The White Paper “Experience”

Engaging. Boring. Surprising. Daunting. Inspiring. Yawn-inducing. Enlightening.

If you had to guess, how do you think most people who read your company’s white papers would describe the experience?

This question may matter more than you think, given that:

  • More than two-thirds of buyers rate white papers with supporting data as highly valuable[1]
  • Prospects read white papers in middle of the sales process as they are comparing options.

I started considering the question while reading the book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely. The book was a good reminder of all of the subconscious factors beyond the “logical business mind” that shape readers’ perspectives. Two chapters in particular caught my attention, including chapters on:

  • How people rely on relativity during decision making
  • The effect of expectations on experience.

Let’s explore the role of the subconscious in decision making, why it matters in the white paper world and three things can do about it.

Brain wiring and first impressions

In Predictably Irrational, Ariely notes that people are wired to compare similar things. No surprise there.

What’s worth considering, however, is that while your white paper readers’ intention is to gather information and compare business cases or solutions, their brains will go to work comparing more than just the arguments or solutions described in the paper. They will also instinctively compare things about the different papers they are reading, such as length, layout and style and begin to form expectations about the reading experience. And the problem is that once expectations are set they could influence broader impressions about the strength of your argument or the quality or usability of your solution.

Ariely describes several experiments that consider the role of expectations one’s experience. For example, on one occasion his team sets up a temporary coffee shop in a university cafeteria and offers students free coffee in exchange for filling out a questionnaire. The “shop” is unusual in that the display offers an array of strange additives, such as paprika, in addition to the standard choices for coffee. Throughout the experiment the team uses the same coffee but swaps out the types of containers holding the strange additives to see how container types impact the overall drinking experience. Although people never really used the unusual condiments, it turned out they were much more enthusiastic about the coffee when the additives were housed in elegant containers versus no-frills ones, such as Styrofoam cups. In the end, the experiment is a great reminder of the power of presentation and branding.[2]

But do presentation considerations really matter that much with white papers?

Taking a peek behind the gate

As gated content, white papers have a lot riding on them. After all, your prospects are giving you something of value (their contact information) in exchange for something they expect to be of value—that they are also going to invest their valuable time in reading. That means the impression the paper leaves on readers, be it good, bad or indifferent, will likely be a lasting one.

Imagine this. You’re trying to decide on an IoT platform for your company. You’ve narrowed vendor choices down to three, so you download and take a quick peek at the white papers from each.

The first greets you with plenty of open space and a crisp font, but starts with the seemingly inescapable “In today’s business world…” opening followed by some trite statements about “solving your key business challenges to streamline operations and help supercharge productivity while optimizing profitability yadda yadda...” But as you scroll through the paper, you notice it includes several interesting and well-designed graphics and that the pages include frequent callouts, a couple of which resonate strongly with you.

The second greets you with dense paragraphs from the top to the bottom of the page, but the opening paragraph launches right into a couple of the specific problems your company hopes to address with the new platform. A quick scroll through the rest of the rest of the paper reveals no graphics or callouts and dense text throughout.

The third paper greets you with a funny quote from a famous person that ties nicely to a thought-provoking opening paragraph about IoT platforms in general. Your quick scroll reveals a graphic and a couple of callouts in an otherwise text-heavy layout.  

Which one would you read first? It’s reasonable to expect that most busy professionals would gravitate toward the first or third option. After all, at first glance they promise a better and easier reading experience.

The next question is, if the general reading experience lines up with expectations for each paper, how much will that influence which company or solution you might gravitate toward? We can only speculate, since there are a lot of variables at play. But it’s not unreasonable to expect that a better reading experience will register subconsciously at a time when every good impression helps. Therefore, it’s conceivable that the second paper, though substantive, may not get the same consideration.  

3 steps to a great experience

Ultimately, readers have general expectations for how white papers should look and feel. Try not to stray far from those conventions. Otherwise, your prospects may be confused about what they are reading. But it’s definitely a good idea to consider how your readers will experience your white paper versus those of your competitors.

Three factors you should always consider before publishing include:

  • Template/digestibility—Make sure the layout of your paper appears more inviting than its competitors. Consider everything from fonts to graphics to frequency of callouts and highlights.
  • Relevance—Whenever possible, bounce your topic off of a favorite client or two to make sure it is actually going to resonate. The key is to make sure you understand how they’re thinking about their key problems so you can hook like-minded readers and cut to the chase more quickly in the intro.
  •  Readability—Make sure the writing style of your paper aligns with your brand promise and that the paper carries readers along. Even if you’re covering a weighty technical topic that requires dense paragraphs, use callouts or sidebar highlights to make the text feel more engaging.

Best of all, if you consider these factors early in the process, the time investment required to address them is minimal. And ensuring your readers are having a good experience makes them well worth it.   

Looking for ways to enhance the experience of your readers? Let's chat about the possibilities.


[1] Case studies top B2B marketing tactics, B2B E-Commerce World, September 2017.

[2] Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely, 2010.