No one cares about your white paper

I probably shouldn’t even discuss the white paper marketing bubble, because periodically I write white papers for people and they subsequently pay me for them. (“A platform economy!”) But I also think we need to be a little bit honest about what’s going on here.

I know and understand the logic. You can ignore an ad. That’s getting more and more true as new generations arrive on the scene as buyers. But you can’t ignore a pain point being solved, and that’s the great promise of white paper marketing.

Theory goes like this: you sell widgets. The widgets are designed to solve Problem A. So if you write a white paper around Problem A — and kinda sorta maybe mention your widgets once or twice — then the right, interested people will download said white paper. Now you have email addresses, i.e. “leads.” This is the backbone of content marketing. You draw people in (i.e. inbound) as opposed to pushing messages out (i.e. ads, etc.)

This was cool for a while, but then a lot of people flooded the white paper marketing zone. It now feels as if every website you could possibly land on is offering you some type of white paper (or its cousin, the eBook).

This isn’t necessarily bad on face, because it means that in a variety of different industries, there are a lot of resources out there trying to solve pain points. That’s good! What’s bad is this: white paper marketing now has a major supply-demand problem. The supply is increasing (everyone is writing white papers) but the demand isn’t increasing. There’s only so much time in a day, and only so much time people want to be thinking about work.

“Download my white paper and it will solve ALL your problems,” a landing page screeches.

If the Widgets Industry above has 20 major companies, and 15 of them have a white paper now, that’s — well — 15 white papers for “decision-makers” that might buy from this industry to read. Those “decision-makers” have to fart around all day doing what they do, and then find time to read 15 white papers? Probably not happening. When there were 1–2 white papers in the vertical, the “strategy” made sense. Now, though, white paper marketing has become a bubble.

Will it pop soon?

Quickly: some other issues with white paper marketing

Issue 1 would be the targeting. Everyone and their mom thinks that their white paper will be read by buyer CEOs. Negative, Ghost Rider. The C-Suite does not care about your white paper. One of their lieutenants may read it and summarize it, sure.

Issue 2 is that a lot of white papers end up sounding the same. Why? Verticals/industries select similar topics, and the writers Google around those topics — but very infrequently leave the first two pages of results. Everyone thus says the same stuff packaged in slightly different ways. This can be prevented, of course, with original research. That happens sometimes in white papers, but should happen more.

Issue 3 is that just getting an email address is fairly passive in the modern economy. It’s almost like someone “liking” a post of yours. Really doesn’t mean much. So gating a white paper and thinking those emails that roll in are “hot leads” may be a certain degree of folly. It works for some, though. If it didn’t, would we be at the white paper marketing bubble?

Is this bubble going to pop?

Sure, eventually. I figure some of the “good” or “forward-thinking” marketing teams are onto new stuff now, like geo-fencing or augmented reality. The white paper marketing game may be in their rear view mirror.

Of course, there are other marketing teams just arrive on this scene. Marketing is a weird wave like that — you got 10 percent leading, 10 percent utterly lagging, and 80 percent in the middle kinda just copying whatever seems to work. That’s how white paper marketing got so big; everyone seemed to be doing it (“I need a landing page for my white paper, Gary!”), so other marketing teams just ape’d it. Remember: most marketing squads aren’t great, and a lot of marketing campaigns end up sucking. (Probably because the team over-focuses on the campaign instead of figuring out where the value is.)

So, yes, gradually we’ll see less white paper marketing. But it may take a hot second (or a few years).

The new face of marketing?

The cycle I described above will keep happening — some teams lead, some lag, everyone else copies. But I do wish that businesses would eventually embrace the impact of storytelling, instead of just racing to prove their ROI somehow. Brains resonate with stories. They want that. It cuts through a lot of the noise — and believe me, right now there is a lot of noise. I don’t think white paper marketing cuts through that, honestly. Legit stories — “origin stories!” — might.

What else would you add on white paper marketing and where it might head next?

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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