Let’s Not Kill B2B Whitepapers Just Yet

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A couple weeks ago, my friend Kirk Williams wrote a thought-provoking post on the Wordstream blog called Can We Please Kill the Whitepaper in B2B PPC?. When I saw the title, my hackles went up. I started to think: “Kirk, how could you?”, because Kirk is one of my favorite people in PPC.

As I read the post, I found myself agreeing with him. What he’s really saying is we need to kill bad whitepapers in PPC. Bad whitepapers, according to Kirk, are “all too often nothing more than repurposed sales material.”

I agree.

The whole reason for using B2B whitepapers in PPC is to generate awareness and consideration for your product or service. B2B whitepapers are often used in the early stages of the buying cycle, when users are in research mode. No one wants to be sold to when they’re trying to do research. We all know how annoying it is when we’re trying to browse for a new appliance, car, or other considered purchase and some salesperson pounces on us with a hard sell. We don’t like it. Neither do B2B prospects. Repurposed sales material posing as a whitepaper is not helpful and should definitely die.

But good B2B whitepapers are a great fit for PPC. Our clients have created whitepapers offering opinions on news in their industry, checklists for businesses to consider when making a purchase, overviews of how to use their product, and many other valuable topics. The key is to create whitepapers that answer questions the prospect may have as they’re doing research.

Let’s look at an example. Say you’re doing in-house PPC, and your campaigns have grown to the point that you’re thinking about bid management software. This is not an inexpensive purchase, and there are many technical aspects to consider. You probably have 100 questions about what bid management software does and how it can work for your business.

Do you want to read sales brochures at this point? Of course not. You want to read case studies and information on how bid management software has helped businesses like yours.

That’s where the whitepaper comes in. A good whitepaper on bid management will explain what it is, what it can and cannot do, and how businesses can benefit. It will not be a sales brochure.

In his article, Kirk listed several alternatives to the whitepaper. They’re all great. We’ve found, though, that in situations where the user is early in the research process, free trials and discounts are too far from where the buyer is in his or her journey. Buyers at the early stages need something informative that doesn’t feel like a big commitment. Good whitepapers are just the thing.

Should bad B2B whitepapers die? Absolutely. Should all B2B whitepapers die? Of course not! Whitepapers are useful tools that belong in every B2B marketer’s arsenal. And I think that’s exactly what Kirk was saying in his article.

What do you think? Are whitepapers helpful to you as a B2B marketer or B2B buyer? Or should they be killed off? Share in the comments!

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  1. Great post Mel and Kirk. What we find is that businesses rarely connect their marketing assets with the appropriate stage of their customer journeys. We like to take them through a process that charts out a simple awareness, interest, engage and conversion funnel, align the appropriate root intent keywords for each, then assign marketing assets like the Whitepaper (including whitepapers customized for the stage) to each stage.

    Like you said what sense does it make to present deep technical information to a prospect who visited your website through a general PPC term (Awareness stage)?

    A simple spreadsheet like this can help you align marketing assets accordingly, identify gaps in your assets and can be used as a guide to share with your content writers for web, print or other.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Couldn’t agree more, Jerry. It takes time to set up a buyer journey and align keywords and content to it, but it will absolutely pay off in dividends in results. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Great post, as always!

    Agree with you and Kirk about stopping the madness that are terrible whitepapers. I think, unfortunately, that whitepapers fell victim to the inevitable over saturation issues that web marketing techniques eventually suffer from – think guest blogging, article marketing, etc.

    Beyond a re-branding of the concept (and maybe a new term for non crappy, actually useful information documents) we need to help our clients continue to fight their “we need” instincts and instead focus on “they (customers) need” priorities. By doing that, the end product is automatically better.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Focusing on customer needs is key. Too many advertisers don’t understand the buyer journey and the purpose of the content they’re creating – they’re just thinking “we need leads.” Kudos to you for helping them understand this!

    • I think the “rebranding” of the concept has already arrived in the form of “ebooks”! Unfortunately, those… like anything else… are hit or miss as well.

  3. Based on my 3 decades of B2B tech marketing, I agree with your theme but differ on the details:

    (1) A good B2B sales brochure will NOT just talk about product features, contain screenshots, carry pricing and goad the customer to buy, buy, buy. That happens in a sales proposal, which comes later.

    (2) A good sales brochure is very close to what you call a good whitepaper viz. it will explain what a product “…is, what it can and cannot do, and how businesses can benefit” from it, etc.

    (3) In stating “your campaigns have grown to the point that you’re thinking about bid management software”, you’ve missed a very important step in between, namely decide on the best option to solve the business pain area. At this stage in the purchase cycle, a bid management software is NOT the only option available to the customer. Some of the other options to manage a growing campaign are increase the campaign team size, outsource the campaign altogether, etc. The step taken by the customer is to research all the potential options and decide on one.
    (4) In the good old days, customers used to call sales people from different companies and perform this step together with them. In the new age of Buyer 2.0, customers tend to complete this step without calling sales. Therefore, the need for canned content.
    (5) We can call this piece of content by any name. Some companies call it white paper. But to avoid confusion, let me call it SuperwhitePaper, which will help the customer execute this step in a way that’s beneficial to the vendor of bid management software i.e. ensures customer stays away from the “outsource campaign” option. It will outline all available options, bid management software being only one of them, discuss their pros and cons reasonably objectively and deftly steer the customer to choose the option in which the vendor has a vested interest e.g. bid management software.

    This is more than a matter of semantics. There are bigger issues at play here:

    (1) How many vendors are capable of generating this type of content? This separates the winners from the laggards.

    (2) Are PPC platforms geared up to handling distribution of this type of content? I’m referring to Quality Score, compatibility between PPC ad copy, keywords and landing page content.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Thanks for your comment. I think you missed the point of my bid management example, which was just that – an example. I wasn’t making the case for or against bid management, it was just an example my audience can relate to. 🙂

      Agree with you on good sales brochures. I think what it comes down to is valuable content vs. garbage content. The goal is to create valuable content that isn’t too pushy. That goes for vendor websites, too, now that I think about it. The obnoxious popups telling me that I’m an idiot for not subscribing or whatever have jumped the shark.

      • No, I don’t think I’ve missed your point. I’ve indeed considered Bid Management System as only an example.

        Let me use a generic framework of restating my point so that there’s no confusion about what I’ve tried to say:

        Customer has a pain area PA. There are three different options for solving it, say, P1, P2 and P3. Our vendor does P1. According to your blog post, a good whitepaper should cover what product can do, can’t do, business benefits, etc., but ONLY regarding P1. My point is:

        (1) It’s too early to talk about P1 alone at this stage – in howsoever salesy or unsalesy manner. Such content won’t resonate at this stage of the customer journey.

        (2) Good content at this stage – SuperwhitePaper – should describe P1, P2 and P3. And, once vendor develops credibility with customer, content should deftly steer customer towards P1.

  4. (1) I’m glad you don’t hate me.
    (2) I’m glad you caught the true tone of my post.
    (3) I’m glad you wrote this, as it helped me better reflect on early funnel offers.


  1. […] Let’s Not Kill B2B Whitepapers Just Yet: The world of B2B advertising can be difficult. No one buys multi-million dollar software solutions online. So what’s the next step? Check out this post, a response to a previous article, about the uses of whitepapers and how they need to be used. […]

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