How to avert the big don'ts in creating a white paper

Knowing from the outset what can kill a white paper's value is critical to making sure the white paper development effort isn't for naught. Here are the common mistakes.

During this four-part series on white papers, I've explored various issues—from the rising importance of white papers to elements that are needed for producing a compelling white paper. A white paper strives to provide good technical information with just enough marketing flavor to whet the busy IT executive's reading appetite. One of the quickest ways to ensure that your white paper effort won't fall flat is to avoid committing the big mistakes that can render it virtually useless.

Common mistakes
While there's no denying that white paper popularity is rising, that certainly doesn't mean every white paper produced finds and hits an audience target. "When you see some of the white papers that are posted on various Web sites today, many are far too difficult to read and understand," said Jonathan Kantor of the Appum Group, which specializes in creating technical documents for IT firms.

Kantor offered a list of the problem areas:

Wrong author: CIOs and organizations must find a competent writer, internally or externally, who can make highly technical information clearly understood by business professionals.

Lack of visual appeal: Just going with text is a no-no. Simple graphics will avert potential boredom that crops up when a reader is presented with pages of text.

Complex terminology: If you use a technical term without a clear definition, you'll lose the attention of your readers, and they may not finish the rest of your paper.

Disorganized subject flow: Many white papers jump into the details of a topic without providing any background information. Start at the beginning when introducing a topic so that you don't ignore a good percentage of readers who need that information.

Theory without reality: Don't expect a reader to believe in the effectiveness of a solution if you present only the theory of how it works. Use case studies and real-world business examples that reinforce the concepts.

Lack of summary: This is your opportunity to wrap up the white paper and ensure that the key points you wanted the reader to understand are clearly presented and understood.

According to Peter Spande, director of IT Papers, owned by CNET Networks, the biggest no-no is creating a white paper that is overly commercial.

"The line between marketing collateral and useful information is continually pushed. IT Papers' members prefer, by far, papers dealing more with solutions than with specific products and prefer clearly illustrated points over marketing hype," explained Spande. "This isn't to say a paper cannot discuss specific products but the focus should be placed on the solution offered by that product.

The white paper format is great for establishing expertise in a subject and discussing how that expertise went into the product/service a vendor has to offer. When too much hype is inserted into the paper, that opportunity to establish credibility is diminished," he added.

Catch up on the white paper series
This series is aimed at helping you identify the good and the bad when it comes to white papers and exploring how IT teams can move into white paper authoring.

Address the proper audience
A big mistake many first-time white paper authors (and technical organizations) make is developing a topic but not aiming it toward the appropriate audience. "Audience is key," said Peter Krass, president of communications firm Petros Consulting. "If it's for a high-level management audience, it has to be written a certain way. But if it's for a developer or engineering audience, it has to be done in a very different way—possibly even with code in the paper," said Krass.

He recently did some writing for Forum Nokia, a site for developers working with Nokia devices, platforms, and technologies, and understood who the audience was before he began putting text on paper. "A CIO doesn't go to that site, so, within that context, everything in the paper is going to be pretty techy. You've got to set the context so the reader has a reasonable expectation on what they're going to find, or you'll lose them."

Alexander Wolfe, a partner at e-ContentWorks, an OEM communications consultancy, explained that IT executives who want to produce white papers in-house need to do a bit of up-front planning—such as determining who will work on the project. "The concept of the white paper is a great idea," he said, "but, in most cases, the execution isn't great at all. The danger is that white papers can become a synopsis for a not-so-thinly disguised sales pitch," he explained.

"The challenge is to get around that. A lot of the technical people who are working on the white paper team are aware of this problem, but they're not in a position of authority. The people in charge are usually product managers, and they take a more 'advertorial' approach." Making sure everyone understands the focus and the appropriate tone of the white paper is a key to delivering something the audience will read, he added.

Tech executives, marketers, and client representatives—every member of a white paper team—need to be on the same page. "Often, you have to go against the express wishes of the client and figure out what the client really wants but is not telling you," said Wolfe. "You have to get into long, hard questioning and talk directly to the product manager personally, because a lot of people in the company will have a lot of different and even conflicting opinions about the project."

Those differing views and conflicts could spell early disaster for the effort, explained Gordon Graham, a partner at Gordon & Gordon, a firm that provides workshops in technical and marketing writing. "White papers are fraught with danger. You can have a failed white paper project quite easily. One of the main causes of that is that you have no real-world deadline. Somebody on the marketing side might say 'we really need a white paper about this,' but if it gets too bogged down in technical details, they lose interest and stop pushing it, and it can go nowhere."

Another challenge in getting an IT executive to click through or purchase a white paper is translating technology into clear English without making it sound cliched. "If I read another white paper that talks about 'time to market,' I'm gonna scream!" said Wolfe. "A slew of catchphrases like that are going to make readers' eyes roll, and they're not going to get through a whole paper."

Competition is fierce
As white paper popularity and credibility has grown, so has the number of white papers hitting the Web. And that makes creating a strong white paper more important than ever if the hope is to gain a big readership.

"In the past, technical information has been very difficult to locate on the Web," said Wolfe, "but that's changing, because almost all technology sites now post white papers, from Microsoft to Sun to technology sites such as TechRepublic and its competitors."

The growth is both good and bad for IT executives who want to develop and market their own white papers. Appum'sKantor noted that many companies that post white papers on company Web sites are not leveraging these papers to their fullest extent because of a lack of organization. He said that white papers can be scattered across a variety of Web pages and too many content topics. He recommends that companies establish a dedicated page on site that houses an organized white paper library.

If you've gone through all the hard work of creating a useful, engaging, and credible white paper, you should have a proper library or housing for it, according to the experts. Going to an online library such as IT Papers can be effective in locating appropriate white papers. IT Papers was launched in 1998 and acquired by CNET Networks in 2002.

According to IT Papers' Peter Spande, wireless networking, VoIP, and Web services are the three hottest white paper topics.

"There is also a great deal of download activity [on site] around topics discussing infrastructure improvements and efficiency such as server consolidation, remote management, measuring TCO, etc.," said Spande.

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.

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