White papers and ebooks are both valuable tools for businesses, but they serve different purposes. White papers are typically used to educate potential customers about a product or service, while ebooks are more focused on providing in-depth information on a particular topic.

Target audience matters

The decision about whether to create a white paper or ebook depends largely on the needs of your target audience. Either marketing tool can play key roles in your content marketing strategy. White papers and ebooks are both educational resources that can also generate leads by providing relevant content, but they do it in different ways.

Main differences between ebooks and white papers

The main differences between ebooks and white papers focuses on their intent and length. Generally speaking, ebooks tend to be shorter reads that are designed to simplify the messages you’re sending to your target market, while white papers provide an in-depth explanation of the issue or solution you’re trying to address. Another of the key differences is that white papers tend to be somewhat more formal, while ebooks have more of a casual tone.

Do both generate leads?

Ebooks, white papers, and other elements of a successful content marketing strategy are all capable of generating leads as part of your inbound marketing efforts. The Content Marketing Institute is a great reference for learning more about lead generation and other ways to use ebooks and white papers to keep your marketing funnel filled.

What exactly is a white paper?

White papers are a key element of a content marketing strategy. White papers work well in today’s business environment, because your target audience is hungry for good information, but they’re also busy. That’s why they appreciate practical guidance that’s focused on their specific needs. Most are suspicious of advertising or other obviously sales-focused approaches, but they’re more likely to trust white papers that are informational and based on facts.

How long are white papers?

While an ebook might include fewer than 200 words, white papers are generally between 1500 and 5000 words, which typically works out to 6 to 20 printed pages. The topic and information should drive the length, because the quality of valuable information is more important than the quantity when demonstrating your thought leadership to your target audience.

Non-promotional title

Titles of marketing white papers should be serious and straightforward, instead of clever or promotional. A product brochure might use a headline like “Process three times as many radishes with our veeblefetzers,” while a white paper on the same topic might use something more like “Evaluating processing alternatives for radish production.” Generally, more narrowly defined topics communicate more effectively.

Focused on issue, not company

Effective white papers often begin with a short section describing your customers’ problem or challenge. That builds a bond with readers, who see you have a solid understanding of the situations that are keeping them awake at night.

White papers examine solutions

Educate customers by exploring the different solutions that have been developed for the problem or challenge. After a general discussion, examine the advantages and disadvantages of each. The most convincing approach is to focus on facts, keeping the content general. Of course, you get to select which facts you’ll present, and your product or service will reflect the most advantageous approach. Discuss the advantages of your product or preferred approach in general terms, rather than talking about how great your product or service is. If you’ve included the right information and presented it in the right way, readers will come to that conclusion on their own. That’s how white papers generate leads.

White papers don’t sell directly

You may be tempted to get into great detail about what makes your Model SD60M the best product in the universe, but that kind of content will destroy the impression of objectivity you’ve tried to create. Instead, end your white paper with a short section describing your product or service, and an even shorter description of your company.

White papers for content strategy

Companies aren’t always sure about where they’ll find the information needed to make a white paper that supports their marketing strategy. Actually, the information you need to write a powerful white paper may be closer than you realize.

Your own experts

People in your company have a deep understanding of the issue you’re planning to write about and why your solution is the best. That may include product engineers, people on the production line, and top management. If you have a sales team, they’re in regular contact with customers and prospects, so they’re aware of the challenges those people are facing. Conducting a series of interviews with your internal experts can provide much of the information you’ll need for your white paper. You may not want to use what they all say verbatim — for example, engineers frequently use complex language that may confuse non-engineers, and salespeople may oversimplify concepts worthy of a deeper discussion — but those interviews can give you a great starting point.

Your materials

Most companies produce a variety of promotional materials, including websites, blogs, brochures, sales sheets, instruction manuals, and more as part of their content strategy. All that information can provide good reference not only for what needs to be said, but how your company prefers to say it.

Your competition

No, I’m not suggesting you borrow details from your competitors, but the more you know about them and their products or services, the better you’ll be at identifying your own competitive strengths and opportunities for compelling messages. Compare their language and processes with what your company uses. Discuss their approaches with your team to understand what makes yours better. For example, if your company’s veeblefetzer uses the cross-cutting process to core radishes, rather than the spiral-coring method employed by 90 percent of your competitors, your white paper can focus on the many advantages of cross-cutting.

Outside sources

Trade publications and internet sites can also be very educational. You can enter the same search terms that prospective customers may use to find information about your products or services. Just be careful to verify that the information you’re reading is correct, and don’t copy someone’s article or site word-for-word, because you could violate copyright law or embarrass your company.