What's the Difference Between White Papers and Ebooks?

By Helen McCrone, B2B Copywriter | Word count 2,068

What’s the difference between white papers and ebooks, and which one is best for my marketing goal? Those two questions I often get asked as an SEO copywriter and content writer. 

And that's okay. Part of my job is to help clients understand the various types of marketing content out there and what their purpose is. After all, unless you’re a marketer, you’re unlikely to know your vlogs from your microsites.

There's a lot of general confusion around white papers and ebooks, so when someone asks me to write a white paper, I first ask them a series of simple questions to determine if it’s really a white paper they want. Quite often, it’s an ebook they need instead.

In this article, I explain the similarities and differences between the two. I follow up with a list of seven questions that will help you decide which of these two marketing tools is best for you at any given time.

The similarities between ebooks and white papers

Ebooks and white papers are similar in several respects. Both can be used to position your company as a knowledgeable resource if you know how to publish them effectively. Full of facts and insights, they help demonstrate that you’re a brand to be trusted.

Likewise, both forms of content are used to generate leads. They make an ideal downloadable gift in exchange for a name and email address. If you want to encourage people to subscribe to your newsletter or sign up for a webinar, you offer them a free ebook or white paper for opting in. Nice!

Ebooks and white papers also have a good lifespan compared to many other forms of online content. You can use them for at least one to two years before they’re due for a refresh. What’s more, both can be repurposed in a number of ways: Create a series of blog posts, turn them into a slideshow, design an infographic, include them a newsletter or hand them out in printed format at a trade show or presentation.

Finally, there’s the length. Most ebooks and white papers are between 1,500-5,000 words, but they can be much longer than that.

Okay, those are the similarities. Now let’s look at the differences…

Different Topic & Focus 

Ebooks provide helpful content on a topic of interest. Their role in life is to be informative. They don’t exist to promote your brand. In other words, your ebook shouldn’t be seen to be self-serving. If it is simply a thinly disguised product brochure, you won’t be able to establish trust with the reader (which is the point of the exercise).

Ebooks show how to alleviate or even stop a particular pain point. You show the reader you know what is bothering them, and then you tell them how they can solve the problem.

Ebooks tell consumers how to solve common problems

Ebook: How to deal with difficult employees
Ebook: Blog Topics Cover Page

White papers, on the other hand, present a new solution to an old problem. You explain how your product or service can benefit the reader using a factual, non-biased approach. The focus is almost always on complex, innovative or expensive solutions, which is why industries such as technology, finance, healthcare and engineering tend to favor white papers.

Here’s how Purdue Owl defines white papers:

“Typically, the purpose of a white paper is to advocate that a certain position is the best way to go or that a certain solution is best for a particular problem. When it is used for commercial purposes, it could influence the decision-making processes of current and prospective customers.”

And in his book Writing White Papers, Michael A Stelzner says that a white paper is “a technical or business benefits document that introduces a challenge by its readers and makes a strong case why a particular approach to solving a problem is preferred”.

Different Style & Format

Ebooks are generally much lighter in style than white papers in style and format. They have fewer words per page and adopt a more informal tone of voice. You’ll see chunks of text under bold headlines and surrounded by bullets, callouts, sidebars and graphs. Joe Pulizzi, one of the world’s leading experts on content marketing, describes ebooks rather delightfully as ‘white papers on steroids’.

The visually engaging style of ebooks

'A ROADMAP TO SELLING YOUR HOME: Your Step-by-Step Guide to a Successful & Profitable Sale' makes clever use of graphics to keep the reader engaged.

Each recommended step is highlighted on an eight-stage road map. Note the sparing use of text per page and the bold, colorful headings.

Visually engaging style of ebooks

The most successful ebooks are visually appealing. White papers also benefit from good design work, lots of white space and colorful graphics. But make no mistake. They’re the more serious cousins of ebooks. White papers are constructed in a linear fashion to help build a convincing case. They contain facts only. There are no opinions, there is no exaggeration, and all assertions are backed up by proof (often in footnotes).

The linear style of white papers

White paper 2-column layout

'A FRESH LOOK AT RESPONSE RATES: 9 Best Practices for Colleges and Universities Moving to Online Course Evaluations' uses a typical two-column format with footnotes.

This layout supports Graham Gordon's journalistic style of writing, helps convey a more formal tone, and reveals how much research has gone into the paper.

Note the use of white space and headings, which is so important for readability.

Different time & effort

Ebooks typically take less time than white papers to produce (which is why the copywriting fee is comparatively less). It usually takes a professional copywriter between five and twenty days to deliver the content, although it could take longer if a lot of research is involved and it’s particularly lengthy.

Much more time is needed to produce a white paper. They require a lot planning and a bigger production team (e.g. writer, project champion, subject matter experts, illustrator, designer, review team). In total expanse of time, you’re looking at four to twelve weeks. In fact, some white papers require significant planning before production begins.

Different stages of the sales cycle

Ebooks are best used early on in the sales cycle, what marketers call the awareness-education stage. Your goal at this stage is to draw attention to your brand and product in a non-salesy way. You do this by providing content that’s informative and shows potential customers there’s a solution to their problem (and you know what their problem is because you’ve identified it).

Remember, this is not a sales pitch. It’s an opportunity to say ‘Hey, I understand what your pain point is’. The best ebooks are educational, easy to read, and visually engaging, which makes them perfect for the awareness stage.  People are not ready to make a buying decision, so if you try to sell them something at this point, they’ll likely go elsewhere.

Unlike ebooks, white papers can be used at any stage of the sales cycle, although the stage will determine the type of white paper developed. As white paper guru Graham Gordon explains in his definitive guide ‘White Papers for Dummies’, white papers generally fall into three main categories:

  • Backgrounder (used for bottom of sales funnel): helps a buyer compare competing solutions and make a recommendation to the board. Consequently, it’s full of technical details and business benefits.
  • Numbered list (ideal for middle of sales funnel): gives a fresh perspective or some quick tips on an industry subject in order to help readers solve a problem or do their job better.
  • Problem/solution (ideal for top of sales funnel): This most complex type of white paper uses credible facts and logical arguments to present a new solution to a serious problem that afflicts many companies in a specific industry.

Different target audience

Another way to differentiate between an ebook and a white paper is the target audience. Readers of ebooks tend to be a broad church, from customers and suppliers to business partners and consumers.

Ebooks often target a broader audience than white papers

Ebook How to Deal with Difficult Employees

HOW TO DEAL WITH DIFFICULT EMPLOYEES: Essential tips for new leaders on getting the best out of every team member’.

This ebook, which I wrote for Open Gate Consulting, is a good example of targeting a broader audience that has a specific problem.

It's aimed at new, front-line and mid-level managers who work in a range of industries and are seeking to improve their leadership skills generally and facing a very specific (and common) issue.

Readers of white paper, on the other hand, tend to come from a narrower field. They include B2B buyers, senior executives, analysts, technicians, journalists and engineers. All are trained sceptics, and all will be expecting an in-depth, factual read.

White papers tend to target a narrower audience 

Aprobe: A Non-Intrusive Framework for Software Instrumentation’, published by OC Systems and written by Graham Gordon, is a good example of how white papers target a narrower audience.

It’s aimed specifically at experienced software development teams who want a cleaner approach to debugging their applications and finding coding bottlenecks.

Aprobe Technology Overview Gordon Graham Cover.pdf

Final thoughts on differences between white papers and ebooks

It should be noted that there are no hard, definitive lines dividing ebooks and white papers. The differences I've outlined above are fairly subjective, and you could argue (indeed marketers do) that one person's white paper is another person's ebook. Certainly, I've come across white papers that I would consider ebooks, though interestingly, the reverse tends to be less common.

It's possible some companies feel that, by calling a document a white paper instead of an ebook, they're raising the quality of the content in the eyes of the reader. Personally, I would caution against this tactic. You risk disappointing the reader by promising them something you're not actually providing, and that could put a dent in your brand image.

How to decide whether you want an ebook or white paper?

So, now you understand the differences between ebooks and white papers, you just need to decide which is the best content marketing device for you. Which one will be better at generating leads and positioning your company as a knowledgeable resource? The best way to decide that is to answer the following seven questions

  1. 1
    How complicated or expensive is your product or service?
    The more intricate, innovative or expensive your solution is, the more suitable it is for a white paper. But almost any topic is suitable for an ebook.
  2. 2
    At what stage of the sales cycle will the content be used?
    If you’re planning to use your content at the awareness stage, and ebook or problem/solution white paper is the most suitable. If you want to nurture prospects in the middle of the funnel or close a sale, go for a white paper.
  3. 3
    What is the main goal of the content?
    Want to simply inform or educate to raise brand awareness? An ebook is probably the better choice. If you want to get on a buyer’s shortlist, cast doubt on competitors, or redefine a market space, a white paper is much more suitable.
  4. 4
    What style of content do you want to use?
    Ebooks are a casual read; white papers are a deep read. Which one suits your brand and product better?
  5. 5
    Who’s your target audience?
    Are you targeting consumers or CEOs? Know your audience and give them what the need and expect. A shopper who’s turned to Google for their research will appreciate an engaging ebook. A commercial buyer who’s assessing a vendor’s offering requires a white paper that provides accuracy, substantiated benefits, and no false claims.
  6. 6
    How much production time do you have?
    White papers are more complex than ebooks, and they often include a planning stage, so they take more time to produce. You have to allow between four and twelve weeks on average. If you’re in a hurry, a white paper is not for you.
  7. 7
    What’s your budget?
    Ebooks are generally less expensive to produce because they involve less research, fewer people and less production time.

Once you've answered all seven questions, you should have a clear idea of which content marketing tool will best suit your purposes.

I hope this article has proved useful. If so, please share it with others!

Helen

Helen McCrone is a British copywriter who has set up home in sunny Florida, USA. She's been helping businesses communicate effectively in writing since 2004. She relies on yoga, her faith, her American husband and her English sense of humor to keep her sane. :-)

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