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fuzzy photo of ghost to represent client ghosting a white paper writer

A marketing person asks me to do a white paper for their company.

They’re excited to have me on their team.

Using my time-tested method, I deliver an executive summary. The client approves it with no reservations. They pay my first invoice.

I expand the executive summary into a full-length draft. It’s the right length. I believe it’s the right tone. I send the draft to my client.

So far, so good.

Then I wait until our agreed-on deadline for their comments.

Nothing.

I follow up with an encouraging e-mail. I wait another week.

Crickets.

Hmmm…

Getting concerned, I e-mail to suggest a conference call to walk through the draft together.

I call and leave several voice messages.

I e-mail a few more times.

I even check LinkedIn to make sure my contact is still with the company.

But. I. Never. Hear. Anything. Back.

I’ve been ghosted!

Over the years, this has happened to me at least four times. I’m still wondering what happened, and feeling a little sore about it.

I wasted my time (and in a couple of cases didn’t collect) on a project that was abandoned by the client.

I’ve spent a long time thinking over each of those clients and wondering what I could have done differently…

Of course, the reality is that none of those breakdowns were likely my fault.

The real cause could be any of these reasons why white papers fail:

  • An internal conflict that no one could bridge
  • The white paper sponsor left the company
  • A new product was canceled and the white paper scrapped
  • Reviewers simply didn’t know how to express their comments

The thing is, I’ll never know the real reason.

All I know is the client stopped talking to me.

Consider the client’s perspective

The job of a marketing person is never done.

There’s a million projects, priorities, deadlines, To Dos. Our white paper is only one of a dozen projects my client is juggling.

And if a conflict arises among reviewers, it’s painful.

Instead of having a hard conversation with a writer, it’s easier to put that off and move on to something more manageable.

The days go by quickly. After a few weeks, the client has added a long delay to the process.

Now they’re facing two uncomfortable conversations—one about the delay, and another about the negative reviews.

After a few more weeks, other priorities encroach. The guilt begins to recede.

It’s easy to let the failed white paper collect dust under the pile of more pressing priorities.

3 types of review breakdowns

In my experience, a white paper review can break down in 3 different ways:

  1. Reviewers won’t look at the draft
  2. Reviewers are deadlocked: some like it, some hate it
  3. None of the reviewers like the draft

What can anyone do?

Here are some tactics both clients and writers can use to get past review breakdowns.

 

photo of group of reluctant white papers reviewers

Breakdown #1: Reviewers won’t look at the draft

What clients can say to writers about this problem:

“I’m sorry, but I misread the level of interest in this topic from our reviewers. I can’t get them to look at it. I’m not sure what to do next…”

This opens up the discussion and invites the writer to suggest some possibilities.

Possible reasons for no reviews:

  • Reviewers are overloaded with other tasks
  • Management did not make this project a priority
  • Special events, travel or vacations cut into reviewers’ time
  • Some reviewers don’t have English as their native language
  • Company politics may be in play

Possible solutions:

  • Re-schedule with a more realistic date
  • Re-confirm why the white paper is needed
  • Re-confirm the urgency to meet a deadline like a trade show
  • Get every reviewer’s manager to make this a priority
  • Give reviewers a firm deadline, after which their comments will be ignored
  • Schedule a 90-minute group review for everyone at once
  • During that call, actually read the white paper aloud
  • Find different reviewers
  • Move ahead and publish without any reviews
    (not recommended except in extreme circumstances)

Working together, the client and writer may be able to re-boot the review process. It’s worth the effort.

 

photo of 4 white paper reviewers

Breakdown #2: Reviewers are deadlocked

What clients can say to writers about this problem:

“We just can’t get a consensus. Some of our reviewers like it, some of them really don’t. So we’re kind of stuck here. We don’t know how to move forward…”

Again, this gives the writer some scope to suggest next steps.

For a writer, the key is not to be defensive.

It’s not about you, even if some reviewers try to make it personal.

Your goal is not to defend your draft.

Your goal is to help your client work around the differences of opinion well enough to get that white paper published.

It’s better to ignore a few snarky comments—and eventually get paid—than to see a perfectly good white paper become a statistic.

Possible reasons why reviewers are deadlocked:

  • Reviewers were not briefed on the white paper purpose, audience or scope
  • The draft may have lodged in an invisible fault line
  • Certain teams like Engineering and Marketing could be in conflict
  • Company politics may be in play

Possible solutions:

  • Re-confirm why the white paper is needed
  • Revisit the purpose, audience and scope
  • Hold a call to get all the reviewers together
  • Draw up two lists: what’s working in the draft, and what’s not working
  • Zero in on any easy fixes first
  • Then try to resolve contradictory comments

In these cases, no one white paper can likely make everyone happy. But you’re only being paid to write one.

Clients need to push back and get their reviewers’ comments to line up. 

 

photo of three business people all giving thumbs down to a white paper

Breakdown #3: None of the reviewers like the draft

What clients can say to writers about this problem:

“This draft is not what we hoped for. We expected this to go into [something else]…”

Or “This draft spends far too long on [this topic] without saying much at all about [that topic].”

Or “This draft seems like it’s talking to [this type of prospect] instead of [that type of prospect].”

Or something very tough to articulate: “This draft just doesn’t sound like us, it’s not in the company voice.”

That’s all bad news. But at least the client is communicating… instead of ghosting the writer.

Possible reasons why no reviewers like the draft:

  • The writer misunderstood the audience, scope or company voice (ouch!)
  • The client didn’t properly articulate what they wanted in the paper
  • Reviewers didn’t know what they wanted until they saw the draft
  • Company politics may be in play

Possible solutions:

  • Clarify the audience, scope and voice with the writer
  • Give the writer samples aimed at the right audience
  • Give the writer samples at the right level of detail
  • Give the writer samples with the proper company voice
  • Reschedule with enough time to let the writer try again

Sometimes what sounds like a big problem can be fixed with a little tweaking.

For example, the writer may use a few terms or acronyms that bug certain reviewers. If the writer substitutes different terms, those reviewers like the draft!

Sometimes it’s more fundamental.

The writer may have aimed at the wrong audience. They may have gone to the wrong level of detail—either too technical or not technical enough. Or they may have gotten a few things wrong.

Reviewers need to understand that this can happen even with seasoned writers and much bigger projects.

Sometimes writers need to do major rewrites of books, speeches or movie scripts.

Don’t give up without explaining what’s wrong. Offer the writer a chance to fix the draft.

Admit it, we’ve all done it

When I think back, I have to admit it. Over the years, I’ve ghosted a few exes and ex-friends.

It happened when they asked me for some kind of energy or commitment I didn’t know how to deliver.

I was too immature to tell them honestly, “I can’t do that…” or “I don’t know how to do that…” or even the dreaded “I’m just not that into you.”

I’m sorry for the pain and confusion I caused. I really am.

And I hope I’ve never done that in a business context. But I probably have.

A jammed Inbox, an overwhelming ToDo list, too many things going on at once… and I’ve probably not answered someone’s question or ignored someone’s comment.

Let’s all stop ghosting

movie logo to denote "no ghosting your white paper writer"

Movie logo © Sony Pictures

 

So I’m making a resolution, and I invite you to join me: No more ghosting!

We can start by not ghosting any of our clients, contractors or colleagues.

When we’re working together on a project, let’s be honest with each other.

Let’s be clear about what we want.

 

 

And if we run into a problem, let’s re-state what we expect and see what we can work out

Let’s save each other a lot of pain, stress and confusion.

I bet both clients and writers will learn something from this: That it can be rewarding to make it through a hard conversation.

After all, that’s where relationships are tested and strengthened. Some of the most loyal customers are the ones who complain and have something made right for them. 

 


Have you ever been ghosted? Or ghosted someone else? Are you brave enough to share your story in the Comments below?

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from household names like Google and Verizon to tiny startups with big ideas. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned more than 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. And named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI, the world's leading training organization for professional copywriters.

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4 Comments

  1. Charlene Fu on August 28, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    I was completely confused by the headline “When clients ghost writers” and thought there was a verb missing (I thought maybe the headline was supposed to be “When clients are ghostwriters”???) It wasn’t until I got almost all the way to the end of the first section and read the word “Crickets” that I realized, “OHH, he’s using ‘Ghost’ as a verb!”

    Might I suggest putting quote marks around “Ghost” so that those of us who are still more comfortable with more conventional usages of English words understand the way “ghost” is being use here?

    • Pauline Clark on September 1, 2020 at 10:59 am

      Hi Charlene:
      Good idea. Thanks for the suggestion. We will do.
      GG

  2. Will Husa on September 24, 2020 at 4:28 pm

    I thought the article was going to be about ghost writing; where you do all the work and someone else gets all the credit and 90% of the money.

    • Angie Gallop, Managing Editor at That White Paper Guy on September 24, 2020 at 4:41 pm

      Not this time around, Will. (Though, we can tell you that there are many ghostwriters out there who do much better than 10% of the proceeds generated by the books they write.)

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