There's no denying that white paper use and interest is increasing. Recent e-mails from TechRepublic members on the topic ignited several discussions on our site. Within this feedback were valuable new nuggets of advice on how IT professionals should approach white paper efforts, and how to identify poor white papers.
The tell-tale signs
Chip Nickolett, owner and president of Comprehensive Solutions, describes a white paper as "a good tool for demonstrating knowledge."
"Good white papers convey ideas and provide tangible examples to support them. When done right, it is a good way to share knowledge while demonstrating your ability to do that kind of work," he said.
A bad effort is easy to spot, he said, because "they're generally ones that are too sales- or marketing-oriented, lack substance, or (the worst kind) are incorrect." Nickolett's consulting firm has created about a dozen white papers. He's an advocate because the white paper efforts have boosted traffic to the company's site and client leads.
"To us, it is worth the cost (time and effort) of developing and publishing the papers. It is something to consider if you own a business or are an independent consultant," he advised, adding, "just keep in mind, if you do it, you want to do it right." That, he explained, means providing solid content, a clean format, and mention of the author and/or company.
David Watts, a corporate tech leader in the UK, said good white papers can be essential in making purchasing decisions. There must be a balance between providing solid technical information and serving as a corporate advertisement, he explained.
"In my experience, more often than not, white papers are sales-driven with very little useful technical information. It's a conundrum industrywide."
If a white paper lacks an "educational" aspect, it's simply useless, noted iquconsulting, a TechRepublic member who works as a consultant.
"I have always been of the philosophy that white papers provide insight and education on a technology or concept and are great tools for research and strategic planning. Lately, I have been so disappointed in the white papers I have come across, as they're purely marketing. Halfway through, I ask 'where is the education?'" wrote iquoconsulting.
Getting a good start
The key to success, according to member IT_Tom Bont is to hammer out the paper's outline before starting to write. In a site discussion, he explains why it's a necessity.
"Get the outline nailed down and make doubly sure the client has signed off in writing. I've been involved in several of these projects where everyone agreed in meetings (verbally) but when I turned in the final, it was picked over to the point it became a redo," he wrote.
The final part of the white paper is the paper's summary, advised member landre01; it's possibly the most influential aspect.
"I find it useful to write the summary last, not first, even though it is the first thing anyone probably will read. I find that when I write it first, the summary actually turns into an 'introduction.' When I wait and write it last, I have all the main points already included in the paper and I can truly write a summary that does the paper justice," he explained.
Stephen Gill noted that he is "fed up" with white papers that contain scads of complex terminology and don't include an accompanying glossary.
His pet peeves are white papers that give "unrealistic expectations for so-called solutions" and papers that don't sum up with a believable conclusion. "It's time for vendors and their white paper writers to get their act together," he declared.
A big boo-boo by white paper writers is that they often lose track of the reading audience, noted several TechRepublic members.
"Keep your audience in mind," advised Barry Adams, noting that not all white papers will be read by corporate decision makers.
"Many techies also read them, and the sales language that appeals to an upper level manager will not even begin to convince an engineer who knows a lot about the technology you're describing," he explained.
If you're aiming for a tech audience, like engineers, the focus should be on the technical information. IT managers, he said, are happier with information about how this technology will make their lives easier.
A good paper takes time
Angela Gibson, an IT operations director, has helped write a few white papers, but only when the need has been implicitly identified and "only where we are confident of a level of 'superior' expertise and we think they will be helpful to sit alongside some piece of new business development work we are doing," she said.
"We have had a lot of success with the few we have done as they have generated a lot of interest. We'd do more if we weren't so busy with client work. And they take a long time to create!"