E-book vs white paper

If you google the phrase “difference between an e-book and a white paper,” you won’t get a formal explanation. What you’ll get is a bunch of opinions.

Here’s the one fact you need to know: There is no hard line between an e-book and a white paper.

The line is blurry.

Crazy blurry.

There are plenty of articles out there about the differences between these two content types. (Here, here and here are three of them.)

But I’ve been at this copywriting game for over 15 years, and my experience tells a different story.

As content marketing has matured, the lines between all content types have blurred.

Look at this “article” from Wired in partnership with Netflix, for example. It’s not an article in the traditional sense … but it’s more interactive than a webpage, and bigger than a microsite. Blurry, blurry, blurry!

Wired Netflix microsite screenshot

 

So let’s look at the common misconceptions about e-books and white papers, and see some real-world examples. 

(Examples are so much easier to wrap your head around than exposition, don’t you think?)

Common Misconceptions About E-books and White Papers

Misconception 1: The Difference Is the Length

Some people say white papers are shorter than e-books.

Nope.

This 4 Metrics Marketers Need to Know e-book from Spiceworks is 3 pages long.

The 2016 Global Connectivity Index white paper from Huawei is 94 pages long.

Huawei GCI white paper screenshot

Misconception 2: The Difference Is the Data

Some people say that white papers go heavier on the data.

In my experience writing content for clients, I agree that most people expect more data in a white paper. But that doesn’t mean that e-books are devoid of data.

This e-book from ClearDATA is chock-full of data.

Misconception 3: The Difference Is the Graphics

Some people say that e-books include more visuals, like photos, graphics and illustrations.

Well that’s not true at all.

This white paper from Marketo on using marketing automation to increase your ROI on CRM has plenty of graphics.

Marketo e-book screenshot
While their e-book on structuring your social-media team is heavier on the text.

Marketo e-book social media team screenshot

And their e-book in partnership with Fathom on using marketing automation to engage students beyond college looks like a glossy brochure!

Marketo e-book student screenshot

Misconception 4: The Difference Is the Purpose

Some people even say that white papers are for educating and informing, while e-books are for entertaining and inspiring.

Wrong again. Both of those content types can accomplish all four objectives.

Here’s an educational e-book from Fluid IT Services about moving your business to the cloud.

Adobe turned the concept of a white paper on its head with their entertaining Audio White Papers for Marketing series.

The Most Distinct Distinction: Tone

In my experience, white papers are more serious in tone, while e-books are lighter. Once again, this is fuzzy and non-factual, but it’s something I’ve seen pretty consistently.

When a client asks me to write a white paper, I ask them what they are planning to use it for. If the purpose of their white paper would be fulfilled better with a lighter tone, I suggest they call it an e-book. Like this one from SnapApp + Oracle.

And vice versa.

If a client asks me to write an e-book, and the purpose is somewhat serious or technical – like a thought leadership piece or a guide covering a complex topic – I suggest they call it a white paper instead. Like this one from Iron Mountain.

E-book or White Paper – How to Choose

There is no single answer to the question “What’s the difference between an e-book and a white paper.” But the name alone brings connotations with it.

If you’re an IT services professional clicking around on a server hardware website, you probably expect to see more white papers.

If you’re a SaaS founder clicking around on a marketing strategy services website, you probably expect more e-books.

So before you decide your content type, figure out who you’re writing it for and how it’s going to be used. That will help you answer the question “E-book or white paper?” – but it will also help you determine all the other elements of the piece, too (e.g. length, data and graphics).

 

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