Ideas + insightsTips on creating exceptional content.
Everything you need to create e-books that rise above the noise
To stand apart amid content clutter, B2B marketers increasingly turn to e-books. From tips on copywriting and design to tools—here’s everything you need.
Recently, I was one of 14,000 fans packed into Williams Arena (aka The Barn) watching the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team take down a Big 10 rival. Like all sporting events, the noise was piercing, with most of the din coming from thousands of emotional onlookers screaming the usual cliches. “Shoot! … pass it! … he double dribbled! … com-on ref!”
The effect was a hurricane of verbal clutter.
Amid the frenzy, I wondered to myself if this is what some B2B buyers experience when besieged by companies fighting for their attention with low-quality, unremarkable content. We’ve all experienced content like this: rambling blog posts, self-indulgent tweets, and white papers that read like sales promotion.
Low-quality content is like the raucous noise inside your local sports arena. It’s clutter.
On the other hand, high-quality content rises above the noise. It helps position you as a segment leader. And great content helps turns your prospects into customers.
If you had to choose a content marketing tactic that’s synonymous with high-quality, many would single out the e-book. Marketing leaders in complex industries deploy e-books as a key tactic within their marketing strategies.
Where the e-book fits in your marketing strategy
A typical B2B buyer traverses a three-stage journey: awareness, consideration, and evaluation. According to a survey by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 56 percent of respondents considered the e-book to be the most effective tactic during the awareness phase of the buyer’s journey, while 39 percent believe it’s most effective within the consideration phase (Figure 1).
The goal within the awareness stage of the buyer’s journey is to help your prospect recognize their need for your offering “by providing neutral, non-promotional content about challenges, pain points or an overarching lack of something that your target market needs (and that your products or services can solve).”1
Because e-books and white papers are created to educate and inform your prospects, they are often referred to as pillar content or lead magnets. This high-value content is offered to prospects for the “low cost” of a name and email address (Figure 2).
Create your e-book with an altruistic mindset. The e-book focus should be on sharing best practices and industry trends rather than selling your products and services. Ann Handley, author of “Everybody Writes,” embodies this philosophy with the mantra, “Share or solve, don’t shill.” Harvard Business Review editor Scott Berinato, says, “Quality content is honest, clear, and serves no hidden agendas. The audience will see right through content that pretends to be one thing but is actually a veiled attempt at generating transactions.”2
Of course, while you’re educating your audience with helpful facts and research, there’s nothing to prevent you from telling the reader that your company can help catapult them to the top of their industry. That becomes the CTA added to your e-book’s conclusion.
But, what are the defining features of an e-book?
The 4 traits of an e-book
E-books are written in active voice and an informal tone
Don’t use passive language and stilted prose. Advertising legend David Olgivy once advised: “Write the way you talk. Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.” While he may have been talking about advertising at the time, his sage advice still applies some 60 years later. Write your e-book so an eighth-grader could understand it.
And watch your technical jargon. Even Albert Einstein implored us to keep it simple: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough.”
E-books are comprehensive
Because e-books can explore subjects in encyclopedic detail, word counts are typically much higher than blog posts—1,500–6,000 words or more, and 6–20 pages.
E-books are replete with images and data visualizations
Complex topics require charts, diagrams, infographics, and detailed photos to help tell stories. Each of these visual aids helps your readers better understand, comprehend, and recall the e-book’s key messages (Figure 3).
E-books should include a table of contents and footnotes
Since e-books can have numerous pages, sections or chapters, include a table of contents (Figure 4) to help your readers navigate the document. In many instances, an e-book includes information and data from multiple sources—both primary and secondary research. For ethical and copyright compliance reasons, it’s imperative that you attribute all your sources. I prefer to list my sources at the end of the document in a section titled References, Sources or Works Cited (Figure 5).
E-book production steps
1. Begin with a clear view of your marketing goals and key messages. Even though the e-book isn’t aggressively promotional in its intent, it should nonetheless be a significant “cog” in your marketing strategy. Make sure you tie the e-book to a specific marketing goal. Write down two to four key messages you want to communicate through the e-book. In other words, after your audience member reads the document, what are the central themes you want them to recall.
2. Create an outline; include ideas for graphics and data visualizations. It’s always a good idea to write an expanded outline for the e-book and send it to your stakeholders to review before you begin the writing step. Use the framework to segment the book into natural sections—usually chapters or parts.
Make sure to annotate where you will insert graphics, charts, and images to help tell your story. In this early stage of the process, resist adding the actual graphics to the outline. Sometimes reviewers get hung up on colors and visual style of the artwork instead of focusing on the message, which can derail or slow the project. Reviewers can weigh-in on visual style later in the process.
3. Write a draft and make revisions; include a CTA. Once your outline is approved, you can begin to write. Include your reference section and a call-to-action that’s placed on the last page of the book (Figure 5).
4. Work with a designer to layout the book. An excellent e-book design is essential to the project’s success. Choose to work with an experienced designer who can partner with you to create a visually engaging design with image assets that help tell your story.
5. Convert the final files into a PDF you can easily share.
E-book writing and production tools
Whether you’re producing an e-book or adding memory to a computer, you need the right tools. Here are a few of the top tools I rely on to create e-books:
Scrivener: Writing an e-book requires hours of research, organizing your sources, outlining content, capturing visual assets, and writing. Forget about using Microsoft Word. That’s like using a cotton ball to buff your car. Scrivener is the best writing tool available for creating long-form projects like e-books, white papers, and large websites. Scrivener was designed for book authors and screenwriters, but it’s also an excellent tool for creating long-form marketing projects.
Scrivener stores all your project files, web pages, and images in a single location; and, a split-screen function allows you to customize your workspace to meet your personal preferences. When you’re finished creating your e-book, export it to one of many formats (Figure 6).
It’s available in Mac OS, iOS, and Windows for $45—a bargain at twice the price.
Style Guides: A writing style guide helps you maintain consistent usage and grammar throughout the e-book. For most of us, that’s either The Associated Press Style (AP) Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. AP Style is the choice for most corporations; Chicago style is used in the publishing world, higher education and technical documentation. Experienced writers will know the generalities of each.
Canva: Canva is a widely-used online tool that you can use to design and produce e-books as well as other assets such as data sheets, case studies, and brochures. If you don’t have the luxury of working with a designer, then Canva is worth a look. To help you get started it offers a nice library of templates. Access to the tool is around $12.95 a month, although the company offers a limited free option as well.
Lucidpress: Another online design and production tool is Lucidpress. Like Canva, the software offers an extensive library of e-book templates to help you get started. The basic subscription is $5.95 a month; a more feature-rich pro version is $19.95 a month.
Rise above the noise
According to a 2019 study by the Content Marketing Institute, a high percentage of technology companies struggle with communicating complex content and differentiating products and services from competitors. Thankfully, a high-quality e-book is an ideal tactic for educating and nurturing your prospects through the lengthy decision-making process that’s typical for complex products and services.
Yes, there’s a lot of noise and content clutter out there, but the e-book will help you stand apart.
- “Fresh Content Marketing Ideas for Your B2B Buyer’s Journey.” Mark Schmukler, Marketing Insider Group, February 21, 2019.
- “Quality Content: Definitions and Creation Tips From 35+ Experts.” Ann Gynn, Content Marketing Institute, July 18, 2017.