Remember the days when the white paper was the go-to (if not only) content marketing tool? Those days are such a distant memory that the term "content marketing" didn't even exist during the white paper's heyday in the 1990s. In its place have emerged a whole array of content channels-blogs, magazines, videos, social networking campaigns, and so on-and a new collective term for them, that delivers dynamic and engaging branded information, the ultimate intention of which is to drive sales.
None of these content marketing tools in their own right, however, is the direct successor of the white paper. No blog post or magazine article can make as direct a business case as a white paper could-or, if it tried to, you'd probably be in some hot water with your chief content officer for making it too much of a hard sell. In an effort to merge the dynamic, engaging presentation that is inherent in successful content marketing tools with a white paper's straightforward, comprehensive presentation of a business case, content marketers are turning to the latest proven tool in publishing-the ebook.
"Simply put, ebooks are an evolution of the old white paper," says Rachel Christianson, director of fulfillment at the social media marketing company HipLogiq. "But they're way more user-friendly and not weighed down with lots of data."
Christianson manages a team at the Dallas-based company that produces hundreds of blogs and ebooks a month for its clients. A typical client is looking for a marketing channel that can answer all of a potential customer's questions about a product or a service in a manner that is clear, interesting, and visually appealing.
"For instance," Christianson says, "when someone is considering Lasik eye surgery, they're not likely to be calling around to the eye surgeons in their area and asking questions. Instead, they'll be doing internet searches. When they come across an ebook that answers all of their questions about the procedure-how to qualify, how much it costs-they'll come away feeling fully informed."
By putting that ebook into the hands-or, rather, onto the screens-of interested individuals, and by requiring that they provide you with their email and other information in order to register for the download, marketers can then follow up with potential customers who will be well-informed and primed to make use of the product or service in question.
"The ebook has become the current standard for the long-form content package," says Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI). "A lot of companies are moving away from the verbose white paper to the sleeker, more appealing ebook."
HipLogiq's Christianson employs five basic guidelines for her company's ebooks to ensure that they're offering the level of novelty and sophistication that consumers have come to expect. These guidelines are 1) make content crisp and concise; 2) include lists, tips, and FAQs, as those are often the most influential types of content; 3) include a clear call-to-action; 4) make sure your content has voice and personality; and 5) keep content relevant without straying from your message.
Those guidelines, in addition to capitalizing on an ebook's inherent design and functional advantages to print (such as dynamic layout, a linked table of contents, and graphics), are HipLogiq's keys to creating a successful ebook.
CMI's Pulizzi notes that distribution is another essential element to making an ebook work well as a content marketing tool.
"For most marketers, it can be pretty easy to get an ebook out," Pulizzi says. "You have to do your audience analysis and everything else you're supposed to be doing with a content marketing strategy. From there you can embed your ebook in a blog post, spread it socially, or distribute it the old fashioned way-as a PDF link in an email-and call it a day."
One distribution channel that Pulizzi sees as being widely underutilized for content distribution, particularly long-form publications such as ebooks, is SlideShare, which, in Pulizzi's words, is "the YouTube for PowerPoint presentations." Just as with YouTube, SlideShare allows users to create channels and post content. And it's not just PowerPoint presentations that SlideShare supports-it's also a platform for webinars, videos, and PDFs, which, in turn, make it exceptionally well-suited to distribute ebooks to a wide audience. (SlideShare is among the 200 most-visited websites in the world.)
Finally, Pulizzi points out that with a carefully planned strategy, a well-conceived ebook can also be a launching pad for a whole host of marketing content, giving marketers far more bang for their buck than just a single document.
Pulizzi points to the Kelly Outsourcing & Consulting Group (Kelly OCG), a division of workforce solutions giant Kelly Services, which he called his "favorite example" of how an ebook can be utilized as a content marketing tool.
"They start with a story idea, and a handful of personas that they'd like to target it to," Pulizzi says. "From there, they know that their end deliverable will be an ebook, but in the course of its production they will create 20 separate pieces of content that can be distributed separately and individually. [There] may be Facebook posts, or tweets, or email content, all created in line. They've got editors on board from the beginning and a designer producing art so that all of the content is coherent from start to finish. In the end, the program is compiled into an ebook, but they've gotten a lot more mileage out of it along the way."
Revisiting the old idea of the white paper may not be as it seems. With the right guidelines, a good distribution plan, and a sense of where the finished product will fit into your overall strategy, an ebook could be the content marketing tool that you never expected.
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