The following is a guest article by Marnie Hayutin, Founder of Hayutin Creative.
If you’re reading this, rest assured you’re not the first person to shudder a bit at the prospect of spearheading the white paper process. In an age of fun viral videos and pithy hashtags, white papers are a more of a graduate thesis. They’re the research paper that looms all semester and will be worth 30 percent of your final grade.
Yes, long-form content is a big ask from a marketing team (and sometimes it’s near impossible to find someone who’s willing to be the writer—a topic for another day). But, that white paper will serve as pillar content for many months of lead generation, as well as spawn numerous smaller assets that can be used to engage customers at all stages of the funnel.
Fortunately, four simple techniques can ease the process and ensure a successful final product. Follow these steps and that next white paper request won’t feel so daunting.
1. Agree on the Definition
Generally, a white paper is a broad thought leadership piece used at the top of the funnel to draw in prospects who don’t necessarily know your company or your product. It takes a position on an issue of importance to your target market, and it establishes your team as experts in the field, but it doesn’t try to sell a product—that’s for future assets later in the funnel.
But honestly, it doesn’t really matter how I define a white paper. What matters is that your team members—executive leadership, sales leadership, marketing team, and writer—are operating from the same definition. You’d be surprised how often they’re not.
I worked with one marketing director who was clear that she needed a thought leadership piece to establish her team’s authority on nursing workflow. Her CEO, on the other hand, wanted the white paper to serve a dual purpose both as thought leadership and as the complete product guide for the nursing category of users.
The problem? We didn’t uncover the competing goals until extremely late in the process. Through several rounds of revisions, we retrofitted product features into the thought leadership narrative without fully understanding what the CEO was trying to accomplish. If we had understood his goals from the outset, we’d have devised a much more elegant solution.
Definition differences are particularly insidious in marketing, where buzzwords and new techniques emerge with regularity. Here’s the danger: When team members assume that everybody knows what a “white paper” is, they often omit critical steps in the planning process—namely, the step that aligns all the stakeholders on the scope of work and final deliverable. As a result, they may all be starting on the same path, but they’re heading toward different destinations. That’s much more than a simple problem of semantics.
2. Expect to be Educated
A white paper is big ask for a customer, too. They are relinquishing not only their valuable contact information but also 10-15 minutes of their precious time to sit and read the piece. Readers expect to learn something new. And no, being introduced to your revolutionary product doesn’t count.
In healthcare, where our clients are sophisticated and already highly educated, it’s not so easy to up our educational game. Our white papers must deliver information that isn’t available to anyone with a web browser and 10 extra minutes.
Here’s one that misses the mark. A tech company was intending to educate readers on the value of using telemedicine to diagnose strokes and improve a health system’s clinical reputation for stroke care. The paper opened with this statistic:
“In the United States, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds, and every four minutes, someone dies of stroke.”
In case you didn’t see that stat a dozen times during Stroke Awareness Month last May, Google “stroke statistics” right now. It comes up first. That in itself would suggest that the writer needed to try harder. But, there’s a bigger problem here: This stat doesn’t set up the problem the white paper is trying to solve. A paper about faster diagnosis desperately needs research about the dangers of delay. Here are two alternatives:
“Only 18 percent of eligible patients receive life-saving stroke treatment within the optimal 60-minute door-to-treatment window.”
“Every 30-minute delay in revascularization for a stroke patient is associated with a 10 percent decrease in outcome odds, according to the Joint Commission.”
Expect your marketing team—and, specifically, your writer—to present readers with on-point, innovatively assembled research. If your white paper is based on ubiquitous or irrelevant research, you’re sending the signal that there’s nothing new to see here.
3. Give the Writer Time to Work
Innovatively assembled research takes time, of course; that’s where many teams stumble. It took me more than an hour of search trial and error to uncover the research studies that yielded the two alternative stroke statistics above. Make sure your project timeline can accommodate that.
Marketing teams often approach white papers as if they were really long blog posts—you just add more detail and keep going, right? In fact, the writing process is entirely different for a long-form piece.
Good white papers essentially are academic research papers, only with extra attention paid to readability. As such, writers need time to:
- Move details around when the information seems out of order
- Try an alternative structure if it might make the argument easier for a reader to follow
- Find new research when the narrative veers in a different direction
- Take a short break and come back to the piece with a fresh eye
A quality white paper is worth the wait. Rush the process, and you shortchange everyone—the writer, the marketing team, and most of all the reader.
4. Have a Point of View
An external agency or contractor can do most of the heavy lifting on a white paper, but the client has one critical job: Setting the message. To be effective as a marketing tool, a white paper must deliver a perspective that’s unique to your company. Only you can determine what that is.
Certainly, an agency or contractor can help you uncover points of differentiation and suggest gaps in the marketplace that your company can fill. But an authentic marketing white paper has to sound like it could come only from your company, and for that, the writer needs to hear your voice.
As part of the planning process, identify internal thought leaders who can help your organization zero in on exactly what a reader must learn from the white paper. What can your organization add to the collective industry discussion that readers can only learn from you?
Let’s say you’re the company writing about telemedicine for stroke care. Somebody at the company must be passionate about the topic. Somebody must have seen it work to improve outcomes with actual patients. The white paper needs to capture that enthusiasm.
Now, set up a call with the thought leaders and the writer. Yes, it’s more efficient to have the marketing team simply relay the messaging to the writer in a brief. But, if you want the passion to come through in the white paper, the writer has to hear it firsthand. A good writer will weave your thought leaders’ words and phrases into the narrative. That’s how a white paper becomes authentic.
Bringing it Together
In all, the four techniques for white paper success all come down to planning. I know, it’s incredibly tempting to kick this unwieldy ball down the field and catch up with it later. With other marketing projects it may, in fact, be preferable to get started sooner and fine-tune on the back end.
Not so with a white paper. In this case, the time you don’t invest up front will double, or even triple, the time you’ll spend on revisions. You can plan on that.
About the Author
Believing that marketing is where journalism meets sociology, Marnie founded Hayutin Creative to help companies communicate authentically with their customers. Trends come and go, but exceptionally clear writing and honest communication will always remain at the heart of effective marketing. She has assembled a team of writers, editors, designers, event marketers and marketing automation experts to help you reach your customers.