What’s the Future of White Papers?
For the past year, I’ve been participating in a variety of white paper oriented discussions on Quora, a Q&A focused social media website. Most of the participants have posted many interesting questions about white paper structure, marketing, strategy, tactics, etc, all of which I have been happy to submit my two-cents worth.
One post from Elisa D. Coleman, who identifies herself as a Gamer and Bon Vivant, Know-it-all, submitted this answer to the question, “What is the Future of White Papers”, which I found interesting:
“Yes, I expect it (white papers) to become obsolete, very soon, if you take into consideration the usage of smartphones which allow for video streaming of shorter pieces of information and of course video is the replacement for .pdf documents because they’re live and provide so much more value than a static piece of lengthy content.”
While I don’t share Elisa’s pessimistic prediction for the future of the traditional white paper medium, her opinion does reflect a new reality for today’s social media generation, namely that the business document format will eventually be replaced by video. I guess her utopian vision of business communications would be to have video on your smartphone, video on your computer, video on your social media site, video everywhere.
Her argument is that, as compared with .pdf documents, video is live and as such, provides “much more value that a static piece of lengthy content”. This is a sad commentary on the state of today’s business reader, and it supports a point that I have been making for some time. Today’s Generation X and Millennia Generation really doesn’t read a lot of text, whether in books, magazines, newspapers, or documents such as white papers. Instead they prefer to watch a video of the same material. Think YouTube or Facebook.
What’s the repercussion if Elisa’s predictions come true, especially for business communications and business marketing? A lot.
It’s much easier and less costly to write a white paper as compared to a video. Outside of an editor, the average business writer can sit down, conduct research, interviews, and investigation, and given an appropriate amount of time, produce a decent 6-8 page white paper all on their own.
In comparison, other than sitting in front of a smartphone or notebook camera and producing a “talking heads” style video, most professionally produced business videos require the use of sophisticated tools or outside specialists, dramatically raising the total cost of the final product. The cost of producing a white paper is about one tenth the cost of a professional business video.
Development cycle is another factor. A business can produce a white paper in about one month. Most videos take several months given production cycles, reviews, edits and conventional (non-online) distribution methods such as burning and packaging DVDs.
Longevity is the third factor. The shelf life of most white papers is about 1/2 to 1 year. In most cases, updating a white paper requires modifying a small portion of its content. In comparison, the shelf life of a video is much shorter and much more costly to update.
The only businesses that I am aware of that produce a significant number of videos are large, enterprise-sized organizations with the budget to do so. Any business, from individual entrepreneur, SMB, or large organization produces white papers due to the low cost and fast turnaround.
What’s the bottom line? White papers may transition from paper-based or PDF-format to online and iPads, but their low cost and fast development cycle ensures that they will be around for some time to come.