The Future of White Papers

To stay engaging and relevant for audiences of the future, white papers must encompass these new elements and evolve to Generation 3.0. Paper will fade away, and newer materials will be designed for reading and interacting on-screen. Retaining text but adding multimedia and interaction should help engage audiences of all ages.

Some white paper trends to watch

Business people now have simple, inexpensive tools for creating audio and video content, posting it for distribution, and promoting it quickly. For example, inexpensive MP3 recorders can pick up conversations anywhere inside or out. Software like Audacity provides powerful audio-editing tools for no cost.

Both Apple and Microsoft offer free video editors, iMovie and Windows Movie Maker. Individuals who know how to use these new tools can now record video with a smartphone, edit it on a laptop, post it to YouTube, and promote it around the world through social media, all within a few hours.

Of course, the web is all about linking to other information, sometimes drilling through numerous layers to arrive at a more complete understanding, as well as interacting with peers, colleagues, and experts. Marketers need to consider these interactive elements for future white papers.

Another huge trend is the use of mobile devices that are always connected to the web. Many of the so-called Millennial Generation, born after 1985, have grown up with “the web in their pocket.” As members of this cohort become more influential and ultimately become decision makers, B2B marketing must provide this audience with content they need in the format they prefer.

Four possible paths to the future of the white paper

There are four possible paths that Generation 3.0 white papers can take in the future:

  • Multimedia PDFs

  • Microsites built around a white paper

  • Infographics with layered content

  • Mobile apps

Multimedia PDFs

The most likely path to Generation 3.0 is a multimedia PDF. This builds on the current model of the white paper as a document, adding further media, such as animation, audio, video, and interactivity. All this content is contained in a multimedia PDF driven by narrative text. The current version of the free Adobe Reader supports a multimedia PDF, and some B2B vendors are now creating this type of document.

For example, check out the white paper from Eccolo Media called “Five Cost-Effective Ways to Create More Interactive Content.” This two-page PDF is short, but it contains an intriguing video chat with the company founder, Lorie Loe.

Microsites built around a white paper

The second possible path to a Generation 3.0 white paper is a microsite on the web with multimedia that visitors can access anywhere, anytime. A white paper can form the heart of this format, with its content repurposed as various forms of media on the associated web pages, including audio, video, and interactivity.

You can see an example of this approach from EMC/IDC. This microsite explores a single topic — the vast scope of the world’s information — in a few web pages. When you arrive, the welcome page automatically runs a video executive summary, where a company VP delivers a scripted excerpt from the core white paper. Viewers can click links to jump to different sections of the text, graphics, and each sponsor’s website.

This kind of microsite can provide all the expected Generation 3.0 elements of text, graphics, audio, video, web links, and interactivity. This model certainly sets out an interesting path to explore; a key challenge may be finding the additional budget to do the required HTML coding, video, and digital production.

Infographics with layered content

An infographic conveys data or knowledge by using visual metaphors in a scientific or playful way; in other words, they include text and graphics on the same page. In recent years, the use of infographics has exploded in B2B marketing. Naturally enough, a well-done infographic can help business people visualize and understand a numbered list, trend, or market space.

As a third possible path to Generation 3.0, an infographic could visually present the executive summary of a white paper, with various areas a viewer can click or zoom to see more details on any particular point. Although the viewer could choose his own path through the infographic, the presentation would be driven by a compressed set of points boiled down from a longer discussion.

There’s no reason this couldn’t be done on the web or with software like Prezi that enables you to pan and zoom around a presentation to incorporate different media and layers of information.

Mobile apps

The fourth possible future, and the furthest off, is a mobile app running on a smartphone or tablet, presenting a cluster of information with no need for the old-fashioned concept of a document. Freed from the restrictions of a defined document, this content could be accessed, updated, or personalized on the fly.

You can see the start of this trend in the digital versions of some magazines created for the iPad. For example, the digital versions of The Economist, Vanity Fair, Wired, and other forward-thinking magazines feature embedded video, links to other stories by the same authors or on the same topic, outtakes from photo sessions, animations, product demos and reviews, and so on.

Charts and graphs updated “automagically” — like a live report on the up-to-the-minute value of pork bellies, various world currencies, or your team’s pennant chances — aren’t hard to visualize on the always-on mobile device. Nor is content that’s personalized according to the demographics or psychographics of an individual viewer.

For example, a mining executive may see a front cover of a white paper showing a mining operation, while a prospect working for an airline sees an airport lounge. You could swap whole chunks of multimedia in and out as likely viewing to different prospects.

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