Cloudy With A Chance of White Papers

cloud softwareI remember when Salesforce launched at the turn of the century. Okay, it was the early 2000s, but saying “turn of the century” makes it sound a lot cooler.

A publishing business I was working for at the time adopted Salesforce as its new CRM. We had a really young MBA for a CEO and he was always willing to try new things.

Salesforce was one of the earliest SaaS success stories. I recall that switching to Salesforce from our old, custom-built database required a steep learning curve for many of the sales personnel. This was back in the day before clean, user-friendly, WYSIWYG-packed applications were the norm. Workers were not yet hard-wired to navigate a cloud interface.

Switching to a new CRM also likely involved a lengthy contract obligation and manually migrating information from our outdated system. At the time, I’ll bet our CEO read quite a few Salesforce white papers and technical backgrounders to determine if the CRM would be a good fit.

Now My Head Is In the Clouds

Fast forward to 2013.  How many new cloud-based services do you sign up for each month? How many free SaaS demos do you try? As an online marketer involved in SEO, paid advertising, and social media, I’d estimate that I create about five new accounts monthly. Last week alone, I signed up for Trello, Triberr, and a silly wedding planning app that shall remain nameless (I am getting hitched in a few months!)

The SaaS model is now ubiquitous. Anyone can demo a complex software solution in minutes for free and with very little risk.  User-friendly dashboards and universal design best practices make it quick and easy to learn how to use new software. In addition, many APIs play nicely with one another. This makes it easy for a Salesforce user to integrate other favorite tools like MailChimp or Google Apps.

So, let me get to the point and ask a few marketing questions:

Are traditional white papers still relevant marketing tools for selling SaaS products? Have free trials and monthly plans significantly lowered the risk of trying new cloud applications?  How have these changes impacted the B2B sales cycle?

White Papers vs. Ebooks and Numbered Lists

Gordon Graham, a.k.a. “That White Paper Guy,” recently authored “White Papers for Dummies,” a thorough guide to writing long form B2B content. In this book, Graham describes traditional white papers, such as technical backgrounders for CTOs or CIOs and Problem/Solution papers for executives. Along with these two white paper styles, Graham also recommends an ebook, or numbered list paper. This is a more informal document that reads like a magazine article or an extended blog post.

There are still many B2B situations where a white paper makes sense. However, I think that many SaaS providers today, especially smaller startups, may benefit from a numbered list or ebook more than a more traditional white paper.

Today you can demo a SaaS product, try it out for a month, and then cancel or sign up. In the digital marketing space, I see a ton of software startups with small teams and budgets selling services to other small and medium-sized organizations. In this space, the numbered list has several benefits:

      • User Friendly. Numbered lists are scannable and easy to read and contain actionable advice that will make the reader’s life easier. This will appeal to small business owners, who are pressed for time and always looking for ways to streamline and improve operations.
      • Engaging and Highly Sharable. The soft-sell approach of an ebook or numbered list advances the customers who are already in your sales pipeline. An ebook also works to attract new leads by addressing important industry questions or universal concerns. This is a big plus for startups who are trying to get their name out there and spread brand awareness.
      • A Softer Sell.  Unlike a white paper, an ebook is not an obvious sales tool.  This makes ebooks and numbered lists sharable and easy to promote on social media.  When you download a white paper, you know you’ll be getting a call from a sales person. A numbered list or ebook does not have that same “salesy” reputation (yet . . .).

What do you think about using ebooks and numbered list content in lieu of more formal white papers? Please share any thoughts or reactions in the comments below!

Photo credit: jojo nicdao

7 Responses to “Cloudy With A Chance of White Papers

  • Great points here. I agree that for some companies, an ebook makes more sense than a white paper.

    Part of it comes down to brand style and tone. I think of white papers as being very serious and button-down, heavy on research and citations. Ebooks, on the other hand, feel more casual. They can be fun and entertaining, as well as informative. (I never think of “fun” and “white paper” together.)

    I call a shorter ebook-like document a “special report.” It’s a term I heard frequently 10 years ago in the info product field, and it was used a lot by the likes of Joan Stewart and Marcia Yudkin. I don’t see it used much anymore, though, and I’m not sure that your average business owner would know what it means.

    Too bad, because it was kind of handy for making a distinction between a numbered list or extended blog post of 8 – 15 pages, and a meatier document that might more properly have the word “book” in it.

    • Britt Brouse
      6 years ago

      Thanks Jennifer for the thoughtful comment.

  • Thanks for the article Britt. Although I understand your idea here, it seems that the target for white papers vs. e-books is distinctly different. At least for me, when I think of an e-book, I’m thinking of 75-100 pages, as opposed to a white paper of 8-12 pages. Am I on the right track here with your point?

    • Britt Brouse
      6 years ago

      Thanks for chiming in. That is a good question. I have seen the longer ebooks you mention – but I have also seen companies go in the direction of a shorter 8-15 page ‘ebook’ that’s used for lead generation. I think it depends on who the reader is, where the reader is in the sale process, and also what kind of budget (time and money) the company has to invest in content creation.

    • I believe “e-books” are in the same early stage of evolution that white papers were about 10 years ago: no industry standards, no accepted definition of their size or scope, no codification of their contents, no nothing! By today, most marketers agree that a white paper is 5 to 12 pages long, mainly narrative text on a page in portrait format, and so on.

      But when we say “e-book” marketers think of anything from 6 to 100 pages, from mainly text to mainly pictures like an extended infographic, etc. There are no accepted conventions on what an e-book really is.

      I’ve heard e-books described as “white papers on steroids.” But I don’t this is a useful definition. An e-book is not necessarily any more muscular or powerful than a white paper. It all depends on the context.

      Perhaps in the next few years a more useful definition and some common conventions for e-books will become accepted.

  • I completely agree with you, Britt, the risk of trying new SaaS or mobile apps has been reduced to an all-time low. But that risk is multiplied across the number of employees a company needs to make the transition. For a 6-person startup to adopt a new app is no biggie. But for a 500-person enterprise, it often takes some planning.

    The larger the company, the more data to move to a new home, the more complex this type of decision becomes. I can see the need for white papers that focus on this aspect of the sale, i.e. how to transition smoothly from your existing system, how to convert data, how to train people, etc. And the need for a business case or cost-benefit analysis is never far from any bean-counter’s mind.

    I believe white papers are still essential for a complex sale, which is anything that takes a long time and costs a great deal. Whether that deal concerns a SaaS product or not is often beside the point.

    • Britt Brouse
      6 years ago

      Thanks Gordon for your expert insight here! I agree that company size has a lot to do with the decision-making process.

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