Worst. White. Paper. Ever.
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.
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Brilliant piece, Gordon! Not sure HP would be particularly happy with it, but they have actually done all of us a favor by producing this gem of a paper.
As a former HP senior technical writer, my reaction is, “Who on this big earth is the clown who accepted this piece of trash for public exposure?”
Then, “Who was the person who wasn’t embarrassed by promoting it for public consumption?”
And what’s that “the sheer depth of HP’s solutions portfolio helps IT professionals…not only get the most out of their investments in color, it helps to [leave out that last word it wrecks the meaning] ensure a seamless…experience”?
“It helps to…” sounds like “it helps if you…”
The whole thing is a pack of corporate baloney. No wonder HP isn’t the great company it once was.
But people at HP used to ask me, “Why are your manuals so much better than everyone else’s?” I didn’t read ’em, so maybe I was just unaware of the difference.
I’m aware that in recent years, HP has slammed the brakes on hiring outside competent writers to save money, so that might be part of it — perhaps they don’t have any good writers inside.
I was very frustrated by seeing projects I did by myself requring anywhere from 3 to 10 people to replace me when I was doing the work in 3-6 hours per day without breaking a sweat.
But this mess is absolutely pathetic. I can’t even force myself to read it.
Paying attention to the last subhead: “Total Cost of Ownership Is Key” is close to an argument I use in selling my services. I like to ask, “How much gross profit would you expect out of one, single sale? By that I mean actual direct cost in producing, packaging, shipping, sales commissions and other costs related directly to selling the object or providing the service (cost of time/labor).”
If it’s a $50,000 software package that cost $3000 to produce (no R&D and other costs that are amortized, because they don’t change if you sell or don’t sell), the profit is $47,000. Now don’t tell me you don’t have the budget to pay for it because one sale covers this and a lot of other stuff too.
The problem is incompetence driven by a bean-counter mentality.
But the bean-counters aren’t even looking beyond the next bean-hill, right? Your analysis of the cost/benefit of effective publications is far more accurate.
Gordon, I skimmed the paper without peeking at your critique points… I wanted to test my own judgement to see if I got it.
After skimming it – it is not worthy of reading – I would actually disagree with your prioritization and some terminology. 🙂 #6, “thinly disguised sales pitch.”
I would make that point #1, the top infraction against humanity and all that is decent. And it’s a BLATANT sales pitch – there is no disguise here and if there is, it’s not thin. 🙂
It’s a freakin’ brochure with no images, and a dry, boring one, for crying out loud.
Completely agreed with all points, in seriousness. “The headline lies” is the other big problem for me. A headline should be honest. This paper creates some early engagement and then squanders it with rubbish content.
This is an awesome anti-example. Thanks.
I think I agree with you. Calling a sales pitch a “white paper” is really the #1 worst of all the worst practices. Thanks!
Quite interesting, Gordon… especially as just hours ago I spoke with an index fund manager who made a ton of money shorting Big Blue. Maybe reading that paper was part of his decision-making process… by the way, your site is, and has been, a terrific source of excellent information to, I’m sure, many writers who aspire to write well. I applaud your efforts and wish you the best.
Thanks, Jesse. I wondered about publishing such caustic comments, but I figured any company that big could handle it. I’ve been watching HP for years myself, shaking my head at their blunders… especially in the CEO office.
Great post! I skimmed the white paper first as well, to test myself. It didn’t grab my attention, and it was much too salesy. It would be interesting to see a before and after of this white paper.
it hurt my eyes to look at it. I couldn’t read it.
Thanks for this! Sometimes we learn more from a dreadful example than all the “teaching” in the world. It really was awful, wasn’t it?
Gordon, I almost stopped at the table of contents. Four pages, including the cover page (such as it was)? But then seeing “HP this” and “HP that” in the TOC (i.e., subheads) told me what it was: a sales pitch.
After that I hit the fine print (all of it). The “Color Adds Value to Your Business” almost made me laugh — it was awash in a sea of half-spaced, micro-font black-and-white. I really had to force myself to read the rest.
After time away from my first read, I went back and read it again. If this piece was promoted as a “white paper”, then the criticism is well deserved.
However, as a sales brochure with a different title, it could be much more useful. The big problem is the opening title/headline.
Instead of targeting the “IT professional” in small- and medium-sized businesses where many tend to not have an “IT professional” staff, a title aimed at helping company management gain the market advantages HP printers can help them attain would be much more appropriate, and with some rewriting could be made quite useful.
Such a document could then talk about simplifying the world of the IT, marketing, and general company operations.
I have two HP work-group printers in my office, one CMYK color, the other monochrome black, and I like them a lot. My wife got an HP Inkjet and it barely lasted out of warranty, then died. Alas, the old, great HP I worked for seems to be a thing of the past.
[…] And while a white paper’s goal is to sell, it does not use overt sales language. The latter approach turns prospects off. It’s one of the 10 worst practices seen in white papers, according to a leading expert at That White Paper Guy. […]
Thanks for the tips, Gordon. I’ve been tasked to produce some white papers after 10 years of straight tech doc and I really needed a refresher.
HI Mike, I was a tech writer for many years myself. I believe that’s an excellent background for writing white papers. You might want to take a look at this post about 3 things tech writers must un-learn to succeed at white papers.