White papers and ebooks are a staple in every B2B content marketer’s repertoire. And although the two formats serve slightly different purposes, the terms are often used interchangeably. Our senior writer John Kerrison memorably dubbed them “the content version of Nick Nolte and Gary Busey” – distinctly different, yet often confused.
(If you want to find out more about these formats, we’ve written a few pieces about their differences, how to write them, and where they should fit in your content marketing strategy.)
But with a host of new content formats emerging – from new PDF alternatives like Turtl to longer, more interactive blog posts – the role of ebooks and white papers are changing. Although still strong, they’re possibly not the catch-all choice they once were. And that has implications for content creators.
So, as part of our B2B Content Tuesdays webinar series, David shared his top tips for writing white papers and ebooks for today’s readers – highlighting what they expect, how to deliver it, and a few critical questions to ask yourself before you publish. Then he answered some popular questions on ebook and white paper writing.
You can watch the session in full at the bottom of this page, or read this summary…
A modern ebook, for a modern age
Once the prettiest sibling of the long content formats, the ebook is changing somewhat as new formats emerge. Attention is harder to come by – so to lock your readers in, you need to demonstrate clear value, right away.
The title and subheader will do a lot of that heavy lifting. If you introduce the value right from the off, it’s more likely the right reader will engage. They can see exactly what they will get from the resource, so will be happier to spend their precious time reading it.
The introduction is also a crucial time to build rapport with your reader. As formats become more interactive and engaging, there’s no room for stuffy writing (not that there ever was). Instead, stick to snappy, clear copy, which shows you understand their challenges and clearly sets out how they will benefit from investing their time.
As you continue, don’t make your sections daunting. Instead, move quickly through sections of around 300 words, perhaps across two pages, leaving room for the designer to implement boxouts, quotes and even videos.
Every section should be easily scannable and follow a linear story. After all, your reader may not have the time to commit to fully reading it. With clear sections – and headers that provide summaries and interpretations of the contents – even the quickest of flick-throughs can be valuable.
And if you can, think of each section as a story in its own right, which can be atomised into smaller content pieces. A big ebook, for example, could be the foundation for three or four spinoff promotional blogs. And rich media can be linked in and out – spreading across the internet a whole lot faster than a denser block of ebook copy.
The new rules of writing white papers
White papers have never been a format known for bold design choices, so they haven’t changed as significantly with the rise of new content formats. However, as content marketing has become increasingly popular, there’s a deluge of white papers out there now – many of them gated, and many not delivering value.
This combination has created a lack of trust for many readers. After all, no-one wants to sit down to read an in-depth piece, only to find it’s just repurposed desk research, or purely focused on selling them something.
So, you need to make it clear what your reader will learn from your white paper: the problem it will solve, and how it will help them to do that. Start by being clear and upfront, addressing a specific person, and their particular real-world challenge.
Then, make the information you’re offering easily accessible. Traditionally, white papers include plenty of statistics, advice and information, but this needs to be easy to get to – not hidden halfway down a paragraph. Once again, using informative, clear subheaders is vital, summarising rather than describing the content.
However, not all traditions are helpful. Where white papers are typically written in a very formal, academic way, this can turn your readers off. Although you may be writing about complicated technical specifics, there’s no reason for your writing to be overly complex.
Using the technical jargon of your reader – their language, if you like – is important, but using simple sentence structure, preferring the active voice, and avoiding buzzwords will make your content infinitely more enjoyable to read, and that’s never a bad thing. We’ve even written a whole blog about it.
And finally, three key questions to ask yourself:
What does my reader need?
Think about your reader. What do they need? What challenges are they facing? Are you being targeted and realistic about who your audience is? Will they have the time?
Is this the right format?
Take the time to consider your options. Will this be printed, or viewed online? Are you able to break down the information into scannable pieces? Can it be atomised into smaller chunks?
Am I providing value?
Make sure you’re producing something genuinely helpful, that delivers results. Can they find this out anywhere else? Do you need more research or subject matter expertise? What sections are most important – and what do you need to measure? Is it readable? Has it been reviewed thoroughly?
Your ebook and white paper questions answered
Q: How do I measure the success of my white paper or ebook?
David: “As a writer, finding out how successful your copy is can be a challenge. At that stage of the funnel, a lot of what we hear from clients is anecdotal. They’ll mention when the leads start coming through, or the white paper starts to play an active role in the sales process, as a conversation starter.
“There are likely plenty of other ways to measure how successful your work is though. If you have any suggestions, tweet us at @Radixcom – and be sure to use the #b2btuesdays hashtag.”
Q: How important is it that readers read the whole white paper?
David: “Let’s be brutally honest: even for a professional white paper writer, you’re unlikely to get people to read every word. But, from a writer’s perspective, being realistic about that fact is a really important part of the process, and a guide to how you should structure the piece.
“For example, because most readers will just skim through, your headers should help deliver the message. Subheadings shouldn’t just say ‘Conclusions’ or ‘Objectives’ – they should actually summarise the information.
“Then, your reader can get through the logical narrative quickly. Even without reading all the text, they can still find the resource valuable. You’re telling the story in the headers, then the dense stuff that makes up the content really acts as supporting information for each stage of the story.”
Q: Can you recommend any other platforms similar to Turtl?
David: “Turtl has been a real eye-opener. We used it ourselves for the Barriers to Great B2B Content survey we created earlier this year, and it was great – the process was really easy. I definitely recommend looking into it if your budget will allow it. And they’re lovely, helpful people.
“As for other platforms, SlideShare can still be useful. Embedding them on LinkedIn – portrait rather than landscape – can give your readers something to flick through with a clear narrative story.
“Velocity Partners have a content format called Velocity String, which I believe is HTML5. Again, it shows the importance of giving the reader a chance to navigate interactively through the story, and get the data about what they do.”
Thanks again to everyone who attended the webinar, and took part in the Q&A. You can watch the full discussion here:
And if that doesn’t fully sate your needs, there’s more. We’ve created a playlist of all our B2B Content Tuesdays webinar recordings on YouTube.