More IT professionals than ever are using white papers to evaluate products and technologies, and they view them as necessary tools.
Peter Spande, director of IT Papers, said two primary reasons are causing the increasing popularity. The first is that white papers can provide the essential details of a technology solution.
“As business technology purchases become more central to overall business success, and budgets continue to shrink or receive greater scrutiny, the research process becomes more intense and the justification for each purchase becomes an extremely rigorous process,” explained Spande.
“Vendor information found in white papers fulfills a great many of their research needs and provides perspective and support that is crucial to making a large purchase,” he added.
The second reason for white paper popularity is quick access.
“White papers certainly aren't a new development. The Internet allows purchasers to find these documents much more readily than in the past,” said Spande. IT Papers was launched in 1998 and acquired by CNET Networks in 2002. It provides users with over 41,000 vendor documents from over 4,000 vendors and drives up to 500,000 downloads monthly.
“As the Internet has become the key medium for product/solution research, white papers have become a platform where these documents can be quickly delivered into interested professionals hands,” said Spande, who added that vendors love them because they can effectively share expertise with prospects in a very cost-effective manner.
"White papers are more relevant than ever," said Alexander Wolfe, a partner at E-ContentWorks, an OEM communications consultancy. "As technology gets more complex and harder to explain, potential customers or adopters can't necessarily rely on traditional news sources. The responsibility today is for a company to explain it via the white paper."
Wolfe believes CIOs are reading white papers more often because it's getting harder to find good relevant information on the now crowded Web. "So they're turning to the white paper to help them cut through the noise and get a focused idea on what a certain technology is all about," he said.
Peter Krass, president of Petros Consulting, a firm that helps clients plan and execute business implementations, said white papers are a hot commodity for other reasons as well. "If you don't have a big budget or you're in a preliminary research stage, gathering information, you can grab the low-hanging fruit such as free white papers."
Defining the white paper
In the last two years, the number of hits has doubled on the term "white paper" on a Web search, said Gordon Graham, a TechRepublic member and a partner at Quebec-based Gordon & Gordon, which offers workshops in technical and marketing writing. "On the Google search engine, we used to see 1.45 million hits on the term, but today we're seeing over 2.5 million hits."
But not every link returned in a search offers a paper that fulfills the definition of a white paper.
Asked to define a white paper, Graham said, "it's one of those things you can almost say, 'I don't know what it is—but I know it when I see it,'" adding that the papers "are located in the spectrum between the dusty academic treatise and the slick piece of marketing literature." Krass said, "They're usually presented by a vendor to feature a particular overview or position on a technology, or a standard or service they're involved with."
First in a four-part series
This is the first part of a four-part series on white papers. The series is aimed at helping you identify the good and the bad when it comes to white papers, and explores how you can move into white paper authoring. Here's a look at the next three article topics:
- Part 2: "Balance, writing skill are keys in producing white papers"
- Part 3: "What it takes to create an effective white paper"
- Part 4: "How to avoid the big don'ts in creating a white paper"
Types of white papers
These are the types of white papers available, according to Gordon & Gordon:
- Technology Guide: Explains a product's technology, why the technology is important to potential customers, and how it's different from and better than similar technologies
- Position Paper: Explains and advocates a standard, trend, or technology
- Business Benefits: Explains why potential customers will need a certain product in financial terms
- Competitive Review: Positions the product and differentiates it from competitors
- Evaluator's Guide: Provides a thorough explanation of the product's features and functionality
No matter the type, white papers are becoming more valuable for several reasons, according to TechRepublic members.
"Executives will use the white paper to justify a buying decision—in that sense they can be vital to the success of a company," said Wolfe, who noted that getting the lowdown, particularly on products, is crucial.
"Look at something like Microsoft's SQL Server Database software—that can cost tens of thousands of dollars—you've simply got to have the facts up-front before making the big decisions on purchasing." Graham agreed. "White papers have become absolutely critical. A company is betting a lot of its resources on a new technology and they are a way to differentiate who the IT manager is going to check out."
White paper origins
The white paper can be traced back to early-20th century research reports by the British Parliament. These were short government reports bound in white covers.
Jonathan Kantor, of the Appum Group, which specializes in creating technical documents for IT firms, explained that, "White papers had an association as top secret-type documentation during WWII and the Manhattan Project" (the code name that referred to the development of the first atomic bomb).
In the 1960s, early hardware and software companies used them as internal documents written in development labs.
"But during the last 10 years," said Kantor, "white papers have become truly external documents. Today they're 'technical marketing' documents."
And that's the kind of technical marketing that everyone needs now, said the experts. Graham said vendors absolutely have to have white papers available for prospective customers.
"Say one company backing a standard has a good white paper and the competing company doesn't have one; they're going to sink way down the list of who the CxO chooses to buy from."
The second part in this series will take an in-depth look at the process of producing a great white paper. More CIOs and companies are becoming white paper authors, but only those who understand the process and requirements will be seen as credible and legitimate authors.