Is a White Paper the Best Solution?

Part Two: It depends on your audience


It seems like white papers are everyone where these days, with some better than others in delivering the desired marketing or sales results.  But is a white paper the right medium for your message?


If you’re trying to promote a concept or solution in the technology industry, the answer is clearly “Yes.”


In fact, white papers on technology subjects have become de rigueur in the industry, proliferating to the point that there are now entire Web sites devoted solely to the cataloging and archiving of technology white papers ( and, for example). The interest in technology white papers persists – and their value is clearly documented.


In the two year period from 2002-2004, for example, more than 3.5 million white papers were downloaded by IT and business executives from CNET Networks’ sites, according to  who partnered with CNET to study the value of white papers.  In that same year, a Bitpipe/Forbes study of White Paper Readership and Usage reported that 68% of white paper readers had contacted a vendor for more information as the result of reading a white paper. That’s a remarkable statistic.


But what about white papers on investing and finance topics?  Do they get the attention they deserve?

This time the answer is “Maybe”. 


If the audience is advisors or institutional investors then the white paper is more likely to be read.  If it’s individual investors or plan participants, the chances of their reading your white paper is slim (to none). 


Financial advisors are an appropriate audience for investment –related white papers because they are increasingly called on to interpret investment analysis and information for their clients.  In such cases, the in-depth nature of a white paper can give them the critical background they need.


“The best audience for white papers is investment advisors,” says communications expert Richard Ketchen“If a company can provide information that helps investment advisors build their business and add value for their clients, then it will be read. And they’ll build a long-term relationship.”


That conclusion also suggests that writers, editors, and business and financial journalists are good white paper audiences too, since they also typically repackage the cogent points into a more consumer-friendly form.


But, typically, the audience for an investing white paper is not the individual investor. Unless the retail investor is of a more analytical bent, there’s usually too much technical detail in a typical investment-related white paper to really engage him or her.  Says Ketchen, “Investing and financial planning isn’t straightforward. And most people recognize that. So they seek advice from a trusted source. And that’s usually a person, not a white paper.”


So here’s my thought.  When marketing clients tell me that they desperately “need a white paper” for a retail investor, what they may really need instead is content that combines the educational and informational elements of a white paper — and the compelling arguments that it usually makes for a particular course of action — with messages that create a sense of urgency and offer next steps.  It’s a hybrid of a white paper and a good, not overly promotional, marketing brochure that’s called for here. A helpful “guide” rather than a white paper.  A magazine “feature story” rather than a longer report.


On the other hand, if they do need a real white paper to engage advisors, institutional investors, or the media, they’ll want to make it as compelling as possible.  That’s the subject of the next and final installment in this three-part exploration of white papers as a marketing solution.


Next Up: Part Three — Ideas (and links) for building better white papers.

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