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Top Ten Tips for Creating Great Whitepapers

June 16, 2011

Guest post by Sue Fenner, co-owner of WriteAway! Group

Press releases, brochures, Web site copy, blogs, and customer success stories can all add significant value to a company’s marketing arsenal. White papers are also a great way to inform your audience, especially when delivering in-depth information on the company’s products or service offerings. White papers can also provide an excellent opportunity to demonstrate thought leadership on emerging industry trends or technology advancements.

But white papers can be one of the trickiest forms of communication to implement correctly. The following tips will help you create documents that effectively deliver your messages — quickly, accurately, and creatively — to each of your many different stakeholders, including existing and potential customers, industry analysts, investors, the news media, and various trade publications.

1. Start by defining your intended audience.

Is your white paper meant to impress executives and company decision makers — or educate more technical readers with the finer details of your product or services? Both audiences need addressing, but require completely different approaches. One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is trying to create “a-little-bit-for-everyone” paper. With that approach, you are likely to alienate both your technical audience and C-level readers. The best tactic is to create separate documents — one (or more) for your business readers, the others for more technical constituents.

2. Define the scope and length of the paper.

What messages and information do you want your readers to take away from the paper? One of the biggest mistakes companies make is trying to cover every possible topic in one very long white paper. When was the last time you sat down and read an entire white paper from start to finish? If you are like the rest of us, you barely have time to read all of your email messages each day. Try to keep your white paper to about 8-10 pages max. Any longer, and you’ll put your audience to sleep. Any shorter, and you’ll leave them wanting for more.

3. Minimize the “white” in your white paper.

Today’s readers expect a visually compelling presentation from every form of collateral, even white papers. They expect to be engaged and entertained – with multimedia and visually compelling copy. The old “just the facts” approach has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Include graphs, tables, pictures, and screenshots – anything you can think of to break up the text and present your ideas in an appealing and entertaining format. Remember, a picture is worth a “Millinillion” words. (No, that’s not a typo, that’s 103003 in case you wondered!)

4. Don’t make it sound like your marketing manager wrote it.

White papers should be informative pieces, NOT sales tools or advertisements for your company. Avoid catch phrases that sound like marketing-hype, including “industry-leading”, “best-in-class”, or “introducing a revolutionary new paradigm.” Your readers will smell the scent of marketing and run to the nearest exit. Also, stick to a more formal tone. Third person (he, she, “the company”) is always a better choice than first person (I, we, our) for professional business writing.

5. Don’t mention your product or service until the very end of the paper – if at all.

Some of the best white papers never even mention the company’s product. Instead they focus on industry trends, challenges, and new approaches to the customer’s problem. If you do feel the need to talk about your product, it should be at the very end of the paper right before the summary. The best white papers present unbiased, objective information, intended to educate and inform the audience and demonstrate thought leadership. Leave the marketing messages to your other collateral – your banner ads, Web site copy, or high-level brochures.

6. Limit the number of internal contributors.

Too many cooks will spoil the soup — especially if they are all working from different recipes! You need to identify ONE owner of the paper who will have final approval of ALL content. He or she can gather the necessary information from other contributors, but only one person should have the authority to pick from the many versions of the truth to choose the right messages for the paper. Failure to identify the “Content Czar” is the most common mistake companies make, and where many white paper projects fail. Remember – the time and cost to produce a white paper is directly proportional to the number of people who feel they are the owners or key contributors of the content.

7. Include third-party information whenever possible.  

Direct quotes from industry experts are golden. Citing an independent source will provide credibility to your messages. But make sure you have formal permission from the third-party to reprint the content. Just because you read those statistics or found quotes already published on the Internet, doesn’t mean the analyst firm or other authority will consent to you republishing it in your paper without their permission. At the very least, the Gartner Groups and IDCs out there will want to check your facts for accuracy and make sure the information you cite is current and not taken out of context in your paper.

8. Find a great writer and outsource white paper development.

Do you have the necessary time to dedicate to white paper development? I didn’t think so. One of the most time-consuming collateral projects a company can undertake is creating a white paper. A professional writer can not only dedicate a block of uninterrupted time for the project, he or she will also add objectivity. Your product managers are often too entrenched in their topics to be able to communicate at a level the reader will understand. White paper development is an art, not a science. A well-trained independent writer can produce a high-quality white paper quickly, enabling your product and marketing managers to focus on their core competencies.

9. You don’t need a subject matter expert to write the white paper.

Don’t confuse the role of a strategic writer with a technology consultant. The best writers can pick up the most important and relevant aspects of the technology quickly, and transform it into copy the intended audience will understand. Too much knowledge of the subject can actually be a disadvantage. Your product specialists will often assume that everyone already knows the underlying technology concepts. This can quickly turn a technical paper into acronym soup. An experienced writer will be able to quickly grasp the new content, and then create copy that can be easily understood by the intended audience.

10. Leverage your end product!

Now that you have a created a great white paper, what are you going to do with it? In addition to posting it under the “library” tab on your web site, consider a broader reach. Submit it to a popular trade magazine. They are always looking for good articles! Add it to the “what’s new” link on your home page. Or repurpose it into a series of shorter articles and create blogs for your followers to visit! You’d be amazed at how many of your readers are now following you on Twitter other social media sites.

And finally, don’t forget the importance of having an experienced marketing team onboard. Having a great product or service is just your entry ticket into the start-up game. Effective, targeted marketing is your key to success. A world-class marketing agency (like Crowded Ocean!) can provide the talent you need to make all of your marketing efforts a success.

Sue Fenner is co-owner of WriteAway! Group, which specializes in writing marketing collateral for leading technology companies around the world. For more information, email or call 530-478-5700.

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