Why Good Conference Papers Make Bad White Papers

November 15, 2017 by

Do conference papers qualify as white papers?

I spend a lot of time browsing tech company websites in search of white papers. I’m always interested in finding examples – both good and bad – that might teach me something new.

Many of what I find listed as white papers, however, were originally conference papers. They were written for industry or scientific conferences. Without alteration, they’ve been uploaded to the firm’s online resource library, listed under “white papers”, and linked to a landing page.

And almost always, they’re not what I’m looking for.

Now, there are similarities between conference papers and white papers. Many conference papers present new or emerging solutions to current problems, showing how the authors are attacking the problem in a new way. These are similar in intent to the classic “problem/solution” white paper used for lead generation. Others focus on the features and benefits of an innovative technology, making them similar in scope to “backgrounder” white papers, which are used to support product launches and customer evaluations.

Conference papers, however, are different from white papers in several significant ways. These differences make them far less effective than white papers in the applications just mentioned.

Let’s look at the five biggest reasons…

Reason #1: Written for peers, not prospects

Speakers at industry conferences are mostly engineers and scientists (though executives also speak at many conferences). They’re sharing technical details on the problems they're wrestling with, the innovative approaches they're trying, the results they’ve achieved, and their visions for the future.

That’s expected. The purpose of an industry conference, after all, is to discuss the industry’s hot topics.

Thus, when a conference is attached to a trade show, organizers usually draw a distinction, in terms of purpose, between the conference and the trade show. The following description for the upcoming Aviation Electronics Europe conference (https://www.ae-expo.eu/) is a good example:

The AEE conference programme will deliver high quality content and discussions on the future for the industry, from policy and regulations to innovations and technology development.

The AEE (avionics & flight ops) conference will discuss the hot topics and issues of the day, whilst the exhibition enables companies and organisations to demonstrate and showcase new products, developments, technologies and services available on the market...

Conference audiences, therefore, are made up mostly of other engineers, scientists and executives – the speaker’s peers. They’re working in the same industry. Often, they’re experts in the same discipline. They have a firm grasp of the basic problems being addressed, and they’re familiar with the established solutions to those problem.

In other words, the authors of conference papers are writing for an audience who is already quite knowledgeable on the topic being presented.

That’s not your typical white paper audience.

White papers are written for prospects, not peers. They target the business decision makers and key technical influencers who take part in the process of buying your products and services.

Your white paper's target audience may not have a full understanding of the problem they face – the problem your offering can help them solve. They may work in a different industry. Not all of them will have technical backgrounds. And even those who do may not be fully aware of what solutions are out there. In other words, they’re not experts in your niche.

This is the root cause of why even excellent conference papers usually make bad white papers. Trying to use conference papers as white papers violates a holy commandment of marketing and copywriting: Know Thy Audience. The next four reasons will illustrate why.

Reason #2: Too dense technically

As mentioned, most conference papers are authored by engineers and scientists. These folks are experts in their technical fields. They’re trained to be precise, to pay attention to the smallest technical details. And they may have a lot of experience in writing papers for scientific journals and academic conferences.

What those technical experts don’t have, however – except, perhaps, in very rare cases – is a marketing background or training in writing marketing white papers. As a result, they tend to write papers that are very technically detailed – perfect for peers, but too dense for most prospects.

They may cover several solutions – what each one does, how each is best used, how some of them might be used together – but no single, unified solution. Or, they may drill down into tiny details, using precise technical language to satisfy their peer audience. Both these approaches, however, make it hard for non-expert readers to keep track of the bigger picture and the benefits of the solutions being described.

Effective white papers, on the other hand, are usually written by B2B copywriters, content writers or white paper specialists – authors skilled at writing persuasively to achieve specific marketing objectives. They’re familiar with the essential types of white papers, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and the best practices for writing them.

An experienced white paper writer will include only the technical content necessary – tailored to target reader – to establish credibility and build a rock-solid case for the solution being described.

What about those white papers which name a company technical officer in the byline? If the white paper is effective, chances are that domain expert provided the technical content via an interview and some background documentation (which may have included a conference paper or two), but the actual document was planned and written by a skilled white paper writer.

Reason #3: Too dense visually

Look at the following selection of conference paper templates.[i]

Figure 1: A selection of conference paper templates

Figure 2: Conference paper template with a sample illustration

If you’re familiar with industry conference papers, you know that this is what most of them look like.

What you see in Figure 1 is what white paper writers call a “Wall of Gray”: lots of black ink on white (thus, the “gray”), long, dense paragraphs, little color or visual interest, and – with the exception of the cover page in the second row – very little white space.

These papers look intimidating. They look like they’re hard to read. And unless you’re already an expert in the field, they usually are.

What's more, when such papers contain illustrations, they’re usually few in number, very technical, and small in size, like the one shown in Figure 2.

Note: Often, a lack of illustrations is not the fault of the author, but of the conference organizer. The template in Figure 2, for example, states, “You may add one or two figures.”

Contrast those examples with two pages of a white paper I wrote late last year (Figure 3) [ii]:

Figure 3: A two-page spread from a modern white paper

Here, in just these two pages, we have a photo, two color illustrations, a colored subheading, two sets of bullet points and a pull quote. There’s also a lot of white space to give relief to the eye. The information is broken into manageable chunks. The paragraphs are relatively short. Note the narrow horizontal and wide margins of the columns, the large, clear illustrations.

I think you’d have to agree, this looks more inviting and easier to read, doesn’t it? It’s designed to be reader-friendly.

Reason #4: Intended to inform, not persuade

Built using time-tested formats and techniques, the best white papers:

  • Get right to the point
  • Build an air-tight case for your solution
  • Lead the reader to a specific conclusion

In other words, modern white papers are built to persuade.

This is especially true of the “problem/solution” species of white paper, which is the type most often used for lead generation. Problem/solution white papers are typically built on the following structure:

  • Introduction or executive summary
  • Problem
    • What it means to the target reader
    • Why the target reader needs to act now
  • Current and legacy solutions
    • Why they’re no longer adequate
  • The new and better solution
    • Described first in generic terms
    • Then explained in detail, using examples drawn from your specific solution
  • Buyer's guide
    • What to look for when choosing this type of solution
    • Sets your solution above the competition
  • Call to action
    • Often part of the About Us section

Conference papers, on the other hand, rarely adhere to a format designed to persuade. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason, we’ve already mentioned: conference papers are written by technical authorities, not white paper specialists. Often, their papers are slow to get going – starting with an abstract, an introduction and a background section. They reveal many technical details, but rarely emphasize benefits.

The second reason is that industry conferences often reject papers which have a marketing slant to them. A perceived lack of objectivity is frowned upon. Conference organizers want speakers to discuss their ongoing research, unveil new breakthroughs, offer hope for the future… not market a product or service to their conference audience. So, solution benefits – your selling points – are not strongly emphasized in conference papers.

Reason #5: No call to action

Conference papers usually conclude with – what else? – a “conclusions” section.

Invariably, this closing section will offer a summation of the points covered. It will present the conclusions the authors have reached through their research, experimentation and experience.

Rarely do these conclusions ask the reader to do something in response to the information provided. In a conference paper, there's almost never the "call to action" that a good marketing piece should end with.

White papers also offer conclusions that recap the points made. White paper conclusions, though, tend to follow a specific script. For problem/solution white papers, for example, the conclusions script is basically this:

  • The severity of the problem and its consequences
  • Why current solutions are no longer adequate
  • Why the proposed new solution is the best choice
  • Why the prospect should act as soon as possible

But then, white papers go one step further. They encourage the reader to act. Good white papers always invite your prospect into your sales funnel.

Of course, that next step will be different for some prospects than for others. For readers with an immediate need, the white paper will normally suggest a call to your sales department. For prospects with no immediate need (or no immediate budget), a different call to action is in order.

This latter group usually wants more information, so they can prepare for a decision down the road. You might offer a free trial of your product or point to other content on your website. For readers who want more detailed technical information, you might even offer a conference paper! This is an appropriate use of a conference paper as marketing content (but you really ought to call it a "technical paper" rather than a white paper).

In any case, your white paper should encourage the reader to take the next logical step in your sales process.

Take-away Points

Conference papers are designed to provide detailed information – usually highly technical information – to an audience who is highly familiar with your industry.

Conference papers can be used as marketing content when used correctly: as additional, detailed technical information for a technical audience.

But conference papers are NOT substitutes for white papers. That’s because conference papers:

  • Are written for an audience of peers, not prospects
  • Are too technically dense for most prospect audiences
  • Are too visually dense to attract wide readership (They look hard to read)
  • Are meant to share new information related to a problem, NOT persuade readers they need your specific solution
  • Don’t ask readers to take the next step in your sales process

Next Steps

Need content that builds a case for your solution and persuades prospects find out more?

CopyEngineer has the technical background and copywriting skills necessary to draw the right information out of you SMEs (and their conference papers) and put it to work for you in a compelling white paper designed to accomplish your marketing objectives.

To put CopyEngineer to work for you, call (+39) 011 569 4951. Or send an email to info@copyengineer.com.

References

[i]   Overleaf, Gallery for Conference Papers, Overleaf.com.

[ii]   Cole, John, Leveraging Natural Language Processing in Requirements Analysis: How to Eliminate Half of All Design Errors Before They Occur, QRA Corp, November 2016.

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