It seems simple enough: Your boss or your client tells you they read that whitepapers are a very effective marketing tool, and so they want to create a series of whitepapers. Forgetting for a moment that this is not a strategic approach at all, you say – no problem, we can do that.

But what did you just agree to?

When people use the term “whitepaper” they often don’t even know what they mean. Very often, particularly if they’re from the sales side of the house, they mean a product sell sheet. They could also mean a case study, or even an eBook. Just because we use the same words doesn’t mean we’re talking about the same thing. And, because you’re the one who is responsible for delivering the end product, it falls to you to make sure you’re on the same page; if you deliver the wrong thing, it’s your fault.

Here’s how to avoid that.
When your client/boss asks for a “whitepaper” you need to drill down on precisely what they mean. Don’t make assumptions. Here are some quick definitions to help you guide the conversation and produce content that will be on point.

Whitepaper

A whitepaper is an authoritative examination of an issue, or an explanation of your organization’s philosophy on a given topic. There are some professionals who think a whitepaper is more product-oriented but, well, we disagree. In our minds, that’s a brochure, which we’re not even getting into here.  A typical length for a whitepaper is approximately 3,000 words. This is very arguable, but it’s a good target. Most importantly, it should have some research and analysis within it.

We strongly recommend that you avoid making this a salesy document – If it’s 3,000 words, the last 300 should be about the company or product. And try not to give us that “ghosted sale” in which you don’t specifically talk about your product, but pretty much everyone knows that’s where you’re headed. People don’t want to read that; that’s what the brochure is for.

Typically, a whitepaper is minimally designed, and in portrait format.

eBook

An eBook is similar to a whitepaper, but there are some differences. An eBook is generally going to aim to be a little more entertaining than a whitepaper; consider it a license to lighten up a bit. This includes graphics, interactive features and links to other multimedia assets. eBooks are usually a little lighter in tone than a whitepaper, but it of course depends upon your brand voice.

An eBook is more designed than a whitepaper, and often presented in landscape format.

Sell Sheets

These are one (maybe two) page product-oriented marketing pieces. While whitepapers and eBooks are more concept and thought leadership-driven, this is a chance to sell. Sell sheets usually do not have flowery marketing language, but are more focused on key attributes in a fairly matter-of-fact way.

Sell sheets are for further down the sales funnel than whitepapers, eBooks, which are meant to be attention-grabbers at the top of the funnel, and even case studies, which help to validate the strength of your product or service.

Case studies

Case studies are examples of your product or service in action. The best case studies focus on a problem that is common among your core audience, and how you created a unique solution to this problem.

Often, organizations will pay very strict attention to the Challenge-Solution-Outcome format. However, if you have the time, resources and a great story to tell, you can create a story that is compelling and dramatic. Here’s an example on the redesign of the Seattle Times – it’s so good that I remember reading it almost a year ago! So, while the other three document types here have general parameters around length, you don’t have to feel constricted for a case study if you have a truly remarkable story to tell.