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Does Size Matter – When a White Paper is Not a White Paper

It is an interesting observation!  At a time when information sharing happens freely, globally, and in real time, organizations still don’t agree on what a white paper should look like.

A recent article on The White Paper Pundit,  explored the various surprising ways in which Hewlett-Packard has demonstrated their lack of expertise on this subject.  On one occasion, the giant technology company committed the unpardonable  sin when they wrote  a one-page advertisement and called it a white paper!

Why is this document such an enigma to small and large businesses alike?   One reason is that a white paper is a hot commodity and is highly desirable.  It establishes thought leadership in any industry and organizations want to have that reputation.  They are eager to publish as many papers as possible. Many of them do not take enough time to train and equip their writers with the high level writing skills required for this profession.

In today’s business environment the challenge for marketing communication writers is to design information for the short attention span reader.  In his book ‘Crafting White Paper2.0’, Jonathan Kantor explains that there is a cost-benefit factor in determining the appropriate content size.

The cost is the total amount of time needed to read the paper, while the benefit is the extent to which readers will go to obtain a valuable idea as a result of time spent reading that content.

As online content becomes longer, the reader becomes more distracted and is more likely to click away to another source of information.  Online readers do not have the time or attention span to read a longwinded document.

The same book highlights a study done in 2009 by the InformationWeek Business Technology Network.  Among 500 professional managers who were asked about the ‘right’ length of a white paper, 86% wanted a paper under ten pages while 50% wanted a paper under five pages!

According to experts, the ideal white paper is therefore between six and eight pages long, and incorporates the right visual and text enhancements for easy reading.  When a reader quickly skims through the paper, he or she is able to find key nuggets of information.  If these nuggets are useful, then the reader will be persuaded to spend a little more time to give it a preliminary read and perhaps even a more comprehensive read!

In crafting today’s white paper, size definitely matters and companies like HP must learn to do it the right way or risk being dismissed as incompetent in this arena!

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