12 Tips for More Effective White Papers – Part 1

February 10, 2009 by

In tough economic times, business buyers – like the rest of us – are generally resistant to spending money without good reason. Their anti-advertising defenses are at full alert.

So I thought this might be a good time to pass on a few tips about a tool that is specially designed to help you fly under your prospects’ defensive radar: the white paper.

And I’ve come up with twelve of them.

Unfortunately, giving each of these tips its due -- all in one place -- would make for a very long article. So I’ve decided to split it into two parts. The first five tips – on how to organize your white paper project – I’ll share with you today. Then next month, I’ll give you seven more tips designed to help you organize and write the white paper itself.

Effective White Papers Tip #1 – To generate leads, use a “business benefits” or “hybrid” white paper

White paper specialist Michael Stelzner, in his book Writing White Papers, identifies four primary types of white papers. Three of these – technical, business benefits and hybrid – are valuable in B2B marketing. The other is the government white paper.

The most familiar type of white paper in high technology industries is still the technical white paper. Certainly, the vast majority of white papers I see posted on aerospace company websites fall into that category. Technical white papers usually describe processes or procedures in detail, or the merits of a particular technology.

Technical white papers can be very helpful in the later stages of the sales cycle, but they are usually not effective for generating leads. The reason lies in who reads white papers today.

The audience for white papers has shifted significantly in recent years. “In the past, white papers were primarily targeted at engineers and technical influencers,” says Stelzner. “Modern white paper readers are decision makers and tend to be business people rather than engineers.” He maintains it is those decision makers who seek out white papers and bring the majority of them into organizations.

To attract the attention of business people, you need either a “business benefits” white paper, or a “hybrid” white paper – the latter so called because it represents a cross between a business benefits white paper and a technical white paper.

Business benefits white papers concentrate on the business advantages of a solution. They show how the solution addresses the problems or challenges the target organization faces. A well-written business benefits white paper quickly tells busy decision makers why they should consider a particular solution – without going into great technical detail about the solution…or giving a sales pitch.

Your lead-generating business benefits white paper can be backed up with technical white papers or other product literature to gain buy-in from technical staff later in the sales process.

If your product is one that solves problems faced by engineers, you may want to consider a hybrid white paper. These target both executives and engineers. They start by making a business case for the solution, like the business benefits white paper. Then, toward the end, they go into greater technical detail and give examples of how the solution works.

With a hybrid white paper, executives can read the first few pages, then pass the paper to their technical staff for analysis. Or if the white paper is brought in by engineering, they have something suitable to pass up to management.

Hybrid papers can also be an attractive option for small companies with limited marketing budgets. The same white paper can be used both to generate leads and to support the sales process.

Effective White Papers Tip #2 – Begin with a Needs Assessment.

For a white paper to be effective, it must be well targeted on a particular reader and well focused on a topic he cares about. To insure this, you should begin every white paper project with a needs assessment.

A needs assessment involves asking lots of questions about the target audience and the white paper’s objectives:

  • Who are the primary and secondary target audiences?
  • What is the target reader’s job title? Age? Background?
  • What is the reader’s main concern regarding our solution?
  • What is the objective of the white paper? Should it educate? Sell? Inform? Introduce? Differentiate?
  • Who are the key players who must be interviewed?
  • Who are the key competitors to be analyzed?

The goal here is for the writer and management to agree on the direction of the white paper before writing begins. This will streamline the writing process and help avoid problems later on.

Effective White Papers Tip #3 – Identify a clear objective.

To write an effective white paper, the writer needs to focus on a well-defined objective.

Stelzner points out that, “Objectives come in many flavors, including overt and covert objectives. Overt objectives are the goals you would not mind sharing with the world. However, covert objectives are the secret goals you hope to achieve with your white paper.”

“Most overt white paper goals,” he continues, “involve educating, selling, informing or differentiating a company, product or service. Covert goals typically include attacking the competition, gaining a first-to-market position or generating leads.”

Fortunately, for each covert goal, there are always one or more overt goals to choose from that will allow you to achieve the same objective. If you want to generate leads, for example, your overt objective might be: “to inform decision makers of the business advantages of our solution.”

It is important that management and the writer agree, formally, on the objective of the white paper. The writer should constantly refer to the objective to make sure his writing stays on track. And management must be aware that changing the objective after writing has begun will probably result in significant re-writing, schedule delays and added cost.

Effective White Papers Tip #4 – Identify and write to a specific Ideal Reader.

The target audience for your white paper may include different individuals within an organization. But it is important to identify a single “primary” or “ideal” reader within that audience and write the white paper specifically for him.

Your choice of ideal reader will depend heavily on your chosen objective – and the type of white paper you wish to publish. If you’re creating a business benefits white paper on an enterprise-wide development solution, for example, your ideal reader will likely be an executive, perhaps a chief technology officer. For a hybrid white paper describing the advantages of a new type of test equipment, your ideal reader might be an engineering manager – in tune with both the business concerns of higher management and the technical challenges faced by his staff.

Everyone involved in your white paper project needs a clear picture of your ideal reader – his job title, what industry and type of company he works for, his age, background, attitudes and concerns, etc. This will help keep discussions on track when your writer interviews your subject matter experts. And it will help your writer maintain a consistent tone and focus throughout the paper.

If you are writing the white paper yourself, you must keep a clear picture of your ideal reader in mind as you write. Write as though you’re speaking to him directly. Anticipate and address his concerns.

If topics that are more important to secondary readers must be covered, approach them from the perspective of the ideal reader. Use a level of detail appropriate for that reader.

Doing otherwise – dwelling too long on topics that don’t directly concern your ideal reader – is an invitation for him to put your white paper aside and turn to more important matters. And once he puts your white paper aside...it’s unlikely he’ll pick it up again.

Effective White Papers Tip #5 – Get an outline approved before writing begins.

“Perhaps the most important part of the white paper process,” says Stelzner, “ is developing a compelling outline and obtaining the appropriate approvals before setting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard.”

The outline is the architectural blueprint that guides the development of your white paper. It drives the interviewing and research processes. And it makes sure all important topics are covered.

Getting that outline approved makes sure all key stakeholders in the project are “on the same page” and the direction of the white paper has been blessed before the bulk of the work begins. This is a key step for avoiding delays and headaches later on.

Interestingly, a 2007 white paper industry survey found that over half (51.5%) of white paper writers do not submit an outline for approval. The same survey, commissioned by WhitePaperSource, also found that nearly a third of white paper writers found review cycles to be difficult, 34.5% cited project direction change as a problem, and 21% said they had difficulty getting approvals.

Although the study did not asked writers whether they actually produced outlines for white paper projects, it concluded that the large percentage (43%) of writers judging the outline process as “Neither easy nor difficult” may indicate that many of them skip this important step.

So if you commission white papers from outside writers, it would be wise to require them to submit an outline for approval – along with a statement of the white paper’s objective and a profile of the ideal reader – during the initial stage of the project.

Take-Away Points

It’s business decision makers, more than engineers, who read white papers today. So if you want use a white paper to generate sales leads, use a business benefits or hybrid white paper, not a technical white paper.

And to make sure your white paper project stays on track, always:

(1) perform a needs assessment at the outset,

(2) get formal agreement upon the objective and ideal reader for your white paper, and

(3) get an outline for your white paper approved by management before you begin the research and writing process.

A Little Extra Added Value

For a beginning-to-end guide on how to write a white paper or manage a white paper project, I highly recommend Michael Stelzner’s Writing White Papers.

If you’re looking for a guide to marketing your products or services using white papers and other informational content, check out The White Paper Marketing Handbook, by Bob Bly.

For More Help

Finally, if you’re considering a white paper project and think you might need some outside writing help, please call (+39) 011-569-4951 or send an email to info@CopyEngineer.com to discuss your needs and get a free, no-obligation quote.

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