What does it take for a white paper to succeed?
That question has been on my mind a lot lately.
And here’s my best answer, based on real-world data.
As you may know, we recently analyzed 300 white paper projects I worked on from 1997 to 2020.
Of those 300, we judged that 214 were successful in editorial terms. That’s 71% or 7 out of 10.
So what about those 214 papers that we consider successful, the 7 out of 10 that were published as planned?
What did those projects have that the others lacked?
And how can we make sure to set up those winning conditions every time?
Let me consider a few projects that stand out in my recollections.
Those can give us a better idea of what it takes to create a successful white paper.
My first-ever white paper: Commitment overcomes a crazy deadline
In 1997, I was VP of Marketing for a fast-growing tech company in Montreal.
We’d seen “white papers” from other companies and we wanted our own for an upcoming trade show.
The only problem?
Lack of time: The trade show was only two weeks away. That was clearly impossible, but we didn’t know any better.
And we had a couple of other problems.
Lack of knowledge: Nobody in the company ever worked on a white paper.
In those early days of the web, I couldn’t find any advice about white papers online. So we had to make it up as we went along.
Lack of English review skills: Our head developers were all francophones.
While they spoke excellent English, they couldn’t review a white paper written in English on such a pressing deadline.
Despite all this, we had a burning desire to do it.
So I hired a seasoned writer and a talented designer. I would be the editor who put it all together.
And we fell into a crazy routine:
- Every morning, the writer e-mailed me a revised draft
- The designer added a touched-up illustration
- I put them together in Word
- Every afternoon we held a review
For those reviews, the company founders, top developers, the writer and I all squeezed into a tiny office. The writer would read the draft aloud and then ask probing questions about the next section.
After 60 or 90 minutes of intense discussion, the latest draft would be more or less approved.
The day our team left for the trade show, I handed them a disk they used to print copies after they landed.
How did that white paper turn out?
See for yourself. Click the cover above to download that white paper.
To me, it ended up looking something like a slide deck, e-book, and tipsheet all rolled into one.
But it was better than most white papers circulating at the time. And it certainly paid off. After all, that white paper:
- Clearly explained the benefits of our product
- Helped close deals for the next several years
- Was simple to repurpose
- Won an award from the Society for Technical Communication (STC)
Not bad for a rush job, right?
That project planted a seed in my imagination that led me to spend 20+ years focusing on white papers.
Most of all, it showed me that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Just don’t tell anyone you can do a white paper in two weeks.
I’ve never managed to repeat that feat, ever.
Location doesn’t matter; it’s the team that counts
Few white papers are done with intense in-person scrums like in the story above.
Most often, I never meet my client.
Here’s one white paper put together by a far-flung team.
From my location in Canada, I wrote this for a company based in Australia seeking a foothold in the United States.
It’s a strawberry-chocolate structure for a problem with three main parts.
What was the problem it discussed?
Getting their reports in on time
To help recover from the Great Recession, the U.S. government brought in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus program.
But construction firms were struggling to send in reports by deadline in a defined format. No properly formatted report by deadline? No funding.
To help firms generate more timely reports while managing all the documents required, my client proposed an online portal.
Our team included the client at the HQ in Australia, an executive in California, and a designer halfway across Australia from the client.
With people in several different time zones, setting up phone calls was a little challenging. But we managed.
All the text came together in the format of a classic numbered list + problem/solution.
The design and graphics enhanced the text beautifully.
And the final paper reads like we were all in the same office somewhere in the U.S. working out the details.
I especially like the cover photo
Nothing says “USA” like a picture from Washington, DC; in this case, the Capitol Building that houses the Senate and House of Representatives.
This project shows that location really doesn’t matter.
Over the years, I’ve written white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland.
With the right team and the right resources, they all turned out. Just like this one I’ve been telling you about.
Saving an e-book that almost didn’t make it
To me, an e-book is basically a white paper turned on its side with graphics added and text dropped out.
They’re hard to define—but I know one when I see it!
I wrote one e-book for a company that makes a powerful add-in to ERP systems to help manage supply chains.
The client wanted an e-book to give a quick primer on their market space and point to many other pieces of content.
So I wrote a 25-page draft with not a wasted word.
Each page held 200 words max, and these words were broken up with either bullets, a quote, or a table. Every page had links to articles, interviews, or videos for further info.
The tone was light and lively. Every page ended with a corny joke.
And several pages linked to the groundbreaking videos the company had professionally produced.
My favorite was “Suitemates” about two enterprise software CEOs who end up in prison: a powerful satire on the competition.
Another was “Married to the Job” about a couple who work in different sides of a company: a work-oriented sitcom.
This project had a strong sponsor, committed reviewers, and enough time and budget to do a proper job.
But that white paper almost didn’t make it.
The first design was bland and old-fashioned-looking. Everyone who saw it was underwhelmed.
If we’d stopped there, this e-book would have been “challenged” (orange) or perhaps abandoned altogether (red).
But my client kept going. She asked me what I thought, pondered what to do, and ultimately sent the e-book back for a re-design.
The second time, the look was right.
The color scheme is warmer. There are subtle flourishes like a compass motif, triangular bullets, and little comic-tragic masks.
All these design elements add up to an inviting read. Don’t you think?
The white paper sponsor recognized that the first version was suffering from poor design. With perseverance, she pushed this project from orange to green.
Revisions are smooth when the client respects quality
Most writers won’t touch a half-finished white paper. Most say they have to start over again from scratch.
But I’ve found some revisions just seem easy. Like in this case.
The client was a unique firm in San Francisco that helped companies manage their office renovations.
Owner Adam Felson had a first draft. But he wanted a professional review.
Adam had an excellent listicle that covered 13 problems he often saw in office renos.
But it was packed with so many tips, it ran 6,000+ words. That’s just too long for busy people.
So I suggested an edit to save words and make the text easier to read.
With judicious editing, I trimmed 1,300 words without losing any key ideas.
These revisions achieved big gains in readability:
- Reading Ease up from 50 to 60 (higher is better)
- Reading Grade Level down from 11.3 to 8.6 (lower is better)
The reviews from the client were prompt and decisive.
Even though I cut more than 20% of the original draft, Adam never complained. He could appreciate how his draft was becoming a more professional effort.
Next we turned to our go-to designer, Oliver Sutherns, for the page design.
Oliver found some great photos, picked up the dark red of the company’s logo for subheads and flourishes, and created wonderfully airy and scannable pages.
The client was delighted.
“Really great work on this!” said Adam, “I just wanted to say that you are incredible at what you do.”
His colleague Ali Platto added, “I am drop-jawed, this is so fantastic.”
With the perfect combination of the right team, the right skills, and enough resources, this process was smooth from start to finish.
That white paper paid off, too.
Adam won some new business, generated some great press, and gained enough interest to put together a successful breakfast event.
And that was all thanks to his top-quality white paper.
The key ingredients of success
An insanely short deadline, a team scattered around the world, an initial problem with the design, and an overly long draft.
Yet all of these projects turned into outstanding white papers.
What can we learn?
Challenging timelines and locations do not have to be constraints.
They can be overcome with management support, a simpatico team and the right skills.
This conclusion jives with our data. And this table shows all the key success factors for a white paper.
Key ingredients for white paper success
|Team||• Executive sponsor who can resolve conflicts
• Committed reviewers
• Open, honest communications
|Resources||• Realistic expectations
• Realistic timelines
• Realistic budget
• Realistic scope
|Skills||• Research, writing and editing
• Graphics, typography, and page design
• Finding an engaging topic
|Source: That White Paper Guy, 2020|
Notice how most of these ingredients—the team and the resources—are pretty much under the control of the client.
Only the sponsor can pull together the right team and direct them what to do.
And the sponsor must find enough resources to make the project feasible.
Of course, the writer/project manager can help set realistic expectations, negotiate an adequate schedule and budget, and create the right scope.
And the writer must provide the proper skills, pick the right flavor and find an engaging topic with enough proof points to be persuasive.
Let’s consider each of these big three categories in turn.
Get it together: The right team for a white paper
Our analysis shows that any successful project requires the right team.
Half a dozen people can be involved in any white paper, sometimes more.
We could even say that white papers are a “team sport.”
The team includes the executive sponsor, in-house sources and reviewers, the creative suppliers including the writer and designer, and the marketing staff who promote the finished paper.
The executive sponsor must:
- Be placed high enough to make sure reviewers do their tasks
- Have the clout to resolve differences between reviewers
- Stay with the company until the paper is finished!
That last point sounds obvious, right?
But we’ve had 10 white papers fall apart when the sponsors moved on and no one else stepped into their role.
Sometimes the sponsor must change direction on a project.
For example, if a product is delayed, any supporting white paper can be delayed accordingly.
But the sponsor must tell the rest of the team clearly what’s going on. Otherwise, everyone will be confused and demotivated.
The reviewers must be:
- Properly briefed on the purpose and audience
- Committed to complete the paper
- Available to do reviews in a reasonable timeframe
- Flexible if any conflicts arise
This sounds simple, but it doesn’t always happen.
We’ve had almost 20 white papers ruined or undermined by reviewers who never did their reviews or could not agree with one another.
Open communication is a must
Here’s another key task for the sponsor:
- Create an atmosphere where everyone feels safe to speak up
- Not let anyone “pull rank”—especially to meddle
- Keep discussions positive and focused on the content
Internal conflicts far beyond our capacity to resolve have ruined 15 white papers that we’ve started.
And after delivering what I thought was an acceptable draft, I’ve been “ghosted” 4 times over the years.
Let’s face it: Cutting loose a creative supplier because you can’t resolve an internal conflict is not the way to succeed in business.
Be realistic: The right resources for a white paper
When you’re assembling the resources for a white paper, the most important quality is to be realistic.
That means allowing enough time and money to do a proper job.
And having sensible expectations about what you can achieve with a single white paper.
Realistic timelines: Planning ahead is important
In my experience, a typical white paper takes 6 to 8 weeks from startup to final document.
A lot of that time consists of waiting for comments back from reviewers.
What about that 2-week rush I explained in the opener of this article?
That only happened because we had a gigantic time commitment from the entire management team.
That project was an outlier that I’ve never repeated.
So if any prospective client expects to snap their fingers and get a white paper planned, researched, written, designed, and promoted in 2 or 3 weeks, I tell them to think again.
A real white paper is just not going to happen that fast.
Realistic budget: The text for an average white paper costs $4,200
Design outsourced to a professional designer adds another $1,000.
Count on a few hundred for sending out a press release, sending out some rounds of e-mails, and printing up some color copies for your sales force.
You’re soon up to $6,000. And that’s for an average white paper.
Of course, you don’t want just average results, do you?
If you pay more for an expert writer, add a few custom graphics, and shell out for a few weeks of a pay-per-click campaign, you’re getting close to $10,000.
If those numbers scare you—$6,000 for average and $10,000 for above-average—you’re probably not ready to publish a white paper.
That’s okay. Nobody says you have to do a white paper.
And trying to do one on a shoestring will not likely bring you success.
Realistic expectations: No white paper stands alone
Any white paper can be the cornerstone of a great campaign, but it can’t be the whole campaign.
Think of the entire customer journey. What comes before and after your white paper?
Include a do-able call-to-action, such as coming to the sponsor’s website to interact with a widget or see the next piece of content.
If the prospect does that much, that’s a conversion. The paper did its job.
Don’t expect prospects to read one white paper and put in an order. Or even call 1-800-SALES to talk to your eager sales team.
That’s asking way too much.
Adjust your expectations to align with what content marketing does best.
A successful white paper can put out the word about your product or company, and help prospects get to know, like, and trust you.
But no single white paper can generate a lead, nurture them through a complex B2B sale, and get them to sign on the dotted line.
If you expect that much, you are bound to be disappointed.
Realistic scope: not too big, not too small
More than 20 years ago, I heard an excellent piece of advice:
Make each white paper as granular as your budget can support.
In other words, give each white paper a realistic scope.
Don’t try to pack two or three papers’ worth of content into a single document—unless you can only afford to publish one and you absolutely must cover all that.
If you have the money, publish two or three papers instead.
In keeping with this advice, I can’t remember any white paper that failed because the scope was too narrow.
But we’ve had a few that didn’t succeed because the scope was too vast.
Get to work: The right skills for a white paper
These skills are not hard to visualize.
A successful white paper needs someone with professional-level editorial skills to research, write, and polish the text.
It needs someone with professional design skills to dress up any rough graphics and set up readable pages.
And it takes two more skills specifically related to white papers.
White paper special skill #1: Picking the right flavor
As you know, I’ve created a simple, three-way choice between vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream.
Or a mashup of strawberry with either of the other two.
The beauty of these flavors is that each one leads to a different template that shows exactly what to include in that paper.
These templates show what to put in the main body, and what to put in the “wrapping” of the front and back matter that goes around that.
Even if you’ve never put together a white paper in your life, you can follow these templates, or tell your writer to follow them and get a serviceable result.
White paper special skill #2: Picking the right topic
The right topic is something that engages prospects at the right part of their customer journey.
And the right topic must be a provable hypothesis, an argument you can find some proof to support.
It’s okay to select the proof that fits your story. Every lawyer does that.
But it’s not okay to make up evidence to fit your claims. You will be found out, and when you are, it’s going to be awfully hard to back-pedal or blame an intern.
More likely you will do permanent damage to your company’s credibility or the brand you were trying to boost.
We’ve had 7 white papers fail because there was simply no story to tell, no evidence to back up the sponsor’s claims.
You can avoid that by doing a few minutes of preliminary research before you commit the whole team in that direction. If you can’t find anything that supports your theory, it’s better to change course early on.
Switch to a topic that can be argued and proven.
What if you only have 2 out of 3 key ingredients?
If you have the right team + the right resources but lack the right skills, you may produce some sort of white paper, but not a good one.
Lacking the right skills to complete such a big project can lead to incomprehensible text, unreadable design, or the wrong flavor or topic that utterly fails to engage prospects.
That means orange for challenged.
What about a white paper project with the right resources + the right skills, but without the right team?
Without a sponsor to drive it and motivated sources to give interviews and comments, a white paper can easily sputter out.
If it’s abandoned and left uncompleted, that means red for fail.
And what about a white paper with the right team + and the right skills, but without the right resources?
That can be one mighty tall mountain to climb.
I’ve carried on when the scope expanded from one paper to five with no increase to the budget.
Or when a special report had such a vast scope it took a year to finish.
Sheer stubbornness carried me through those projects. But that kind of stubbornness can wreak havoc on my business and family life.
Writers are getting more business savvy these days. Fewer and fewer are willing to hang in with projects that are under-resourced.
This article covers a lot of ground. From 4 successful white paper projects—and more than 200 others—we have derived three key success factors:
- The right team
- The right resources
- The right skills
To ensure a successful project, the sponsor and the writer must work together to make sure all these factors are in place.
What do you think of these success factors? Do you have any others you would add? Or any you would drop? Please leave your comment below.
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