How to write a great white paper

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The use of white papers as a marketing tool has skyrocketed in recent years, not only for selling information technology but also to promote various products and services beyond hardware and software.

A professional writer or editor hired to produce the text for a white paper typically is not an expert in the subject, which more often than not is both technical and arcane. For instance, I've written white papers on everything from measuring ROI from content management systems to promoting bone healing with an implantable electromagnetic generator.

Before the Internet, the greatest challenge for the writer was lack of information. Research often was the bottleneck in devising a white paper. The local public library contained little usable information on the specialized topics, and subject matter experts often were uncooperative in sharing information with writers.

In the Internet era, the problem is too much information.

Let's say you are writing a white paper on COBRA administration. A Google search on COBRA will bring you 29.2 million Web pages mentioning COBRA. I kid you not. After printing the relevant information from just the top 10 or 20, you can have literally hundreds of pages of background information on COBRA.

The writer's challenge is not in finding sufficient content for writing the paper, but in selection. How do you know what content to include, or what to leave out?

All you have to do is ask and answer one question: "What is the marketing objective of this white paper?" Importantly, topic and marketing objective are not the same thing.

For a white paper titled "Administering COBRA," the topic is how to administer COBRA benefits. But if you are selling software to automate COBRA administration, your marketing objective might be: "Get human resources managers who need help in administering COBRA benefits to call us and ask for a demo of our system."

Three things to include. Once you define the marketing objective, it's much easier to select the appropriate content from your vast library of source material for inclusion in your white paper, as well as ruthlessly prune research materials that sound interesting but do not help achieve the objective.

There are three categories of content you should include in your white paper. The first is content that directly enhances the ability to achieve your marketing objective. For instance, I recently wrote for a client a white paper on how to comply with a federal regulation concerning data privacy. Let's call it "Regulation X." One of the marketing objectives was to convince readers that they should make Regulation X compliance a priority (many do not).

So I researched on the Internet whether any organization or its employees had suffered negative consequences from not achieving full Regulation X compliance. Many had, and I added some of that material to the white paper to drive home the point that ignoring Regulation X would harm your company and your career.

Useful tips and how-to information are the second type of content to add. On the Regulation X paper, the client gave me a list the federal government publishes on "9 simple steps to achieving Regulation X compliance."

The list is short and sweet, so I included it as a sidebar. The purpose of the white paper is not to serve as a how-to manual on Regulation X compliance; that's beyond the scope of any document limited to white-paper length. But the reader feels he or she is getting useful ideas from the sidebar and so is more inclined to read and keep the white paper.

The third type of information involves comparing the various options for solving the problem and steering the reader toward yours. In the Regulation X paper, there were two types of options. Most software companies sold one specific tool to enable compliance in each of the different rules covered by Regulation X.

My client, by comparison, sold a single comprehensive tool covering all areas. In the white paper, we gave a seemingly objective analysis of the two options, which of course indicated that the advantages of the single-source approach outweighed those of the rule-specific tool approach – a belief that naturally would lead the reader to pick our software over that of competitors.

When you have a ton of information available on the topic, avoid taking the attitude that "the more content we can cram into our white paper, the better." Your reader is busy. If your paper has the heft of "Moby Dick," the reader will put it aside. The writer's task is one of selectivity: knowing what to leave out is almost as important as knowing what to put in.

What to leave out. To start, leave out information that the reader can get elsewhere easily and does not forward the marketing objective.

In the Regulation X white paper, the client initially wanted several pages outlining the regulation's sections and subsections. I asked where he had gotten this detailed write-up. He replied that he had lifted it from a government Web site almost word for word. I suggested just summarizing Regulation X, its purpose and its importance in a paragraph or two, and then including a link to the site for readers who wanted the complete description.

Next, leave out extraneous detail. I also asked the client, "Does knowing the full Regulation X requirements line by line help the reader decide which tool to use?" The client admitted it does not. Then it's extraneous detail. It adds length without adding value.

The third type of information to leave out is material that is interesting but irrelevant. I read a white paper on fuel cells that detailed the history of batteries and included the invention of the voltaic cell and galvanic pile. It was fascinating but irrelevant to the automaker deciding which fuel cell technology to put into his electric car.

Is there an ideal length for white papers? Yes and no. Of course, the text should be as long as it takes to achieve the marketing objective. But as a rule of thumb, I find the most effective white papers to be 3,000 to 4,000 words. At 2,000 words or less, a paper doesn't seem substantial enough, and perhaps is better suited to an article. Much beyond 5,000 words, the bulk becomes ponderous enough to scare off busy prospects who would at least skim the document if it seemed less imposing.

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