B2B buyers are increasingly hungry for information throughout the buying process, and they have more choice than ever about how they get it. Infographics, podcasts, videos and social content are all popular.

Two thirds of buyers will have viewed at least three pieces of content before reaching their purchasing decision.1

But at some point in the process, many buyers ultimately need something with a bit more meat on it to help them make informed decisions. That’s why 83% of buyers say they turn to the good ol’ whitepaper, in all its guises, for advicemaking it the most popular type of content.

Thought leadership reports are a great opportunity for you as a marketer to establish your brand as the authority on a topic, and guide the industry conversation.

But when there are so many reports out there to choose from, how can you make sure that yours give the readers the value they’re looking for.

1. Write what you know and back it up

Savvy readers can spot shoddy content a mile off. If you’re going to write about something, you need to do it welland that means not just having a fresh perspective on your chosen topic to help you stand out from the crowd, but backing up your conclusions, recommendations and predictions with credible evidence.

Where can you get evidence? The best source is primary research you commission, because it’s unique, current, and tailored to fit the story you’re trying to tell.

But you can also use examples that you’ve sourced from your customer base and the wider market, interviews with experts, or data that you buy from a trusted name like a business school or publication. Alternatively, you can use the data you have internally about how your customers use your products and how you use technology. For example, backup tool Backblaze makes a big splash whenever it publishes data about user backup habits, or even hard drive failure rates in its data centres.

And if you don’t have the budget for any of this? Well, you might still need (for whatever reason) to publish a report on a topic, and it’s certainly possible to go a long way with desk research. But be aware that without some “secret sauce” (or should that be “source”?), you’re missing a powerful reason for readers to trust what you have to say.

2. Make your design as good as your ideas

Photographs and illustrations, charts and maps, diagrams and pictograms: the whitepapers that have them are the ones that get us talking. Although buyers look to whitepapers to provide informative content, nothing will turn off a potential customer more than an impenetrable wall of textand wouldn’t it be a crying shame to convince a reader to download your paper only to lose them on page two?

Beauty and functionality should go hand in hand; the design of your whitepaper needs to complement your content rather than draw attention from it. Eye-catching visuals are a good way of breaking up blocks of text, so consider using standfirsts to attract the reader or perhaps callout boxes to draw out key points in the text. Another thing to consider is how people read today. Make sure your designs suit smaller screens as well as conventional PDFs and prints.

And lastly, if you’ve gone to all that work to create beautiful and informative charts, make it easy for readers to grab those assets and use them in their own articles, blogs, presentations and business cases. You could go so far as to host chart graphics individually on Pinterest or Flickr so they’re available at a click.

3. Help your audience engage

Engagement is a worn-out buzzword, but there’s evidence that people do want a richer connection with content. It’s not just about passive consumptionthey want to interact, whether that’s by sharing what they find or having a deeper interaction through personalisation.

(87%) of buyers expect a more tailored and personalised experience from online content.2

We’ll be honest: there are still technical limitations around interactivity, and your content may have to work harder to make it happen, but there’s plenty you can do.

  • Calculators and assessments: Whether it’s a Cosmo-style self-assessment or a TCO/ROI calculator, buyers love anything that enables them to personalise a report’s findings to their specific situation.
  • Filters: Similarly, you can include filters on charts and other content to cut data by region or by industry to give a more tailored view of your findings and enable richer analysis.
  • Tests and surveys: Simple “did you know” tests and short polls embedded within reports can bring out your audience’s competitive side and can gather tid-bits of data for you.
  • Action buttons: People like to share, and it’s your agency’s job to make your whitepapers as PR friendly as possible. Trivialities such as adding action buttons enable readers to be vocal about your content on social media.
  • Navigation links: We’ve talked before about the importance of signposting, and one of the most common reasons readers abandon a white paper part way through is impatience: they can’t find their way easily to the answers they’re looking for. Navigation bars, tabs and hyperlinks can help people move around even long documents quickly.
  • Embedded content: OK, multimedia is a very 90s word, but perhaps it’s time for a resurgence. Depending on your filetype, you can include GIFs, videos and other content right inside your report. Think about bringing a complex solution diagram to life with animation, or replacing a dull text-based foreword or case study with a talking-head video.

It’s an ongoing journey.

If today your business mainly kicks out dull technical papers or feature-article style opinion pieces, it can seem like a giant leap to be publishing data-driven, highly visual and interactive reports. But that’s what readers wantand it’s what your competitors are doing. Building up a readership and attracting more PR coverage isn’t easy, and it depends on having a publishing programme with a regular output of cohesive content to support your overall messaging agenda. But spicing up your whitepapers is a very good place to start. The best ones out there build a relationship with the reader from the very beginning and make the journey through the content pleasurable and engaging. Make sure yours do, too.

1. 2015 content survey

2. Ibid.

Posted by John on 6 May 2016