” They come in armed with tons of serious information. They talk seriously, they debate, and they weigh different courses of action because there are big gobs of money attached. Not everyone has been exposed to that world, but it’s there. Once you’ve seen that, there’s no debate about the value of white papers versus Twitter. Some people haven’t seen that, especially if they’ve only seen smaller companies. But once you get to be a bigger company, decisions aren’t made lightly and the decision makers rely on strong, informative content.
The stakes are just too high in business today. The content that white papers provide plays a key role in helping executives make good decisions. That’s never going away.
Q: Thanks so much, Gordon. You’ve given us an informative glimpse into the future!
A: You’re welcome. I hope this will encourage more B2B copywriters to offer white papers to their clients.