Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

Shifting Marketing to “Entice and Engage”

Here’s how to generate substantially more leads than typical white paper campaigns deliver — by shifting from “biased” to “unbiased” distribution channels such as endorsements and recommendations of influential parties.

In an earlier article, we explained how to improve the content of a white paper, the most important ingredient in generating leads. We discussed why a white paper must be approached not as a writing exercise but rather as a project to develop a compelling, evidence-based point of view. 

In this article, we explain how to generate substantially more leads than typical white paper campaigns deliver. We explore why the white paper marketing and distribution techniques of the last 10 years are grossly inadequate today. And we show the big advantages of shifting from directly distributing white papers through “biased” channels, to indirect and “unbiased” distribution channels—i.e., having white papers propagated by endorsements and recommendations of influential parties.

We also show why marketers need to stop thinking of white paper marketing as a series of episodic campaigns and instead view them as a key tool for the continuous marketing. We explain how to do this: by building a thought leadership microsite on a white paper topic, an online community that deeply explores and generates extensive ongoing dialogue with people interested in an issue.

By Robert Buday and Tim Parker

Even great white papers with broad distribution no longer automatically generate a large audience of business decision-makers. Rented mailing lists, white-paper syndication sites, and other tools for widespread distribution are no guarantee that quality prospects will read your paper. Often, the harder a company tries to get a white paper directly into the hands of target customers, the more those prospects ignore it.

Why? White papers have become a victim of their own success. With several studies showing them to be a highly popular way for executives to learn about complex services and products, white papers have proliferated in the last decade. This is certainly the case for IT professionals.  In 2009, they downloaded 2 million white papers from sites owned by TechTarget (the largest distributor of IT white papers)—four times the number in 2005. Yet there are too many white papers to go around. According to one authority[1], a Google search in 2001 of the term “white paper” (or “white papers”) generated 1.4 million results, a number that ballooned to 300 million by 2006, and which has jumped another 20% since then to 366 million. Put simply, the Web is awash in white papers, and there isn’t enough time for managers to read most of the ones that cross their inbox.

The result: Marketers at consulting, IT services, IT and other firms no longer can rely solely on direct distribution of their white papers—even companies with good mailing lists. Rapid advancements in online marketing and the shift of executive readership to online channels require business marketers to fundamentally rethink the way they gain an audience for their white papers. Business marketers can now do two things that are critical to generating response to white papers but have been very difficult to do in the past:

The new world of white paper marketing will be much different than the old one. In the paragraphs that follow, we explain what marketers must do to gain a large audience for their points of view and turn them into ready prospects for their offerings. We draw on several examples including Kurt Salmon Associates, McKinsey, Unisys, and Quantum Performance, all of which use white papers to generate interest in their services.

We explain how those that master white paper marketing in this decade will be the companies that navigate two profound shifts in marketing practice. The first is ceasing to rely on distributing papers directly to customers. More important is making it possible for customers to find out about white papers in the online places they frequent: blogs, online business publications, social networking and other sites they turn to for information.  We call this a shift from sending a paper out through channels that customers know are biased toward the white paper marketer to enticing customers to a white paper through unbiased channels.

The second big shift is moving away from trying to contact prospects the moment they provide their details to download a paper, toward eliminating the gate and the follow-up cold-call telemarketing altogether. Instead, white papers should be used to create an online community open to all, one in which prospects can digest the point of view and interact with a wide range of other content on the issue at hand. This enables them to become much more familiar with your methods, values, and offerings. The more knowledgeable they are about your company, the more likely they are to reach out to you.

Companies with great white paper content that abandon the marketing techniques of “send and sell” and adopt the practices of “entice and engage” will produce many more qualified prospects than they ever did with the old approach. In this new world, they will be the first to master six new rules of white paper marketing:

  • The customer has become the hunter, the marketer the hunted
  • A white paper’s admirers now do the promoting
  • Influencers have multiplied and become critical marketing targets
  • Online columns emerge as a potent new channel
  • Increasing traffic to a microsite supersedes capturing downloads
  • Perpetual online communities displace intermittent marketing campaigns

The first four are about getting people to read your white paper. After you secure an extensive readership, the last two changes are about turning them into strong leads.

The customer has become the hunter, the marketer the hunted

With Web tools at their disposal to almost effortlessly collect the information they need, buyers of consulting, IT services, and other costly and complex offerings to business are now in control. Today, they initiate the search for information on their business issues—especially white papers. They no longer wait for white papers to arrive by mail or email, or ask the corporate librarian to do the searching. With search engines able to pour through more than 1 trillion[2] web pages in seconds and find white papers posted by marketers around the world, the customer increasingly takes the lead in securing the information she needs. In a white paper world of search engines, the customer becomes the hunter, and the marketer the hunted.

Statistics bear this out. The Web has become the best source of business information for U.S. executives, topping references from colleagues, print and broadcast media, conferences and personal networks, according to a 2009 study by Forbes and Google. Some 73% of senior executives at large companies surf the Web daily, with 64% doing six or more searches a day for business information.[3] These numbers will only increase given the generational differences in Web usage.  Some 81% of executives less than 50 years old surf the Web every day for business information; less than two-thirds (62%) of those over 50 do likewise. (See Exhibit 1.)

Exhibit 1: U.S. Executives Who Use the Internet to Gather Business Information (Source: Forbes and Google)

This has subtle but substantial consequences for thought leadership marketers. It wasn’t so long ago when the roles of thought leadership marketers and their target audiences were reversed, when marketers did the hunting using white papers as a lure. Marketers with the widest distribution (think McKinsey Quarterly and its 100,000 print and 2 million online readers) had a far greater chance of getting their points of view in front of prospects than did smaller consultancies with much smaller mailing lists. But Google and other search engines are eroding that advantage. The $20 million strategy consulting firm with a white paper on scenario planning can end up on the first screen of search results if the article generates links from many admirers. Over time, a compelling white paper that gains lots of followers and links is likely to finish higher in the search engine rankings than one that is mass mailed or posted by online white paper distributors. (Just to give you a personal example of this, type the words “electronic community” into Google—or click here—and you’ll see that an article one of us published 14 years appears at the top of nearly 100 million search results. The print version of the article was mailed to a small list in 1996, and InformationWeek magazine ran a version that year in its print and online editions. But the paper hasn’t been marketed since.)

The fact that customers increasingly start their hunt for white papers with a search engine has at least one big ramification: The quality of the content has become far more important. A marketer with 10 white papers and a $200,000 white paper budget (with, say, half of it spent on printing, mailing/emailing and online white paper distributors) should now spend more of that money on improving the quality of the content.

A white paper’s admirers now do the promoting

The most effective way to distribute a white paper has always been getting readers to recommend and pass it along to colleagues. You’re far more likely to read an article endorsed by a peer than one that shows up unannounced in your inbox.  However, before the emergence of social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, word of mouth or viral marketing was logistically difficult for the reader. Beyond their personal contacts, managers are not likely to email a link to or a PDF of a white paper to a large number of people, especially those they don’t know. Email and Acrobat files have made it easier, of course, but the number of email contacts of the average executive pales beside the number of managers participating in many LinkedIn communities, many of which are in the thousands or tens of thousands.  This is all to say that viral marketing historically has been all but ineffective for generating wide-scale white paper readership.

With today’s social networking tools, this is no longer the case. Word-of-mouth recommendations of a notable paper now can reach thousands of prospects in hours.

Think social networking sites are mostly for the unemployed?  Think again. The Forbes/Google study found that 73% of large-company executives under 50—i.e., people with jobs—logged into such websites at least once a week. (About one third of managers over 50 did likewise.) A mention of, and a link to, an interesting white paper in a LinkedIn group can lead many new readers to it.

In making buying decisions, people using online social networks were three times more likely to put stock in the opinions of their peers than they were to trust advertising,[4] and the clear majority took a friend’s opinion over a professional critic’s review.[5] (And, of course, you are even more likely to read that article if a superior tells you to read it!)

With social networking sites having removed the logistical headaches of passing along a white paper to one’s peers, viral marketing techniques have come of age. Word-of-mouth (and links to) a compelling white paper now travel fast and far. Social media + thought leadership content is a marriage made in heaven. The members of any social network are always on the prowl for good information to pass along to their contacts. By definition, thought leadership content is educational in tone, not promotional. The members of an online business community won’t pass along advertising copy; they will circulate thoughtful insights on issues they think are relevant to their friends and contacts.

But you still have to prime the pumps. In the new world of white paper marketing, marketers have to seed the content of their best articles in places like Facebook and LinkedIn before they can sit back and let their members spread the word. They can also publish variations in any one of the self-publishing channels that have sprung up in the last five years, such as YouTube, Slideshare or Scribd, and post links to those too.  If the point of view has been constructed as a template as we described in Part 1 of this series, then spinning off a different version for each platform should be relatively easy.

Is it OK to post links to your own material? That depends. It’s all right if it is valuable to the people you are broadcasting to. If it’s self-promotional, it’s spam.

In the management consulting industry, one firm—McKinsey—currently has a big advantage in seeding new content. It is way out in front in establishing an audience on Facebook, a social networking site whose 350 million membership at the end of 2009 was 3½ times the number in August 2008. McKinsey’s print and online publication, McKinsey Quarterly, has attracted more than 40,000 Facebook fans.  (To check it out, go here.McKinsey Quarterly on Facebook, a site open to all Facebook users (unlike other consulting firms with sites open only to their employees) lets members participate in online polls and discussions forums, as well as read and post comments about McKinsey articles, which are promoted regularly. McKinsey is also using its Facebook pages to gather information from its members. For example, one entry implores readers to tell their stories of how they have used “open innovation to solve a thorny business problem.”

Exhibit 2: McKinsey’s Quarterly Takes a Big Early Lead in Facebook Fans

Despite McKinsey Quarterly’s big lead over BCG and Bain in Facebook fans (Exhibit 2), much smaller consultancies can quickly gain share of voice in these social networks without large investments. Unlike the tens of millions of dollars that are necessary to burnish a brand with broadcast, print and online advertising, creating a Facebook group doesn’t cost a dime. And this is starting to bother big, sophisticated marketers like Procter & Gamble. “What I worry about is that [social media] democratizes scale,” P&G CEO Bob McDonald recently told a reporter from Advertising Age magazine: “It allows the little guy to get scale almost instantaneously.”

Social media marketing is about peer endorsement—in the case of white papers, getting members of a social networking site to endorse and link to your paper. Scale helps, but having content that people will want to pass on to their friends is more important still.

Influencers have multiplied and become critical marketing targets

Before the era of blogs and Twitter, thought leaders had few opportunities to get opinion leaders such as CEOs, business gurus, and famous authors to endorse their ideas. Public affirmations were limited to substantial publishing accomplishments like books (quotes on book jackets and book advertisements) and prestigious journal articles (e.g., the occasional Harvard Business Review article touted by a newspaper business columnist).

But plug someone’s white paper? Virtually unheard of. We highly doubt that the Druckers, Porters, Hammers, and Welches of the pre-web publishing era ever did so, let alone were ever asked. That would be beneath them, like asking a New York Times movie critic to review your family holiday video.

Not today. The explosion in business pundits offering recommendations in their blogs and tweets has considerably increased the supply of key influencers and their need for content to recommend to their viewers. Pick any topic, and you’ll find bloggers and tweeters who have built a large following, regularly pointing to other blogs, videos, books, “ebooks” and (yes) even white papers.

Some business blogs have a wide following—thousands of readers whose attention could be turned to your white paper. The Business Insider, an aggregator of several popular business blogs, claims 2.6 million monthly unique viewers, about the same number as BusinessWeek’s online edition.[6]

Getting a popular blogger to mention and link to a white paper multiplies its readership. The chart below shows what happened to our online readership when one of our articles was promoted on blogs and tweeted by several authorities on business white papers. (Mentions in Facebook and LinkedIn groups also boosted traffic.)

Exhibit 3: How Social Media Marketing Boosted Traffic for One of our Articles (Reengineering the White Paper)

In fact, we received over three times as much new traffic to our site for the period than we normally would from publishing an article, despite a slow second week because of the Thanksgiving holiday. The figure below shows the comparison of traffic over the period with an article of ours that we did not promote through social media. You can see how the increased traffic persisted for several weeks longer than before.

Exhibit 4: Comparing Our Old and New Traffic


Online columns emerge as a potent new channel

White paper marketers shouldn’t stop at trying to get the popular blogs to mention and tweet about their articles. They should approach the online editors of the leading business publications with opinion article ideas drawn from the content of their white papers. Increasingly, these editors are opening up their digital editions’ editorial space to outsiders—for free. (Of course, business marketers for a long time have been able to buy “advertorial” space in these publications. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

As a result, op-eds in leading publications are no longer the preserve of a very few pundits who beat out the multitudes of would-be op-ed writers because of the scarcity of space. Many more top-notch publications that are highly read by your customers will take your content in their online editions.

This is a far cry from the past. It used to be that an outsider’s chances of getting an opinion article in a top business or trade publication was remote. The print versions of publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reject dozens or even hundreds of op-ed submissions for each one that they run. (We estimate the chances of getting an unsolicited op-ed in The New York Times to be not much better than 1%. In 2004, the paper said it received about 1,200 such submissions a week.)  The odds of getting a regular column are far worse, bordering on impossible unless you already have a big name like Paul Krugman or Tom Friedman.  This high op-ed rejection rate may be one reason why self-published business white papers have become a cottage industry: It is the outlet of last resort.

But not anymore, at least not online. Opportunities for guest contributions at quality online publications have proliferated for two reasons. Firstly, advertising revenues for the online editions of news and business journals cannot support a large cadre of staff writers. Second, there are no space limitations for the online editions, so many editors will in principle run as much material as they can get. What have not changed, for respected titles such as and, are their standards of quality. As Fred Allen, the Leadership editor of, explains in our interview with him here, he will run as much material as he can, provided it has something interesting to say, and is entertaining and provocative.

For white paper marketers, this presents a great opportunity to increase readership of their points of view. To be sure, we do not mean submitting your white papers to the op-ed editor of a target publication. (They don’t want articles already published elsewhere, even self-published ones). Instead, marketers should carve out an op-ed submission from the underlying point of view. If the point of view is substantial and has been articulated in a template as we described in part one, this can be quickly done by a competent writer. And as Allen describes, focusing it on a recent event in the marketplace may increase the chances of getting accepted.

The deeper the white paper content, the more op-eds can be spun out of it. For example, from a single point of view (and white paper)  based on extensive primary research, Kurt Salmon Associates last year placed four op-eds authored by its retailing consultants in leading publications: ,  and two in a leading retail publication, Chain Store Age.  IT services firm Unisys carved out five white papers from a study it launched in 2005 on the topic of technology support in large organizations, including one in the vaunted journal Sloan Management Review, two in, one in and one in

This is not unusual, even for consulting firms with tiny marketing budgets. A white paper published by the management consulting firm Quantum Performance Inc. has generated six Quantum-bylined op-eds in key target publications, including the three linked here in each of , HR Executive and Workforce Management. 

We do realize that not all business marketers regard op-ed placement in the online editions of the leading business journals as great opportunities. Far better to get them in the print editions of these publications since their readership is much larger, their thinking goes. Not always true. The online readership of many leading business publications today is a multiple of their print readership. (See Exhibit 5.)

Exhibit 5: Readership of Popular Business Publications: Print vs. Online

The more effective white paper channels we are talking about are not ones that a marketer can control. That’s why readers view them as unbiased. That, of course, makes it harder for marketers to secure these channels for white paper marketing. But marketers that can are likely to get much greater response to their white papers. And ironically, they may spend far less to secure the unbiased channels than they’d have to pay to secure the biased ones: white paper syndicators, email list brokers, and so on. In fact, the only cost for marketers in working the unbiased channels is time: pitching white paper content to bloggers, posting informative comments in social networking sites, writing and submitting op-eds to online publications. (See Exhibit 6.)

 Exhibit 6: White Paper Marketing and Distribution: Comparing the Old Channels to the New

By adopting the marketing and distribution methods of “entice and engage,” marketers will have prospects who seek them out rather than the opposite, which is becoming a losing strategy. (See Exhibit 7.) But we must issue a big caveat here, which can easily be overlooked: Getting prospects to gravitate to your white papers requires exceptional content. (How to create such content was the focus of our first article in this series.) Trying to get bloggers, tweeters and members of social networks to applaud a mediocre or poor white paper will be difficult; so will getting respectable and highly read online publications to run opinion articles derived from white papers with weak points of view. Marketers with lackluster content will be forced to continue the direct distribution methods of the past, which means their articles will open fewer and fewer doors in a world where buyers keep moving from biased to unbiased channels.

Exhibit 7: The New World of White Paper Marketing: Readers Come to You Rather Than You to Them

The four trends mentioned above mean that white paper marketers greatly increase the amount of indirect distribution of their white papers. This doesn’t mean direct distribution goes away altogether. (See Exhibit 8 below.) But we believe marketers now must concentrate on indirect distribution to generate strong leads from white papers.

Exhibit 8: Moving to a Mix of Direct and Indirect White Paper Distribution

Once you attract readers to your white paper, the next two rules are about nurturing prospects, not forcing a sales conversation too early.

Generating sustained traffic supersedes capturing downloads

After you generate Internet chatter about your white paper, your next set of marketing tactics must be much different than those many companies are used to. The way we sum it up is to stop the selling before it even begins and to start the online engagement.

The typical way marketers handle people who want to read their white paper to force them to register for before they can download them. A number of studies show this to be an unproductive practice. A 2004 report by SiriusDecisions stated that 79% of the leads that marketing generates are not even pursued by a company’s sales force. And of the 21% of leads that are followed up, salespeople disqualify an astounding 70% because the prospect doesn’t have the budget, the timing is off or other factors. A 2008 study by International Data Corp. found that IT salespeople ignore as much as 60% to 70% of the leads that marketing throws their way.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Companies selling complex offerings—consulting firms promoting new strategic planning processes, software companies selling enterprise software, law firms pitching antitakeover advice—can’t hope for a prospect to become hot for their services just from reading a white paper. These buyers have a lot at risk when making such purchases: market share, sometimes company survival and always, their credibility in the organization.

The job of a white paper is simply to grab an executive’s attention on a topic that he is, or should be, concerned about. Marketers who attempt to move a prospect from a PDF download to a sales call are moving too fast. “This wastes both our time and the sales staff at the vendor’s time; we’re not necessarily expressing interest in the product, but we get sales calls based on our reading the whitepaper,[7]”is a typical reaction from an IT professional to companies that follow the “send and sell” approach. It’s a recipe for disappointment. To end this behavior, white paper downloads requiring registration must now go away.

But white papers in PDF form need to go away too:  A white paper needs to be just the first step in company’s online engagement with a prospect. An article needs to be in HTML—a piece on a website (like this article) that has other pieces around it that can maintain the viewer’s interest. It’s those other elements around the white paper that will get the viewer further engaged:

The job of the marketer at this stage is to have an online community, or at least a dedicated landing page, ready for the viewer who reads about a great white paper in his favorite blog, from the tweeters he follows, or in the LinkedIn group he belongs to. Attracting visitors from the right places—not counting and following up on PDF downloads—becomes the critical goal.

So does building the online community that we mentioned (call it a thought leadership microsite)—a website, or part of one, focused on a single topic and featuring ways for viewers to becoming actively engaged in the dialogue.

A good example of a thought leadership microsite is one McKinsey launched in 2009, called “What Matters.” The firm calls this site a “blog about topics of global importance, curated by McKinsey & Company.” But it is far more than your average blog. The site is a collection of 11 microsites on such far-ranging topics as climate change, geopolitics, innovation, and globalization. It features articles not just from McKinsey consultants but from experts outside the firm.

Exhibit 9: Front Page of McKinsey: What Matters

Most articles on McKinsey’s “What Matters” site elicit comments from viewers, and some pieces generate many comments. Readers are asked to get involved in other ways—commenting on McKinsey research studies in progress (one banking executive recently offered a 1,100-word comment on a McKinsey study on reserve currency) and commenting on debates in a “Debate Zone” featuring two authorities with opposing views on a topic.

We have found no other professional services firm with such an interactive thought leadership microsite. Many professional firms have a Web page that showcases articles, video clips, and other useful information on a single topic. But it’s still one-way communication. A typical example here by Hay Group is a page on its website on the subject of the intangibles of M&A. The article is very informative and the video interesting. But more could be done to bring viewers into the discussion, many of whom, we imagine, would have great stories to tell of employers that botched their mergers because they ignored the people issues of the type that Hay Group handles.

The point of creating such thought leadership microsites is not just to delve further into substantive issues and provide prospects a place to share their views with their peers. The ultimate goal is to increase your prospects’ interest in your knowledge and offerings by getting them to return to your site. By the time they are ready to have a sales discussion, they will better understand their own needs, know far more about your expertise, and have a much higher regard for it.

These are the kind of highly informed prospects—impressed by how your firm thinks about an issue and not pressured into a premature sales discussion—that will come to you with a serious intent to discuss how you could help them, and now.

Perpetual online communities displace intermittent marketing campaigns

The type of websites we’re talking about represent what perhaps is the most dramatic shift in thinking that white paper marketers will have to make: from regarding white papers as elements of periodic marketing campaigns to seeing them as representing a point of view which anchors an online community of people interested in the topic at hand.

This means a white paper marketing campaign never needs to end—as long as the service or product that it supports is still being sold. These thought leadership campaigns have no stop dates. They morph quickly into online communities whose audience grows ever larger—if, and only if, there is a reason to return: a new article, a new survey, new discussion comments and debates, and so on.

To be sure, none of this means that salespeople won’t have to sell or that marketing programs such as events, roundtables, conference booths and the like can go away. Business marketers will need to keep these programs because there is nothing to replace the human chemistry necessary between buyers and sellers of complex offerings. However, thought leadership microsites have the potential to bring far more qualified, educated and willing prospects to those events, sales meetings, and trade show floors. They tee up buyers who are much more likely and able to buy a company’s costly and complex services or products.

The changes in white paper marketing and distribution described in this article are significant.  They will require new skills (especially in how to navigate social media), new working relationships both inside and outside of the marketing group, and new mindsets (particularly around approaching prospects). However, companies that can make these changes and possess compelling content will be far better positioned to turn ineffective white paper marketing campaigns into highly productive lead-generation programs, ones that become even more effective over time.

In the third and final part of our series, we will discuss the biggest obstacles to producing and marketing white papers in the manner we have laid it. The obstacles are sizable but not insurmountable. They will not stop business marketers who are want to take their thought leadership marketing programs to the next level.

[1] According to Michael Stelzner, as quoted in the blog, Blogging & Beyond.

[2] A Google number from 2008. See here.

[3] Forbes Insight and Google study, “The Rise of the Digital C-Suite: How Executives Locate and Filter Business Information.” The study surveyed more than 350 executives at U.S. companies with revenue of at least $1 billion.

[4] Jupiter Research, March 2007 study, “Social Networking Sites: Defining Advertising Opportunities in a Competitive Landscape.”

[5] Marketing Sherpa. A July 2007 study found that 87% of people trust the recommendations of friends over those of critics.

[6] A 2009 number, according to the website

[7] A discussion at the Spiceworks Community

Originally published 02/25/2010


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