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6 deadly diseases of white papers

Too many white papers today are falling victim to a global pandemic.

An afflicted white paper becomes so feeble it can’t raise its voice to be heard in a crowd.

Sometimes it’s even trampled underfoot.

And all because the white paper is missing some key elements. Or perhaps it was never planned right from the very start.

doctor with stethoscope

Let’s look at six common problems that afflict many white papers today… and what to do about them.

White paper disease #1: Obnoxious registration form

All the research shows that the more questions you ask, the fewer people register for a white paper.

Of course you want to track any serious prospects. But do you really need to ask their age, budget, or how soon they intend to spend it?

Are you actually planning to mail them something? Then why do you need their street address?

For maximum downloads, ask as few question as possible. “e-mail” and “name” and “title” and “company” are plenty to start with.

To protect your white papers against this deadly disease, be prepared to leave a few blanks in your CRM software screens.

Or just ask for their zip code and then figure out where they are from that.

As a result, your white paper will have a much healthier circulation.

White paper disease #2: Boring, nondescript title

Many people encounter your white paper in a list of search results, with only its title to go by. How can a white paper with a boring title get noticed in that crowd?

Make the title lively. Use numbers and action words. Pitch it to a specific job title. Suggest that you have inside information. Add time-specific words like “now” or “today.”

You can even combine all these tips to create a winning title like “7 Things Every IT Director Must Know to Protect Your Network Now.”

But don’t just slap an intriguing title on a tired document.

Energize your white paper, so it delivers on its promise. Otherwise, its health will fail early on.

White paper disease #3: No summary at the start

Just about everyone today has too much to read.

If you don’t include an introduction or overview at the start of your white paper, do you honestly expect everyone to read to the end to find out what it’s about?

Help your readers decide if your white paper is what they want by providing an introduction, abstract, or executive summary at the start.

Give them a one-page summary and they will likely scan that much and then decide whether to go on.

White paper disease #4: Too long for the  intended audience

If your white paper doesn’t make an impression in the first two or three pages, it never will.

For most businesspeople, five to six pages is ample.

Technical people can tolerate a longer white paper that offers more detail.

But if you run on longer than 10 or 12 pages, you will likely lose your audience. This disease is also sometimes called “verborrhea.”

Inoculate your longer documents against this threat by breaking up longer documents into separate white papers of five or six pages each.

White paper disease #5: No call to action at the end

You’ve taken your prospects by the hand and led them through your whole white paper.

So don’t just dump them at the curb! Walk them to their door and say you’d really like to see them again.

Set up a landing page, a webinar, an ROI calculator, or whatever you need to keep them interested.

Build your white paper into a multi-step marketing campaign that draws prospects into your sales funnel.

If you don’t, your white paper will lead a very short and unromantic life. It may even die lonely and unloved.

White paper disease #6: Written by the wrong person

Many white papers today are written by people who never asked for the job and don’t want to do it.

That includes product managers, developers, salespeople or even clerical staff pressed to “write up something about our product.”

I’ve even heard of receptionists pressed into service to write a white paper… Maybe because they were only one in the company who couldn’t any “no!”

With no prior knowledge of what to include and what to leave out of a white paper, the work of these people can easily succumb to these wily germs.

To prevent this, have your white paper written—or at least reviewed—by a white paper expert. They can make sure it isn’t suffering from any of these deadly, but curable, diseases.


Have any of your white papers been infected by diseases that robbed them of their vitality? Please leave your comment below.

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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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  1. White Paper Review: 4 Ways to Improve ASP.NET Performance Under Peak Loads - The Technology Copywriter - on March 15, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    […] I want to note here that the author and persistent “I/Me” in this paper is the president of the company. (Tip 5) Having your SME write the white paper is on Gordon Graham’s list of Six deadly diseases of white papers. […]

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