Disentangling Definitions: Understanding Case Studies, Ebooks and White Papers

Disentangling Definitions: Understanding Case Studies, Ebooks and White Papers
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Many times, clients know what content they want when they hire me. And, just as often, they might not.

Like this discussion that I had about a year ago with this client.

Ms. Client: I’d like content that will establish us as an industry thought leader.

Amy: Like a blog?

Ms. Client: No. A blog doesn’t really get into the meat of what we are or what we do. We need something more in-depth. Maybe something a little longer.

Amy: Fair enough. So, probably you’re looking for something around 2,000 words or so; it shows that you know what you’re talking about, that you’re an industry authority?

Ms. Client: That’s correct.

Amy: I’d suggest a white paper, then. White papers are great for establishing you as a thought leader.

Ms. Client: Will that tell potential clients how to access our services, or how the services might benefit them?

Amy: Eh, no. You’ll want a case study for that. We’d use that to highlight a client that has benefitted from your service.

Ms. Client: Can we avoid being that specific? I want something that’s a little more in-depth than a blog, but I’m not ready to really bring our clients into this right now. I want something that can show off our data, and what we do, what we provide. You can develop infographics and graphs, can’t you, if we give you the information?

Amy: I can. But if you’re moving in that direction, you’re probably better off with an ebook, versus a case study. Or even a white paper.

Ms. Client: Now I’m confused.

Amy: Sorry. Let’s start again.

The client ultimately decided on the ebook, but that’s not really the takeaway from the above.

White paper vs. case study vs. ebook: What's the difference?

White paper vs. case study vs. ebook: What’s the difference?

The importance of this story is that content creation and marketing experts must be familiar with, and understand when to use, different content formats. However, much like what happened to my client, trying to figure out when to use white papers, case studies and ebooks can be confusing.

This is partly because these three formats are considered interchangeable because they share the following characteristics:

  • They’re primarily created as long-form content (with a minimum of 1,500 words)
  • They’re highly useful for moving prospects along the marketing funnel, especially along the top or middle of the funnel
  • They’re great for boosting brand awareness and gathering prospect information
  • All three should be targeted to specific personas and target audiences

And… this is the only thing ebooks, case studies and white papers have in common. As the following demonstrates, the three content formats have different purposes and uses, and require different development techniques.

White papers: Academic persuasion, formal style

The white paper could be considered the scholastic tool of the business content world. Its goal is to help position an individual or corporate entity as an authority on an industry topic, product or service or any other subject. To succeed in this, the well-crafted white paper needs to provide persuasive, factual information about a particular product or subject matter.

This means that your white paper is more than an opinion created by an in-house marketing department. In fact, opinions shouldn’t make their way into white papers. A reputable white paper should contain facts, as well as focused and original research. Where to find this research? Your client might have it on hand from focus groups or surveys. Or you could be asked to examine academic literature or data-rich websites.

When to use

White papers are ideal when it comes to building trust and credibility with your audience. They’re used when companies want to explain industry trends, predictions or forecasts backed by well-sourced, primarily academic, information. Your white paper will likely be used to increase top-of-mind awareness among your prospects and clients by demonstrating expertise and impressive knowledge.

Best practices

Here are points to consider when writing a white paper:

  • Watch your tone. White papers should be constructed in a highly academic, very professional tone. Always use third person language.
  • Back up points with facts. Again, white papers aren’t containers for opinions. Take the time to conduct independent research, and be sure to source it. This can be done with footnotes, end notes or in-parenthesis citations.
  • Be sure to position the content so it’s readable. The white paper’s tone is conservative. But the layout needs to be easy to read. Use headings, subheads and bullet points to ensure readers can easily digest the content.

Case studies: Defining problems, providing solutions

Case studies: Defining problems, providing solutions

Unlike white papers, case studies are a hard-sell tool, and they don’t need academic information to succeed. This is because case studies introduce a specific problem, discuss how a company’s product or service can solve that problem, and then focus on the results of that usage. Most times, case studies rely on real world specifics when it comes to solving a client’s problem or challenge.

Successful case studies are generally divided into four sections:

  • The challenge or problem
  • The product/service offered
  • The solution (used by the specified product/service)
  • The successful results, thanks to the solution

The goal with case study content is to demonstrate to prospects that a particular product or service can solve problems, and how it does so.

When to use

Use case studies when you want to showcase a particular product or service, and demonstrate how it solves a challenge or issue. This content format is a great testimonial, in that prospects that read it can understand how the mentioned product or service can solve their own problems.

Best practices

When writing up your case study, consider the following:

  • Brush up your persuasive style. Again, out of the three types of longer-form content, your case study will be higher on the “hard-sell” style. The focus here is to convey that, as a product or service helped a client, it can help the reader as well.
  • Highlight a problem similar to what your prospects face. To fully appreciate the benefits of the solution, readers need to know that the presented problem relates to what they’re going through.
  • Use visual appeal. Rely on headers and footers to divide text, and bulleted/numbered lists to provide information. Callouts are especially effective in case studies.
  • List the data. Simply suggesting that a solution doubled a client’s website traffic or sales figures isn’t enough. Be specific with the numbers, so readers understand the solution’s impact.

Ebooks: Deep dives into topics of choice

Ebooks: Deep dives into topics of choice

Finally, there are ebooks, which consist of content on digital pages. The pages are meant to be viewed on a computer, tablet or smartphone, though it can also be printed out as hard copy.

What does that content consist of? Well, pretty much anything the company wants it to. An ebook can be a straight marketing piece, complete with an in-depth explanation about a corporate product or service. It can also be a strict informational piece to demonstrate a company’s industry knowledge and trends — or it can be a combination of the two. Unlike the academic white paper or solutions-oriented case study, the ebook is long-form content that is highly versatile, and used for a variety of content marketing purposes.

The ebook goes beyond the space and length of a blog, providing prospects with in-depth information about a particular topic. In this way, a company can position itself more effectively to a target audience.

When to use

Ebooks should be used when you have a specific story to tell, one that needs more space and length than what can be provided through a short-form blog or on a corporate website. In addition, ebooks can be used as guides to show prospects how to get from a point of origin to a particular goal.

Best practices

What follows are best practices when it comes to crafting an ebook:

  • Make it valuable to the audience. Specifically, the information provided should be interesting to your readers, and higher level than what might be found in a website blurb or short-form blog post. Your ebook should provide depth when it comes to the topic at hand.
  • Use plenty of visuals. Similar to other long-form content types, it’s important to break apart the editorial content through use of headers, subheads, bullet points, numbered lists and callouts. Ebooks are also ideal foundations for videos, graphs, charts and infographics.
  • Use a “business casual” conversation style. Remember that an ebook isn’t an academic treatise or stilted presentation. You can be a little informal in this case, and rely on a more relaxed style of writing to engage readers.

Not like the other

Case studies, white papers and ebooks can be invaluable additions to any content strategy plan. But successful incorporation of these content formats requires insight as to their use, purpose and creation. Taking the time to understand the differences will help you potentially become a better, and highly-regarded content producer. So, when a client taps into your expertise, wondering what type of long-form content is the best to help with their strategies, you’ll have a ready, confident response.

When it comes to long-form content, there are huge differences between case studies, ebooks and white papers. Click here to learn more about when to use these content types, and best practices in creating them. #contentmarketing #marketing Click To Tweet

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About the author

Amy Sorter

Amy Sorter is an award-winning journalist, copywriter, and principal of The WordSorters. Her work has been published in regional and national business and consumer publications. Amy's focus is on creating customized, highly engageable content in a variety of formats for non-profit organizations, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies.