The Demise of the White Paper

We believe that topic microsites will ultimately eclipse white papers and other downloadable media as the primary channel for point-of-view dissemination. Among the reasons for this are that a web page is a much more powerful medium to convey information with. Things you can do with a web page that you can’t do with a pdf include:

  • Enlargeable, animated and interactive graphics
  • Hyperlinks to later articles, as well as to earlier ones
  • Readers’ comments and responses to them
  • Video and podcast excerpts and supplements
  • Live feeds of blogs and articles on the topic from other sites
  • Reader polls and surveys

(You can read a fuller explanation of topic microsites here.)

Nonetheless, the market is moving only slowly away from distributed white papers towards these more powerful online destinations. Most topic microsites that have emerged so far take advantage of only a fraction of the tools that can make them more engaging for readers and prospective customers.

But one dimension that is developing reasonably quickly is graphics. At the very least, we can all now include graphics that were too previously large and complex to put on a page, as BCG does here, or we do here; we can include a reduced version which enlarges when the reader clicks on it.


Apple v MicrosoftGetting more sophisticated, this chart published by the New York Times in May shows the respective growth curves of Microsoft and Apple. But it also incorporates a huge amount of data about milestones along the way which you can access by clicking on the information icons. There is no way sensible way to do this in a print or pdf version of the page.




McKinsey RolesThis chart by McKinsey embeds information in several dimensions. It shows the relevance of collaboration tools to 12 different work roles. Behind each role is a description of the major activities involved, and an assessment of the usefulness of every tool, both for each activity and for the role overall. There is also a mouse-over description of each tool. There is a huge amount of information here, but it’s easily presented and digested because only a relevant subset is shown at any one time.

These graphics are more than just gimmicks, and they are more than just a passing fad. They presage ever more creative and engaging ways that we will find to convey complicated material in an easily digestible way online. Most firms, and indeed newspapers, are having a very hard time moving away from their traditional forms of publication. It will be several years before people have truly figured out how to use all the online tools already at their disposal to best explain complex problems and the solutions to them. But the direction is already clear.


Submitted by Visitor on
Although your list of things you can't do within a PDF is not accurate (we've been able to embed video and other interactive content, like charts, for a while), your point is absolutely valid. There are many more benefits to developing a microsite, or simple single page, than to using PDF. The caveat being that you emphasize the use of a tool like Instapaper, or make sure a user can download your entire microsite with all images to be able to view locally if they are not online (I do a lot of reading on planes, for instance, and in that case, your example would not work (yet). One of the easiest ways to get started with simple microsites for specific content is either Google Sites or Cheers, Brian

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Brian, thanks for your comment. I now see you can do a few more things with a pdf that I had realized, albeit at some cost of file size and download time.

I know that some people like to download articles to read later, but I think in time there are a couple of reasons why downloading should go away. The first is that it's becoming increasingly unneccessary. Most planes and trains will have wireless soon - many do now. Also, I note that my teenage kids' generation barely downloads anything (except tunes). They just use stuff, including school textbooks, where it sits. (I use Pandora a lot so I rarely even download tunes.)

From the vendor standpoint, I don't want people to download stuff and take it away. I'd rather have them read it there where I can engage them in self-help diagnostic tools, conversations with other people and so on. If we can get them engaged and returning, we can see which of our ideas are resonating, and we increase the chances that one day, some of those people might turn to us for help when they need it.

We make one concession though; we do have a printer-friendly button which most people can use to print to pdf if they want.


Submitted by Visitor on
go print out your microsite... use all browsers, all operating systems, view it on a variety of mobile phones... now.. do the same thing with a PDF.. what is consistent...??? until we no longer use printers.. then we should and will have white papers.. "the sky is falling?"

Submitted by Tim Parker on

No, but the direction is as clear as it is with now printed newspapers. A pdf is a digital analog of a hard copy white paper -- and an obvious next step for those who were used to reading off paper. But better alternatives mean that younger generations who didn't grow up reading hard copy or pdf white papers won't bother to download them.

Also, as most browsing goes mobile (which it will in a couple of years), there will be another disincentive to download; ever tried file bowsing and printing from an iPad or an iPhone? It's possible, but it's not easy because they simply aren't designed for it.

So no, the sky isn't falling in, and downloads won't go away overnight, but downloading and printing belongs to my generation (boomers). For those following, it will be as alien as editing a powerpoint presentation for the graphics department with scissors and a gluestick.

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