How to Determine the Right Length for a White Paper (And What to Do When It’s Wrong)

January 2, 2019 by

As white paper readership has shifted in the past 15 years or so – from almost exclusively engineers to primarily executives – white papers have shrunk to meet the needs of a more time-pressed audience. Gone are the days when white papers might run 30 to 50 pages or more.

Yesterday’s white paper is too long today

Today’s white paper readers are demanding shorter white papers. TechTarget and the CMO Council found“too long” to be the fifth most frequent cause of disappointment among white paper readers (Figure 1).[i] And when Eccolo Media asked technology buyers how long a white paper should be, an overwhelming 96% felt the ideal length would be 10 pages or less, with 6 pages being the most common answer (Figure 2).[ii]

Factors that most often cause disappointment in white papers
Fig. 3: White paper length guidelines

Experts at a recent white paper writing and marketing seminar agreed, but they provided more practical guidelines (Figure 3, at left) based on the audience for a given white paper.

Note that three pages (not counting the cover page and any “About Us” information) are considered the absolute minimum for both executive and technical audiences. It’s virtually impossible to explore a problem and make a case for a solution in less than three pages.

Using these criteria in a survey of my own, I found that nearly a quarter (23.8%) of the 185 white papers I reviewed were the wrong length for their target audience.[iii]


Six pages too long?

Think white papers should be shorter than the guidelines shown above? If so, I would suggest you read this recent article by Gordon Graham, author of White Papers for Dummies: https://thatwhitepaperguy.com/for-white-papers-size-does-matter/.


Correcting wrong length white papers

Here are several simple remedies for correcting white papers that are the wrong length for your target audience.

For white papers that are too long:

  • Split long drafts. Divide lengthy discussions into two related topics.
  • Choose narrow topics. Don’t cram everything into one white paper.
  • Break big problems into distinct parts. 
    • If budget allows, create a series.
    • If budget is limited, choose the most important problem.

For white papers that are too short:

  • Explore the problem thoroughly.
    • Divide it into 3 to 5 sub-problems and examine each in detail.
    • Review historical approaches to solving the problem.
    • Examine market trends driving the need for a new approach.
  • Build a convincing case for your solution.
    • Highlight its benefits.
    • Show the drawbacks of existing or alternative solutions.
    • Include plenty of proof and cite sources.
  • Don’t cut corners. While it’s great to re-purpose content, you can’t simply take a two-page article, slap it into PDF format and call it a white paper. You need to expand it.

Break the rules when necessary

Bear in mind that while it’s important to try to stay within them to avoid losing readers, guidelines are only that: guidelines. There will be exceptions.

For example, consider the white paper from which I’ve excerpted this article: 10 Common Mistakes that Kill White Paper ROI. Its length is 22 pages.  I considered breaking it in two (e.g., 5 Common Mistakes… and 5 More Common Mistakes…). But offering two white papers with similar titles – either together or sequentially – would have lowered the perceived value of each and created several marketing problems for me. Since I wanted to offer a useful, comprehensive guide – and a single, handy checklist along with it – it was simply more logical and practical to keep all the information together.

In other words, the only reason to split the draft was the length, and that was outweighed by other considerations.

Also, making an airtight business case for a highly technical solution may require more than twelve pages. In that case, you may want to consider a counter-intuitive approach. Adding a page – a one-page executive summary at the beginning – helps busy decision-makers deal with longer white papers. Summing up the problem and the merits of your solution allows them to quickly decide whether to pass your white paper to their staff for further consideration.

Take-Away Points

  1. Today’s tech buyers want shorter white papers.
  2. When developing white papers, aim for the following length targets, based on audience:
    • For executive audiences: 6 to 10 pages, maximum 12 pages
    • For technical audiences: 6 to 12 pages, maximum 15 pages
  3. Long white papers can be shortened by splitting drafts or narrowing topics.
  4. Short white papers can be lengthened by adding greater detail and additional proof.
  5. Don’t be afraid to exceed the length guidelines… if there is greater profit in doing so.

Next Steps

This month’s article is the fifth of a series of excerpt from CopyEngineer’s newly updated special report, 10 Common Mistakes that Kill White Paper ROI: How to Avoid Them and Generate More Leads. To get your free copy of the report, click here.

Need expert help with planning and developing a new white paper? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at info@copyengineer.com. I’ll be happy to schedule a call and discuss your project with you.


References

[i]   2007 TechTarget and CMO Council Technology Buying and Media Consumption Benchmarking Survey.

[ii]   Eccolo Media 2009 B2B Technology Collateral Survey, www.eccolomedia.com, September 2009.

[iii]   Cole, John, 10 Mistakes that Kill White Paper ROI: How to Avoid Them and Generate More Leads (Revised Edition), CopyEngineer, September 2018.


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