The “1st 7 Seconds Rule” for White Papers

by TedV

Perhaps if you write whitepapers strictly for academic purposes, you can ignore the principle of Relevance Marketing. Yet, scholars who write white papers are usually trying to garner funding. If so, they should look at these rules to help cause those who give grants the opportunity to say, “Wow! This is the type of research I can see myself enabling.”

David Dodd of left an insightful comment on my Part 1 article on The “1st 7 Seconds Rule” for Brochures. He pointed out the ineffectiveness of brochures in many cases, and that quite often a white paper is a better tool. In my Part 2 on Brochures I detailed what can make a brochure effective, and how to get people to read your brochures. My example was to develop a Non-Capabilities Capabilities Brochure.

I will qualify David’s comment in only one way – plenty of people download or buy a white paper, print if off, and then look at it for 7 seconds before putting it in their filing cabinet with dozens and dozens of other unread white papers. There have been a proliferation of white papers written since Michael Stelzner wrote his landmark book, Writing White Papers in 2006.

That excellent book is the definitive work on the subject. Buy it you want to use white papers to market your goods and/or services. However, since its publication white papers have become to a lesser degree, just like brochures, sales letters, advertisements, and any other marketing/sales attempt to gain the attention of influencers and decision makers – just more noise in this message-overcrowded media world we live in.

There are three main ways I’ll describe here to help people read your white paper at least most of the way through – or at least past the 1st 7 seconds.

Write to a Specific Niche and Tell Them ASAP Why They Are Your Audience

“But a lot of different people should find my white paper interesting.” That may be true, and if it is, then figure out all of the major categories of prospective readers and create versions of it specific to each sector. After your white paper is famous you can forget these rules, but following them will help make it renown.

For example, if you’ve written a brilliant, up-to-date piece on computer security that applies to all owners and managers of computer servers, segment it out in the arenas you most want to impact:

Server Security
Server Security for Small Banks Under $250M in Deposits
Open Source Server Security for Plastics Manufacturers
The 7 Server Security Secrets for Paper Mills

The 2nd through 4th titles all become more specific and interesting. Perhaps small banks might have different security issues compared to these other businesses, but even if they don’t, given the four titles above, which title alone stands a greater chance of a small bank IT manager downloading? Even if the information is identical, your paper will more likely be downloaded and read all the way through if you take that common-to-all info and lace it with banker terminology and anecdotes throughout.

If I wrote a server security white paper for factories, I go to the SIC Codes, find the ten major categories of such manufacturers, and rebrand my white paper ten times for each type. The effort would be minimum, 2 days at most, but if it increased downloads by 10%, and brought in one more client for server security services, it would be worth the effort.

Write to Specific Types of People

Let’s continue with this server security white paper idea. Let’s assume you want your prospective readers to contract for your consulting services.

Another reason to niche industries, and particularly the size of companies within the industries, is that the decision maker is different by business size. The owner ultimately makes most IT decision in smaller companies, where as the president of a Fortune 500 won’t hear of you, since someone 1-3 layers down from the CIO decides if you get the business.

Also, the decision maker will have an agenda that goes beyond server security. Even though you may have the solution to their biggest single problem, they have too may issues in total, too many clients/users to support, and too many internal company political factors to drop everything the second they see your white paper.

However, if you clearly and immediately address your identified key decision makers with a sentence or two they identify with, you should make it to the stack that will be read, or to the interoffice mail bag and someone the decision makers might require to read and respond.

That being said, on a technical paper like this, your readers may be the real technical types, because the decision makers don’t have the time and/or detailed, where-the-rubber-meets-the-circuit-boards knowledge to evaluate your white paper. If this is likely the case, you should have your opening statements include such items as:

• Decision maker assurances that the techie will see the conclusions you state
• Promises of a cost justification the techie will bring to the decision maker
• Techie assurances of evaluation points the decision maker will like

Near Top of First Page Relevant Bullet Points

The idea of saving the best for last works well in desserts and children’s stories, but in presenting ideas, you need to forget it. Relevance Marketing calls for getting your best points out in some statement ASAP.

1) Start with a niched, clear, captivating white paper title
2) Give one solid paragraph, or two small ones stating what they’ll gain
3) Add a series of significant, relevant bullet points

I love the old Greek proverb – The Example Teaches

I know little about server security, but I think you can see where I’m going with this:

Starting Parts of a Relevant White Paper

Since this is hopefully relevant only to those concerned with server security in the metal fabricating industries, few of you will have read this from start to last. But look at the ideas.

• Tell them up front what’s coming
• Tell then who should read it
• Give them the main points explained within

”But if I tell them all this up front, they might not read it.” True. But those are the people that wouldn’t be interested in your services anyway, so at least you didn’t tick them off by wasting their time reading the whole paper.

However, those who do read beyond this will really want to hear what you say. It’s up to you to make what you say relevant enough, informative enough, and captivating enough for the reader to act as you wish them to after reading the entire white paper.

Relevance Marketing can persuade people to begin and keep reading your white paper, or any message you deliver for that matter. But you have to clearly deliver a solution people will want to act upon. Only then will they move on to your next prescribed step – consider hiring your consulting services in this example.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David Dodd February 4, 2010 at 8:51 am


Another great post! I completely agree with all your suggestions. Let me add a couple of points. First, according to research firm MarketingSherpa, 82% of business buyers say that marketing content that is targeted to their specific industry is more valuable than generic content, 67% say that content that is targeted to their specific job function is more valuable, and 49% say the same for content that is targeted to their company size. Second, various other surveys say that the preferred length of a white paper now is 6-8 pages. Most business buyers simply won’t take the time to read a 20-30 page paper, especially if they’re still early in the buying process.

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