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Cloudy With a Chance of White Papers

30 Sep
cloud softwareI remember when Salesforce launched at the turn of the century. Okay, it was the early 2000s, but saying “turn of the century” makes it sound a lot cooler.
A publishing business I was working for at the time adopted Salesforce as its new CRM. We had a really young MBA for a CEO and he was always willing to try new things.
Salesforce was one of the earliest SaaS success stories. I recall that switching to Salesforce from our old, custom-built database required a steep learning curve for many of the sales personnel. This was back in the day before clean, user-friendly, WYSIWYG-packed applications were the norm. Workers were not yet hard-wired to navigate a cloud interface.
Switching to a new CRM also likely involved a lengthy contract obligation and manually migrating information from our outdated system. At the time, I’ll bet our CEO read quite a few Salesforce white papers and technical backgrounders to determine if the CRM would be a good fit.

Now My Head Is In the Clouds

Fast forward to 2013.  How many new cloud-based services do you sign up for each month? How many free SaaS demos do you try? As an online marketer involved in SEO, paid advertising, and social media, I’d estimate that I create about five new accounts monthly. Last week alone, I signed up for Trello, Triberr and a silly wedding planning app that shall remain nameless (I am getting hitched in a few months!)
The SaaS model is now ubiquitous. Anyone can demo a complex software solution in minutes for free or a low cost and with very little risk.  User-friendly dashboards and universal design best practices, make it quick and easy to learn how to use new software. In addition, many APIs play nicely with one another. This makes it easy for a Salesforce user to integrate other favorite tools like MailChimp or Google Apps.

So, let me get to the point and ask a few marketing questions:

Are traditional white papers still relevant marketing tools for selling SaaS products? Have free trials and monthly plans significantly lowered the risk of trying new cloud applications?  How have these changes impacted the B2B sales cycle?

White Papers vs. Ebooks and Numbered Lists

Gordon Graham, a.k.a. “That White Paper Guy,” recently authored “White Papers for Dummies,” a thorough guide to writing long form B2B content. In this book, Graham describes traditional white papers, such as technical backgrounders for CTOs or CIOs and Problem/Solution papers for executives. Along with those two styles of white papers, Graham also recommends an ebook, or numbered list paper. This is a more informal document that reads like a magazine article or an extended blog post.
There are still many B2B situations where a white paper makes sense. However, I think that many SaaS providers today, especially smaller startups, may benefit from a numbered list or ebook more than a more traditional white paper. 
Today you can demo a SaaS product, try it out for a month, and then cancel or sign up. In the digital marketing space, I see a ton of software startups with small teams and budgets selling services to other small and medium-sized organizations. In this space, the numbered list has several benefits:
1. Numbered lists are scannable and easy to read and contain actionable advice that will make the reader’s life easier. This will appeal to small business owners, who are pressed for time and always looking for ways to streamline and improve operations.
2.  The soft-sell approach of an ebook or numbered list advances the customers who are already in your sales pipeline. An ebook also works to attract new leads by addressing important industry questions or universal concerns. This is a big plus for startups who are trying to get their name out there and spread brand awareness.
3. Unlike a white paper, an ebook is not an obvious sales tool.  This makes ebooks and numbered lists more sharable and easier to promote on social media.  When you download a white paper, you know you’ll be getting a call from a sales person. A numbered list or ebook does not have the same “salesy” reputation (yet . . .).
What do you think about using ebooks and numbered list content in lieu of more formal white papers? Please share any thoughts or reactions in the comments below!
Photo credit: jojo nicdao