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White Paper World 44: July 11, 2024

6 minute read. 12 minute listen: 

thumbs up, thumbs down

Quick tip: When a promotion works, do more of it

1 minute read.

And when a promotion doesn’t work, do less of it.

People often ask me, “How do I get my white paper noticed?”

Well, you have to promote it.

checklist of must-do promotions for a white paperHere’s my checklist of 18 must-do promotions. Click the link or the thumbnail to get that PDF.

Beyond those must-do’s, you have to spend money.

“But what channel should I spend on? Which one works best?”

Well, that all depends on your audience and your budget.

Say you’re promoting a white paper with a mix of three different paid channels:

  1. Social media ads
  2. Pay-per-click ads (PPC)
  3. Syndication services

How do you know which one is best?

Four steps to compare channels

  1. Give each channel the same budget and let them run for a month.
  2. For each channel, find the number of downloads.
  3. For each channel, find the number of conversions (prospects who followed your call-to-action.)
  4. For each channel, calculate the cost per conversion (CPC).

To find the CPC, divide the cost for that channel for that month by the number of conversions in that month.

Now you can compare apples to apples.

So if you see that social media is generating conversions at half the cost of syndication, shift dollars away from syndication and into PPC.

It’s really that simple.

When you’re promoting a white paper, stick with your winners and ditch your losers.


Honest Iago and cover of Journal of Business Ethics

This just in: Don’t tell me you’re honest

2 minute read. 

Remember “Honest Iago”?

He’s the antagonist of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello who ruins Othello’s life by whispering lies and creating bloody conflicts.

Yet he delights in calling himself “Honest Iago.”

Iago may have fooled Othello, but some intriguing research shows his strategy doesn’t work in business.

The evidence is a paper published in the Journal of Business Ethics called “Can We Trust the Trust Words in 10-Ks?” (payment required)

These so-called “trust words” are the same kind of platitudes Iago would shower on himself: ethical, respected, fair.

You can see the whole list in this table.

Avoid These So-Called "Trust Words" that Actually Destroy Trust

Source: Audi, R., Loughran, T., & McDonald, B. (2016), “Trust, but verify: MD&A language and the role of trust in corporate culture”, Journal of Business Ethics, 139, pp 551–561.

And you could include every other form of these words like accountable, fair, and virtuous.

To check out how well these words work in the corporate realm, three academics scanned the annual reports of 3,595 public companies from 1985 to 2018.

That’s 33 years’ worth of annual reports.

About half used some trust words and half didn’t.

“Trust words” backfire in three ways

The researchers found that using trust words in an annual report hurts a company in three different ways.

Lower stock price: Companies using trust words saw only a tiny rise in their stock prices within 48 hours (0.11%) compared to a 1.15% rise for companies that didn’t use those words.

A 1.04% lower stock price may not sound like a big deal.

But for any medium-sized enterprise, 1% lower shares means millions of dollars in lost shareholder equity.

Higher auditing fees: Companies using trust words tended to pay about $100,000 more in auditing fees every year.

More scrutiny from regulators: Companies using trust words were 15% more likely to get a “comment letter” from the U.S. Security Exchange Commission (SEC). Those letters ask for clarification or corrections to disclosures, and companies absolutely must answer them.

Business woman claims to be honest yet sees poor business results

Here’s the bottom line from the researchers:

Our results indicate that impression management via trust words may do more harm than good.

When investors and stakeholders hear words like “honesty” and “truth” they smell something rotten in Denmark.

Why? I’ll tell you exactly why

Any company using trust words is likely making assertions with no evidence, claims with no proof.

That’s one of the big no-nos for any type of content, especially white papers.

Whenever you claim something, you must present facts and logic to back up that claim. Otherwise, you’re just spewing hot air… like Iago.

Don’t just tell us, show us. Prove it.

This research shows that making an empty claim can alert people to look for evidence. When they can’t find any, they think you must be lying.

By the way, the researchers found the same thing goes for the environment, diversity, community relations, and so on. The more often a company said they were great, the worse their actual behavior.

What should writers do?

Writers can learn many things from this research:

  • Avoid all the words shown above
  • Back up all your claims with ample evidence
  • If your client wants to use trust words, insist on finding the proof

Don’t make empty promises in your white papers, in any other form of writing, or anywhere else in your life.

And don’t be taken in by nice-sounding words from others, either.

four words stuck out that writers must not use

Thanks to Lisa Ward for her report in the Wall Street Journal and to David Rakowski for bringing it to our attention on LinkedIn.

stressed-out B2B prospect rubbing his tired eyes

I told you so: B2B prospects really are distracted

2 minute read.

How do you imagine your ideal reader?

  • Sitting in a quiet coffee shop, sipping a lovely cup of tea?
  • Calm and collected, feeling on top of all their projects?
  • Taking a leisurely 30 minutes to read your whole white paper?

If so, you need to change your thinking.

In reality, the typical executive is:

  • Sitting in meetings or Zooms most of the day
  • Fighting fires, fixing problems, solving breakdowns
  • Bombarded with distractions and interruptions

If you’re lucky, your white paper will get their attention for two minutes.

A recent survey confirms this reality

Enterprise software firm Unily surveyed 500 business people across the US and UK about their workdays.

Here’s what they found:

Digital notifications represent a cacophony of noise that disrupts the focus of 1 in 3 workers every 15 minutes or less… This relentless assault on our attention makes it a constant struggle to stay focused.

I’m sure you know the feeling: You’re right in the flow of writing and then Ding! Some notification pops up on your screen and completely breaks your flow.

Most researchers say it takes 15 or 20 minutes to recover our focus after an interruption.

The survey found some industries were hit even harder than others.

So if you’re trying to reach anyone who works in accounting, banking, consulting, insurance, law, and any other business service, you’ll have a tough time getting their attention.

A good white paper guide that does everything right

cover of white paper on digital noise from Unity 2024

By the way, I think Unily’s white paper called “The Digital Noise Impact Report 2024” is well done in every way.

The topic covers a big problem that afflicts us all.

The paper is organized clearly as a problem/ solution like this:

Introduction: Executive summary and front matter
Section 1: The problem (online distractions) with fresh evidence from the survey
Section 2: Traditional solutions like email and messaging apps and how they add to the problem
Section 3: The new, improved solution: an AI-powered superapp like the one from Unily

The landing page is clear and simple, just like it should be.

The title is a “guide” in keeping with recent advice that business people prefer documents called “ebooks” or “guides” over “white papers.”

The design is visual and inviting. The people in the photos are diverse without looking fake.

And infographics make the key findings super-easy to scan like this:

infographic from Unity on digital distraction

Source: Unity 2024


All in all, I believe the team behind this paper did a great job from start to finish.

And you know, I don’t say that very often.

What should white paper writers do?

Knowing how distracted our B2B audience really is, here’s what white paper writers must do:

I know it’s not fun to imagine your typical reader as strung-out, distracted, and frazzled.

But if you make that switch in your mind, you and your team will have a better chance of reaching your prospects.

Just like Unily did.


Book Giveaway logo

Book Giveaway Extended: What’s your fav science fiction novel?

1+ minute read. 

After I raved about The Three-Body Problem, I heard from a few people who told me their favorite science fiction novel.

For instance, veteran copywriter Bob Bly shared a list of his top five favorites.

book cover the Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury


Our lists overlapped with several titles, including The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. That’s my all-time fav: a set of linked short stories that tell the story of Earth colonizing Mars.

When I read it as a teenager, I was blown away by Bradbury’s poetic style and his delicate evocation of the ancient civilization on Mars.

And this opened my eyes to how empire-building often brutalizes indigenous cultures.

Now we know Mars once had water and air, it’s easier than ever to picture an earlier civilization there.


book cover The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Another book Bob and I both like very much is The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein.

This is about a penal colony on the moon revolting against Earth, with many clear echoes of the American Revolution.

And along with the rag-tag revolutionaries, Heinlein’s book—from almost 60 years ago—features a self-aware supercomputer.

Who do you think has been talking about AI for all these years, if not SF authors?

Bonus points if you can tell me something these two books have in common.

I told you mine—you tell me yours

For many people, July means vacation, a great time to read a good book.

I’d like to hear from some more people. What’s your favorite SF book of all time?

So drop an email to gordon@thatwhitepaperguy by 6 PM Eastern Sunday July 14. 

Just tell me the name of an SF novel and a line or two about why you like it.

I’ll pick a name at random, write you up for a mini-profile in this newsletter, and send you any title from my list of recommended books on white papers and everything else… now with a new section on SF titles!

I’ve already given away 14 books. You could be next!

Get some great summer reading: Email me today!


That’s all for now

Please pass this newsletter along to anyone you think would appreciate it.

Gordon Graham, That White Paper Guy

See all the previous issues here:

Listen to the audio versions here:

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And good luck with all your writing projects!

Gordon Graham
That White Paper Guy


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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