They’re boring. They’re useless. They’re so full of crap that hardly anyone cares to open them, let alone read them. And yet many a Fortune 500 company pays big bucks to have them made. I’m of course talking about the biggest joke in the marketing industry: commercial white papers.
The formula is simple: you start by describing a problem (real or not) in a certain marketplace, preferably using lots of cliché buzzwords like TCO, efficiency and compliance. Then you gibber a bit about challenges and developments without ever really coming to the point.
After that, if you’re feeling really creative, you can present a ‘methodology’ for handling these challenges, which should be common sense written down in too many words. In fact, it doesn’t even have to make sense; if you use enough words, nobody will read it anyway. You conclude by writing another two or three pages of jargon that essentially say, ‘buy our product’.
The result: a 5,000 word, full-text product ad. To prevent any embarrassment to your company, you make sure that nobody accidentally reads it by hiding it in a dusty corner of your website as a PDF download. Mission accomplished. Now you can tell everybody that you’re doing white papers, which clearly shows that you’re hugely successful and a thought leader. After all, who else can afford to waste money on these things?
And, as a bonus, you get a perfect tool for scaring away nosy journalists and PR people who come asking you for input. Show them a couple of your white papers, and they’ll never bother you again.
Commercial white papers are without a doubt the most inaccessible, incomprehensible and ineffective form of advertising ever conceived by mankind. When asked how to market a product, no marketing professional in his right mind is going to say, “Let’s wrap our ad in 10+ pages of jargon and clichés and hope our customers won’t spot the bias!”
Sadly enough, commercial white papers have become to big-name companies what designer clothes are to popular teenagers: you’ve got to have them if you want to be one of them. This persistent tendency to deliberately do stupid things just because everybody else does them is one of the great tragedies of the human race.
If an alien spaceship passes by our planet today, and the helmsman asks whether to go down and take a look, I can imagine the captain answering: “Nah, they’re still doing commercial white papers. Let’s check back in another couple of centuries.”
That being said, I must consider that LEWIS offers white paper writing as a service, and that I’m personally involved with that. Ergo, I should add that it’s in fact possible to write useful, interesting commercial white papers – but only in two cases (and yes, this is common sense written down):
- You have a really innovative idea to explain;
- You really intend to offer comprehensive and objective insight into a particular topic.
If not, then don’t. Please. I beg you, on behalf of all journalists and PR professionals in the world.