Before You Start Your White Paper Project, Ask These Questions (Part 1 of 4)

By John White

This post is part 1 of a series on the homework you need to do before you start on a white paper project for your organization. First: What message do we want to convey?

Have you ever painted anything: a door, a bedroom, a house? Did you keep track of your time? Did you notice that you spent most of your time in preparation, and that the process of applying paint actually went pretty quickly?

White papers are not much different. Organizations that have done all the prep work and established a rhythm and process for marketing content can keep white paper projects rolling without much ado.

But companies still getting their feet wet with this type of persuasive, informative content should do the prep work so that the process of writing, reviewing and approving the paper goes smoothly.

This is a series on the questions to pose and the answers to get when starting a white paper project.

1. Do we agree on what we want the white paper to convey?

Not “What will the white paper convey?” but “Do we agree on what we want it to convey?”

In the case of a technical benefits paper, this is usually easy. Our paper needs to:

  • describe our new approach to trapping spam at e-mail gateways.
  • explain the advantages of electro-hydraulic over electro-mechanical motion control.
  • show our technique for evaluating both bond and derivative strategies in a single framework.

Even if three of us are reviewing the drafts, it will be obvious to us whether the paper accomplishes that goal.

With a business benefits paper, however, this is not always so clear, because the writer must align the paper with other landmarks around the company (some of which we haven’t gotten around to putting in place yet):

  • What’s our unique value proposition: that we’re cheap or that we’re effective?
  • Do we have messaging in place that the paper will support? Which shall we emphasize: our benefits to franchisors or to franchisees?
  • Is our sales team trained in the kind of sell that will make the best use of a white paper? Or are we just going to hang it out on the Website and hope people grab it?

Finally, in the case of a white paper designed to convey an organizational transformation or demonstrate thought-leadership (see my scoffing about that elsewhere), all bets are off. Opinions will vary from one end of our C-suite to the other:

  • How much should we tell people? Do we show them warts and all?
  • What do we want the moral of the story to be?
  • Who is the final arbiter of what goes into the paper (i.e., who’s the boss)?

Reaching agreement will take some time and work, but it helps ensure that the paper meets the needs of the greatest number of stakeholders. You don’t usually need to undertake this soul-search every time you want to start a paper, but you should weather it at least once the first time, and canonize your answers for future projects.

What are your thoughts?

Next: Who is the ideal reader for this white paper?

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

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  • annew

    Mike, this is shaping up as a great series… your questions work for any writing for a client… thanks.

  • http://writingblog.ventajamarketing.com/ John White

    Stay tuned, Anne. I'm rolling out some more questions next week. Let me know which questions you usually ask.

  • http://www.samuraiwriter.com/blog/there-are-no-best-products-ries-and-trout Mark McClure

    One question I like to use with new clients interested in a 'business benefits' white paper is: “Based on what you've shared with me so far, what would you do differently if you could.”

    That sometimes helps people 'rewind' what they've been through and offer information that might rarely come to mind in a “hiring a writer” kind of conversation.

    It's more fun doing this in person over a coffee than by phone or email, in my experience.

    As for 'thought leadership' machinations, I'll just zip over to your link and leave a 'top of mind' comment ;-)

  • blizrudd

    Mike,

    Everything is falling into place. I've spent a couple of days researching and creating my outline. This is article is providing some basic insights … looking forward to the next part.

  • TheBlizzrdGroup

    Mike,

    Everything is falling into place. I've spent a couple of days researching and creating my outline. This is article is providing some basic insights … looking forward to the next part.