Is this the end of the B2B whitepaper?
B2B copywriter David McGuire examines Salesforce’s claim that whitepapers are “no longer interesting”.
“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” What Mark Twain actually wrote
Ah, the trusty B2B whitepaper. Heavyweight champion of the mid-funnel consideration phase. Occasional gated lead magnet and the ebook’s brainier, less handsome twin.*
And now, according to Salesforce’s Senior VP of Global Brand Marketing, Colin Fleming, “no longer interesting”.
But is there any evidence to support the idea the pandemic has rendered the format ineffective? Given the work that goes into researching and writing a good whitepaper, it’s worth considering.
*My colleague, senior copywriter John Kerrison, once memorably described whitepapers and ebooks as the “Nick Nolte and Gary Busey” of B2B content, but that’s another story.
B2B marketers still trust the whitepaper
Usually, when a marketer publicly declares something is “dead” or “king”, it’s sensible to take the claim with a ladle of salt. Content marketing is a battle for attention, after all, and unfortunately a little exaggeration sometimes goes with the territory.
But when opinion comes from such a source – at a moment as potentially pivotal as the launch of a whole B2B streaming service – you have to take notice. So, I delved into the figures.
I started close to home. At Radix, we write content – including whitepapers – for around 60-80 B2B tech brands in any given year, which gives a reasonable spread across the industry. A quick, unscientific count showed whitepaper projects are actually up about 35% on pre-pandemic levels.
Casting the net wider, the Content Marketing Institute’s 11th annual B2B Content Marketing Report showed 47% of respondents – around one in two – use still whitepapers. That’s a lot of marketers.
However, it’s down on 2020’s figure of 59%, and a big change from 2019, when long-format content like whitepapers, ebooks and guides were voted by far the most effective content format in the consideration stage.
Clearly a lot of marketers still trust the format – but perhaps the way it’s used is changing.
Long content works. So where does the whitepaper fit?
Before we go on, it’s worth mentioning that I have no horse in this race. Or, at least, no preferred horse. Yes, as a B2B content writer, I work on a lot of whitepapers. But we also do blogs, ebooks, video scripts, ABM reports, you name it… there are more formats than ever. All that matters is finding the right one for the job.
Maybe that’s part of the answer: as B2B content formats proliferate, marketers have more options, so the whitepaper’s role becomes more clearly defined.
One thing that’s not an issue is that the format is too long. All the research we can see suggests longer content is more popular. For example, Orbit Media’s 2021 blogging survey shows the average word count for a blog post has risen by 57% since 2014 – from 808 words to 1,269.
That’s consistent with better results, too. Longer content tends to get better search rankings, more backlinks, more traffic, and more shares – showing readers appreciate the value a longer piece can deliver.
And there’s the rub. As blog posts and other formats get longer and go into more depth, where’s left for the whitepaper to go, to justify its existence – especially if it’s going to be gated as a lead magnet – except to become bigger still? More value. More detail.
When blog posts of 1,500 and even 2,000 words are commonplace, that means it takes a serious investment – in research, time, and effort – to make a whitepaper worthwhile.
Which could be why they’re being used a little more selectively.
Even post-pandemic, there’s a place for education
If – as Colin seems to suggest in his Q&A – the pandemic has seen B2B content rediscovering its emotional side, that’s something we can all applaud. B2B buyers are human beings first, and they’ll certainly engage more, and form better attachments to brands, when they find content moving.
And in that context, sure, whitepapers might not always be “interesting”.
But those buyers also have things to do. And – as far as I can tell from clients’ results – they still value clear, detailed information that helps them to do their job. And that’s where the whitepaper still has an important role in your content mix.
So, it’s the end for the whitepaper that’s a glorified sales pitch. And the one that sounds like a doctoral thesis. And definitely the one that’s packed with a stakeholder’s self-indulgent thoughts.
But the high-quality whitepaper, with:
- Clear language that helps your reader get the information quickly and easily
- Authoritative, valuable content with research, information, and value the reader can’t find elsewhere
- Enough technical detail to be genuinely useful – and help a specific, well-defined reader to do their job
…That kind of content will always have a place in B2B.
The bad whitepaper is dead. Long live the good whitepaper.
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