White papers and video – it takes two to tango

Deirdre Doyle  2013-08-26

A new study states that white papers are declining as a content marketing format compared to video. This sweeping generalization has gotten some notice in social media, but completely misses the point. Both white papers and video have very important roles to play in the purchasing process because you need different formats to reach your customers.

When reading a newspaper article, a blog post or listening to the news, after a few paragraphs I invariably find myself asking the question, “where is this person coming from?” one which is often swiftly followed by “what are they trying to sell me?” In short, I don’t take things at face value – ever!

Answering these questions is, however, becoming harder. As we generate, re-generate, mash and re-use tons of content on a daily basis, just who to trust and what their agenda is, is difficult to assess.

In science, we use numbers. We research, we crunch and we come up with the magic number that tells us that the new approach we are trying to sell to our customers is infinitely better than some other way of doing things. And somehow we trust numbers. But just as we’ve been taught to read between the lines, we also need to read between the numbers, before you start telling your marketing manager that we should no longer be writing white papers, and instead we should be making movies.

If two wrongs don’t make a right, it follows that two truths don’t make a lie? Or do they? Take for example the 2013 B2B Content Marketing Report sponsored by Spice Works (among others). One of the five survey highlights states that “white papers are declining relative to interactive, easily digestible formats such as video” – a statement that has been cut and reposted all over the net.

“Your Honor, I object!” 

Looking inside the report, it states that white papers experienced the biggest drop in popularity, moving down from the number 2 spot in 2012 to number 6 today. And this is true, although the 2012 numbers combine the stats for white papers and ebooks, whereas these are separated in the most recent survey. If we look at video, it has risen from the number 7 spot last year to number 5 this year.

But there is absolutely no correlation between the two.

What the headlines fail to mention is that the 2013 survey rates white papers to be nearly 80 percent effective – incidentally the same as video. For the past three years the survey has ranked thought leadership, the backbone of which is made of white papers, number 2 in the goals of content marketing.

So before everyone starts losing their heads making movies instead of writing white papers, I ask you to think before you act. Think about your target audience. Who are they, what information are they looking for, how do they want it, where in the buying process are they today and where will they be tomorrow?

If you can answer all of these questions (and a few more) you’ve got the guts of your content strategy. And then it’s a simple task of filling it with content. Lots of content, lots and lots of content, reused, mashed and reshaped to fit what your customer wants from early on in the purchasing process, to later on when they are making budget decisions and again when it comes to buying more.

What customers want is the same content in all shapes and sizes, a short teaser video to awaken their curiosity, a white paper that presents the pros and cons of currently available solutions, a blog post that presents an expert’s point of view, a news article that answers a question your customers are currently asking, or a longer film that presents a CFO who has been sleeping better since his organization bought the right products.

UPDATED: In a brief comment on LinkedIn, Joe Pulizzi, Founder of Content Marketing Institute, said this ”…as far as our research shows on the B2B side, white papers are not declining…new research is coming out shortly so I’ll have to look. Yes, video is expanding at a faster rate, but I see both as key tools for marketers, not one or the other.”

Deirdre Doyle

Deirdre Doyle is a technical editor, white paper editor and writer specializing in making technical concepts accessible. Deirdre has had a career in research in Paris, France, and has worked with internal and external communication for nearly 15 years in France, Ireland and Sweden.

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