White papers v ebooks: what are they, who are they for, and which do you need?

It’s the clash of the mid-funnel heavyweights – but which format wins? John compares the two content marketing titans, and tells you when and how you might want to use each one.

A mug with the word with Hustle on it.

Whether it’s Ali vs Frasier or Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, it seems we have a societal obsession with pitching heavyweights against each other to see who comes out on top.

The purpose of this blog is to compare two of content marketing’s “big hitters” – white papers and ebooks – to see where their different strengths lie and what sets them apart.

Hopefully this will act as a helpful guide you can use to decide what kind of content you want to create. Although there’s also a chance I might lose focus and veer off with some bizarre analogy in just two paragraphs’ time.

Why all the confusion?

Back in my content writing “salad days”, I didn’t really see a real distinction between an ebook and white paper. Both just seemed like long and daunting assets I might soon get asked to create.

To me they were a bit like the content version of Nick Nolte and Gary Busey: I knew without doubt that they were entirely different things, but couldn’t figure out exactly what the differences were—or if in fact they were dissimilar enough for the industry to really need both.

"ebooks and white papers are the Nick Nolte and Gary Busey of content” – John Kerrison, as overlaid over a coffee and snacks.

Our Twitter interactions with other copywriters tell me I wasn’t alone in this confusion.

Of course, looking back, I was wrong. Nick Nolte actually has a pretty decent back catalogue if you squint, and it turned out the only reason I so often confused the two is this arrest photo of Nick where he looks like he’s playing the lead role in a Gary Busey biopic.

(I did warn you there was a tenuous analogy coming.)

The point I’m trying to make – obviously – is that despite initial impressions, white papers and ebooks are very different. Here are three reasons why.

1. Appearance

White papers and ebooks are both pretty lengthy pieces of content, but that’s really where the similarities end.

One of the big differences is that an ebook is more likely to try and hold your attention with bold design choices like illustrations, graphics, embedded videos and charts to make its content easier to scan and digest.

The assumption is, if you’re reading a white paper you’ve willingly sought out some in-depth detail. An ebook on the other hand is trying to introduce a subject to you, and may use these extra touches to keep your attention.

In my mind, to make the distinction, I always imagine the two pieces as a comedy odd-couple. The ebook being a young, trendy teenager, obsessed with design and new-media, and the white paper being the stuffy older brother in a button-down shirt carrying a handful of spreadsheets.

[Editor: wait, you mean like this?]

Okay, that’s a little unfair—unless you happen to like stuffy older brothers—but a white paper is absolutely more likely to have long chunks of text, and in-depth explanations and statistics than it is an embedded video or image.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. It really depends who you’re trying to target and what you want to say. Ultimately, it all comes down to the different roles the pieces play…

2. Funnel Stage and Purpose

One of the reasons I described the ebook as the younger brother is because is because it’s almost always used earlier in the marketing funnel. It’s largely used to present an idea, issue or trend whereas a whitepaper will drill down into that subject and find the detail and finer points within it.

For a closer look at these differences, you can explore our recent Radix B2B Copychat in full. (These, by the way, are led by the @radixcom Twitter account and take place on the first Tuesday of every month, and you can find more info on the latest one here, if you’ll excuse the cheeky plug.)

Audience

Part of the reason for these different levels of detail are that the pieces are intended for different audiences.

There are no hard and fast rules around this, but maybe a hypothetical example will help:

Imagine you’re an IT services provider trying to persuade companies to adopt your SaaS offering. There are two routes you could take here: you could aim for the upper levels of the organization and try and outline the business benefits of Software-as-a-Service.

To do this, you might send the CEO an eBook talking about the cost savings and innovative capabilities this IT model can deliver. Right here you want to hit the top-level benefits, have pull stats jumping out of the page, and elements that sell the perks of the solution even when skim-read.

Your other approach might be to target the head of IT.

Now, it’s likely that someone in this position will already be aware of SaaS, so here you may send a whitepaper detailing the technical specifics of how your particular solution works in practice.

This would include details around what migration would require, how moving to the cloud may affect the way the department is run in future, and other details a technically-focused CTO would understand and care about above business benefits. It’s also likely to contain facts and stats about other organizations using similar services, based on research studies and surveys.

Essentially, a whitepaper provides the experts’ view of a specific subject for people who need that level of detail. An eBook on the other hand is designed to whet the audience’s appetite and encourage them to learn more.

And which one wins? Let’s call it a draw.

Still not sure which would be best for you? Need to know more? Want to commission us to write some terrifying ebook/white paper hybrid? Get in touch with a member of the team, and we’ll be glad to have a chat.


Header image adapted from a photo by Garrhet Sampson on Unsplash.


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