October 06, 2005
Let's face it, your white paper title is the make or break factor when it comes to downloads. Most prospects make a split-second decision to get a white paper based almost solely on the title and perhaps the author. Which types of titles get the best downloads? For this exclusive research story, we delved into the white paper response database at CNET Networks B2B sites (including TechRepublic and ZDNet.com), examining precisely which titles were the most popular with the most highly qualified prospects. Here's what we discovered:
White paper titles are just like email subject lines. If you pick a good one, your response rates can soar. Otherwise, you're out of luck, especially in competitive marketplaces.
Over the past 24 months, IT and business executives have downloaded more than 3.5 million white papers from CNET Networks B2B sites, including TechRepublic, ITPapers.com, Builder.com, ZDNet.com, and CNET News.com. We wondered what we could discover about which titles were the most popular, in particular with highly qualified prospects versus tire kickers.
For the purposes of this study, Liz Lightfoot CNET Networks B2B Director of Business Intelligence allowed our research team exclusive access to CNET's Business Technology Trax tool. Here are the results of our initial research:
Three Key "Ah-ha" Discoveries
Ah-ha #1: You can’t predict which job titles will read your white paper. Just because a white paper is targeted at a technical audience doesn’t mean that business executives won’t download it, just as developers are equally likely to download ROI case studies.
We were startled by the remarkable consistency in the white papers downloaded by IS/IT folks across the spectrum of job titles from IS/IT Developer through Executive/Senior VP. If a white paper title is popular, it's popular among everyone. If it's a dud ... you get the picture.
This may be explained by the viral factor. Many white paper downloads are passed around within the organization -- often by an evangelist for a particular technology who wants his or her fellow committee or department members to become more educated. As you know, those evangelists have unpredictable job titles and are nearly impossible to otherwise target. They can be almost anyone.
Ah-ha #2: Avoid the ‘clever’ plays on words. Even though some topics seem to scream for a pun, don’t do it. Phishing is a prime example, spawning titles like “Hook, Line and Sinker: Phishing attacks going professional” which few prospects wanted to download.
We found in general, titles that are easy to scan and understand are the most downloaded, so some titles can be too clever for their own good. In our experience, titles written by marketers with the audience in mind, tend to outperform titles written by professional writers who are more in love with verbiage itself.
Lesson -- even if you have a freelancer or analyst write the actual white paper itself, reserve the title for your marketing department's best copy person.
Ah-ha #3: 25% of CNET Networks B2B white paper downloaders were prospects in the "deep consideration" phase of the sales cycle. How do we know? Because those execs had downloaded a paper from at least two different vendors in a single category in a 30-day period.
This data startled us because most b-to-b marketers white paper marketing campaigns generate about 12-15% qualified, ready-to-buy-soon leads. But then, those campaigns are one-off promotions, heavily promoted across house files and outside media for a month or a quarter and then generally archived to make room for the next big promotion.
The key here is the word "archived." Prospects aren't ready to buy on your promotional schedule, based on when you happen to pop out a new white paper. Instead, they are ready to buy when, well, they are ready to buy. At that time they'll go on an educational white paper binge, searching archives on many Web sites (especially handy news sites with extensive archives from multiple vendors) to grab the info they require.
How can you take advantage of this archive-trolling factor? Try to make your white papers as evergreen as possible so you can keep them up online for a good long time (or periodically refresh the content of a proven-popular title.) Plus, make sure your own site archives are as search engine optimized and easy-to-navigate as possible. But don't rely on your own archives alone -- syndicate, syndicate, syndicate.
The more archives you can populate with your white paper, the more chances a truly qualified prospect will have to discover it at that perfect moment when they are ready to act on the information.
Top Five Rules for White Paper Title Success
#1. Just as with email subject lines that executives prefer, use clear, non-salesy wording. Example, the title of the most downloaded paper by serious consideration prospects in the Spam and Phishing category was: “Phishing and the Threat to Corporate Networks” . It's sober (not hypey) and to the point – names the topic in title, and says outright how it relates to the reader.
#2. Shorter is better. Fairly consistently, most downloaded titles contained 20% fewer words than less successful titles.
Part of that is simply that less popular white papers tend to be very product specific and have long, involved titles. Even so, it may also be that shorter titles get a higher response because they can be scanned quickly by the human eye.
Example: the top download in the category Digital Security was "The Starter PKI Program". One of the least downloaded in the same category was "An Introduction to Enterprise Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)". The titles say much the same thing, but the first says it quickly and simply.
#3. Break longer titles into sections.
When the topic is so complex that more words are required, successful titles break the information down using colons and subtitles. For example, in the category of CRM, where white papers tend to use case studies and have long titles, 70% of the top 10 white papers used a colon, compared to only 30% of the bottom 10. One example from the top 10: "Hosted CRM vs. In-House: Which Direction Should Your Company Take?"
#4. Add some ‘ing’ to your titles.
Offer specific advice on actions to take, and what solutions are offered. For example in the area of Security the titles of popular white papers include words such as ‘Eliminating’, ‘Identifying,’ Preventing’ and ‘Defending.’
#5. Check search marketing statistics before naming a white paper.
Remember that when prospects troll the Web looking for archived white papers on particular topics, they're using search either at an actual search engine or within the informational site they're visiting. If your title isn't optimized to include precise words that prospects are searching for, your paper may not appear in the results.
Example: downloads of white papers with the term "spyware" in the title were 77% more likely to be downloaded by best prospects than white papers with the "anti-spyware" in the title. Sounds crazy unless you're a search marketing expert. Turns out prospects search using the name of the problem they hope to solve far more often than they search using the name of the solution.
Top Four White Paper Title Mistakes to Avoid
Mistake #1. Less popular titles talk about impact, rather than actions steps and solutions. For example, in the area of Security, unpopular titles tend to include words like ‘About,’ ‘Impact of’ and ‘State of.’
Mistake #2. Vague titles aren’t intriguing, they’re just vague.
In a number of unpopular whitepapers we found that the titles went for impact by using a metaphor or catch phrase that didn’t have anything obvious to do with the topic. It’s a tactic that doesn’t seem to work. For example, the low number of downloads of ‘Wireless Security is Just Like Your House’ indicate that this title was more ambiguous than intriguing.
Mistake #3. Highly technical descriptions and using jargon are sure to limit the audience for your white paper. That may be the point if it’s for customer service after the sale, but for a piece that’s intended to be part of the sales process, take out the jargon.
Mistake #4. (Some) brand names in titles
There’s no hard and fast rule here, because sometimes your brand should lead in a white paper title if it's a brand loads of prospects are actively searching for (remember: this is to a large extent about search marketing.)
If you are marketing a lesser-known brand, don't make the mistake of thinking your white paper title is a great place for brand impact marketing. We won't embarrass the marketers behind several campaigns by naming their brands, but suffice to say unknown company names in titles almost always generated a handful of downloads. (It's pretty sad to see a paper only get nine or 14 downloads when others in the exact same category get almost 1,000 and the only difference appears to be an unknown brand name in the title.)
Some smaller and newer brands try to compete by using a brand name analyst (think Forester or Gartner Group) in the title. While we've heard plenty of anecdotal evidence over the years that this can add credibility to a white paper and increase downloads, we've also heard many marketers say it won't give a paper explosive growth.
CNET Network B2B's stats bear this out. In no category was a famous-name analyst or research firm paper anywhere near the top most popular downloads. Instead the most popular were the papers the prospects clearly felt would be the most useful for their jobs. They had a particular educational need or vendor-shopping problem and those white paper titles promised to solve it. Useful beats glamour hands-down anytime.
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