How short can a white paper be?

White papers, as I’ve previously blogged about, are nowadays as likely to address a business audience as a technical audience. This change in the audience has been accompanied by a trend towards shorter papers. The question is: how short can you go and still be a white paper?

Why is length an issue?

I don’t think the move to shorter white papers is driven entirely by the change in audience, although I’m sure that’s at least part of the reason. It’s assumed that busy business executives won’t take the time to read long papers, whereas ‘techie’ folks will. But mainly I think it’s because there’s so much information out there that everyone is trying to minimise the amount of time they ask others to invest in obtaining information from them.

This is a good instinct. There’s no reason for white papers to be an exception to the general rule of being as concise as possible. But the ‘as possible’ is important. It doesn’t mean: ‘achieve conciseness at the expense of every other consideration’. It means: ‘be as concise as you can while still fulfilling the purpose of the piece and meeting the expectations of the intended audience.’ Being concise at the expense of clarity is never a good idea. Nor is it a good idea to be concise if your audience’s expectation is for the opposite.

Be honest with your audience

When it comes to white papers, there are certain expectations. A white paper is not a blog entry, article or a sales brochure. If somebody has chosen to read something called a ‘white paper’ it’s fair to assume that they’re looking for something with a fair amount of depth or analysis. If it’s only 2 or 4 pages they may feel cheated; it’s unlikely that you can cover a topic in any sort of depth in that space, even if you cram every page with copy (which may put people off reading).

More than one survey of B2B audiences suggests that 6-8 pages is about right. Of course it’s perfectly possible to provide insight or show original thinking in 2 or 4 pages. Even a short blog entry can be full of insight and originality. If you’ve got something short, sharp and perceptive to say, by all means offer it to the world. Just don’t call it a white paper. Call it an article or an executive brief; or you might create a series of such publications called ‘perspectives from [your company]’ or similar.

What if you’ve got more to say?

If you need much more than 8 pages to cover what you want to say, consider splitting the paper in two. People will certainly read longer papers if the content is worthwhile and well-written, but if you can split your topic into two you avoid putting off those who won’t even start on a long paper; and you have the additional bonus of being able to market two papers instead of one.

Size matters

I had an interesting meeting with a new client today. We often try and convince clients to try different approaches to engage their prospects and customers more. This client beat me to it. From the off they said that they wanted to tell a story to enthral the reader.

There was a time when whitepapers were long, technical pieces, often with a large element of blue-sky thinking; and case studies were quite in-depth reviews of a project. Driven by the perception of a time-poor audience, bombarded by thousands of marketing messages, we’ve seen pieces get shorter and shorter. But there are dangers in making everything shorter. Not only is there the risk of ‘dumbing down’ the message, but it can also take the human interest out of the story. Edited down to a curt list of bullet points, the customer and their story become implausible and impossible to empathise with. Simplified to appeal to a broader audience, the whitepaper can become nothing more than a glorified brochure—that’s fine, but not when you are trying to demonstrate competence and thought-leadership to technical decision makers.

At HN we aren’t bound by industry-standard terms. We look at each project and agree with the client what length, tone and level of technical detail is most appropriate to the audience and therefore be best at achieving their objectives. Why not have a look at our article The resurgence of storytelling, or give us a call and put us to the test.