The Myth of the Two-Page White Paper

By Steve Hoffman

I am often asked to recommend an optimal length for a white paper. To answer this question, comparing white papers to other forms of business and technical communication provides some insights.

 

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White Papers vs. Other Business Documents

Engineering, sales & marketing, and corporate communications documents serve well-defined needs. For example, data sheets summarize product features and specifications for customers. Executive briefs provide promotional summaries for busy executives. Press releases announce specific events, releases, or other news (see Table 1). Each of these types of documents typically achieves its goals in about two pages of copy.

Table 1. Characteristics of Various Types of Business Documents

Domain Main Audience Tone Goals Examples
Engineering Customers Technical Product
education or
evaluation
  • Specifications
  • Data Sheets
  • User Guides
Sales and Marketing Prospects Promotional Brand building; increased sales revenue
  • Web copy
  • Product briefs
  • Executive briefs
  • Brochures
  • Blogs
Corporate Communications Employees, suppliers, investors, partners, analysts Promotional Promote the organization's reputation among stakeholders
  • Press releases
  • Newsletters
  • Annual reports
  • Intranets
  • Blogs

Conversely, white papers draw upon and synthesize a broad range of content from the domains shown in Table 1 as well as others—e.g., internal training documents, analyst reports, sales presentations, business plans, product descriptions, surveys, etc.—to achieve its desired effect. White papers effectively reach further up the value chain than the aforementioned documents in order to:

  • Demonstrate thought leadership for a particular issue

  • Thoroughly understand a given business issue or challenge

  • Analyze a marketplace

  • Describe best practices to meet challenges

  • Address the audience’s perspective, not merely the author’s perspective

  • Explain a product’s (or service’s) ability to solve a business or consumer challenge
     
    In pursuing these goals, white papers both transcend and distill individual elements from other forms of communication (see Figure 1). As a result, the audience, tone, and goals of white papers differ from those of other business documents (see Table 2).

Figure 1. White Papers Synthesize Information from Multiple Domains

 

WhitePaperMultipleDomains


Table 2. White Paper Characteristics

 

Domain Main Audience Tone Goals Examples
White Paper Customers, prospects, analysts, partners, others Objective, credible, informational, professional
  • Business issue education
  • Thought leadership
  • Marketplace analysis
  • Research aggregation
  • Best practice enumeration
  • Informational product description and relevance
  • Business white papers
  • Technical white papers
  • Hybrid (business/technical) white papers
  • Best practices white papers



The Optimal Length of a White Paper?

Achieving white paper goals can be a complex endeavor. While other forms of collateral can achieve their goals in a few pages, white papers’ ambitious purposes cannot ordinarily be realized in less than 8-10 pages. Conversely, longer white papers challenge the attention span of most readers. (In some cases, technical white papers require more content to effectively convey the needed information.)

Still, there is some disagreement in the marketplace as to the proper length of a white paper. For example, marketing communications company In Other Words states that “generally a good white paper is fairly short (two to six pages).”1 In a 2007 survey by WhitePaperSource Publishing, 17% of 600 white paper writers surveyed indicated that the length of their average white paper is 1-4 pages. This report also observed that “highly experienced writers tend to produce longer white papers.”2

Some people are convinced that a 4-page or even 2-page white paper, for example, is what they need. Although a document of this length may suffice for a sales brochure, press release, or an executive or product brief, space constraints render it unable to accomplish the objectives of a white paper.

A white paper succeeds to the extent that it offers a stimulating level of education, explanation, and discussion not present in abbreviated forms of collateral. In this context, the crucial distinction between the white paper and the brief, press release, or sales pitch is that the white paper aspires to more than ephemeral status. Advertising pioneer Clyde Hopkins wrote, “Advertisers do not expect a second reading.”3 However, like any informative research report or entertaining feature article, the optimal white paper is designed to be read more than once, and to remain on hand for future reference. Alas, the mythical two-page “white paper” may not receive many second readings, dooming its enduring value as a business document.


1. In Other Words, 2007. White papers FAQ.

2. White Paper Writer Industry Report, 2nd edition, 2007. Michael A. Stelzner.

3. Hopkins, Clyde. 1922. Scientific Advertising.


 

 

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About the Authors

  • Steve Hoffman is President and CEO of Hoffman Marketing Communications, a business and technology writing company specializing in strategic white papers, sales guides, and marketing collateral. Hoffman writers offer a unique combination of technical savvy, marketing skills, and writing talent to translate the most complex technologies into accessible prose that bolsters your sales and marketing efforts. Contact Steve at steve@hoffmanmarcom.com. Claim your Hoffman-authored free best practice articles on optimizing the effectiveness of case studies by visiting www.hoffmanmarcom.com


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