Last week, an article titled “The White Paper Is Not Dead” appeared in the Huffington Post. It was an interview with John Fox, founder of Venture Marketing, and it defended the use of white papers as an effective marketing technique. Indeed, so many articles have asked “are white papers dead” that it could seem like their usefulness has ended.
However, most of these articles conclude that white papers can be useful for generating leads and getting conversions when done right. But they fail to answer one glaring question: if your white paper is a long piece of content in PDF format, why not just call it an ebook?
How eBooks and White Papers Are The Same
While white papers existed long before the internet, they can often now be found as downloadable documents with multiple pages – just like an ebook. There are so many similarities between the two formats that it’s easy to see why they could be mistaken for one another. First of all, they’re both long-form and usually informational. They often cover topics that could not be adequately explained in a single blog post, and the text is usually organized into chapters or sections. They also usually contain images as opposed to strictly text. Both ebooks and white papers are tools often used by content marketers. Broadly defined, both formats are long, downloadable digital documents intended to educate the reader on a certain topic.
So why would people speculate on the death of white papers when they’re so similar to ebooks, which are alive and well? It’s all in the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences.
Difference #1: Purpose
eBooks – Generally speaking, the purpose of an ebook is to give a reader a broad, general overview of a topic. For example, Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to Link Building is an extremely popular ebook that answers questions tailored towards beginners such as, “what is link building?” The potential audience for such a topic is large, and the ebook itself doesn’t get crazy technical. In fact, near the end, it provides several other resources in which the reader can learn about more advanced techniques. Marketing-wise, ebooks can attract a lot of links simply due to their valuable information and shareability.
White Papers – White papers typically have a much smaller, targeted audience. They often tackle advanced issues or problems within a specific industry. Also, where an ebook doesn’t always advocate for a specific product or service, a white paper often describes how a certain product or service could be effective. For example, this white paper, titled “Drive Returns With Adaptive Content Promotion,” describes how content promotion tools like Taboola can be incredibly effective for getting traffic to your site. It’s not a sales pitch, but it definitely paints Taboola as a seriously powerful tool for monetization and conversions. Competitor company Outbrain is mentioned in passing one time.
Difference #2: Tone
eBooks – eBooks are often casual, conversational and friendly. The last two sentences of the first paragraph in the “Beginner’s Guide…” are: “There is a lot to take in, but we’ve broken everything up into easy-to-digest chapters and have included lots of examples along the way. We hope you enjoy The Beginner’s Guide to Link Building!”
White Papers – White papers are typically written with a much more authoritative and formal tone, like a textbook or an expert giving a lecture. The first sentence of “Drive Returns…” is: “Marketers’ large and growing investments in the creation of content that customers find valuable are now complemented by a number of paid tools that put that content in front of the right customers.” See the difference?
Difference #3: Data
eBooks – Because they generally provide a broad overview of a topic, ebooks don’t always have a ton of specific data related to case studies. The “Beginner’s Guide…” is backed up by several facts and figures (as a lot of good content is), but the numbers have a relatively low density when compared to the text as a whole.
White Papers – White papers are often filled with case studies, numbers and real-world data that backs up the use of whatever product or service is being touted.
Difference #4: Length
eBooks – An ebook can be anywhere from 10 to 100 pages. eBooks do not necessarily have a defined length and can end up being fairly long. The “Beginner’s Guide” has 89 pages.
White Papers – Because white papers were originally intended for busy executives, they’re typically very concise and to the point. A typical white paper falls somewhere in the range of four to eight pages. “Drive Returns…” is nine pages long with some supplemental information at the beginning and end.
Difference #5: Design
eBooks – eBooks are often filled with images, bulleted lists and relatively small chapters, making them easily scannable. The design does not necessarily have to be black text on a white background, either. The “Beginner’s Guide…” uses an off-white background and the image of “Link” from the Legend of Zelda video games throughout. Also, ebooks can be presented in either landscape or portrait.
White Papers – Again, think formal. White papers are usually quite text-heavy and not always long enough to be broken up into chapters. “Drive Returns…” does indeed have several bulleted lists, however. White papers are most often presented in portrait.
Content Is What Matters Most
In general, white papers can be more useful in B2B marketing while ebooks can be great for reaching out to consumers directly. In terms of content marketing, both can be great for earning some links. As usual, however, it’s the content itself that will make or break any document. White papers have only been thought of as “dead” because there has been such a glut of poorly-made ones in recent years. It’s important to make sure that these documents are always created with the reader in mind. If a reader doesn’t get anything out of an ebook or white paper, you can forget about using them for marketing. For example, readers will feel especially duped if you require them to enter their email address to get your valueless content.
Also, the differences between ebooks and white papers are not set in stone. Some ebooks might be shorter than certain white papers, and some white papers might have a more elaborate design. Indeed, John Fox lists “ebook” as being a synonym for “white paper.” If marketers keep using both approaches in the future, the distinction between them may continue to blur. Ultimately, the “rules” you break will be determined by the wants and needs of your audience.