White Papers: B2B Email Marketing’s Best Friend

“Worried about keeping sales up in a down economy?” Then, “Get some free therapy. Get the Aberdeen white paper on using email to boost revenues. Click here.”

Irresistible, isn’t it? I bet you couldn’t stop yourself. The subject line in this message from e-Dialog (“keep sales up in a down economy”) is dead-on for almost any audience you’re targeting. Click on “Register now” and you go to a landing page where the solution, “free therapy,” is offered. It promises an awfully good read in the free white paper. And of course, “email” marketing is the magic bullet, isn’t it?

White papers, also known as guides or reports, may be your last, best chance to get the click-through you want in business-to-business (B2B) email marketing. That is, in B2B email marketing as it’s being practiced today — often text only, sometimes HTML, bells and whistles kept to a minimum. With next-generation rich-media email around the corner, that may change.

For now, a free white paper or guide is still a powerful B2B offer that can stimulate high click-through rates (CTRs), capture essential company and contact information, and result in successful lead generation. According to February 2001 stats compiled by eMarketer, white papers are the second most-consulted source of information by corporate end users. Employee phone directories are first; market analysis is No. 10.

It seems as if every credible B2B Web site has one, however. How do you make yours stand out? What are best practices in white papers? And where in heck does the term “white paper” come from?

Turns out that “white paper” may have several derivations. One is as an official British parliamentary report on an issue, delivered before legislative action is taken. (Thanks to eMarketer’s Jonathan Jackson for this tip.)

Another, from Jonathan Kantor, president of technical marketing services firm, The Appum Group, is as a World War II term for high-level, classified information. “The concept has changed dramatically in the past 30 years,” Kantor says. “It used to be a company’s deep, dark secrets. Today it’s often more of a marketing vehicle… The audience used to be IT and technical; now readers are expected to be business decision-makers who understand how the technology satisfies business needs.”

Despite being a serious fellow who can write about highly technical stuff, Kantor apparently has a good marketing sense as well as a sense of humor. An alternate URL for The Appum Group’s Web site is www.whitepapercompany.com.

And a “don’t follow this” example of a white paper, “The Impact of the Plow on the Mesopotamian Era” (it’s filled with jargon and acronyms), is downloadable from the site. Those of you who occasionally succumb to MBA-speak (i.e., business-school jargon) may find some of the subheads uncomfortably familiar.

With “what not to do” in mind, here are some best practices for developing a white paper as a B2B marketing offer.

It’s Not White

First, a white paper should not be just black and white. If you’re using it as a marketing tool to generate leads or to brand your company as a smart-thinking one, put as much care into the look and design as you would into a print ad.

In fact, think magazine layout. Use color both in text headings and in graphics; use diagrams and flow charts. Use pull-quotes (a selected sentence or two “pulled” from your copy and highlighted in a bigger font size).

Picture your white paper printed out and lying on a decision-maker’s desk. It should display your company’s logo and perhaps reinforce your Web site design. He or she may or may not get around to reading every word, but you will have succeeded, nonetheless, in delivering a substantive piece of product collateral.

Make It Readable, Please

Which brings us to our second guideline: Be mercifully brief (not more than 10 to 15 pages, says Kantor), and make it easy to read. In addition to using color and an eye-catching layout, deliver your key message points in bullets, and divide your copy into topics and subsections.

Most of your target audience will skim and never read every word. “It’s meant to be important, but also brief and a summary,” says Kantor.

Oh, did I forget to mention the title? Like an effective subject line in an email message, the title of your white paper should be a call to action or a teaser: “Find Out How to…” or “Top Five Mistakes…”

The Content

Here’s where it gets a bit trickier. You want to establish yourself as credible and as an expert, but you don’t want to promote your product or service too heavily. (Hint: Remember the WIIFM rule — “What’s in it for me?”)

Business users of the Internet are looking for information. They need and want information to do their jobs. Your challenge is to convey that you feel their pain — that you understand their business need.

Then, make sure the “solution” offered in your white paper is both broad and specific enough that the reader will learn something. A busy reader needs guidance to absorb new information. In an article on white papers, Kantor suggests that you include a background section on your industry and, at the end, a summary repeating all the key points.

Fulfill Your Business Objective

In a B2B campaign, your objective is usually to generate leads. As long as you capture the qualifying contact information you need, your white paper could be about almost anything. In fact, you don’t even have to write it. In a recent email marketing campaign, Accenture cleverly used a sample chapter from a new Harvard Business School Press book, “The Attention Economy,” as the free downloadable offer.


The convention is to offer your white paper in Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF). If the end user has the free version of Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on his or her computer, the file is easily downloadable and can be read anywhere, even on a personal digital assistant (PDA).

Easy, that is, unless your prospective reader encounters a problem downloading. You might consider including download instructions on your landing page. In any case, you should always direct your reader to the proper download page on Adobe’s site.

Another approach is to also include an HTML version of your white paper. A good example of combining the two is a white paper on Lyris’s site on the history of email list management.

Finally, in addition to using your white paper as an offer for an email marketing campaign, you should be promoting it from your Web site, from your sig file, from an offline print campaign, and in any other way that gets you the business results — qualified leads — you’re looking for.

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