There’s no punchline — it’s a serious question.

In the beginning…

The first whitepaper in the modern sense of the word was the "Churchill White Paper" of 1922. It detailed Britain’s intent to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. We think it’s safe to say that even the most ardent follower of Middle East politics would have found it a little dry.

But that’s what whitepapers were supposed to be. They were lengthy, serious, detailed and explicit. They carried weight.

Oh how things have changed

Nowadays, the term whitepaper still has a certain gravitas, and it’s very popular in B2B IT marketing where thought-leadership is king. Some companies, notably the big management consultancies, are still publishing lots of "proper" whitepapers packed with quantitative research, interviews, models, frameworks and recommendations. But for every one of those, we see a dozen PDFs that are short, aspirational and often quite salesy. Doesn’t that sound more like a brochure?

What’s in a name?

Don’t get us wrong: there’s nothing wrong with brochures, and we’re always advising clients to keep their collateral as short as possible. But there’s a wide spectrum of documents out there, and the label “whitepaper” is being stretched too far. In the last year we’ve written dozens of “whitepapers”, ranging from a light four-page introduction to green IT to a weighty 32-page investigation of the changes in the media and entertainment sector in conjunction with MIT.

So what?

But why do we care that "whitepaper" covers such a broad range of documents? It’s all about reader expectations. When a person sees “download our free whitepaper”, they have no idea what they are going to get. It could be a short primer on the subject that they could read in a coffee break, or a tome that they’d need a long weekend and a degree in the subject to understand. That kind of confusion doesn’t do anybody any good.

So what’s the answer? We’re marketers — we name things all the time. So why hasn’t anybody created a better system? Here’s our suggestion for a taxonomy of papers to start the ball rolling.

Point of view paper

Sometimes a pure “brochure” isn’t enough. You need to do more than demonstrate that your widget is better than your competitors’ products: you want to show that you understand a topic and how what you offer solves a problem.

4-8 pages, lots of pictures, easy to read, biased towards selling.

Green paper

B2B marketing borrowed the term whitepaper from politics, so why not borrow the term green paper too? A green paper is meant to introduce a topic, show a variety of opinions and initiate a discussion. That sounds like a perfect name for the shorter papers that we see so much of nowadays.

8-16 pages, considers many viewpoints, provocative.

Whitepaper

A piece of genuine thought leadership. Must clearly state an opinion, and ideally include in-depth interviews and research to back it up.

12-48 pages, diagrams and tables, (mainly) unbiased.

Got a better idea? Let us know in the comments below.

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