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When is a white paper not a white paper?

Posted by Sanjay Dove on 31st October 2016

Marketers do love to come up with fancy names for mundane stuff — and sometimes it annoys the hell out of me. Let me explain. What do you see below?


If you said anything that involves the word ‘toothbrush’, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Go back to branding school. It is, in fact, Oral B’s ‘Oxyjet Oral Irrigator’. Can you imagine the board meeting Oral B had when coming up with that name? “I know! Let’s call it a toothbrush” said some keen young executive. “Don’t be ridiculous Bob — that kind of chat will get you nowhere in life” said the senior brand name director.

But of course, you can’t just say what you see — otherwise you’ll only ever be successful on Catchphrase. You have to sell it. Which would explain why it took me virtually a whole week in my first ever marketing internship many moons ago to figure out what on earth my boss was talking about when he mentioned a social media ‘deck’.

Was he referring to a deck of cards? Was he a magician in his spare time? No, of course he actually meant a PowerPoint presentation. But you can’t say ‘PowerPoint presentation’ because that sounds dull. ‘Deck’ is way better, right?

The good thing with that debacle, though, was that once I realised that ‘deck’ equals ‘PowerPoint presentation’, we were all on the same page. A PowerPoint presentation is a PowerPoint presentation — no matter which way you spin it.

However, there are other terms that I’ve learned during my short working life that are much less clear. I’m thinking specifically of the term ‘white paper’, which can mean different things to different marketers depending on your experience and way of thinking.

Most marketers agree on the definition — a “persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution” (Hubspot). The key words in that definition, for me, are the adjectives: persuasive, authoritative and in-depth. So when does a white paper tend to take a detour from this definition? For me, that happens in three key ways:

1. When it mentions the company name anywhere but the last page

While the aim of any white paper is to nudge a customer along their journey to find a solution to their problem, white papers need to do so with an air of subtlety, balance and intellectual nous. However, marketers are always tempted to shout “ME ME ME” throughout the paper because (crudely speaking) that’s every marketer’s job. But mentioning how great your solutions are before the end of the paper immediately screams “sales brochure” and automatically loses any credibility as a white paper (in my mind anyway…).

Save all the sales brochure stuff for later in the customer journey. The job of a white paper is to give the reader a ‘balanced’ view of the problem as it stands, and position you as a knowledgeable and credible company. In the very last section of the paper, you can then say “hey presto, we offer those solutions!” Who’d’ve thunk it. It’s not the cleverest thing in the world, but at least it’s less blatant.

2. When it doesn’t use research properly

Too many reports calling themselves ‘white papers’ don’t carry enough weight or authority because of the lack of credible research within them. Buyers trust the opinions of the Gartners, IDCs, Forresters, Deloittes and KPMGs of this world. Use their research to back up what you’re saying and make sure it’s current and relevant. If the stats you’re looking for don’t exist, use a third-party research house to get them for you.

3. When it’s too short

It’s got to be at least 12 pages to merit the name ‘white paper’. Anything shorter immediately feels too light, insufficiently researched, and untrustworthy as a result. For these kinds of reports, could marketers start using the term “green paper”? After all, in politics, green papers are a tentative form of white papers. Just a thought.

So there you have it, my thoughts on a page. You’ll probably have your own characteristics to add to my list of three, so I’d welcome some comments below.

In the meantime, anyone want to buy a toothbrush?

Sanjay Dove

A senior account manager at Wildfire, Sanjay has extensive experience with executing campaigns for brands in the IT, cybersecurity, marketing tech, semiconductor and consumer tech industries — with notable clients including Acquia, RepKnight and Samsung. He is equally at home working with small startups to build their brand awareness and credibility, and working with the big tech brands to manage their reputation within their given industries. Sanjay joined the agency in October 2014 after working for a couple of years in technology copywriting and sports PR. An English Language graduate from the University of Manchester, and a Journalism postgraduate from the University of Salford, Sanjay confesses to being a bit of a grammar nerd. While away from the office, he enjoys playing cricket, watching Chelsea play football, listening to jazz, and playing the piano and the drums. But not all at the same time. Obviously.