To White Paper, Or Not To White Paper?

No Comments Yet | by Elise Perkins

As communicators, we’re always after the “so what.” If a company decides to write a report, pen an op-ed, or launch a campaign—how will it impact those outside the organization?

A client recently shared with me “Content Overload: The Problem With White Papers,” where Matthew Cook argues that there is little room for white papers today because:

  • They’re too long;
  • They take on too much; and
  • They’re no fun.

I’ve often considered the above statements. White papers are lengthy, dense, and often formidable. Written by experts, for experts. When my clients release these behemoths they do so with a sense of great pride—as they should. In today’s world of 140 character sound bytes and blogging, it’s hard to dedicate time and resources to bodies of work that are months in the making.

Just think, when was the last time you spent time digesting a white paper? It’s far easier to jump to the executive summary (guilty), or follow social media conversations. With work and personal lives blended now more than ever, we ration our “free time” with great care.

And considering most white “papers” are now offered digitally, companies should seize the modern marvels of technology and track the open rate. How many people read the white paper vs. the executive summary? With the average adult concentration span hovering at mere minutes, there’s a great deal of competition at stake here.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for this long form thought leadership. In For those organizations that flourish in this area, we should help create their content in a manner that ensures they get read.

I read a great article the other week from Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.” It was long.

It was arduous. I was re-reading sentences, and after this posts, I’ll likely go back and read once more. But it reminded me that some issues cannot be distilled so easily—moreover, some shouldn’t.

I agree with Mr. Cook, many of today’s white papers don’t have broad appeal, and they likely suffer for it. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, organizations should start with the most basic of questions:

  • What are we trying to say; and,
  • Who are we talking to?

Then, move to:

  • How long does it reallytake to make our point(s); and,
  • How does our target audience consume their information?


  • What additional audiences do we want to be reaching; and,
  • How to we exclude those audiences currently?

It’s a simple, but useful exercise.

More and more, I’ve found serious companies becoming a big edgier in their communication by utilizing current events, or different techniques to compete for attention. I think it’s working for them. You don’t have to hire comedians, or write outrageous headlines, but breath some humanity into your work.

And, please, take time to consider who is really going to read your next fifty-page paper.

About Elise Perkins

Elise Perkins founded ep communications in 2014 after seven years of working for trade associations and think tanks. Today she focuses on building brands for businesses and people, using a savvy mix of content and influencer strategies. She sits on the board of Washington Women in Public Relations.

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