While researching white papers over the past 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of dreck.
Analyzing all those poor examples helped me identify what I call the “worst practices” of these documents.
And I’m amazed to report—more than six years since I first encountered it—that one white paper is still the worst I’ve ever seen.
Click the cover to download it and see for yourself.
Click the graphic above to download the PDF…
This train wreck of a white paper manages to hit nearly all of the worst practices I see. In fact, this misguided document from HP suffers 8 out of 10 of these failings.
As one of the biggest tech vendors in the world, HP should really know better. After all, they can’t say (like some humble startup) that they didn’t have the resources or the people to do any better.
Let’s take a look at this document to see what we can learn.
Worst practice #1: Boring or misleading title
A title should be lively, but should fairly reflect the content. A title is a promise about what you will find inside a document.
The title “IT Professional’s Guide to Color Imaging and Printing” suggested to me some discussion of how to use color in business documents.
Or a definitive comparison of laser vs inkjet technology. Or some helpful way to understand the market for color printing.
Instead, this document is little more than a sales pitch for HP printers wrapped up with a misleading title.
Worst practice #2: Too long or too short
The sweet spot for today’s white papers is 6 to 8 pages of content, plus front and back matter that round it out to about 10 pages.
Most white paper experts say it takes at least 5 pages to develop an argument. So at only 3.5 pages of text, this one is just too short.
Worst practice #3: Poor design or typography
Ask yourself: Did I enjoy reading this piece? Did I actually get all the way through it?
Myself, I didn’t enjoy it. And I did get through it, but I had to force myself.
A wall of grey is not good design. A 100-character line is not good typography. (Most typographers recommend 60 characters per line, max.)
This document flunks on both counts: bad page design and poor typography.
Worst practice #4: Missing or poor illustrations
I don’t see any pictures. Do you see any pictures?
Hint: The company logo doesn’t count.
In a white paper that’s supposed to be all about color printing, they couldn’t have dredged up at least one color graphic? Not even a beauty shot of a printer?
Worst practice #5: Too much hype, too little proof
This document is full of fluffy phrases like “advanced mechanical designs” and “high-powered processing” and “optimized software.”
This gooey copywriting belongs in a brochure or an ad, not a white paper.
At the same time, this document serves up many unsubstantiated statements like “color is key to small and midsize companies.” Oh yeah? Says who?
There are no references to third-party experts, research, awards, or publications to back up any of these claims. Zero. Zip. Zilch.
Worst practice #6: Sales pitch in disguise
This piece is essentially a brochure disguised as a white paper. But this bait-and-switch tactic enrages most people looking for educational, informative content. Especially IT people who are allergic to sales pitches.
Instead of positioning HP as a trusted advisor, this document makes the company sound like a fly-by-night peddler with no interest in educating prospects.
By starting off in one direction, and then quickly switching into a sales pitch, this white paper commits the most grievous error of all. An error which means it will have no impact in the marketplace.
Worst practice #7: Weak flow of ideas
Well, this document does list three criteria for selecting a color printer… in an utterly suspicious way.
First it asks how IT pros “select products, services and solutions that will be high-quality, low-maintenance, manageable and cost-efficient when deployed?”
Then it turns around and advises readers to look for products that are “reliable, manageable and affordable.” What a coincidence!
And check out those subheads. Could they be any more misleading? Or any less connected to the overall title?
This document is a steaming pile of product information, with no other thread of logic connecting any of it.
Worst practice #8: Unprofessional writing
Can you believe “hallmarks of this legacy”?!
How about “tasked with providing the right infrastructure capabilities to support their businesses, both manageably and affordably.”
The writing here isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. At least much of it is clear.
But the jargon, hype, fluff and marketing lingo should have been removed before this was ever published.
Barely missed #9 and #10
This document managed to steer clear of two pitfalls by including an introduction of sorts at the start, and a brief call to action at the end.
So there you have it: 8 out of 10 worst practices of white papers, all achieved in a single document from one of the world’s largest technology vendors.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against HP. I’ve used HP printers for decades, and always liked them.
And I’ve seen much better white papers from HP; this example is far worse than the company average.
But this particular document is a sterling example of an utterly ineffective white paper. From the title through the design, to the content and the writing, this example does almost everything wrong.
If you can avoid making all the mistakes this white paper does, you will be on the right track.
What do you think? Is this white paper really as bad as I think? Or am I missing some good points?
Please leave your comments below.