Before You Start Your White Paper Project, Ask These Questions (Part 2 of 4)

By John White

This is part 2 of a series on your internal preparation for a white paper project. Second: Who is the ideal reader for this white paper? Get ready to dissect the persona.

Too many companies underestimate the importance of this step in the white paper process—determining the ideal reader. When this step is skipped, the result is a white paper that tries to do too much for too many people and ends up boring most of them. Don’t let that fate befall your white paper project.

Do some homework on your ideal readers and be sure that your paper floats their boat. This kind of homework is akin to developing a buyer persona, which David Meerman Scott describes as

a distinct group of potential customers, an archetypal person whom you want your marketing to reach. Creating [content] based on buyer personas gets you away from an egotistical site based on your products and services (which nobody really cares about, after all). What people do care about are themselves and answers to their problems, which is why buyer personas are so critical for marketing success.

Your white paper needs to be valuable content. For that to happen, you need to think about what’s valuable to your reader. You can’t just publish a few thousand words of text that make you feel good and assume it will be read.

Characteristics of Your Ideal Reader

You can dissect your notion of the ideal reader with a few different knives:

Which hat are they wearing? Your company always has a variety of audiences with a range of priorities you may not be able to accommodate in a single paper:

  • Investors want to see that you have studied, understood and addressed the business problems in your industry.
  • Engineers need to integrate your product, so you need to convince them that it won’t blow up in their face.
  • Prospective buyers want to know what you’re promising them, and how you’ll make good on that promise.
  • Existing customers will buy more from you if you’re demonstrating technical advances.
  • Journalists race against deadlines and appreciate content that fits their publications.
  • Analysts want to know how your products fit in the industry landscape so they can describe it to their own audiences.

Where are they in the sales cycle? A white paper, or similar non-promotional content, is a good tool at any given point in the sales cycle, but it’s hard to write a paper that will work at all points in the sales cycle. Papers that comprehensive tend to buckle under their own weight, so consider different flavors of white paper:

  • Market introduction – I’ve spent jillions of dollars on travel for my sales managers, and now I’m thinking about moving more customer contact to the Web. The right paper will arm me with the vocabulary and concepts I need to figure out whether it’s a sensible move.
  • Business benefits – I’m ready to make a business case to my execs and to my customers, and this paper will arm me with a cogent rationale.
  • Technical benefits – My IT department needs to weigh in on the security and infrastructure around this change, and they have an entire set of their own questions that need answers.
  • Thought leadership – I want to work (and keep working) with smart people, so that I look smart. Tell me what your crystal ball tells you.

Which questions are they asking? This is your stepping stone into the meat of the white paper, because the paper must offer some kind of answer.

  • “You mean that’s possible?” In the early 1990s, I worked for a software company that doubled disk capacity using software. We spent a lot of time answering exactly this question, as people were trying to get another year out of their 30MB hard drives and didn’t want to have to upgrade hardware.
  • “How much will it cost/save me?” The paper that answers this question is probably the most useful sales tool. Help your ideal readers make their own calculations. And don’t fib.
  • “How did you do it?” Once I interviewed a room full of engineers about a project to convert a hydraulic application to an electromechanical one. “If you were reading a paper like this,” I asked, “what would you want to know?” Without missing a beat, the lead engineer replied, “I’d want to know how we did it.” While you have to be careful of what you put into such a paper, it goes a long way toward your technical credibility.
  • “What’s the Next Big Thing?” Speaking of credibility, a good thought-leadership paper answers this question and gives readers insight they can use to impress their boss.

Weld the Ideal Reader to the Paper

Once you have identified your ideal readers, put their job title into the title of your paper. For example:

  • 5 Things Non-Profit Marketing Managers Need to Know about Social Media
  • 3 Ways Wireless Operators Can Use Personalization to Give Customers What They Want on the Mobile Internet
  • How Translation Managers in Retail Keep Up

How do you profile your ideal reader? Next: What do we want readers to do once they’ve read the 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.

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/25131528@N06/ / CC BY 2.0 Part 1: What message do we want to convey?
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  • http://twitter.com/bhas Bhaskar

    Great points.Love the way you fleshed out the different facets of a white paper

  • http://www.bhaskars.net Bhaskar Sarma

    Great points.Love the way you fleshed out the different facets of a white paper