What it takes to create an effective white paper

Get tips and advice about what a good white paper effort requires. Find out how certain issues, like deadlines and length, can make or break a white paper.

I've detailed why white papers are gaining in popularity and why balance and strong writing skills are vital for producing valuable white papers.

Now it's time to explore what a solid white paper must have to be effective—and read—and what CIOs and others need to know before they embark on white paper development.

No set template
While there is no set industry standard for what constitutes a white paper, you'll find many generalizations and descriptions, according to Gordon Graham, a partner at communications firm Gordon & Gordon.

Most papers take four to 10 weeks to create, cost $3,000 to $30,000 in development costs (depending on whether it's done internally or externally), and provide an "authoritative yet neutral" tone and voice, according to Graham. The papers average 10 pages in length. When images are provided, they're usually black and white.

Once the focal topic of a white paper has been identified, it's time to create a title. While it may not seem like a vital element, experts say a white paper title can be the difference between being read and not being read.

At the same time, a title can't over-promise. It can't claim that it's "The Definitive Guide to Internet Security," and actually be a flimsy, two-page document. Simplicity often works best.

A white paper also needs an executive overview or summary. This text typically serves as the abstract description in an online search. If a user reads the abstract, and finds it readable and understandable, you will have a 50 percent click-through rate to the document.

Elements of a compelling white paper
According to Peter Spande, director of IT Papers, a perfect white paper would focus on an emerging technology with a clear and detailed discussion of the solution the technology provides. 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.

"A 'perfect paper' would be written by the leading expert in that field and provide substantial amounts of third-party research and case studies to support the discussion," explained Spande. The paper would provide "clear direction on where to go next, honestly present potential challenges, and provide the reader with the tools to effectively interpret this information for their individual business," he added.

Here is a short list of the most important points to remember when preparing a white paper, provided by Jonathan Kantor at the Appum Group:
  1. Pick the right author. Use a writer who can understand and transform technical information that can be understood by both business-oriented and technical individuals.
  2. Keep the paper short and concise. A white paper that goes beyond 10 pages is likely giving too much information. Make a point and stick to it.
  3. Incorporate visual elements. Pages and pages of text are not effective. Provide clear black and white graphics that can be printed out, and use charts, tables, and workflow diagrams. "If you've ever read a government white paper, you know how boring they are and that things aren't highlighted or bulleted and that's not in line with today's fast-paced, busy executives," said Kantor.
  4. Strive for a good subject flow. A good white paper assumes the reader knows nothing about the topic and provides information beyond the basics as well.
  5. Use a case study. "All too often, white papers tend to be all theory with little reality," said Kantor. "Today, decision makers are saying 'give me an example of an actual company similar to mine, and how this solution solves their problem.'"
  6. Wrap up with a strong summary. Make sure readers leave with the salient points—the top three bulleted issues on why the particular solution is effective for solving their problem.

Also, every white paper should provide in-depth information on the author and his or her background.

A collaborative effort
Experts say that developing and completing a white paper is very often a collaborative process between the writer and the CIO or organization.

A good starting point for the collaborators is crafting an outline, according to Peter Krass, president of Petros Consulting. "I did a position paper recently where we had an hour-long conference call on the phone—where we just talked about the company's ideas. Then, based on that call, I created an outline and sent it to them for their approval. Right from the get-go, there was some back and forth-ing."

Krass likes to work directly with the client at the earliest possible stage and not formally begin writing a paper until "everything was nailed down."

"I would emphasize you should spend much more time on the outline than you're used to as it could save huge amounts of time in the back end."

Graham follows a similar plan: "When we prepare a white paper, we approach it like a blueprint of a house. We also like to find the subject matter experts in the organization and send them an outline and then we'll interview and record those individuals. This keeps it all on track," he said, adding that "there are no surprises then in the cycle as the customer is aware of every stage of the process."

The importance of immovable deadlines
A crucial element in white paper development is setting a hard deadline.

"The review cycle is the bane of the white paper author," said Alexander Wolfe, a partner at E-ContentWorks. "The paper often has to go through the product manager, the PR department, and the executive level staff, so it could be a lengthy process. If you don't have a hard deadline, the white paper effort could go on for a long time."

Graham wholeheartedly agreed. "An immovable deadline is magic. That gives you a time bar and creates a sense of drama and urgency, so you can say 'this has to be done by Friday so I really need you to talk to me right now.'"

Third 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. Stay tuned for the final part, which will identify why some white papers fail.

The rewards can be many
While the experts' advice may appear quite intense, you can reap a multitude of benefits, both for the development team and the company.

"There's an intellectual aspect to working on a white paper," said Krass. "It's also an opportunity to get into the topic in quite a lot of detail and it can be very stimulating [professionally]."

For you, developing and completing a white paper can be a feather in your cap career-wise and boost your stature internally and within the tech industry.

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