Thursday, September 17, 2009

In Defense of the Whitepaper

Some interesting debate on twitter yesterday, provoked by @GeorgeDearing who challenged:

when's the last time you read a whitepaper? That's my #dinosauroftheday

Now I fully admit to being a 'digital immigrant', but not only do I *read* white papers, I like to write them too.

Why not just blog the key points? Does anybody really want to download, print and read a 10-20 page sales pitch? Isn't there a better way to articulate non-sucky vendor messaging? The criticism is fair - but let's try to get to the root of the problem: most technology white papers are now salesy schlock. It's not the container, it's the content.

Here's where I see the value of a good white paper...

  • Complex ideas require more than 500 words. Product strategy, new approaches, shifts in market conditions that compel a rethink or addition to a vendor roadmap deserve full articulation.
  • A white paper is the vendor equivalent of showing their work - it can be the public explanation and rationale behind specific product capabilities, target markets, platform/architectural decisions.
  • Somebody needs to be able to tell a cohesive end to end story - if the big picture story (the "why") can be clearly articulated, odds are the vendor really gets what they're doing. Piecemeal topics scattered across a few blogs that have no apparent common theme, clarity of cohesion don't give me the confidence that there is a common shared purpose behind the roadmap.
  • Good white papers feed the content machine for weeks / months to come. Specific sections CAN be chopped up and tailored for a variety of other consumptions channels - blogs, tweets, short articles for online or print, bullet points for an in person or web-based seminar. So when an analyst, customer, or prospect thinks to themselves, wow, these guys really get it because the message all makes sense, you can thank the white paper that spawned the little content artifacts.
Showing mastery of some concepts *is* in fact an essay question. While readership may be lower for the 15 pg PDF compared to the 500 word blog post, let's not forget the value that compounds from having a rich extended understanding of a key theme.

If white papers are dinosaurs, it's because they've been hijacked by lame marketing hacks, not because our audience is too stupid to read past page 3. Blame the content, not the container.


  1. Hi Cheryl,

    Great post. The other issue with them I think is that so many vendors use them specifically for lead generation by requiring users to register to access them - and for an increasing number of users, registration is off-putting.

    I understand the desire to know who's accessing your stuff, but if you require registration you will discourage lots and lots of potential readers from seeing your grasp of the topic. Why on earth would you want to put that type of deep thinking behind a registration firewall?

  2. @Cheryl - agreed. As a writer of same, I can confess to having written some junky ones as well as ones that actually got read. It is about showing you really understand the problem you are solving, not repurposing a datasheet.

    @Jesse: That is a tactical decision and how it *used* to be done. Those that still do it don't understand the nature of information gathering these days. It shouldn't be a condemnation of white papers, it should be a condemnation of the dinosaurs who think that's how it should be done.