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6 success factors for white papers

Many white papers are started… but not all of them are completed.

There are many reasons for this.

Priorities change… new products emerge… people come and go… executives lose interest.

Explaining a product in detail can turn up flaws the vendor doesn’t want to admit… or conflicting opinions that can’t be resolved.

How can you avoid these issues?

You can engineer your next white paper for success by making sure it meets these six success factors.

#1: In-house sponsor

The project has an effective in-house sponsor who can help the writer navigate through company politics and personalities.

For example, a sponsor can help resolve comments and point out which ones must be incorporated and which can be safely ignored.

#2: Time box

The project has a desperately short timeframe with an immovable deadline like a trade show.

“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” said British writer Samuel Johnson… an observation that still holds true nearly 300 years later.

I’m not saying writing a white paper is like being hung… but why else would they call it a “deadline”?

#3: Deep understanding

The writer has a deep understanding of the product, the technology, the company, the potential customers… or in the best-case scenario, all of the above.

This familiarity with the topic and the players at hand saves everyone time and frustration.

Few experts like to spend time explaining basic concepts that the writer should already know.

They’re more interested in discussing design tradeoffs, changes in the market, unexpected use cases and other more nuanced topics.

#4: Ready access to SMEs and reviewers

Speaking of SMEs, a white paper writer needs ready access to Subject Matter Experts who make themselves available on request… not to mention reviewers who turn around drafts in a reasonable timeframe.

While some people say, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question…” I really can’t agree.

Here’s how I define a dumb question: any question where the writer could have easily found the answer without soaking up a SME’s valuable time.

The web is a vast repository of knowledge; every writer should use it to prepare fully for interviews.

#5: Joint ownership

The writer, illustrator, engineers, marketing manager, product manager and other SMEs and reviewers assume joint ownership of the white paper.

They work together as a team, discuss differences openly and settle disagreements quickly.

This isn’t always within your control… but one thing you can do is to hold an initial kickoff call to get everyone on the same page.

#6: Sense of urgency

There is a shared sense of urgency among all the participants. Everyone thinks the white paper is urgent enough to make time for it in their busy schedules.

This goes back to the time box and immovable deadline. Without some measure of urgency, a white paper can languish on the back burner for… well, forever.

When you are responsible for a white paper, try to get as many of these success factors as possible working in your favor. If you do, your paper will likely be completed in a reasonable timeframe.

After that, the relevance of the content to your target audience and how effectively your white paper is published will determine its results.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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