I recently reviewed all the white papers I worked on from 1997 to 2020.
The results were fascinating.
Of these 300 white papers, a full 50 were abandoned and never published. That’s 1 in 6.
Three dozen more were published, but with clear defects. That’s 1 in 9.
That means 214 of my papers (71%) were published as planned, while 29% weren’t.
You can hear about some of the more outrageous projects in these posts:
And you can hear about what went right more than 200 times here:
Now I’d like to describe why and how I did that analysis; my methodology, if you will.
Why do this?
For years, I (Gordon Graham aka That White Paper Guy) have been keeping a list of every white paper I worked on. That’s why I knew the count was getting close to 300.
I can’t remember anyone else claiming to have personally worked on 300 white papers over a stretch of 20+ years.
That must be some kind of record.
When I reached that mark in mid-2020, I figured it was time to look back and see what I’d learned from all that.
And I wanted to share my observations and advice with the upcoming generation of long-form content writers… and the clients who hire them.
What I counted
For this analysis, I counted any white paper that I had worked on directly.
I wrote most of these himself from scratch.
There were a few exceptions.
Some of these 300 white papers were:
- Revised from a draft done by someone else
- Updated from an earlier version
- Planned in detail, but never written
- Subcontracted to another writer (about a dozen in all)
How I rated each project
I remember many of these projects like they were yesterday.
And for most projects, I have a finished PDF on hand.
Where my memory was hazy, I went back to review any notes, e-mails, drafts and invoices for that project.
To report the results, I were inspired by The Standish Group.
This organization has analyzed many thousands of software projects, using the simple metaphor of a stoplight.
I used the same metaphor, with these definitions:
- Red: a white paper started but never published (failed)
- Orange: a white paper published, but with defects (challenged)
- Green: a white paper published as planned (successful)
Over several weeks, I collected his thoughts for each project.
Then I grouped similar types of problems together, refined the descriptions, and counted the projects in each group.
A few papers suffered from more than one problem. If so, I assigned each one to the category I figured was the main issue.
I certainly didn’t sugarcoat anything.
When a project flopped, I admitted it. Then I tried to identify why.
Editorial success, not business results
This data covers the process of creating a white paper and the finished results from an editorial point of view.
After all, that’s what I know.
I have only sketchy data on the business results generated by any project. Clients don’t often share that with writers.
I’d love to know about the results too. From now on, I plan to circle back and ask.
That said, my ability to impact business results is limited. I have no hand in running the promotions for the white papers I create.
So it’s possible for a white paper to be excellent in editorial terms but still not generate any significant business results.
It could be sent to the wrong list, with a weak e-mail, a muddled landing page, and so on.
Down the road, the sponsor’s offering may have a deep technical flaw, an outlandish price-point, or some other show-stopper.
To publish a white paper that succeeds editorially and generates good business results takes many players contributing at the top of their game.
That’s sort of like creating a show that both the fans and the critics love.
When it happens, everybody’s happy.
Let’s all continue to push for that.
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