Three Tips to Engage the 'Short Attention' White Paper Reader

Three Tips to Engage the 'Short Attention' White Paper Reader
Savvy Guest - Mon Aug 10, 2009 @ 12:11AM
Comments: 26

Today we're pleased to feature a guest post from Jonathan Kantor, white paper expert and author of the The White Paper Pundit blog. We like Jonathan's approach of writing and designing for the short attention span reader, and here he shares some tips with us.

AttentionSocial Media has been heralded as the great new frontier in B2B marketing. But beyond the hype, many experts are missing its hidden impact on reading time, message retention, and the willingness of busy executives to read lengthy, detailed business information. As we grow accustomed to the short, quick messaging methods commonly associated with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, our ability to read detailed white papers will eventually decline.

According to Jakob Nielsen via a study entitled, "Long vs. Short Articles as Content Strategy", web users reviewed both short and long online articles, and were asked to assign a number of "units" based on its cost/benefit relationship.

The study showed that reader retention improved by cutting total word count without impacting content effectiveness. Short articles used in the study that were 60% of the length of their longer counterparts still provided 70% of the benefit.

Nielsen's conclusion: People prefer to read short articles; they mainly want to skim highlights. As he indicates, "A good editor should be able to cut 40% of the word count while removing only 30% of an article's value."

Clearly, the size of the typical online article is much shorter than the average white paper. But based on these findings, B2B marketers can apply several white paper principles that can produce a greater impact with 'short attention span' readers. Here are three of them:

1. Plan Your White Paper Length

Plan on a white paper with a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 8 pages to provide enough information without overwhelming your 'short attention' reader. But don't make it too short. While initially appealing from a cost containment perspective, very short white papers that are less than 5 pages are primarily focused on solution advantages and do not provide enough background information to thoroughly educate the business reader.

2. Apply 'Attention-Generating' Enhancements

The addition of sidebar callouts (pull quotes), shaded text boxes, and short bullet lists are an effective way to fulfill the Social Media model of short, succinct messaging in your white paper. Use them on each page to deliver bottom-line business messages within a short content space.

3. Include both Executive and Concluding Summaries

Contrary to popular opinion, the addition of summaries do not dissuade readers from reading core white paper content. But without them, business readers are forced to review lengthy and detailed information to uncover key bottom-line messages. Attention is often lost after only a few pages, so use both executive and concluding summaries to focus your reader toward the information 'nuggets' in your white paper. If genuinely interested, they WILL find them!

If you'd like read some additional tips that will enhance reader attention in your white paper, please check out this post from Michele entitled, "Eight Ways to Make Key Points in Your White Paper Stand Out."

About the author: Jonathan Kantor is the principal with The Appum Group, "The White Paper Company." You can read more about 'Short Attention Marketing' via his blog, The White Paper Pundit.

Comments: 26


1. Jonathan Kranz  |  my website   |   Mon Aug 10, 2009 @ 03:13AM

I'm not so sure about the limitations on length. Jacob Nielsen is highly regarded for his research on web readability. But there's an important limitation to his work all marketers must keep in mind: his studies concentrate on "readability," not "persuasion." While the two are, of course, related, they are not the same, and I'm concerned that his recommendations for improving the former may compromise the latter. After all, we're not in the business of merely distributing information in the most efficient manner possible -- we're responsible, one way or another, for stimulating customer ACTION.

I can anticipate a response that if a document isn't read in the first place, persuasion is moot. But from years of experience, I know that the key to readability isn't length, it's relevance. If a given document isn't relevant, it can never be short enough. If it is relevant, readers (particularly qualified readers) will want to absorb as much useful information as possible. And after all, I'm not interested in holding the attention of readers in general; I'm only interested in the hears and minds of qualified prospects.

2. Jonathan Kantor  |  my website   |   Mon Aug 10, 2009 @ 08:17AM


Actually, I think length and relevance (and format) ARE becoming increasingly related. You can have the most relevant white paper on earth, but if the manner in which it is written is long winded, and its presentation takes on the appearance of a government document, I doubt today's reader will get past page three.

If relevance was all that was important with information, we'd find plenty of text-only websites with nothing more than a Sitemap to guide us to the content. We know that isn't what's popular today in order to engage online users. We need a certain degree of design and format in order to deliver relevant business messages. As Mary Poppins sang, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down".

The point about Social Media is key here. A society weaned on Social Media message formatting will quickly find an all text, left flush white paper boring. I can't speak for you, but most of my customers echo my sentiments here. The addition of engaging elements such as Exec Summaries and callouts help to engage readers and draw them into more relevant and detailed content. With these and others elements, an increasing population of readers will pass on reading the entire white paper regardless of its degree of relevance.

3. Timo Elliott  |  my website   |   Mon Aug 10, 2009 @ 10:17AM

Unfortunately, one could follow all these points and still end up with an awful white paper -- as most of them are. No amount of "attention grabbing enhancements" can make up for the fact that too many white papers are written "at people" rather than "for people", full of windy marketing hyperbole and tired, overused superlatives. Those senior executives that don't have time to read anything but the summary? You'll find them poring over long, detailed articles in the Harvard Business Review, the Economist, or the New Yorker. Why? Simply because these sources are well written with interesting, useful content. The first rule of grabbing the "short attention" reader surely has to be "make it interesting!"

4. Susan Fantle  |  my website   |   Mon Aug 10, 2009 @ 11:16AM

This is great material which I'm going to pass along. I have tech clients who write their own white papers in-house and the writers are engineers not communicators. Many of the papers are only four pages and fail to provide any substantive information.

The content of a white paper is very important for how it positions the company offering it. The recipient who reads it must see value in the information.

From a marketer's point of view, however, I must add this: If a white paper is being offered as a tool to generate qualified leads, once the paper has been requested, it has done its primary job -- whether the recipient reads it or not.

5. Jonathan Kantor  |  my website   |   Mon Aug 10, 2009 @ 04:37PM

Timo -

I agree with you on your senior point, but that was a different generation before the advent of Social Media. How many Gen X or Yers do you know read the Economist, especially those who don't work for a Wall Street . And if they do, how much of those detailed articles do they read? My guess, is not much. Interesting content goes unread unless a reader can be first engaged by abstracts, summaries and key points to draw them in. Making it interesting is part of this equation.

Susan - Thanks for the compliment. While getting the lead is one objective, wouldn't closing the deal be the best of both worlds? I'd like to think that beside generating a lead, most marketers want the white paper to go one step beyond and generate a "call to action". In other words, take the sales process to the next level. To do that, a white paper needs to do more than merely educate, it has to convince as well.

Thanks Folks!


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