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Can You Hear Me Now? Redefining Long-Form White Papers for Short Attention Spans

John Connolly 21 January 2022

In today’s Twitter-based society, it seems people want their information bite-sized.

For asset management, where the traditional, long-form white papers have long been the industry standard for thought leadership, this presents a particular problem.

The general assumption is that today’s readers, given shorter attention spans, want brief, more easily consumed content.

Do readers always prefer brevity?

New research from SEM Rush shares that “longer articles covering their topics in-depth tend to attract more organic traffic and backlinks. However, determining the ‘magic word count’ depends on a number of factors: the topic, the format, and the unique standards each industry sets.”

SEM rush goes on to share that “Top-performing content adheres to principles of quality, authenticity, unique research, and appropriate topic coverage set by each industry. While many long-form articles tend to rank higher and perform better organically, it’s not dependent on word count so much as it reflects that the topic is explored in depth.”

However, when it comes to headlines, brevity always wins.

Just be sure to be descriptive and specific so readers know what they are about to read—short, punchy, relative.

In this contradictory environment, how are investment marketing managers supposed to accommodate this shift in content consumption?

Simple: By providing different things to different people. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you transmit completely different messages depending on who you’re talking to.

What I am saying is that it can be extremely effective to focus on the underlying idea and build a broader marketing campaign around it.

While long form is one component, other channels deserve equal attention as they help your central idea reach the widest possible audience.

In doing so, asset managers can remain relevant, stay front of mind, improve brand recognition, build trust and ultimately become a go-to source of content for prospects and clients.

What’s better is the strategy doesn’t require endless days of filtering myriad content through more channels. In fact, it can make life easier.

Don’t assume readers will linger over your content.

How many times have you met with a portfolio manager to begin a traditional white paper, and the conversation quickly became a one-sided brain dump of pretty much everything in his or her head? Not ideal, but it’s better to have too much information than not enough.

And when that hard work is complete, we’d love to believe the readers will settle into their well-worn leather chairs, donning a smoking jacket and cupping a glass of brandy as they pore over each sentence of erudite genius.

Though plenty of firms still consider the traditional white paper to be the be-all and end-all, the reality is that more readers consume content on their phones as they commute home or wait for a flight.

But maybe there’s a way to please the fans of both short-form and long-form content. After all, SEM Rush shows us one isn’t categorically better than the other.

While a PDF of a white paper can easily be read on a tablet, your digital design team could also reformat the paper into a layout that can easily be consumed on a phone.

You may even find readers are more willing to finger scroll through a longer piece on their phone than they would be to click through the pages of a paper on their tablet or computer screen.

Taking full advantage of digital formats by including in your longer pieces interactive elements, such as animated charts or links to video snippets or even audio clips, will also help keep readers engaged.

Wheel of Fortune

So, what does all this mean for marketing managers and how they prioritize their efforts?

Have you ever tried composing a tweet, video script, infographic, listicle and RFP language – all based on a voluminous technical piece worthy of publication in the Journal of Portfolio Management?

It isn’t easy or fun. It also drains a precious commodity: time.

Instead, I like to ask marketing managers to consider focusing first on the central idea.

Lay the foundation with all the information needed to build content for each individual channel and audience.

Think of it as a wheel with spokes: each medium stems from a central idea.

I like to call it the Wheel of Fortune (illustrated here).

Each piece of content is its own spoke that supports the consistency of the central idea—here showing the main point to be over-all content strategy.

So how does this work?

Simply put, it’s just like starting a traditional long-form content piece but thinking more broadly with your questions to draw out additional material suited for other channels.

Here are a few points to get you started that have helped me as a writer, as well as some of the managers with whom Copylab partners:

Prepare

While it may seem like Marketing Content Generation 101, getting your ducks in a row before the interview is the first and most critical step.

Most of the prep work should be done prior to talking with your subject matter expert (SME) so you know something about the general topic.

It will help you get the most of your time…and theirs! You’ll also be better able to ask smarter follow-up questions in an interview, which will give you more credibility with the interviewee, who is perhaps more likely to open up and give you more information.

You probably already do this, but it’s worth a reminder.

Collaborate

Part of the preparation stage should include collaborating with other groups. The channels that require content as it relates to the underlying idea are not often handled by the same team. For example, the RFP function is often separate from those responsible for social media.

You need to consider:

  • What’s important to them?
  • What are the critical components they require for their narrative?’

Early in my career, I was composing language for a new strategy my firm was launching. I was prepared, having taken into consideration that we’d use this for a white paper, some drip marketing content, a video script and more.

I walked into the interview thinking I’m a rock star because of the forethought I put in…and I got lambasted!

Apparently, he already provided a majority of the information to the RFP team. Needless to say, it was a supremely uncomfortable meeting.

Help the SME prepare

Once you’ve completed your prep work, send your questions and discussion topics to the SME before the interview.

Allow the SME to think about the topic beforehand so you get the details you need and, again, make the most of everyone’s time.

Had I done this myself in the example, I may not have been chewed out.

Be flexible

You may think you’ve considered everything, but chances are you haven’t. The SMEs have that title for a reason: they’re experts!

While it’s our responsibility to guide the conversation, it’s also incumbent on us to recognise that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Be nimble. Ask follow-ups during the initial interview. It will save you from scrambling later for more details.

Ultimately, these SMEs have other core responsibilities…such as managing billions of dollars.

Efficiency is key to produce the best material and compose a better end product.

Follow up

I can’t stress this one enough. Just because you’ve finished the interview doesn’t mean you can dive into creating content for each medium.

You were flexible and nimble during the interview, but there’s a chance you may need more detail, especially as it pertains to content for specific channels.

You also want to make sure you captured everything right!

What it boils down to is that the discussion should be directed in a way that will provide a base of material for the other spokes of the Wheel of Fortune.

By nature, the length and depth of a white paper certainly helps to establish the idea’s foundation, so you’ll already be part way there.

It’s merely a matter of gathering a bit more information to cover your bases, and you’ll be ready with material that supports content for all channels the moment you need it.

Better, faster, stronger

One concern I hear when discussing this method is how much effort it might require implementing.

Most recently, I was speaking with a manager who was struggling to communicate his firm’s views on ESG.

His previous attempts were fruitless, and he worried the Wheel of Fortune would take too long and compromise resources that were already stretched thin.

That’s the beauty of it, though!

Adopting this approach requires minimal effort compared to the overall gains.

While the transition to this new method won’t be as disruptive or labour-intensive as, say, migrating an entire technology platform, the added benefits over time will help improve processes, accelerate the creation of content and generate stronger and more consistent messaging across channels to build trust and promote your company’s brand.

In the case of the struggling ESG manager, this approach allowed him and his team to gather a functional base of material from which they built content for each channel.

In fact, they wound up with so much great content that they started to actively explore other methods of communication – like social media, where they previously didn’t have a presence – because they had the material to do so.

No need to reinvent the wheel…you now have the Wheel of Fortune!

Find the right metric to assess engagement

To gauge the success of any piece of content, it’s important to carefully measure your target audience’s engagement with it.

You’ll also want to be sure the key performance indicators (KPIs) you select to track engagement are appropriate for the goal of each piece.

For an article that is meant to be strictly informational or educational, the number of visits to your site will let you know if it’s attracting attention and creating goodwill for your firm and brand.

Time on the page will reveal if visitors are consuming all of the content.

You’ll want to use a different KPI for an article designed to generate further interaction with your firm’s products or services.

In that case, the number of clicks on any closing call-to-action and the time spent on any linked product or services pages will determine if the article is achieving its objective

Engagement with the long-form articles and papers can then be evaluated alongside the impressions and click rates generated by other components of the broad content strategy, like social media posts or e-mails.

Keeping a close eye on how users react will determine what’s working best and what isn’t.

Fortunately, the Wheel of Fortune allows you to nimbly adjust your efforts for one channel that needs more focus while paring back on another that doesn’t.

That’s it. For those who have pivoted, you’re on track. Those who haven’t could be left behind.

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