White Papers: Difficult to Get Right, But Worth It


According to Wikipedia, “a white paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision”.  So, for a business owner or a marketing professional,  it’s pretty easy to see the appeal of authoring relevant white papers when possible.


Because the inherent value in most any business lies in its ability to solve problems, the idea of putting out content wherein a problem or challenge is identified and then solved definitely like a very worthwhile expenditure of time. And it is . . . with some caveats.


Of course, like most things worth doing, it’s not always as easy as it seems and there are some decided challenges along the way.


Among these challenges . . .


1. Developing and maintaining a central theme and voice for your white paper without getting sidetracked.

Considering that every piece of content — white papers or otherwise– you put out there as a representative of your business is a reflection of your brand, continuity is, of course, very important. It’s not just about the educational value of the content itself, but the voice and degree of formality with which it’s presented as well.


Some very large corporations brand themselves with a casual, yet still professional image. Think Southwest Airlines, for example. On the other hand, there are some industries or vocations where coming across as overly casual could be seen as unprofessional or a little inappropriate. Maintaining a consistent and appropriate degree of formality presents its own challenge. You’re attempting to establish or reinforce yourself as an authority on given subject by presenting and solving a problem, yet you want to do so without causing your readers’ eyes to glaze over.


A POTENTIAL SOLUTION: When you proof your draft, don’t just focus on spelling and grammar. That’s a trap many of us fall into. Put yourself in the position of the reader. Is your work suitably informative and useful, but also conversational enough to keep one’s attention? Not necessarily casual, but “reader-friendly”? Ofen, just cutting out unnecessary words will serve to bring a white paper more into focus and leave it seemingly less like a thesis. Make sure that, as you draw to a conclusion, you’re focusing on the same message as you did at the outset. Eliminate any detours you may have taken in the process. 


2. Being informative while reaching for (and hopefully, gaining) some kind of consensus.

This can be quite a challenge. Ideally, you DO want to extend the reader a bit, in the sense that they should finish your white paper with some sort of insight that they didn’t have before. And yet, you also want them to come to YOUR conclusion on their own. No small feat. 


“Preaching to the choir” may win consensus, but it rarely conveys much value. Readers are bombarded with so much content, they’re ever more selective in what they read. Stating the obvious, and then merely providing backup for a nearly universally held or innocuous position isn’t likely to hold many readers until the end. Nor is it likely to prompt much in the way of audience engagement. 


Vanilla ice cream rarely repulses anyone, but it’s also rarely anyone’s favorite. 


A POTENTIAL SOLUTION: Before you’re finished, be sure you’ve included perspective and reinforcement for your position that your reader would otherwise be unlikely to see elsewhere.  An unfamiliar consequence. A previously unearthed benefit, etc. Often times, the “why” is more powerful than the “what“.


3. Maintaining an appropriate amount of frequency with your content production.


There’s a middle ground to be had here, for sure. We’re all familiar with internet marketers who embark upon an email campaign so aggressive and frequent  that we have no recourse but to hit “unsubscribe”.  So, while the idea for many is to ultimately become a sort of “thought leader” and that’s a goal only attained through a certain amount of frequency, you also don’t want to be so omnipresent as to leave your readers thinking “Him/her again?” 


On the flip side . . . . producing truly useful content is hard . . . and subjective. It takes a certain amount of research, perspective and editing. What may be important to you may not be nearly as important to your readers.


A POTENTIAL SOLUTION:Think twice (at least) before embarking on and distributing a new white paper. If executed to perfection, will your readers REALLY be better off having exchanged their time for your content? Rely on the more common forms of social media interaction (appropriate commenting, sharing, retweeting, etc.) to maintain your social media presence and save white papers for those more infrequent times when a) there’s an issue, challenge or position that you feel should be elaborated upon and resolved in detail and b) you have the perspective and solution that issue, challenge or position requires. 



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