6 PROVEN STEPS
The Hybrid Model - Why It Works
Step 1: Keyword Research & Writing
Step 2: Lead Generation & Content Upgrades
Step 3: Building & Publishing
Step 4: Lead Generation: Ask For The Sale
Step 5: Distribution & Promotion
Step 6: Examine Analytics & Optimize
If you want to generate B2B leads that convert into sales through white paper marketing, then you’re in the right place. This guide will give you all you need to know to leverage gated or non-gated content like white papers successfully as a content marketing tool, to get maximum results. Everything in this guide applies equally well to any piece of thought-leadership marketing: white papers, in-depth reports, ebooks, etc.
Hi, I'm Bart

When I first started marketing white papers and guides, my approach was--hmm, let’s be friendly here and avoid the word catastrophe. My approach was sub-optimal. Even though my content was high quality, I did not get a consistent stream of leads, and I felt like I had to continuously drive paid traffic (and put time and effort into it) to get a decent amount of leads out of my white papers and guides. I started to wonder. Wouldn’t there be a way to get both more traffic and more leads? In this article, I will give you the detailed, specific, and rational answer based on over four years worth of experimentation marketing content, and which marketing strategy, based upon these experiments, is the key to successfully using white papers, guides or any piece of thought leadership content as part of your business’ content-marketing strategy.

White papers are still in many ways the ideal medium for B2B content marketing. After all, they are relatively inexpensive to create, have minimal distribution cost, and can be highly shareable. Ultimately, that is a recipe for success.
What Exactly Is White Paper Marketing?
What is white paper marketing? Businesses use white paper marketing in B2B digital marketing with the goal of:
  • Building trust, credibility, and authority in their customer base
  • Generating new leads and create potential customers from increased interest
  • Achieving thought-leadership status in their field
Essentially, using white paper marketing and thought leadership marketing will increase your current B2B sales funnel while also increasing the potential for future business. This article will primarily cover how to increase new leads with your white paper marketing, and build trust and authority by creating better white papers.
How To Use White Papers Effectively As A Content Marketing Tool
White papers are viewed as one of the most effective content marketing tools by both B2B marketers and buyers, according to a this B2B marketing report.  The survey of members of the B2B Technology Marketing Community on LinkedIn found that white papers are seen as the sixth most effective tactic (out of 30 choices), far ahead of channels such as social media, blogging, and infographics.  Yet, the same report found white papers have seen the biggest drop in perceived effectiveness since 2012—moving down from second place to sixth.
What’s going on? Are white papers losing their mojo?  The answer is absolutely not; white papers remain highly effective when done properly. The problem is too often these days white papers are not being done right.  What does “right” mean? Basically, it means that most content marketers create a good white paper, not a great white paper. that white papers succeed only when marketers properly take into account both function and form.  In particular, here are some key things to pay attention to for each:

Function: Don’t Be Too “Salesy”
For you, the primary goal of creating a white paper is probably to ultimately to create a solid lead funnel and to boost sales. That is important, of course, but your readers are coming because are looking for relevant content about a particular issue. So you must be vigilant about prioritizing providing quality information above all else otherwise you will be losing valuable leads.  Yes, lead-gen landing pages and calls-to-action can be sprinkled throughout the white paper, but never make the actual content too “salesy.”  Content marketers may be tempted to spin data in your favor or use unnecessary superlatives about your product in your white paper. Don’t do it.  Above all else, that is why this lead generation tactic is increasingly viewed skeptically by your target audience. Be transparent and be honest in your presentation–this will garner you far more goodwill with readers than trying to turn the piece into a sales brochure.

Provide Original Ideas and Insights
Great white papers that are actually read and widely shared usually provide original data and/or insights. Of course, this is hard to do (extremely hard, in fact).  Given the challenge, you may want to use a content crutch, such as summarizing other people’s thoughts or recycling previous data. Again, this is something you should avoid. There are plenty of other content marketing tactics where you can curate and reuse–such as blogs and infographics. White papers are primarily a medium for truly original information. This means that when creating a great white paper you must allow for enough time and budget to collect fresh data and/or refine new ideas. You should also make sure that the people in your organization with valuable insights and knowledge are either actually writing the white paper or are at least providing the core ideas.

Content That Is Relevant And Useful For Your Target Audience
A white paper can be both honest and original, yet still fail from a content perspective. Why? There are a myriad of potential pitfalls, from choosing the wrong topics to publishing at the wrong times. In order to make sure that your white papers are both good and useful, you should  use analytics heavily to measure everything from the number of readers to what sections are actually being consumed (and abandoned).  Doing this doesn’t mean that none of your content will fail–chances are some pieces will fall flat, especially if you are taking chances with what you publish.  However, it does mean that you will learn from your mistakes, and be able to consistently refine your offerings.

Keep It Short
A survey of B2B buyers conducted by Pardot found 70% believe written content, including white papers, should be under five pages in length.  This means that your offering very well may not be read if it is too long. Therefore, make sure you are always cognizant of the length of your white papers.  Of course, some pieces may need to be longer than five pages, especially if they are covering complicated topics or products. Still, make every effort to edit down as much as possible.

The Hybrid Model of Gated and Ungated Content: Why It Works
The hybrid model, which I find to be most successful and which has brought me leads at a consistent pace, is a blend of the more traditional gated content and ungated inbound marketing models.
In the hybrid model :
  • The white paper or thought-leadership content itself is ungated. It is online content, not in a PDF format, but as native web content.
  • There is no separate ‘white paperlanding page.’ All traffic goes straight to the URL of your white paper or guide. The first page of your white paper will contain the contents that you used to have on your landing page to ‘sell’ your white paper — a summary of why people should read your white paper and who it is for.
  • There are three lead-generation tactics at work in this model: a ‘direct conversion,’ a ‘content upgrade’ and then the traditional lead nurturing by adding the emails to your email list.
Why This Model Works
Here are some fundamental reasons as to why this model works. I will dive deeper into each step later and supply some numbers and case studies. => The average click-through to your content is high. You are still selling the white paper but there is no longer a gate. So you get more brand awareness and a broader reach. => All of your content is web content. It is therefore suited for SEO and all of your content is helping organic search to bring (free) traffic to your white paper. => You have more readers and they all can share content, quotes and images of your whitepaper. => The cost of driving traffic should be much lower since you will be benefiting from traffic from SEO and social. => The lead generation tactics all are more effective because they are contextually relevant and happen after you have established yourself as a subject matter expert. => You qualify better — no energy is being spent on people who are just browsing around and not in a sales cycle.
What Could Stop You From Using This Marketing Strategy?
This model lets your visitors qualify themselves and lets them decide if there should be a conversation with you. Hence, the number of “leads” per 100 readers will be lower than in a gated model, where all respondents “sign up” to be contacted by you. The question boils down to whether you feel the best way to use your resources is to try and reach everybody who showed some interest in your content. In other words, do you want to spend time and shoot at everything that moves or do you want to spend more time on qualified prospects and/or creating even more content? However, don’t forget that you are likely going to see an increase in real qualified leads because of the organic search effect, and also because you will avoid cold calling/cold outreach and any negative effects associated with that.
Let's Get Started With The Six Steps To Creating A White Paper, Guide or Thought Leadership Content That Consistently Generates Quality Leads
Step 1: Keyword Research & Writing Your White Paper or Thought Leadership Content
Keyword research might be something you hadn’t thought you had to do to prepare for your white paper. After all, you are writing this white paper or thought-leadership piece because you are an expert! But, it is a crucial step in the process. Why? Reason #1: In the hybrid model, SEO will be a main source of traffic to your white paper. Keyword research will allow you discover which words are being used in searches, and you can adopt those words. Reason #2: Researching and grouping your keywords in logical pockets or topics will allow you to see for which topics a lot of interest exists, for which topics you will have a lot or little competition, and who knows, you might even find that there are aspects related to your white paper that you hadn’t considered before but are worth exploring. You might be an expert in keyword research, or maybe the topic is new to you. In any case, here are two tools I absolutely suggest you use at this stage. There are countless other tools, several of which I use as well, but at this stage, these are all you need to start on your white paper. 1. Mangools Mangools is a very affordable, and easy-to-use tool for keyword research. In less than a minute, you will have a great overview of the search situation on your desired keyword and many related keywords. I enjoy Mangools because it adds a difficulty rating to the keyword. You still might want to target those keywords, but at least you will have clear expectations of what lies ahead of you.
2. Google related search Additionally, it is worth checking directly with Google what terms (or topics) they think are related to you main keyword. You can do this by simply typing in your keyword in Google’s search box, and scroll all the way down on the results page.
Write It Optimized!
Loaded with the insights from this research, you likely will want to adapt some of the wording or even topics you will write about. You’re the expert on the topic, so I will not tell you what and/or how to write your content. The topic of your white paper or thought leadership content can be a solution to a specific problem, a summary of recent research, or background on a pertinent issue. The central focus however, is always on helping your customers with relevant information. However, while writing, it is important to make sure you spend an extraordinary amount of time (in a decreasing order) on:
  1. the short description of what it is about
  2. the title of your white paper or thought leadership content
  3. the introduction (i.e. the reasons why people would want to read this)
Your Title and URL
These items will be what most people look at and consider when trying to decide whether to read your content. You might have the most brilliant piece of content on the planet, but if the title is awful, then you are seriously impacting its success.
Items 1 and 2 will determine to a large degree how much traffic you will get from your distribution and promotion sources. In fact, for organic search, it is the only influence you have on making your content stand out. Ensure your title is attractive and engaging, and makes people want to read the article. Do avoid “clickbait” or deceptive titles. If your content does not live up to the expectations set by the title, visitors will click away and go back to the Google search results. How fast a visitor returns to Google after clicking through to your content is also an important factor in how Google ranks your content.
SEO TIP
make sure your target keyword is in: 1. your URL 2. your title 3. first 100 words of your content
Your Introduction or Landing Page
In the hybrid model, you will not have the traditional (gated) landing page but you will have a first page and an introduction inside your white paper. You can call this first page or introduction a landing page if you want; it should be well-focused and encourage anyone who reaches it to keep on reading. Why? Sad news. Research has shown again and again that very few people will read your whole article. By the way, congratulations on making it so far into this article!
Research done on Slate.com shows a typical drop-off picture of the readers on your content
Make It Visually Interesting
Include catchy visuals (images, illustrations or graphs) in your content, whether this means investing in a graphic designer or rolling up your sleeves and DIY. Visual distractions and a good use of white space keeps your readers interested, and keeps them reading on. Also, your content will make a stronger impression and be more influential if you have the right image next to it. Here is some research from Brainrules:
Hear a piece of information, and three days later you'll remember 10% of it.
Add a picture and you'll remember 65%.
Make sure to tag your images. Image tagging is often overlooked but it does have its own tab in Google - plus it will reinforce the general SEO strength of your content. Google does index & rank image tags as confirmed in recent tests done by the Search Engine Roundtable team.
Step 2: Lead Generation - Creating a Content Upgrade
After you have written your content, move on to creating a content upgrade. The content upgrade is one of the techniques we will be using to get leads, so it is extremely important.
What is a Content Upgrade?
It is a piece of bonus content that you promote on your actual content. Ideally, you want your content upgrade to be something increasingly useful. It should complement the content you are writing. For example, something that will help people if they want to put your ideas into practice or a one-page overview. And just to be 100 percent clear: this bonus content is gated. The content upgrade is a bonus offer created to get a visitor’s email. Content upgrades work because by now you have given a lot of value to your audience, so you have some emotional credit in the bank and you will have demonstrated your expertise. As a result, people are more inclined to trust you with their email address. Do not just take my word for it. Content upgrades work like a charm for me, but here are some experiences from other folks when they started using content upgrades:
The screenshot above shows a 0.54 percent to 4.82 percent increase in signups for an email list (Brian Dean from Backlinko) on a landing page, and when he applied this tactics across his entire site, he saw an overall an increase of 185 percent site-wide. Bryan Harris from Videofruit sees an average opt-in rate of 20-30 percent leveraging content upgrades.
Pat Flynn from SmartPassiveIncome saw roughly a 500 percent increase in email signups. And just one more — the folks at Wishpond saw signup rates increase up to 6.19 percent, which is an improvement of 1,650 percent increase over their norm.
How Do You Implement Content Upgrades?
The principle is straightforward. You place a call-to-action on your content, and you offer your content upgrade in return for a subscription to your email list (or possibly some other action). It is best to make sure that the delivery of your content upgrade is instant — promising to send over a link to your content works best, since that is sort of a reason why you need the email address. Let’s look at how to get your form into your content. There are two ways that work really well. The first is “in line,” with some clickable text placed in your content itself. This is what I'm doing in the previous paragraph. And the other way is how you see below, with a clickable CTA button in a banner. Why not do both, right?
How Much Better IS this?
We have made an easy to use spreadsheet model to help you determine the possible leads and benefits of this hybrid model of white paper marketing.
It is 100% free!
Get It!
Please note that the content upgrade mentioned above is just an example. I do not have this spreadsheet ready for you. Of course, if enough of you ask...

Back to 'How To Implement Content Upgrades?"

Implement the actual form where you ask for the email address as a pop-up or fold-out, so the viewer stays on the page. Sending your readers to a separate landing page will negatively impact your conversions.

Here are some Wishpond experiments comparing conversions by sending people to a landing page or using on-page pop-ups. On-page pop-ups win!
Once you have done this step, you are all set to have a nicely growing list of email subscribers from your content. But we will want more - and we will look at how to convert these emails into leads later!
Step 3: Building & Publishing Your White Paper or Thought Leadership Content
The next phase is pretty exciting, because you will start to see your content come to life and see how your audiences will experience it.
No PDF
In the more traditional methods of white paper marketing, content would be packaged up and distributed as a PDF. Someone would work on the layout (this could be a really simple layout or a really complex one), save the content as a PDF and place it on a server ready for download. We are not going to use PDFs to distribute our content. Instead we will make the content available as web content. That means an HTML/CSS output. If you are used to PDFs, this might seem a bit daunting to you, because you likely have a good process in place to produce PDFs and producing web content might seem difficult. Not to worry, there are really solid and affordable solutions on the market that will help you achieve this (without having to resort to IT or developers). Companies like Readz offer a visual drag-and-drop editing platform loaded with conversion-boosting utilities that enables you to create content for the web without any coding knowledge. All you need is your content, some idea of a layout and you can get started. Companies like Readz are providing this type of service to companies like Deloitte, IBM, Baker & McKenzie, and many more.
Companies use platforms like Readz to build white papers, guides and thought-leadership reports that live on their domain website.
Why would you change to web content and not use the good ‘ole PDF? Too often content marketers create content without thinking about readability and accessibility. This is especially true with white papers, which are usually released as PDFs. 

I know, it is going to be a bit of extra effort to change your process and move to having your white papers online. But you absolutely must do it. Here are the reasons why: Reason #1: Organic Search A key element contributing to the success and better ROI of our approach is organic search. Using a PDF will eliminate practically all your chances of ranking well. Experts like SearchEngineland recommend moving from PDF to HTML. Google does crawl PDF-based documents, but if choice exists for google to recommend a PDF or a web page, the choice is obvious. You will know this by your own experience as a Google user. Only in specific cases or if there is almost no competition (read: other options) available would Google place a PDF on the first page. Reason #2: Engagement Ratios Having open access to your content and having it online as web content provides immediate gratification to your visitors. The content is right there, available for them immediately. The impact of having web content available rather than a PDF for download can be huge. Readz worked with a large legal firm, and they saw engagement rates jumping times 123 when they switched away from a PDF to live online content in HTML. Conclusion: if you move away from a PDF, your content will get read more. PDF downloads (especially gated, but also open) are a discontinuous process, and fall-off ratios are just higher in those scenarios. Reason #3: You Want Interaction With Your Visitors We want not only to create brand awareness and demonstrate expertise and thought leadership, but we also want to generate leads, right? Well, we are going to need CTAs, forms, pop-ups, etc. PDFs are not an option; we have to go with web content. Reason #4: Your Mobile Visitors Mobile traffic keeps going up, and offering a down-scaled PDF that requires pinching and zooming is not going to help your goal of high-engagement ratios, to put it mildly. As researchers at Pennstate confirm: Your PDF will only appear in a format designed for an 8.5” x 11” piece of paper.
PennState research states that “online content should not be provided in PDF format”
Some people tell me that they have almost no visitors from mobile devices, and that engagement from those visitors is low. The wrong conclusion from that would be not to care. The correct one would be to build content that is mobile-optimized. This is one of those rare instances where the saying “if you build it, they will come” holds true.
“consumers now have the expectation that any desired information or service is available, on any appropriate device, in context, at [their] moment of need” (Forrester)
Step 4: Lead Generation: Ask For The Sale
Now you have the email address, but how do you convert it into an interested prospect? If you have done the more traditional ‘gated’ marketing, you will be familiar with what we have done so far in terms of converting our emails into qualified leads: we have added them to a email or nurture list. In our next step, we are going to take an extra step and try to get the leads that are “sales-ready” to engage with us. This step might be one that you feel somewhat uncomfortable with, because we are all becoming well trained in the concept of ‘permission-based’ marketing, or nurturing leads. Yet, this step is a direct approach to lead generation. In sales terminology, it would be called ‘asking for the sale.’ We are going to be very direct, and plainly ask people to start engaging with our customer-facing people. But we will do it in a consultative, helpful style. Furthermore, our ‘ask’ will be to the right people about the right topic. And we have already provided some help. The circumstances cannot be more auspicious for you. We are going to “ask for the sale” twice:
Method #1 of Creating Leads: the Timed Pop-Up We are going to create a timed pop-up on our content, asking if we can help. That’s it. Nothing more. No feature list. Just a short, to-the-point ask. The timed pop-up allows you to show the pop-up only to people who are engaged on the topic, and who are liking the content (else they would have left). You can start out with e.g. showing the pop-up after 30 seconds (which is likely more than your average time spent on a page) but you can adjust the time setting later when you review actual analytics on your web pages. If you see in your analytics that there is a moment where you have a huge drop-off, then show the pop-up right before. As an example, here is the timed pop-up that will appear when you spend 32 seconds on this page. Likely by now, you will have seen it.
You might ask hey, what about an exit intent pop-up? I typically try to avoid using exit intents. I prefer the two methods explained in this paragraph. In my experience, exit intents can add some subscribers to your email list — and more so in B2C. But my experience is that they are almost invariably the least likely to buy. Makes sense, right? They were leaving for a reason after all.

Method #2 of Creating Leads: the Follow-Up Email One of the best techniques to convert an email from a content upgrade to a lead is to have a nice follow-up email after you have sent the content upgrade. This simply asks people in a friendly manner what they are looking for and if they need help. It is the email version of the friendly shop assistant asking you if you need any help. But in our case, the friendly shop assistant has just proven to you that they are an expert on the topic of your interest! It is a technique that I was originally inspired by Noah Kagan, and I am sure I have seen a couple of other people doing something similar. But it is such a timely, consultative and honest approach, that it just works. Here is an example of an email template that worked really well for me.
Step 5: Distributing & Promoting Your White Paper or Thought Leadership Content
With over 2 million content pieces produced every single day by bloggers, competition for attention on any topic is fierce. That is a crazy amount of content, and to remind you of just how many other options Google and your audience has — and why you need to make your content, the presentation of your content and the promotion extraordinary — check once on Google how many results are available on the subject. For example, Google shows a whopping 43M results for the search term 'white paper marketing'!
Wow. You had 43 million other pieces of content you could have read, yet you choose to read this one. I am grateful! So, your white paper, guide or thought-leadership piece is going to need some good promotion to help it get some traction and to get Google to notice it. Here are some key steps you need to take:
Distribution #1: Announce to Your Mailing List
Rather obvious, but it is crucial to do this, and to give a lot of attention to selling the white paper and getting people to read it. You have built this excellent expert content, and made a lead-generation machine out of it. Your latent buyers in your email list should make a great audience and serve as a source of leads.
Distribution #2: Share on Social Media
Many people I talk with have serious questions about the effectiveness of social media. But still, I strongly suggest you share your white paper (at least a few times). Don’t forget: apart from the free buzz it might generate, Google sees social shares as a ranking signal - so social shares will influence your search position.
Distribution #3: Paid Media
Paid media, if done correctly, will get your content seen by the right audience, and if you do a proper audience selection, you should see a solid ROI from this channel. At a minimum, I would advise you to buy some ads with Google Adwords for the keyword you are targeting with organic search.
Distribution #4: Promote Your White Paper on Your Website and Blog
Promotion on your website and blogs through banners, (clickable) quotes or excerpts will help you in two different ways:
  1. It will create backlinks to your content, which is again an important ranking signal for Google and other search engines.
  2. You will divert some visitors to a highly converting piece of quality content.
Distribution #5: Share Some of Your Expertise and/or Content on Online Communities and Forums
Since you are an expert, you likely know of existing online communities where people would go to exchange information about the topic you are writing about. Placing (some) of your content there, or answering questions, is a great way to showcase your expertise to a relevant audience. Again, you will have a double benefit here: you will attract visitors and you might even create a backlink to your content.
Step 6: Examine Analytics and Optimize
This is the fun part — you get to go back and make your lead-generating white paper even better. Optimally, you will want to get some good data in, so at a minimum, I would wait until you have 4-6 weeks worth of data you can look at. And of course, it takes some time for Google and other search engines to pick up your content and to rank it. Don’t be disparaged if after 6 weeks, or around your first review, you are not getting the organic search results that you were hoping for. Sometimes it takes months before you get serious ranking results. Here are the key data sets I would suggest you review:
1. Click-through rates from your promotion to your actual content / white paper
Have a look at the performance of each of the distribution channels you used to promote your content. Put them in a spreadsheet, and compare the performance of each channel. If you feel that the click-through rate is below par,make changes to the promotion tactic. Since we want to start to rank high on Google, have a look at how your click-through rate is for Google searches. You will find this information on Google’s Search Console (go to >Search Traffic, then > Search Analytics and you will get a nice overview of the keywords people typed in and the click-through rate to your content).
Google’s Search Console allows you to see for which keywords they showed your content and how your click-through rate for those keywords performed. If your CTRs are on the low side, change your meta description, possibly even your title. Don’t change your URL though; this will affect your SEO ranking downwards.
2. Conversion rates of your lead-generation tactics
See how well your lead generation tactics are performing: how many leads did you generate with the content upgrade (and the email) and the ‘ask for the sale’ tactic? Check the reply ratios to the email in your email platform and the conversion ratio of your timed pop-up, and optimize if desired.
3. Actual qualified leads by sales and/or closed deals
This means you will be heading over to talk with your sales colleagues. By now, they should be happy to see you coming though — more than likely you have been providing some really solid, qualified leads to them. Get information and feedback on which leads they considered qualified, and/or lead to a sales. Now plug that information back into your spreadsheet, and you will get the most valuable information back: which channel is actually producing not just leads, but sales. That is the channel you want to invest heavily in for your next cycle. Rinse & repeat: visit your results again 4-6 weeks from now.
Ready?
Let's do This!
Over to you to start getting leads with great content! I would love your feedback on this guide, or if you have any additional questions, let me know.
By Bart De Pelsmaeker
Bart is co-founder, and jack-of-all-trades at Readz, a platform used by brands of all sizes to create superior content experiences. His writing has been featured in Sparksheet, Business2Community, Skyword and other martech publications. He speaks regularly about tech and marketing, most recently at the World e-Reading Congress, American Business Media, and the Integrated Marketing Summit.
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White Paper Marketing:
Killer Strategies That Get More & Better Quality Leads Consistently

6 Proven Steps
By Bart De Pelsmaeker
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