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The biggest joke in the marketing industry

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.

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  • http://www.collaboratemarketing.com James Cherkoff

    Care to offer some examples of good and bad?

  • http://www.sixtysecondview.com David Brain

    So we will not be seeing a white paper on the ‘Use of white papers in the PR industry’ from you then? Pity could have ben a good read.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/markvanderwolf/ Mark van der Wolf

    @James: I considered that, but I’m not exactly an objective observer here and as such not the person to start bashing/ praising specific clients/competitors.
    But it’s a widespread problem. Just visit the website of any big IT company (IBM, Microsoft, Oracle) and do a search for ‘white paper’.
    At least 90% of the results you gets are biased at best and lengthy product ads/manuals at worse. I can think of no reason why anyone would voluntarily read such a document and be happy about it.
    For good examples, look among the big analyst firms and consultancies – companies that have something to gain by appearing independent and knowledgeable. They too have a tendency to talk in jargon and clichés, but at least they’re not simply pitching a product.
    @David: now there’s a good idea. I might just do that to prove that we’re a big name agency ;-) .

  • http://www.collaboratemarketing.com James Cherkoff

    Shame ;-) Point taken though. Which begs the question: if white papers have had their day – what’s the modern, relevant equivalent?

  • http://www.writingwhitepapers.com/blog/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Mark;
    What an interesting way to try and sell your services.
    The good news is that white papers have not had their day. Rather they are shifting into a powerful tool.
    For example, a recent survey showed that 86 percent rated them as effective. See http://www.writingwhitepapers.com/blog/2006/08/29
    Mike

  • http://whitepapercompany.blogspot.com/ Jonathan Kantor

    Mark, I have to strongly disagree with your assessment given the positive statistics compiled by organizations such as eMarketer and Marketing Sherpa on the effectiveness of white papers.
    But I do understand your concerns because I also see far too many bad white papers. Many tout product names and solution advantages too early and too often in a paper, and come off sounding like glorified sales brochures. This combined with the other half that insist on having their IT professionals write their white papers, I think, has contributed to your current perceptions about the medium.
    But I think you are going to extremes to tar and feather the entire medium because of a few bad apples.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/markvanderwolf/ Mark van der Wolf

    @Mike: a surprising figure, to say the least. However, it’s probably fair to add that the source of that survey, TechTarget, isn’t exactly objective – being the self-styled “largest library of vendor-provided white papers on the Web.”
    But also in response to James’s remark: I don’t think that commercial white papers have had their day. I’m just saying that the greater majority of them fails to reach their intended audience.
    According to that same TechTarget survey, white papers are supposedly read most by decision makers – who, as we all know, are notoriously stretched for time.
    If you then consider that the really new and / or interesting information (if there is any at all) in commercial white papers can often be summarized on a single page or less… well, then you have to wonder whether an 10 page document is the right way to connect with these people.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/markvanderwolf/ Mark van der Wolf

    Didn’t mean to ignore you, Jonathan, but my last reply coincided with yours.
    I’ll readily admit that my view on the medium may be limited, as there obviously are market segments that LEWIS doesn’t cover.
    Still, I’ve seen dozens of product-oriented white papers, but seldomly one that managed to rise above the level of, ‘Our [insert product] is ideally suited to meet todays [insert target audience]‘s challenges.’
    So it’s definitely more than just a few bad apples. But who knows – maybe people like yourself and Mike will eventually be able to turn this around.

  • http://whitepapercompany.blogspot.com/ Jonathan Kantor

    Mark,
    I speak with Mike regularly, and I know we share a common goal of producing more coherent white papers in a business environment that sorely needs them.
    But there is still a lot of education that we have to do on a regular basis to change some existing mindsets about the medium.
    I'm glad we had this opportunity to have you see another perspective.

  • http://www.thatwhitepaperguy.com Gordon Graham

    Mark wrote about white papers: "At least 90% of the results you get are biased at best and lengthy product ads/manuals at worse."
    I have to agree: most white papers are really, really awful. But remember Sturgeon's Revelation: "90% of EVERYTHING is crud."
    I started writing white papers five years ago because I realized that most were very lame, and there were no industry standards for how to produce them.
    Since then, I believe people like Mike Stelzner, Jonathon Kantor, and (I'd like to think) myself have been raising the bar and producing white papers that actually say something useful to readers, and earn a decent ROI for vendors. It can be done.
    But any random sampling of white papers, especially those posted by reflex by the largest vendors, will still turn up loads of pompous and ineffective documents.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/markvanderwolf/ Mark van der Wolf

    What I'd be interested in hearing from you guys is if you see any value in product white papers. Because personally, I only think white papers are useful if they review a topic thoroughly and objectively (as far as that's possible).
    Product white papers, however, are by definition biased and as such basically elaborate sales pitches.
    If I were a manager, I wouldn't buy that. I would ask someone to get me a one page, bulletted-format summary. Which begs the question: why write these lengthy documents at all?