A white paper project is a complex undertaking, with many moving parts.
Here are 12 steps to an effective white paper project.
We created each of these steps after going through a painful experience with a white paper that went off the rails
A few were never even completed, despite my best efforts.
So consider these best practices that will help guarantee success.
You can think of these 12 steps in three phases:
These three phases will take you all the way from clarifying a foggy idea to promoting your finished white paper.
For best results, your marketing team should focus first on Planning (Steps 1 through 4).
Then leave the actual Production (Steps 5 through 10) to your white paper writer and designer.
Of course, you should wrap up the project carefully when the time comes (Step 11).
And while your writer and designer are working, your marketing team should be working up all the Promotions for the finished white paper (Step 12).
The rest of this article goes into more detail on every step.
Phase A: Planning
You would never build a house without a plan, right? So never jump into writing a white paper without a plan.
Step 1: Sponsor a kickoff call with all reviewers
Gather your writer and everyone who will need to approve the finished white paper for a 45- to 60-minute conference call.
This is when you do the overall planning for the project.
Review all the items listed on this page. Make sure you find a consensus on every item. Resolve any differences before moving on.
For more on these all-important kickoff calls, see White paper must-do #1: Hold a kickoff call.
If leading that conference call seems intimidating, you may need some help with that. We provide that in our planning service, which we’ve done for dozens of companies.
We’ll drive that call and help you drill down to all the most important details. After the call, we create a written plan for you.
Step 2: Make a list of all reviewers
This is one of the most important parts of a white paper plan.
Why does this matter?
Because there’s no better way to derail a white paper than to allow a “hidden reviewer” to pop up late in the process.
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Consider their limited perspective on your project:
- They may not understand what a white paper is
- They may not know what you’re trying to achieve with your white paper
- They’ve missed all your initial discussions
- They’ve never read the plan or executive summary
A late-arriving reviewer often has many irrelevant comments. But they can have a lot of weight to throw around, especially if they’re higher in the org chart than anyone else on the project.
That’s why, at That White Paper Guy, we charge $500 extra for any new reviewer who pops up after the kick-off call and initial planning stage.
We want this penalty to motivate all our clients to put together that list, and not leave anyone off.
For more on difficult reviewers, see 4 wild beasts that can ravage a white paper, and how to tame them.
And for a checklist you can circulate to your reviewers to help them focus, see How to get great reviews for your white paper.
Step 3: If your writer asks for something, get it to them quickly
That’s one of your roles in the project: To support your team to do their best work.
If you let their requests for information or guidance languish in your Inbox, you are gambling with the outcome of your project.
Attend to their requests as though they were a prospective customer ready to spend millions with your company.
After all, your white paper is going to attract prospects like that, right?
Step 4: Don’t interfere with the creative process
During the Production phase, you may be tempted to jump in and start discussing your pet marketing phrases, fonts, and design details.
Leave this to your writer and designer. They bring a fresh set of eyes to your company and your offering.
They are a proxy for any new prospect. Listen to what they have to say. At least for now.
You can tweak their work later.
Phase B: Production
Now it’s time to move into Production, where the white paper is actually created.
Step 5: Request a draft executive summary
This will take your writer some time.
Most writers say it’s the hardest part of the project. After all, the executive summary sums up the gist of your argument in one very concise page.
But it’s quick and easy to review. And, it’s much faster to tweak a 1-page outline than rework a 10-page draft.
Once that’s approved, your writer saves a lot of time because they simply expand the summary into the full-length paper.
For more on executive summaries, see White paper must-do #2: Create an executive summary early.
Step 6: Gather all comments promptly
When your writer delivers the first draft white paper, circulate it to all reviewers with a deadline for their comments.
Give them a week, two weeks at the most.
Be sure to follow up and get comments back to your writer in a timely way.
Believe it or not, sluggish reviewers are the most common hold-up during a white paper project. It can easily take weeks to get all the comments back from all your reviewers.
During those weeks, your writer will move on to other projects. When you finally finish up your reviews, your writer has to rekindle their excitement and remember all the details of the project.
That can detract from their motivation, your timelines, and the final results. So don’t let this process drag on.
Step 7: Help your writer make sense of the comments
It’s your responsibility to resolve any conflicts of opinion, not your writer’s.
Consolidate and review all comments. Some reviewers will contradict each other.
Clarify any unclear, contradictory or controversial comments before you hand them to your writer.
I remember one white paper I wrote using GDocs, where the reviewers kept inviting more reviewers to look at it.
Eventually, we had almost 20 reviewers all cramming in their comments.
I’d never heard of some of those people. And their comments were all over the map. One even asked, “Why are we doing a white paper about this anyway?”
Finally, I had to ask my client for help.
We both pulled up the draft on our screens and got on the phone. She ran through all the comments in half an hour, sorting out who I should listen to and who I could safely ignore.
We even rewrote some passages on the screen together.
That was one of the most productive review sessions I ever experienced, thanks to her help.
After experiences like this one, I started charging $500 for each new reviewer that popped up after the planning phase.
Step 8: Find or create rough graphics
Direct your team to include rough graphics in the second draft of the white paper.
Graphics can be hand-drawn sketches scanned in. Or roughs put together in PowerPoint, which has a lot of basic drawing tools. Or quick results from SmartDraw, which I’ve always liked.
For stock photos, you can download comps for free to see what people think before you shell out for the real version.
Including visuals in the second draft will help reviewers visualize the final results. And it gives them a chance to comment on the rough visuals.
For more on cost-effective graphics, see affordable graphics for a white paper.
Step 9: Gather final comments
When your writer delivers the second draft, circulate it to all reviewers as before.
The second draft should incorporate all earlier comments and include rough graphics.
Tweak the title to make sure it’s compelling.
Remember: No new reviewers!
Your comments on the text should be minor at this stage.
I always know a well-managed project when the second draft comes back with no major comments, only half a dozen little fix-ups.
Step 10: Get final deliverables and sources
Get the final text. Ask your writer for sources and do a quick spot check of them. If you are using a designer, direct them to create the final pages.
Proof the final PDF from the designer, since white papers are almost always distributed as PDFs.
Insert metadata in the PDF for SEO.
For more details on using metadata, see Metadata: the best-kept secret in white paper SEO
Step 11: Attend to payments, permissions and post-mortem
Make sure to process payments for your writer and designer. Request any permissions for quotes or excerpts from published sources. Check that all stock images were properly purchased.
If desired, hold a post-mortem with your team to confirm what went well and see how you could work together more smoothly next time.
During any post-mortem, keep it positive. One way to do that is to focus on processes, not personalities.
For more on this step, read White paper must-do #3: Wrap up the project properly
Phase C: Promotions
Now it’s time to implement all the promotions you planned earlier.
Step 12: Launch your promotional campaigns.
Get your marketing team to launch their promotions to help publicize your white paper.
Many suggest promoting your white paper just like a mini-product release. Write a press release, etc. etc.
No matter how wonderful your white paper is, it won’t succeed if your intended audience never hears about it.
For ideas on promoting your white paper, see 18 must-do’s to promote a white paper.
This is a basic outline of what can sometimes be a lengthy journey.
Good luck publishing your next white paper!
What best practices have you developed to create a better white paper process? What parts of the process have been a struggle? Tell us about it in the Comments below.