Beyond the White Paper

Videos and slideshows are taking center stage in presenting technical information

It sounds like a trick question, but it’s not: Do white papers need to be either white or paper? Authors are preparing a small but growing number of technical documents today that are intended to be read on a tablet or smartphone screen. And some of these multicolored, multimedia presentations and PowerPoint-style slideshows are having as big an impact as that of any traditionally arranged document. 


The growing popularity of these next-generation white papers can be gauged from the SlideShare website, which according to a spokesperson has 50 million unique visitors per month. Technology is the site’s second most popular slideshow category, just behind business and management.


These new white papers often make use of video, audio, and interactive elements. The most sophisticated versions, such as a presentation by market intelligence firm International Data Corp. on the world of big data, are complete microwebsites with video and graphics to convey the message. (For the more traditionally minded, IDC also made a printable PDF of “The Digital Universe in 2012” available for download.)


Gordon Graham, a white-paper writer based in Thessalon, Ont., Canada (and author of the forthcoming book White Papers for Dummies) agrees that the IDC site does a good job of integrating video, audio, graphics, and interactive elements to create an effective nonwhite, nonpaper white paper. But it’s a rare example, he warns, and most next-generation white papers show that the medium is still trying to find itself. “There are some major problems that afflict far too many of these documents,” Graham says. “Too much hype, and not enough evidence [is presented].”


In particular, Graham points to many video white papers that rely heavily on poorly shot talking heads combined with generic stock video footage. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to go through a phase like we did with clip art and stock photography while people get used to what really works and what doesn’t,” he says. 


Perhaps surprisingly, the workhorse file format for many of these new-media white papers remains the familiar PDF, because it can act as a general-purpose digital container, says Jonathan Kantor, a white-paper writer based in Tequesta, Fla. “As PDF technology is advancing, we’re starting to get requests for embedding short videos or online polls,” says Kantor.


But despite the opportunities provided by multimedia technology, creators should know their limits, Kantor adds. According to Graham, a typical white-paper budget might be US $4000 to $8000, while professional video production can run upward of $1000 per minute. Fortune 500 companies may have the budget needed to make good-looking 10- or 15-minute videos to incorporate within white papers or as substitutes for them, he says, but fledgling companies should consider more modest approaches.


“There’s a profound difference,” Graham observes, “between what’s possible technically and what’s doable practically for most people and most companies.” He says that companies shouldn’t feel compelled to jump on the video bandwagon and suggests they consider audio and animation instead. But although these approaches are cheaper than professionally produced video, they still require some investment. “I’ve heard of executives who use text-to-speech converters to make MP3s out of documents,” he says. “It’s this terrible computer voice. What’s wrong with getting some voice talent and getting someone to actually voice your six-page white paper?”

Kantor says professional voice actors can be hired for about $75 per hour via clearinghouse sites like Voice123.com. With such an actor working to a short script and free audio editing software such as Audacity, he says, “a writer or in-house marketing professional could add [good quality] narration to a PDF file without substantially increasing the development cost.”

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