When you see the term “white paper,” does it put you in the mood for a little snooze?
If so, that’s because most white papers– for all the well-intentioned effort companies put into them–fall far short of delivering the insight and interest their titles imply. Potential readers have been burned too often. How many times have we input all kinds of data into an online form in order to receive the promised wisdom, only to end up with a dull and/or self-promotional PDF…and a lifetime on someone’s email marketing list?
Fortunately, there is a better way.
Ideally, a white paper addresses a burning issue for its intended reader and clears up all kinds of questions on a hot industry topic (especially those questions the reader has been too embarrassed to ask). The company that produces the paper gets, in return, a burnishing of its leadership and authority; the goodwill of a current or potential customer; and the movement of prospects along the sales funnel.
To get these benefits, approach your white paper as a media company would. Just as any editor worth her salt has to “sell” a story to potential readers, so too does your company have to sell its white paper idea so readers will “pay” for the content with their attention. Here are three fundamental principles to be guided by when creating a white paper.
First, know the reader. The white paper must begin with a clear understanding of who the reader is, so you can research his or her needs as they relate to your product or service. Is your reader the CEO, the CFO, the CIO, or is there some unholy amalgam of many functions that has to sign off on a buying decision? If the latter, you may need several versions of the white paper, focusing on varying areas of professional and technical expertise. People only want to spend time on reading material that pertains to their needs.
Next, drill down on what the reader really wants to know. Let’s take “business technology” as a potential topic. It’s safe to say that some form of it is disrupting, or is about to disrupt, the reader’s industry and work life as he knows it. Therefore, it’s useful to provide concise definitions of the relevant jargon; pros and potential cons of the new technology; a timeline–brief history, current snapshot, informed forecast; and an overview of the latest industry research related to it. Now your reader is, if not an expert, at least able to have a worthwhile conversation about the topic. That’s what you call “delivering value.”
Important: the white paper should make all of the above information come alive through examples of how real-life business people, just like the reader, have experienced the issue. (These can be anonymized, as in “one CEO of a mid-size manufacturing company….”)
Even more important: If your expert sources can give examples of how problems have been solved, in the real world–thereby providing ideas that the reader can use–you will have achieved the highest state of white paper enlightenment.
Finally, always keep design in mind. A white paper doesn’t have to be, literally, white. So many are vast expanses of pale pages with tight columns floating on them. Or conversely, white pages packed with many dense, tight columns. They all but scream, “Here is something that is a slog to read!”
Colorful, simple designs entice wary readers. Moreover, substantial research connects visual content to increased viewership, whether online or in print. If you have statistics, by all means illustrate them with a grabby visual.
A word about “brand guidelines,” those company rules that specify fonts, shades of color, and other design elements: While such guidelines certainly have their uses in the creation of ads and marketing materials, they also have drawbacks. Specifically, they can have the effect of rendering various pieces of content indistinguishable from one another.
Consider whether you can deviate from brand guidelines in the case of white papers and other kinds of content marketing. For example, maybe you can use a font with serifs (those little curves on individual letters) for better readability. Maybe, instead of the usual generic photos of a diverse group of people sitting around a conference table, you can use striking illustrations.
The main message: when presenting the material, be kind to the reader. She’s super busy, and she works really hard. She’s got plenty of work-related material to read on the commute home, or after the kids are in bed. Make it easy for her to choose your material. Break up the text into short chunks, with scannable subheads, and clear transitions from one idea or section to the next.
Even though you may choose to use footnotes, the white paper shouldn’t read like a term paper. Instead, your intended readers should experience it as they do a really good article in their favorite business magazine.
Because if they snooze, you lose.
Does all this sound a bit intimidating, or like too much work? At RSL Media, we think this kind of thing is fun, and that’s why we’re experts. Get in touch and let us help you turn your white papers into irresistible reads.