Why Nobody Is Reading Your White Paper — And What You Can Do About It!

A 2016 study claimed that the average person’s attention span was 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. The same study estimated the attention span of a goldfish at 9 seconds. While the science behind the study may be suspect, we can all agree that it’s hard to get people to read anything longer than a Tweet, much less a multi-page manifesto.

And yet, white papers can be valuable elements of a company’s content strategy. Especially in knowledge-driven fields such as financial services, professional services and technology, a longer format may be the best way to convey thought leadership and explore complex topics in depth.

Readability Challenges

The reality is that many white papers go unread, and short attention spans are only part of the reason. It takes effort to make a white paper more engaging for readers and a more effective vehicle for a company’s ideas.

The following excerpt from a white paper for a consulting firm illustrates the problem:

“The global financial services sector is facing an unprecedented wave of digital disruption. In this white paper, we examine how [XYZ Strategic Consulting] can help financial institutions address the impact of forces such as: the rise of fintech competitors; the use of data analytics and artificial intelligence; blockchain, cryptocurrencies and related technologies; escalating cyber threats; and the changing demands of today’s always-connected generation of customers and employees.”

This example is “readability challenged” for several reasons. The topic is not exactly “page one” news, the subject matter is overly broad and unfocused, and the company is plugging its services in a heavy-handed manner. And that’s just in the first two sentences!

A separate challenge is that white papers are often buried somewhere in the resources section of the website. Content that is evergreen and should have a long shelf life is distributed once and then disappears to the archives, dramatically decreasing its effectiveness and visibility.

We’ve outlined some key tips to help up the number of eyeballs on your white papers and keep even the shortest attention spans engaged.

Write to be Read

Here are a few recommendations to rescue your white papers from unreadability:

  1. Keep it short and simple. While a white paper, by definition, is a long form document, make the writing as tight and concise as possible. Avoid overly dry and academic language, and highlight key points in “call-out” quotes.
  2. Consider the audience and its information needs. Make sure the topic of the white paper is relevant to that audience and contains actionable ideas that solve problems or add value for readers.
  3. Take a fresh perspective. Avoid trite themes or topics and examine the subject matter from a new or unexpected angle.
  4. Avoid over-promotion. Demonstrate your company’s thought leadership via compelling content, rather than repeated references to your brand, products or services.

Keys to Consumption — Packaging and Distribution

Key tips for refreshing and rejuvenating the distribution process:

  1. Communicate visually as well as verbally — Include charts, tables and infographics to convey information in a more effective manner.
  2. Divide it up — For longer and denser pieces, consider an interactive multimedia landing page that allows readers to access different sections of the white paper via video, graphics and shorter blog post text content. Each piece of content can link back to the larger piece, but allows audiences to hone in on sections that are most important to them.
  3. Don’t forget the accompanying microcontent (bite-sized pieces of content) — To support distribution and reach, craft several pieces of microcontent highlighting key themes that can be used for distribution across social media channels.
  4. Leverage visual content for distribution across social media channels — Tables and infographics captivate audiences and are easy to view and share. Be sure to provide a link back to the full text.
  5. PDFs and SEO — Google has been crawling and indexing PDF files since 2001, but there are several optimization considerations that apply specifically to PDFs, including: file name, hyperlinks, title, image compression and text type.
  6. Analytics and feedback loop — Understanding how your content is being accessed and consumed is essential for understanding ROI and planning future content. Be sure you are identifying and tracking key metrics.


White papers can be unique tools for communicating a company’s thought leadership and reinforcing its value proposition. Improving the readability and distribution of your white papers will help to ensure that all the thought and effort that went into producing them will not have been in vain.


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