In our experience, the meaning of ‘Whitepaper’ is fairly fluid. We’ve certainly heard clients use it to mean different things. Broadly, it’s used to describe a piece of long-form content that takes a deep dive into a solution. HubSpot has a helpful definition:

“A whitepaper is a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution. Marketers create whitepapers to educate their audience about a particular issue, or explain and promote a particular methodology. They're advanced problem-solving guides.”

As a general rule, a whitepaper will be backed by considerable expertise, and will often include interviews with experts and an analysis of unique data. This in-depth analysis provides evidence to support the recommendation of a particular approach to a problem. A whitepaper, unlike a pillar page, will nearly always be ‘gated’ content – in other words, nobody can read it until they fill in a data capture form with their details.

Size matters...

Whitepapers can run anywhere between around 5,000 words and 20,000 words long, and the cost of producing one varies considerably, from £5,000 for the shortest and simplest to £18,000 for a whitepaper that runs to many thousands of words and requires extensive research to pull together.

E-books and whitepaper are often used interchangeably, but at ESM Inbound (and at many other inbound agencies), we take the view that an e-book is 2000-5000 words, and a Whitepaper is longer and has to include a number of key elements.

Often, this is quantitative or qualitative research (based on crowdsourced or academic data, or market research interviews and focus groups). This forms much of the ‘meat’ of a whitepaper. In the most high-end examples, this may even have been commissioned for the purpose of adding depth and substance to the whitepaper itself.

But even where this isn’t the case, commissioning a whitepaper is likely to take up a significant amount of your marketing budget, so its purpose and value to customers needs careful consideration.

...But it’s really what you do with it that counts

A solid marketing whitepaper should present any solutions or products it showcases as fully formed answers to the problems that the business’ target customers are already struggling with. However, I’ve been struck by the number of times I’ve come across marketing whitepapers that fail this basic test.

One particular example springs into mind that relates to an ed-tech client we worked with some years ago. They had an impenetrably long whitepaper on their site. The conversion rate on this was a paltry 1%.

In layman’s terms, this means that of every 100 people arriving at the landing page, only one of them opted to download the PDF. This had very little to do with the value of the information it contained. In fact, when we started to look at it, we saw that there was plenty of valuable content we could repurpose.

When we did this, pulling out a series of checklist-themed blog posts with the option of clicking through to download the full whitepaper, the conversion rate jumped to between 7 and 12%.

The reason the checklist format delivered was that it presented information customers already wanted in an accessible, user-friendly format. It did a job for them – it helped to simplify their life by providing solutions to problems they were faced with. It answered a question they already had.

When you stop to think about it, it makes sense that any client would need to be pretty convinced that your business can answer a burning question to be moved to set aside an hour to read a whitepaper. But when a business can ‘add value before you extract it,’ (an inbound mantra), conversions go up.

Make sure you have the tools to analyse the performance of your content so that you know what resonates with your audience. When you host a whitepaper on a platform such as WordPress, you simply won’t have access to the kind of analytics that reveal this information.

This is a huge missed opportunity and it’s a reason why using a platform such as HubSpot is so valuable: it dramatically increases the insight and visibility you have when it comes to the efficacy of your content.

Are whitepapers expensive?

We touched already on why whitepapers are a relatively expensive marketing tool. They start to look even more costly when you consider them in terms of the volume of leads you are likely to get. Because they are gated, you are already seriously compromising the audience reach.

What’s more, gated content won’t be picked up by Google, so however search-engine friendly (Google likes lengthy, well written content), it won’t get you any higher up the rankings when potential prospects Google the subject area your whitepaper covers. They won’t find it via inbound links either, as gated content is unappealing for other businesses to link to. All of this makes each customer more expensive to acquire.

However, it may be that you have a very specific customer persona in mind, or even a list of accounts that you are targeting, who you know will be looking for a whitepaper and would happily give you their contact details in exchange for one.

If this is the case, then of course a whitepaper is the right resource to invest your budget in. It all comes down to the ROI you need to see and the number of leads and customers it will take to achieve it.

Should I have a whitepaper on my website?

It’s worth asking yourself why you think a whitepaper is a worthwhile investment. Are you sure that a whitepaper is just what your ideal customers will be looking for? Or does it have more to do with ideas you hold around what will make you look ‘credible’ or ‘heavyweight’ as a brand or thought leader in your marketplace?

Switching your focus to think more about what the customer really wants and needs is far more likely to get results - whatever content format you use.