You might assume it’s obvious to have a white paper ask for the order, but that standard element of effective sales and marketing tactics generally doesn’t apply to the marketing channel known as white papers. That’s because a well-executed white paper will help a reader become a fan of whatever you offer or believe. They’ll sell themselves on your advantages without you saying a word.

But trying to cram the traditional “ask” in most white papers is inappropriate. Sadly, it doesn’t break any laws, but it’s kind of like someone trying to sell you something at a funeral. Just not the right time or the right place. And you walk away thinking, “I’m never going to do business with that jackass.”

Not asking is more powerful

The advice I’m going to share does not apply to advertising, brochures, sales literature, marketing emails, etc. Just to white papers … and only some types of white papers. When you’re developing those other materials, you should absolutely ask for the order. More specifically, you need to have some kind of call to action. You may have sold the reader, but you can’t assume they know what to do next. A call to action not only spells out a course they can take, but it encourages them to do so right in that moment.

White papers are neither “hard sell” or “soft sell.” If I had to come up with an equivalent, I think I’d say they’re “knowledge sell.” They’re not about sales as we traditionally think about it. Instead, they’re about educating someone so they have the confidence to take a particular action or make a decision. The most effective marketing white papers do zero selling. Instead, they give the reader just enough knowledge to compare you and your competitors, because you know if they really understand what sets you apart, they won’t do business with anyone but you.

The Knowledge Sell

You can hand a prospect a piece of sales literature or send them a link to a video, and they’re going to say, “nice sales tools, but I don’t understand why I should care … or how you get away with charging more than Brand X.” We’ve been trained to be wary of sales, and conditioned to become extremely distrustful of advertising. So when you trumpet some kind of message about what you do that’s absolutely valid and important, they brush it aside as advertising hype … or they assume you’re not telling the whole story.

White papers are the whole story. They provide a clear, easy-to-read overview or summary of something the reader needs to know about. How to evaluate a product or a service. Overcoming a common myth about your offering. Explaining how something works and why it’s done that way.

White papers create confidence. They help people make big decisions and give them a way to explain those decisions if challenged. There’s no sales pitch involved. Once they really understand why you do what you do, they’ll be confident enough to take it to the next step – and no sales pitch you offer will ever be as powerful as their own confidence.

Fueling decision-making

When a prospect’s decision-making process involves several individuals, white papers can be surprisingly powerful sales tools. If what you offer has a high value or will significantly impact your prospect’s organization, your primary contact probably won’t have the authority to make the purchase decision on their own. Your white paper can help them support their recommendation and make the case that what you offer is the best solution for their needs.

Suppose your company sells an expensive piece of equipment that makes users far more productive and efficient. Most buyers see a complete return on their investment within the first year. Because the equipment represents a significant capital expense, the sales cycle is always long and complicated. Your primary sales contact is one of the production engineers, and she’s convinced your company has the right solution. To make it happen, she’ll have to convince the operations manager and the plant manager your solution has merit. And because of the dollar figure, the CFO and the CEO will also have to bless the idea.

Complicating the challenge is that you’ve used an innovative approach that’s drastically different from what competitors have sold for decades. So not only must you convince the decision-makers of the superior value of your equipment; you’ll need to convince them to take a gamble (in their eyes) on something brand-new to them.

White paper as sales solution

So you create a white paper that compares the traditional approach to your solution, with a detailed description of the processes involved to help people like the engineer and the plant manager. You also include a simple diagram to help non-technical decision-makers like the CFO and CEO see the advantages, along with tables comparing efficiency of both approaches. You share relevant facts and details.

Now the production engineer can use your white paper to help her make her case. When she shares her recommendations, she can attach the white paper to help others understand it. She can also give copies of the white paper to the operations team so they can see the advantages and add their support. Your white paper has provided the information all the decision-makers need, helping them reach the purchase decision far more quickly and with complete confidence.

When should you ask for the sale?

I noted some white papers benefit from asking for the sale, but again, it’s not a hard-sell effort. Instead, it’s giving them a friendly way to move to the next logical step. How do you do that? Start by identifying what exactly you want people to do after they’ve read your white paper? Some may think the answer is obvious. “We want them to buy our product” or “we want them to talk with our sales team” or “we want them to start using our recommended maintenance procedure.”

The answer may be obvious to you, but it probably won’t be to your reader. If you leave out a call to action similar to those that follow, they may not do what you hope they’ll do:

  • Please call our sales team for a free, no-obligation demonstration.
  • Visit our website for a free copy of our specifications guide.
  • Please share this paper with the head of your company’s IT department.
  • Contact us to discuss your company’s specific needs.
  • Order our amazing new product at our website.

If you want people to take a particular course of action, tell them. And if you don’t want to do that, at least give them enough information so they can draw their own conclusions.