So You Want to be a White Paper Writer?

January 17, 2007 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Industry Insights, White Paper Writing 

wondering.jpgI’m often asked by other marketing writers what it takes to be a good white paper writer.

Assuming that excellent writing skills are a given, there are four things that constitute my list of what is required:

1. Intelligence – (“an aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.”)

Intelligence as it applies to white papers means your ability to grasp the larger scope and the underlying details of the topic at hand. For example, my background is in the technology field. I am at ease sitting down with an IT manager or other technical expert when the subject pertains to either software, hardware, and/or tech services. But give me a topic in the biotech or medical arena and I will fall apart quicker than a sandcastle in high tide. Customers want to work with a white paper writer that they feel clearly understands their industry without having to waste a lot of valuable time explaining basic concepts in addition to specific details.

2. Coherence(“logical interconnection; overall sense or understandability”)

I call this part a “left brain/right brain” capability. Coherence means having the ability to sit down with a technical professional, understand what they are saying, and translate that information into text that a common business person can understand. Since it is often unclear exactly who the reader of each white paper will be, a good writer must tailor the content not only to a reader that may be completely unfamiliar with the subject, but also those who have a keen knowledge without alienating either one in the process.

3. Organization(“to form a whole consisting of interdependent or coordinated parts”)

I compare organization to building a cobblestone path between two locations. Which stone is most appropriate with each placement. Which one goes before and after the next. What will your path look like when you are finished? Straight? Curvy? Crooked?

Organization is about setting the flow of your white paper. Flow is essential in maintaining reader attention, and pertains to how well you are able to organize the presentation of information in your white paper. For example, if you had to explain the concept of “data warehousing” to a Martian that just landed on the earth, how would you go about it? Organization walks a reader through a logical progression of information, section by section, until they grasp the entire subject and key messages that you want to deliver to them.

4. Conciseness - (“Being concise. Expressing or covering much in few words”)

Executives that read white papers don’t have a lot of time. They certainly won’t read 15 pages from cover to cover. To be an effective white paper writer you must be able to clearly articulate complex information in as few words and pages as possible. Can you reduce a 15 page white paper to 10 pages with the same degree of effectiveness? How about 8, or 6?

Conciseness also applies to how you write information. Instead of writing a lengthy paragraph can you express the same information in a bulleted list? How about creating a business graphic instead of a series of paragraphs? While I’m not advocating replacing every paragraph with one of these elements, having page after page of paragraphs as the sole means of conveying information isn’t a formula for success either.

So the bottom line is this: A good white paper is more than a standard document with the name “white paper” on the cover. Understanding the formula for a good white paper that gets read will guide you to the skills that you need to acquire to be an excellent white paper writer.

Your White Papers – Data or Information?

January 16, 2007 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Industry Insights, WP Opinions 

manwdata.jpgColumnist Tim Rutten with the Los Angeles Times (a newspaper, by the way, that I think is more suitable for training newborn puppies than as a viable source of unvarnished news) commented in a recent article about the current state of journalism:

“What we’ve casually come to label the Information Age is really a ‘data age’. We’re literally bathed in data, especially on the Web, but painfully short of information, which is data verified and set in a comprehensible and useful context. We all live in a historic moment characterized by a general increase in knowledge and a decrease in understanding.”

While most of Mr. Rutten’s columnar rantings can usually be compared to those from the nut on the corner, in this article he makes an interesting point that can apply to the current state of business communications and white papers.

While data should be used (sparingly) to reinforce key points in a white paper, the larger question is whether your white papers are providing merely data or conveying valuable information for your target audience.

What’s the difference between the two?

Data is an individual fact or multiple facts, or a value, or a set of values, which may not be significant to a business in and of itself.

Far too often we assume that a white paper must be chock full of data to be effective. Industry trends. Statistics. Quotes from leading Industry media. Tables of black and white technical data. Line and column charts going up and to the right.

On the other hand, information represents data imbued with a business meaning that is useful to the business. An information-oriented white paper takes business or technical data and justifies how it will solve an identified business need.

Information-oriented white papers identify clearly understood business challenges in a realistic fashion, and present methods to solve those problems in a straightforward fashion. The use of data in an information-oriented white paper is a tool that is used to validate and reinforce the effectiveness of the solution. As a result, information-oriented white papers are read by greater numbers of decision makers, make a longer lasting impression, and are viewed as more valuable than data-oriented white papers.

So who have you assigned the task of writing the white papers in your organization? Data collectors or information providers?

What’s the Shelf Life of a White Paper?

January 15, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: WP Marketing 

desk.JPGMarketing campaigns are often compared to food.

If they’re good, you will hear coloful adjectives used like “sizzling”, “robust”, “spicy”, or “satisfying”.

On the other hand, if they’re bad, words like “stale”, “moldy”, “bland”, or “rotten” may be applied.

As marketing pundit, Charlie Cook puts it in his Marketing for Success blog post on the topic:

According to a study by e-consultancy.com prospects cool quickly, at an estimated rate of 10% per day. In other words the shelf life of your marketing on average is about the same as a loaf of bread, 7-10 days.

While this may be applicable for an advertisment or direct mail campaign, it seems a little short-lived for a white paper. But how long should one expect the current version of your white paper to last before the information in it needs to be updated? The answer depends on your industry and the level of competition within it.

For example, in the academic environment where the content presents certain claims based on new research data, white papers can last up to a year before those claims are either verified or disputed by other research findings.

In government where there is no competition, white papers can last for several years, or for as long as the sitting government body that publishes it.

But in the commercial world, white papers have a much shorter shelf life.

Products are updated every few months or several times a year. Competition is plentiful and fierce. Market dynamics change weekly. Businesses are very demanding and customers become fickle if products and/or services do not provide value or are not responsive to their needs.

Given such rapid change, business white papers must be reviewed at a minimum of every six months to verify that their information is current and accurate. Items to review include:

Current and competitive product names, features, and version numbers.
Platform technologies (Windows, MacOSX, Linux, etc).
Industry expert names, companies, quotes, and reference sources.
Business graphics, labels, data, and trends.
Clip Art (For example, Flat Panel Monitors instead of CRTs).

Once you allow a white paper to become stale, it loses its marketing appeal and can actually result in doing more harm than good to your brand or company image. By reviewing your white papers on a semi-annual basis, you will give them a much longer shelf life as a valuable marketing tool.

A Case for the Case Study – Part 3

January 12, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: White Paper Writing 

keystone.JPGI my previous post, I discussed the various elements that make up an effective case study. Now let’s take a look at an actual case study that provides a good example of this theory.

The enclosed case study on the right is from BMC Software for Keystone Financial based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In it you will notice several elements that make it a good case study example:

1. Design – a colorful, eye-pleasing design that attracts reader attention.

2. Sidebar – Providing contact, headquarters, and overview information about the business.

3. Business Challenge – A brief discussion of the business challenge is presented first.

4. Solution Presentation – Significant space devoted to how the solution solved the afore mentioned business challenge.

5. Concise Size – No more than two pages. Suitable for printing on one sheet.

6. Reputable Testimonial – Since the solution is focused on the financial community, the testimonial featured in the case study provides an excellent reference for the target market.

Are there other examples of great case studies that you have seen and would like to comment on?

Thin Slicing the White Paper


slicedbread.jpgLegandary business marketer, Malcom Gladwell, author of the now famous book The Tipping Point, has coined a new term in his most recent publication of Blink. In it, he defines the term “thin slicing” as:

“The act of relegating the decision-making process to the adaptive unconscious by focusing on a small set of key variables, as opposed to consciously considering the situation as a whole over as much longer period of time.”

In layman speak, this means that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience. Many of us ‘thin-slice’ based on a first or second impression of something we see or read.

Stephen Denny of blogsite Note to CMO, takes this concept a step further by applying it to brand marketing:

There are a lot of thin slices you can take on a brand – how you react to a brand presentation at a boardroom level, how you react as a consumer, etc.  Hot brands evoke one of two visceral reactions:

First is The Eyebrow Arch, accompanied by the ‘ooh’. This is the “that’s very cool” reaction you want with anything you just launched at the show in Vegas.

The second is The Buddha Nod and the “aah”. This is the “I’m so glad you came along and fixed this mess” reaction you want with the service you just launched.

So how does thin slicing apply to the formulation of white papers? Applying Denny’s formula, a reader would have two reactions when a reader the pick up a white paper:

The first ‘Eyebrow Arch’ would be the visual impression. How the white paper is designed. The number of pages. How information is formatted (bullets, fonts, bold, etc), headings, and sub-heads. The visual diagrams or business graphs. Many executives use this first impression to take an initial interest in a white paper and decide whether or not to read it.

The second slice, or ‘Buddah nod’, comes after the executive skims through the entire white paper and makes a personal connection or agreement with key messages that are contained in it. Such buddah nod impressions could be:

Do I agree with the central premise of the white paper?
Do I connect with the messages in the summary sections?
Can I relate my day-to-day experiences to these key messages?
Do I understand the underlying message contained within the business graphics or diagram?

Thin slicing sounds to me like something that any well trained writer does naturally. Business documents are written and designed for both a first impression, as well a second, more lasting one so that key imformation is retained by the reader. If an executive agrees with phases one and two, the likelihood that they will take action (such as a phone call or website visit) increases.

Is thin slicing just another fashionable marketing buzzword to describe a common practice, or is it something entirely new that will allow us to write better business documents?

A Case for the Case Study – Part 2

January 10, 2007 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: White Paper Writing 

casepic.JPGSo now that you’ve decided to include a case study in your white paper, how do you ensure that it will have an impact on your reader? 

There are five things to keep in mind when writing a good case study:

1. Pick a Good Example - pick a testimonial organization that not only has realized positive results from the implementation of your solution, but also is representative of the majority of your prospective clients.

2. K.I.S.S. – Keep it Short and Simple - Keep your case study to a maximum of two pages (and preferably one page if you can). This will allow you to focus on the most important elements that your readers need to know and cut out a lot of the peripheral fluff.

3. Balance Content with Quotes – Bringing the reader up to speed on background issues with a testimonial is important, but so are the actual quotes that they provide. Quotes serve to reinforce and validate your solution. Aim to achieve a 50-50 balance between the amount of content and quotes.

4. Engage the Reader - Your reader will have a better connection with the case study if you make the details interesting. Walk the reader through a progression of facts regarding their challenges, solution evaluation, and final results. For example, discuss the problems they encountered before they implemented the solution and include quotes that dramatize its impact to their business. Do the same for each of the other sections.

5. End on a Positive - Leave the reader with a good impression towards the solution on the last line of the case study. Statements like “Acme Widgets provided exactly the silver bullet we needed to get our business back on track” will leave close out the case study section on a positive note.

By applying these principles, you will find that including a case study will make the rest of your white paper content more engaging, more credible, and have a greater impact on your business audience.

A CEO Gets Tagged…and Responds!


schwartz.jpgFor those of you who have been playing along with the blog tagging game as I have from my recent post, it appears that Sun Microsystem’s CEO, Jonathan Schwartz recently got tagged.

Not only is it refreshing to see a CEO that maintains regular posts to a blog, but also that he is willing to disclose five things about himself that others may not know.

This can only mean one of two things. Either it’s an example of how the CEO of a large, multi-billion dollar technology company takes advantage of a new marketing medium to attract a younger and unique audience, or that Mr. Schwartz has an awful lot of free time on his hands.

You decide on that one.

A Case for the Case Study – Part 1

January 8, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Industry Insights 

magnifying-glass.jpgWhat is a case study? Ask ten people and you are likely to get ten different answers.

For example, to the academic community a case study is a proof of concept that demonstrates the feasibility of a scientific concept or theory.

In the legal community a case study is a document that reviews all of the details behind the resources, research, and outcome of a particular legal case.

But to the business community a case study is a document that provides a realistic validation of the worth of a product or solution by showing how the implementation of a solution within an actual enterprise environment solved a common business challenge or problem.

Case studies serve an important role in a marketing climate that is filled with false hopes, pie in the sky claims, vaporware, and a healthy dose of skepticism.

A well written case study is usually no more than two pages in length, and can be created as a stand-alone document, or integrated into an existing white paper. If the latter approach is used, the case study moves a white paper from being a purely theoretical presentation, to one that demonstrates how the solution clearly accomplished what had been claimed.

In subsequent postings during this month, I will go into greater detail of the elements that are required to produce an effective case study.

Do you have an example of a case study that you’ve seen, produced, or used that has worked? Why did it work for you or your client?

Defending the Passive Voice

January 5, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: White Paper Writing 

To writing purists, the debate between the use of active and passive voice is a battle that has been going on for some time.

voice.jpgAccording to Erin Nelsen of the Big Bad Book Blog, the use of the passive voice is one of the most commonly vilified, frequently bemoaned, and terminally misunderstood constructions in English.

As she indicates, sentences like “The book was put down by Mary” or “The dog was walked by my brother yesterday” makes sensitive readers shudder.

But there are instances where a passive voice has its place. From her blog she writes:

  1. When the focus is on the action or the effect, not on the actor. “The mail was delivered at three o’clock sharp.” “The hydrangeas were watered daily.”
  2. When the actor is aggregate or unknown, or there is no clear actor responsible: “The building was destroyed in 1923.” “These markings were made by someone with a knowledge of Ogham.”
  3. When the construction emphasizes something you wish to emphasize (by placing the agent at the end of the sentence): “The terrible crime was committed by none other than the esteemed Judge Jones”; or by refusing to assign direct responsibility: “Your invitation has been declined.”

The question for today, dear reader, is whether there is a role for the passive voice in professional business documents like white papers. For example, which of the following statements do you think sound better when the subject turns more technical:

Active Voice: “Scientists have conducted experiments to test the hypothesis”
Passive Voice: “Experiments have been conducted to test the hypothesis.”

Active Voice: “Sanji will present his research at the conference”
Passive Voice: “The research will be presented by Sanji at the conference”

Active Voice: “Seeing a movie in an iPod window reminds me of watching TV”
Passive Voice: “I am reminded of watching TV when I see a movie in an iPod window”

Not such an easy choice, eh?

According to Erin, the bottom line is this: While the passive voice is not recommended for habitual use, it proves useful and often elegant in the right context. But don’t force a sentence into active voice if its natural and proper realm is the passive.

Also, since passive sentences tend to use more words than active ones, watch out because you might just be creating a long, involved, and convoluted Frankensentence.

And we certainly want to avoid creating those little monsters in our white papers.

Any opinion?

The Point of No Return

January 4, 2007 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Misc. Rantings 

twilightzone.jpgYears ago, when men opened doors for ladies and phrases like “please” and “thank you” were commonplace, a customer would politely indicate that they weren’t interested in what you had to offer by telling you so with a response.

Unfortunately, a new and disturbing trend is taking place in today’s business circles. The new form of “no” is to merely not respond at all.

“Do you have any additional comments on that white paper draft”. No response after several days. I guess they don’t have any.

“Would you like to meet me for coffee?” No response after several days. I guess they aren’t interested.

Whether your problem is being just too busy, viewing the request as a low priority or just being a coward, there is not excuse for not returning an e-mail message or a phone call. Personally, I find such non response to be the nadir of professionalism and common courtesy.

If someone has taken the time to send you an e-mail message or to call you, the least one can do is to respond to their message. After all what does it take? 30 seconds of your valuable time?

It’s a funny thing thought, there’s a old saying that seems to fit here, “You shall reap what you sew“.

Those who don’t return messages are often the first to complain when the information they so desperately need takes a corner into the Twilight Zone.

Have you ever been stood up with your messages? Do you just accept it as part of doing business today? For those of you who don’t return messages, what’s your excuse?

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