How to Achieve Success with Your White Paper

Many white papers are started, but not all are finished, for many reasons — priorities change, new products emerge, people come and go, executives lose interest. Explaining a product in detail can turn up flaws that nobody wants to admit or conflicting opinions that can’t be resolved. How can you dodge these potential problems?

A good strategy is to understand the critical factors that can make developing a white paper a smooth and agreeable process. Then try to get as many of these factors working in your favor as possible.

White paper success factor #1: In-house sponsor

The first cornerstone of success is an effective in-house sponsor who can help the writer navigate through any company politics or difficult personalities. For example, a sponsor can help resolve comments and tell the writer which ones must be incorporated and which can be safely ignored.

A major reason behind most project failures is the lack of management support. An in-house sponsor can remind everyone of the company’s commitment to the white paper. If you’re the marketing manager who commissioned the white paper, you can serve as this sponsor.

White paper success factor #2: Firm deadline

Treating a white paper as an open-ended project that you can finish whenever you get around to it isn’t the best approach. To succeed, you need an immovable deadline in the real world, such as a trade show. A product release can provide a good deadline, as long as the hall is already booked and the press release already delivered so the date can’t possibly slip.

A white paper is one of the most challenging pieces of content, so it takes an even bigger push to complete one. Without a firm deadline that no one can push back — a time box — your team can be distracted by other short-term activities and tempted to put off the white paper until tomorrow.

White paper success factor #3: Deep understanding of the topic

A white paper has a better chance of success if you can find a writer with a deep understanding of the problems being discussed; your target audience; your new, improved solution; and your company. His familiarity with the topic and the players at hand saves everyone time.

After all, very few experts enjoy explaining basic concepts that the writer should already know. They’re more interested in discussing advanced issues, such as design trade-offs, unexpected use cases, changes in the market space, and other nuanced topics. A writer who can engage his interview subjects on a higher level can pull out more interesting material for the white paper.

Ideally, you want to find a writer with two key qualifications. First, make sure he’s well seasoned at writing white papers. Second, confirm that he has a good deal of domain knowledge about your industry so he won’t waste your team’s time on introductory topics.

When it comes to interviewing a top executive or subject matter expert, here are three types of dumb questions:

  • Dumb Question #1: “So how does your software work?” or some other impossibly broad and unfocused query. Instead, do your homework and ask something more specific.

  • Dumb Question #2: “When was the company founded?” or some other banal inquiry. Instead of wasting an expert’s time with such trivial details, find the answer on the company’s website.

  • Dumb Question #3: “Here’s what I think.” This isn’t a question but a statement intended to show off your own knowledge. Some writers talk right over their subjects, cutting them off and missing what they’re saying.

White paper success factor #4: Cooperative SMEs and reviewers

Speaking of experts, a successful white paper often depends on ready access to subject matter experts (SMEs) who make themselves available to the white paper writer on request. Your writer likely needs to interview them for an hour or two and e-mail them follow-up questions on the fly. The same experts often serve as reviewers, so you need them to comment on drafts in a reasonable time frame.

White paper success factor #5: Joint ownership

This factor can be challenging to develop. Everyone on the project — the marketing manager, product manager, engineers, SMEs, reviewers, writer, and designer — should assume joint ownership of the white paper. They must work together smoothly as a team, discuss differences openly, and settle any disagreements quickly. Of course, this collaboration isn’t always within your control.

You can do something to help develop joint ownership of a project. Hold an initial kickoff call. This conference call helps get everyone on the same page and makes sure everyone buys into the project and feels some ownership for it. That camaraderie can carry a white paper through any challenges that arise during the process.

White paper success factor #6: Sense of urgency

The final success factor is a shared sense of urgency among everyone working on the project. People must consider the white paper significant enough to make time for it in their busy schedules and to open e-mails about it before any of the dozens of other e-mails clamoring for their attention.

It’s one thing to set a deadline, or a series of deadlines for each step of the process; it’s another to get busy executives and technical people to respect those deadlines and do what they’re supposed to do in the time you’ve given them. Without some measure of urgency, a white paper can get shoved to the back burner.

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