Balance, writing skill are keys in producing white papers

Before you jump into white paper authoring, understand the content balance required and determine who'll actually produce the white paper. Learn why both issues are keys to making sure your white paper effort pays off.

In the first part of this four-part series on white papers, I identified how valuable white papers are for IT executives today. A recent survey reports that nearly 90 percent of IT executives find them invaluable in their jobs.

“Because of the economy today, every dollar has to be accounted for,” said Jonathan Kantor of the Appum Group, which specializes in creating technical documents for IT clients. “C-level executives are reading more and more white papers, as they’re taking a much more hands-on approach with major expenditures and the ROI.”

And as much as IT executives need white papers, they also need to create and publish their own, according to experts.

According to communications expert Gordon Graham, of Gordon & Gordon, IT executives should craft white papers for both prospective customers and internal staffs. The reasons are many:
  • To educate and pitch potential customers
  • To educate a sales force that may not fully understand the company’s product and benefits
  • To provide the media a background document for a press release or press conference
  • To use as free content for trade magazines or business publications
  • To submit as a fulfillment piece that can be offered in advertisements, direct mailings, and the Web, for example, “Register here to receive a free white paper on...” (this helps gather leads for the sales force)
  • To provide the company an aura of credibility and authority in its market

Providing the right balance
Your white paper must offer balanced content. There is a strong urge within enterprises to make a white paper promotional to boost sales. Doing so will cut down the list of benefits noted above to one or two and won’t provide the best ROI on the effort.

TechRepublic member Angela Gibson, operations director at Ioko365 Ltd., a UK-based enterprise technology provider, related how the time-consuming effort can pay off if done right.

“My company has occasionally written white papers, but only where we are confident of a level of ‘superior’ expertise and think they will be helpful to sit alongside some piece of new business development work we are doing. We have had a lot of success with the few we have done, and 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,” she said.

It’s that same expertise she wants when she looks for a white paper. “I do not rely on white papers as [my only] source of information, as I am often skeptical of their bias. I am selective in those I will read; they need to be from a source I consider to be ‘credible.’”

Some TechRepublic members noted that the heavy marketing focus in white papers means IT executives have to be very careful about which ones to rely on.

“Most of the white papers I see are nothing more than advertising, designed to convince me to take action faster on a product being sold by whoever wrote it. More and more, the only white papers I take seriously are those put out by reputable organizations, and not massaged by vendors,” said Chuck Longfellow, CIO of the Christina School District in Newark/Wilmington, DE.

Peter Spande, director of IT Papers, a white paper aggregator owned by CNET Networks, said many white papers are written with assumptions about the audience. IT Papers was launched in 1998 and acquired by CNET Networks in 2002. Focused on providing the most complete directory of IT vendor content on the Internet, IT Papers provides users with over 41,000 vendor documents from over 4,000 vendors and drives up to 500,000 downloads monthly.

“Many [white papers] assume the reader is comfortable with vendor language. While IT professionals that download white papers are typically very knowledgeable about technology, it doesn't mean that they will understand vendor-specific phrases and labels,” said Spande. “A great many papers seem to be written with the assumption that the paper is only to be read by others within the company. Avoiding this type of language or simply defining these terms early and often can greatly increase the effectiveness of these papers,” he said.

Second in a four-part series
This series is aimed at helping you identify the good and the bad when it comes to white papers, and explore how IT teams can move into white paper authoring. The next two articles are:

Give the audience what it wants
“White papers can have the effect of a double-edged sword,” said Alexander Wolfe, a partner at E-ContentWorks. “On the one hand, you’ve got a great opportunity with an almost captive audience [of readers]; however, if you feed them bull, you’ll easily lose them. Credibility is essential.”

Wolfe believes that to truly find a balance [between the technical and the marketing material], the white paper should have a multivendor approach.

“But that’s the antithesis of what a white paper actually is. So you have a push-pull problem right at the outset,” he added.

Appum’s Kantor said the need for balance is stronger than ever because the white paper audience has changed.

“It has gone from a purely IT perspective to a combined IT C-level decision-maker perspective. As a result, the content, which used to be very highly technical, today has to be much more marketing-oriented in nature. Not too much marketing so it becomes fluff, but it has to clearly explain technical terminology; offer executive summaries, graphics of charts, tables, and bulleted information. This way, high-level business decision makers can read and understand it, and act on it,” he said.

Finding good writers
When you're deciding on who will author the paper, the question is whether to rely on an already overworked in-house staff or to go outside.

"There is nobody more knowledgeable about the proposed topic of your white paper than the subject matter experts in your own company," said white paper writer James Cavanagh. Handling it in-house will “force you [IT executives] to think through points and clarify issues, ask and answer questions, and become more clear in your own thinking,” he explained. If you hire an outside expert, there will invariably be things that get lost in the translation and the final product might not be as information-rich or powerful as it could have been, he added.

In addition, there’s quite a difference in cost. A typical white paper costs a vendor a minimum of $3,000 to $5,000 to produce in-house, but going outside could run $10,000 to $20,000.

The cost of a balanced view
While it’s certainly cheaper done internally, you may lose something incredibly valuable in the process—balanced content and credibility.

“The white paper which is most effective is the one with true credibility in the eye of the reader,” said Wolfe. “Lots of times, that won’t be the white paper that plays best within the company—which is usually written by the IT manager’s colleagues—and that ultimately poses a problem for the prospective client reading it. [IT executives] can either score points with their PR department and product manager, or they can actually produce a white paper that will convince potential customers to adopt their technology. Which do you want to do?”

Graham said in-house white paper creation can bring unexpected problems because the creation team needs just the right blend of talent. “It’s tricky, because the background of the writers is so important. For example, I have many years in publishing but also have had 20 years as a technical writer, and also moved into marketing over the past five years. I’ve looked at white papers from both sides.” White papers need writers whose experience provides an “overlap between technical and marketing” because “they take a lot of high-powered thinking to create a compelling one.”

And, as another white paper expert said, while outside writers likely cost more, they typically get the project done on time. If done internally, the project can easily be sidetracked or shelved due to staff time issues and other pressing projects.

“I’ve seen several clients lose interest in these things; they start giving you less and less attention as the project goes on over time,” said Peter Krass, president of Petros Consulting. “The first meeting, everyone is gung-ho: ‘Yeah, I’m dedicated to this!’ But by the fifth or sixth week, guess what? They’re hardly answering your e-mails.”

Kantor warned that choosing the wrong team or outside writer to produce a white paper can bring a worst-case scenario.

“If a white paper is highly readable, the reader/decision maker will pass it along to another who’s involved in the process.” But “if it’s complex or it’s disjointed in its presentation or it’s written by only a highly technical person, it will probably be passed over. So it’s very critical that how it’s written presents information that can attract the C-level executive.”

Have you written a white paper? Have any good tips?
TechRepublic would like to conclude this series with an article on member tips and advice—lessons learned on the road to white paper creation. If you send them in, and we use your feedback, we’ll send you a TechRepublic coffee mug.

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