A Brief History of the White Paper in Content Marketing

Are White Papers Still Engaging Your Audience?

As B2B marketers, you operate in the shadows of “sold, not bought” categories. You have the responsibility of not only selling your technology, but also selling your category.

At the end of the day, you want to find, reach, and engage your buyers. A recent study* found that large companies cite “creating engaging content” as their biggest marketing challenge. With the ever-increasing influence of mobile on content marketing and the expectations of buyers growing as quickly as their options are, you might be struggling to engage your audience, measure the impact of your content marketing efforts, and maintain a dynamic resource library that interests your prospects.

Are you finding it difficult to engage your audience with content?

A Truly Mobile Content Experience

If you’re leading your mobile visitors to landing pages that are optimized for mobile but the final “gimme” is a PDF download of a white paper, you’re missing the plot. Users need to be able to view and share content from their mobile devices from beginning to end — meaning your offers must also be optimized for mobile.

PDFs may be viewable and even downloadable from most mobile devices, but they must be manually “pinched” and resized to be read on these devices. And even if you managed to include incredibly large text to make reading easy on mobile, you’re missing out on valuable analytics that could tell you how mobile users are interacting with your content.

What Is a White Paper, Anyway?

You might picture a white paper as long-form content presented in a PDF. In current B2B marketing, the PDF and the white paper go hand in hand.

Play white pa·per: noun An authoritative long-form report offering perspective on an issue, tools to solve the reader’s problems, or information to make a decision.

Although the content and the information shared in thought leadership resources is more valuable now than ever, PDFs are hindering your ability to measure the effectiveness of your content and engage your audience.

A Brief History of the White Paper

Examples of content marketing can be found as early as 1895, but the term “white paper” originated in government with the Churchill White Paper of 1922.

The early 1990s brought white papers to business.

Today, 64 to 81 percent of B2B marketers use white papers and articles as part of their content marketing strategies. But only 59 percent of B2B marketers believe white papers are effective.*

The confidence gap led us on the hunt for how we could reinvent the white paper. Here’s what we found.

The PDF: The Good, the Bad, and the Boring

The Good:

PDF is an abbreviation for “Portable Document Format” and is a proprietary format of Adobe Systems. PDFs were initially created to offer consistency in experience across multiple platforms and devices. But today, the devices — and the way your buyers use them — have changed.

The PDF was created in the early 1990s as a new, platform-independent file format with these goals:

  1. Easily view and exchange documents electronically
  2. Optimize documents for viewing on the Web
  3. Represent text and graphics with consistency in formatting
  4. Enhance content with interactive links

PDFs do offer security and ease of use for most buyers because the reading programs are free (vs. Microsoft Office being required to view Word documents), the files are easy to download, and they’re relatively easy to attach and share.

PDFs also offer reasonable file sizes for sharing and downloading, compatibility across multiple platforms, and the ability to embed any fonts within the final, read-only document.

The Bad:

Although PDFs were the standard format for more than 20 years, you’re probably seeing a decrease in leads from standard white papers thanks to a new trend — content fatigue.

Buyers are presented with such an overwhelming amount of content from various sources that another download often requires prior trust in the source or exposure to the brand.

Shorter attention spans are also creating increased interest in animated or interactive formats over the PDF. And without any interactive functionality outside of embedded links, if you’re relying on PDF presentation for your thought leadership resources, you’re missing out on some big opportunities for engagement.

Other huge disadvantages of PDFs include:

  • No indexed copy for SEO. Your thought leadership isn’t helping you get found if it’s not indexable.
  • Difficulty reading and downloading on tablets and mobile devices. Let’s say your website and landing pages are optimized for mobile. If the end result for a user is to download or view an asset that is not optimized for mobile, the process is broken.
  • Complete lack of analytics. Using the standard landing page-to-PDF download process, analytics stop at the download. How would your content creation process be affected if you knew where you lost readers in your content? What if you knew which sections were read or shared the most? Wouldn’t that change everything? We thought so.

PDFs offer several advantages and disadvantages when presenting long-form content:


  • Document-level security
  • Read-only
  • Reasonable file compression
  • Fully branded design possibilities
  • Free readers
  • Compatible across multiple platforms
  • Controlled branding with endless embeddable fonts
  • Printability


  • Download fatigue
  • Decreasing leads
  • Static file — no animation or interaction
  • No embedded video
  • Still relatively heavy file size in downloads and email sharing
  • No analytics
  • Difficult reading and download experience on tablets and mobile devices
  • No indexed copy for SEO