Content Marketing: eBooks vs. Whitepapers

Do you know that the term “white paper” originates from the famous British White Paper of 1922, which was also known as the Churchill White Paper having dealt with the political conflict in Palestine?

Normally they were called white books, but this document was done in a rush and there was no time to get it properly bound.

So, as loose sheets, there became a whitepaper.

And as the Internet world is producing more and more of both white papers and eBooks, in today’s article, we take a closer look at the differences and similarities. Do you know the difference between eBooks and whitepapers?

It all starts with a great misunderstanding that…

An Age Old Content Marketing Question: The E-Books or the White Papers?

In Why eBooks Are Better Than Whitepapers, Hubspot writer, Emily Haahr draws a rather sharp contrast between white papers and eBooks, but it feels like comparing a Viking double-headed battle axe to a scalpel. Both of them can cut pretty well, and I can personally vouch for the PM60, but this is where the commonalities end.

In Emily’s view, eBooks are good because they’re simple and inexpensive to produce, they’re engaging, they’re eco-friendly and they spread like bushfire.

By contrast, white papers represent old school content marketing. They’re dry and boring to read, are forced by sellers upon the market and make very poor link baits.

What is missing here is the minimum comparison of the market, as to whether that piece is for the B2B content marketing or the B2C market. Also, the other factor is size.

You see, sometimes size does matter.

The comparison piece was published by Hubspot, and knowing that Hubspot’s target market is mainly small businesses, then it’s valid that in the small business world, eBooks show up more often than white papers.

White papers take quite a bit of time, effort and money to produce, and most businesses are unwilling to make the upfront investment.

We’ve looked at it and established in an earlier article that that buying decision-making in small businesses is often closer to the B2C decision-making process than to the B2B decision-making process.

The closer in synch the fluctuation of company’s sales and the owner’s personal income are, the more B2C-ish the decision-making process, because the CEO or CMO knows that the more he wants to invest in future business improvements, the more he has to curtail his personal income. And that’s a seriously emotional decision.

So, first let’s look at…

The Role Of White Papers vs. eBooks

White papers are decision-aiding pieces used later in the buying cycle: The proverbial “Would you marry me?” pieces. White paper readers have already familiarized themselves with you, your company and products/services. They are already in your sales funnel and have a certain level predilection for buying from you. They just need some irrefutable evidence that they make the right choice.

EBooks can be any attention-getting pieces, often used early in the buying cycle: These are the proverbial “Can we meet for a drink?” pieces. Readers are either not in your sales funnel yet or are the early stages, and you want to entice them into putting you on their “dating” lists.

The Information Type Of White Papers Vs. eBooks

White papers offer “Which one” information, for example “Which makes and models of refrigerators are best for condos up to 1,000 square feet and up to three residents”. This white paper is addressed primarily to real estate developers.

EBooks offer “How to” information, for example: “How to install your refrigerator in your condo”. This eBook is addressed primarily to condo owners.

The Reader Type Of White Papers vs. eBooks

White papers are written for experts at a higher subject level expertise level. A white paper on the newly released Nellcor™ PM1000N pulse oximeter is written for doctors, nurses and biomedical engineers, that is, for people with at least an undergraduate degree in medicine and/or technology, so they already understand the concept of pulse oximetry.

Ebooks are written for non-experts at a low or no subject level expertise level. An e-book on how to set up, use and maintain the Nonin GO2 Home Pulse Oximeter is written for laypeople who care for relatives with need for pulse oximetry monitoring at home. Their doctors, using white papers, have already made the selection, and now end-users need some information about the daily use of the unit.

The Readability Type Of White Papers Vs. The E-Books

White papers, in general, white papers are easy to read for the right people. For instance, a nurse, with an undergrad degree, can easily read a white paper on a pulse oximeter. She can even look up the technical parts and understand it reasonably well. But someone with three Ph.D. degrees in philosophy, psychology and sociology is likely to go mad after having read only half a page.

E-books, in general, e-books are easy to read for the right people. By the right people, I mean that if I buy an e-book on outfitting my basement as a suite for rental, I’ve already got some intermediate construction experience. While this is a “How to” e-book, it’s not for laypeople.

The Sales Value Of White Papers Vs. The E-Books

White paper publishers sell 5-7-figure (or higher) “high consideration” products. E.g.: the Liebherr LTR 1220 Telescopic Crawler Crane is $1,300,000.

E-book publishers You sell 3-4-figure “low and medium-consideration” products.

The Target Market And The Buying Reason Of White Papers Vs. The E-Books

White papers work mainly in B2B demand gen campaigns and aid business decisions based on – mostly quantifiable – business needs and requirements.

E-books mainly work in the B2C market and sell to – mostly unquantified, unsubstantiated and often whimsical –  personal wants and desires.

When To Use White Papers Vs. The E-Books

White papers are used to position sellers as experts in their subject matter areas and to help buyers to make educated buying decisions.

E-books are used to initiate the buying process and then upsell and cross-sell various related products from different sellers. Content marketing “gurus” are notorious for pushing each other’s e-books in order to collect names and email addresses and then market to them down the road.

Lifespan White Papers Vs. The E-Books

White papers are more deciduous (less evergreen) as the covered topics change as new product models come out. E.g.: How long does a top model iPhone remain the top model. 8, 10 or 12 months? Then a new white paper is required.

E-books are usually quite evergreen since the covered topics change gradually over a longish period of time.

Other Differentiating Factors

White Papers

  1. Shorter than e-books. Typically, 10-15 pages with lots of footnotes and references to credible third-party sources.
  2. Emphasis is on content.
  3. Driven by text and supported by charts and process diagrams for better comprehension.
  4. Linear and deeply researched pieces of one single topic.
  5. Your buyers seek “Which one?” type information to select the right product.
  6. You sell to industries with in-house experts on your product.
  7. Your buyers need objective and credible information to make the right selection.
  8. The style is fairly “just the facts, ma’am!” with generous use of trade jargon.


  1. Longer than white papers. They can be 50+ pages long or even 500. Content Marketing veteran, Ken Evoy’s e-books are 500+ pages but I’ve found them (own all his e-book) incredibly enjoyable to read.
  2. Emphasis is on aesthetics.
  3. Driven equally by text and – mainly eye-catching – images that may or may not contribute to better comprehension.
  4. Non-linear, lightly researched pieces on trending concepts. E.g.: How to become a crane operator.
  5. Your buyers seek “How to?” information to set up/install your product.
  6. You sell to consumers without experts on your product.
  7. Your buyers need detailed “how to” information to set up/install your products.
  8. The style is a mix of information, entertainment and salesmanship with ample amounts of promotion.


My conclusion about the white paper vs. e-book debate is not that one is better than the other.

They are for different audiences, for different readers, for different stages of the buying cycle and representing products of different value. Knowing where they fit into the buyer’s journey is key to your marketing strategy.

Has your white paper been able to prove to the buyer that buying your doohickey is the best option?

Has your e-book been able to generate the high number of high-caliber sales leads that have become perfect clients for you?

As long as your publication has achieved its pre-determined objectives, you can call it whatever you want to, and names, like white paper, yellow canvas or even brown bag can only confuse the living daylights out of people.

On the landing page where you promote your publication, you write down a few bullet points about your booklet, and your web visitors will instantly know whether or not they want to read it.

And before you make a choice between white papers and e-books, read our A Definitive Guide To Telling The Differences Between B2B And B2C Marketing, so you can better decide which piece to write.

Picture of Todd Mumford

Todd Mumford