There are many types of marketing collateral that companies produce now days: web pages, datasheets, brochures, whitepapers, blogs, online videos, etc. Since customers are bombarded by information, most marketing collateral tends to be short, succinct and focused on “benefits”. Whitepapers are an exception to that rule, and therefore deserve some special attention. But first, what are they?whitepaper

As the name implies, whitepapers are mostly textual documents with a few key illustrations. They are normally 6-8 pages long, but you can occasionally find longer ones. Whitepapers can be a bit more technical in nature. They don’t necessarily need to get into the nitty-gritty details of the technology, but they can offer a sense of what the underlying architecture is.

Whitepapers can and should address a mixed audience: business buyers who wish to understand a bit more about the solution and technical buyers who wish to understand a bit more about the business value proposition. Most whitepapers are designed to answer the following key questions about a product/service offered by the company:

  • What is the need/problem addressed by this product/service?

Products or services are usually purchased in order to address a specific customer need. At times the business need is clear to the customer, but often it should be clearly articulated. The whitepaper goal is to “associate” the product/service with an important need the customer has.

  • What are the alternative solutions to this problem?

Customers prefer to have a choice when it comes to selecting a product or a service. A vendor can let the customer discover their choices by themselves, but it is far more effective to set the context for these alternatives yourself.

  • How does this product/service address the problem?

Most customers don’t like mysteries and prefer to know more about how your product/service operates. You don’t have to spell out confidential intellectual property; simply providing a high level description of the solution architecture will be sufficient to build customer confidence.

  • Why is it better than other available solutions?

As stated, buyers prefer to have choices. Needless to say, you prefer they choose your product or service. This is the right place to articulate why your alternative is better than the others.

A simple whitepaper “template” can help address the questions above: Start with an ‘introduction’ that describes overall market trends, then zoom- in to a specific problem/need your solution was designed to address. Follow with a list of alternatives used to address that problem/need today. Pay special attention to the “current way of doing things”, especially if the status quo is your main competitor… Next provide an overview of your product/service including a hint of its underlying architecture. Finally explain why your product/service addresses the need/problem better than any other alternative – and you’re done!

Well, writing a whitepaper sounds easy doesn’t it? To be honest, whitepapers do involve quite a lot of work and require a range of skills – both business and technical. To be effective, whitepapers must integrate several key business-technical elements:

  • Customer needs: the author must thoroughly understand the customer needs in order to describe them in the whitepaper. Those are the very same needs that came up during the gathering of product requirements. Once those needs are well understood, there is also the challenge of describing the key ones in a succinct and compelling manner.
  • Alternative solutions: the author must be reasonably familiar with the competitive land scape. Other solutions should have been thoroughly analyzed and their pros and cons well understood. Once the competitive positioning is understood, it must be articulated within the whitepaper.
  • Solution architecture: providing details about the solution requires knowledge of the product/service underlying architecture. All too often the actual technical architecture is far too complicated, and a simpler version must be synthesized and used in the whitepaper. This simpler version is often referred to as a ‘marketing architecture’, or “marketecture”.

So who should write a whitepaper? Ideally, the product manager should. After all, he or she has reasonable knowledge of the market, customers and the solution architecture. However not all product managers have the skills, or the time to develop the concepts and put them into fine writing.

One possible solution is to employ the services of a professional marketing writer. While this may work, it does depend on close cooperation with, and supervision by a product manager. The process should start with developing a detailed outline, which covers the key points the whitepaper must cover. The product manager and the writer should plan on having multiple sessions to discuss items listed on the outline. Investing up front in developing the detailed outline and discussing every item on it will save a lot of time and many review iterations later.

There is also the possibility of hiring a market analyst firm to create the whitepaper. This approach holds two main benefits: First, analysts should be familiar with the market, customer needs and other solutions in your space. You don’t need to spoon-feed them with information before they can start working on the whitepaper. Second, if assuming the analyst holds certain credibility in your market, then a whitepaper authored by them will carry more weight in the customer eyes. There are however two challenges with this approach. One has to do with budget – leading analyst firms will charge a hefty sum for producing a whitepaper. The other challenge has to do with the analysts’ wiliness to create a “biased” piece. Leading analysts firms protect their vendor neutrality and position themselves as objective advisors to customers. Creating a whitepaper that clearly favors your solutions may conflict with their neutrality.

Assuming you have a designated author for the whitepaper, then when should the work start? It depends on your “collateral philosophy”. Some marketing organizations focus on generating the basic collateral first – datasheets, brochures, web pages, etc. This approach is driven by the fact that these collateral pieces are a must, and therefore it is best to get them out first. The more complex task of creating a whitepaper is deferred to later. Other marketing organizations choose to start with a whitepaper. It forces the integration and assures consistency of the value proposition, solution description, and competitive positioning. Producing a cohesive whitepaper first makes the production of “basic” collateral a straight forward process.

Given the complexity and time involved in producing whitepapers, are they really worth the effort? Well, it depends. If selling your product or service involves multiple decision makers – some technically inclined and others business inclined – then a whitepaper will be worth its weight in gold. If on the other hand you are selling a consumer product, then investing in cool videos is probably a better choice.

In the business-to-business (B2B) space, where vendors sell products and services to other companies or organizations, whitepapers are a must. They are powerful sales tools that can help accelerate your sales process. In the business-to-consumer (B2C) space, where vendors sell to individual users, whitepapers can help, but certainly are not a necessity.