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Product Backgrounders: Should We Still Call Them “White Papers?”

by | Mar 19, 2014 | Collateral, White Papers, Technology Marketing | 2 comments

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading Eccolo Media’s latest B2B Technology Content Survey Report. And I noted two things – one new, one old – which, together, brought to mind a question.

The new thing was one of several new content categories Eccolo had added to their survey questionnaire. The category that caught my eye was “detailed technology guides/implementation scenarios.” This new category ranked 3rd in frequency of consumption among survey respondents, trailing only white papers and product brochures/data sheets. And it ranked 4th in influence on purchasing decisions, behind white papers, case studies and product brochures/data sheets.{1}

Pretty impressive for a brand new category of content, no?

The second thing, the old thing, was this: for the sixth year in a row, Eccolo found that tech buyers are most frequently disappointed by white papers with “too much focus on vendor or product information.”

But isn’t a technology guide… a white paper?

Now, I don’t know about you, but to me that “new” content type – a “detailed technology guide/ implementation scenario” – sounds like a “backgrounder”-type white paper.

Backgrounders, as described by white paper expert Gordon Graham in his book, White Papers for Dummies, are often used to explain the key features, functions and benefits of a specific product or service – in more detail than you would normally find in a product brochure or website copy.{2}

In other words, they often focus on vendor or product information… just like all those white papers that frequently disappoint technology buyers. And they’re the third most popular and fourth most influential form of marketing content.

So my question is this:

Given their product and vendor focus – and even though they were the “original” white paper archetype – should we still be labeling such documents as “white papers?” Or should we be calling them something else like, say, a “technology guide,” an “evaluator’s guide,” a “product briefing,” or whatever else best fits a particular backgrounder?

And if we do keep calling them white papers, how do we make sure our prospects aren’t disappointed in ours?

I know, I know. That’s really not one question. It’s two (which I’ve written as three!). But before we try to answer them, let’s take a quick review of the three main types of white papers.

Which white paper is which?

In his book, Graham describes three basic white paper archetypes, or flavors, as he calls them. And if you’ve read any of my last three essays, you already know that these are (1) the problem/solution, (2) the numbered list, and (3) the backgrounder.

Problem/solution white papers usually describe a new solution to a nagging industry problem. They target readers who are early in their purchasing process, and are often aimed at an executive audience. They are also the best white papers to use for generating leads.

The numbered list white paper, as the name implies, consists of a list of points focused on a specific topic. Numbered lists often take a controversial stand on an issue, and are best used in the middle of the sales cycle to nurture leads.

Both problem/solution and numbered list white papers should generally treat the solutions they describe in a generic way, and avoid delving deeply into the features of a specific product or service.

The third white paper archetype is the backgrounder. Backgrounders are typically aimed at a technical audience at the end of the sales cycle. They are often useful in helping that audience evaluate and compare competing solutions for their specific problem. Backgrounders are supposed to examine product features in depth.

Still a white paper?

So, should we continue to call product backgrounders “white papers,” even if tech buyers are often disappointed with white papers that focus on product info?
There are pros and cons.

On the positive side of the ledger, choosing a new name (like “technology guide”) for this type of white paper would give us an easy way to segregate white papers – technical from executive, late cycle from early cycle, etc. – on our website resources page. And placing them under a new heading – one that indicates their product-oriented nature – could reduce the possibility of reader confusion and disappointment.

On the negative side, the term “white paper” is very familiar among technical audiences. “Technology guide?” Well… not so much. Engineers have been seeking out product backgrounders as “white papers” for decades. Changing their label may make it harder for these readers to find them.

So, which way do we go? Personally, I don’t know. But if we don’t re-label them, then we need to take steps to be sure we’re getting the right white papers into the right hands at the right times, so we avoid disappointing our prospects.

Alternatives to re-labeling

And on this last point, I have three suggestions:

1. Make it clear in the title. Deceptive titles are another leading source of disappointment in white papers, according to a study by TechTarget and the CMO council.{3} So if your white paper is a product backgrounder, be sure to include the product name in the title. And make it obvious that it’s intended for a technical audience. If you make it clear from the outset that your white paper contains product info, readers won’t have cause to be disappointed.

2. Don’t use backgrounders in lead-gen campaigns. Graham maintains – and I’ve mentioned this in previous articles – that backgrounders aren’t great for generating leads. In fact, a product name in a white paper title tends to depress downloads. Jay Habegger, a former CEO of Bitpipe (now TechTarget) says, “We find that any white paper with a product name in the title does anywhere from 50 percent to an order of magnitude worse than if the title contains an educational or benefit statement.”{4}

3. Segregate different white paper types on your website. In a recent conversation I had with Gordon Graham on this topic he said, “As the number of white papers on a site multiplies, a vendor can help their visitors by organizing these in some way. That would most likely be by industry, by product/solution, by level of technical detail, perhaps by user role or stage in the buying process.”

On your resources page, for example, you may want to group white papers under a variety of descriptive subheadings. Or you might feature product backgrounders only on related product pages.

I would also recommend not featuring product backgrounders on your home page or in sidebars that appear on multiple pages. Save that valuable real estate for your problem/solution and numbered list white papers – those that are better suited for lead generation.


Product-oriented, backgrounder-type white papers continue to be valuable marketing tools. But they’re not for every audience, nor are they suitable for every moment of the sales cycle. Be sure you’re getting your product backgrounders into the right hands at the right time… even if it means calling them by a different name.

Take-Away Points

1. White papers continue to be the most consumed and most influential form of marketing content among technology buyers.

2. Technology buyers are most often disappointed by white papers focused too much on products or companies.

3. Yet, “detailed technology guides/implementation scenarios” – aka “backgrounder” white papers – are very popular with technology buyers.

4. So, to avoid causing disappointment with your product-specific white papers:

a. Make it clear in the title that your white paper focuses on a product.

b. Don’t use backgrounders for lead generation.

c. Segregate backgrounders from other white papers on your website.

d. Consider re-labeling product white papers as “technology guides” or similar.

Next Steps…

Need some help putting together a new backgrounder white paper that won’t disappoint your prospects? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at

{1} Eccolo Media 2014 B2B Technology Content Survey Report, Eccolo Media Inc., December 2013.
{2} Graham, Gordon, White Papers for Dummies, John Wiley and Sons, 2013.
{3} 2007 TechTarget and CMO Council Technology Buying and Media Consumption Benchmarking Survey.
{4} Graham, Gordon, How to generate leads with a white paper: tips from Tech Target execs, CompTIA Software CEO.

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