By Manya Chylinski published June 7, 2011

3 Reasons Your White Paper is Failing

Writing white papers is not rocket science most of the time. But it does take time, skill, and a few dedicated resources to produce a paper valuable for your customers and prospects. It also takes planning, often more than you expect and sometimes more than you want to devote. Yet the lack of planning is, in my experience, the primary cause of trouble in most white paper projects.

A white paper is more than a writing task. In addition to writing and project management, a white paper requires:

  • Identifying and understanding the audience
  • Conducting research
  • Communicating with and interviewing subject matter experts, customers, and other stakeholders
  • Analyzing information
  • Working closely with executives and the marketing team

Each task and step of the process is a potential weak point that can derail your project. The key to ensuring success for your white paper is avoiding the following three things.

Setting unrealistic deadlines

The first way to ensure failure of your white paper project is to request a fast turnaround time. In this day and age of blog posts, mobile marketing and 140 character tweets, it’s easy to forget that writing takes time, and that effective content marketing takes even more time than that.

A white paper, even a short one, is a marketing document that must include certain elements. It needs to be:

  • Targeted to a specific audience
  • Written with an objective in mind
  • Organized
  • Factually accurate
  • Researched and sourced
  • Well-written and persuasive

In almost every white paper project I’ve worked on, I’ve had to push back on the initial deadline because there was not enough time.

Just take one aspect of a project: Interviewing subject matter experts. It can take a week or two just to reach some people and schedule time to talk with them, let alone find time to brief them on the project and their role in it and conduct a thorough interview. Yet clients have presented me with projects with a stated deadline of fewer than three weeks, in which subject matter experts had not been identified, let alone vetted or prepped.

Unrealistic deadlines can be the result of not understanding the scope of a project, choosing to write a white paper in response to a competitor or market forces rather than an editorial calendar, or an idealistic view of how long things like setting up interviews and getting approvals can take in the corporate world.

Skipping the outline

The second way to ensure that your white paper project fails is to start writing it without an outline. Some writers feel that starting with an outline stifles their creativity or that they know enough about the subject matter to just sit down and start writing. But writing white papers is a bit like building a building: You cannot start tiling the roof or painting the walls until you have built the foundation.

Likewise, you cannot start interviewing experts or wordsmithing until you have an outline addressing the major elements of the paper, detailing supporting topics, and revealing a clear path from the problem all the way to the solution and call to action.

The marketing team, writer, subject matter experts, executives, and other stakeholders involved in the project each bring their own point of view. And everyone involved in the project will be able to identify missing elements or spots where more or less emphasis should be placed. This is a critical collaborative exchange that can take from several days to a few weeks, depending on the project scope and availability of involved parties.

As the foundation for the entire project, the outline plays another key role in the process: A way to get feedback and executive buy-in. You want everyone with a stake in the project to review the outline, make comments , and eventually come to consensus. Once the outline is approved, it becomes the working document, and you don’t add or subtract elements or change direction without approval first.

Making 11th hour changes

The third way to ensure failure for the project is to start messing with it once the outline has been written and approved.

The shorter the deadline, the more important it is to get approval of the outline and stick to it. It is easy, and in my experience, common for managers and others involved in the project to sign off on the outline with the assumption that they can easily change it later.

No matter how much time is slated for the project, changing the outline or direction after approval of the outline is one of the best ways to doom it to failure. In one project I worked on, one high-level team member came up with a new idea that changed the direction of the paper. Though the deadline was fluid and not a looming concern, the changes would have required rewriting for a different primary audience as well as identifying and interviewing new experts. What made matter worse is that this team member could not articulate exactly why a change was important.

As with many things content related, good planning is the way to keep your projects on track no matter how big or small.

Do you have any ideas about other key steps to ensuring the success of your white paper?

Author: Manya Chylinski

Manya Chylinski is a marketing consultant and writer helping B2B companies create compelling content and share thought leadership and success stories. Founder of Alley424 Communications, Manya has experience in a variety of industries including technology, higher education, financial services, government, and consulting.

Other posts by Manya Chylinski

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  • Rachel Agheyisi

    Hi Manya.
    Thanks for this post.
    If “failing” means poor quality, low impact, fuzzy report I agree.  But my guess is many white paper sponsors have no definition (clear concept) of a failing white paper, which is why some of the issues you raise occur. 
    It also accounts for other “failure indicators” such as using one white paper to address ALL issues (the one-size-fits-all approach), unrealistic scope and inappropriate graphics/design.

    • Manya


      You make a good point about white paper sponsors and their definition of a white paper. I find that my definition of a white paper sometime differs from what sponsors are thinking–such as wanting to address all issues or simply calling a report a white paper, no matter the content. That impacts the quality and efficacy of the paper as well.

      Is this just an education issue? How do you stand up for the integrity of the content when you are getting pushback?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts,

      • Rachel Agheyisi

        Hi Manya.
        You know, I’m not sure it’s just an “education issue”. From my experience, many sponsors, including those very familiar with best practices in content marketing, seem very focused (understandably) on the cost of producing a white paper and hence feel that they need to milk it for all it’s worth (the illusive high ROI). As you know, white papers are not cheap to produce, whether in-house or outsourced. Unfortunately, that focus leads to actions/requests that dilute the quality of the white paper and in turn (ironically) impact the ROI negatively. How do I handle such situations? I offer options,explain possible outcomes and try not to enable misguided expectations. Client relations is always a learning process!

        • Manya

          This is a good assessment of where the sponsors are coming from on big projects like this.  I like how you handle it.

          You are so right about client relations always being a learning process! And isn’t that part of what makes it so interesting…

  • Apryl Parcher

    Nice article Manya! You’re spot-on with your assessments. When I write white papers for clients, the elements you mention are critical for success–especially planning ahead.

    Something that helps me tremendously in getting and staying on track with white paper projects is a “needs assessment” interview with all stakeholders–something I learned while apprenticing under Mike Stelzner. I never begin a project without it, because it forms the foundation for developing the all-important outline. I always make it clear that the outline must be approved by all parties in writing before any other work is begun. Otherwise the project can drag on or fall apart entirely.

    Another thing that I think is critical for success these days is to make your white paper socially sharable. That doesn’t mean just putting links or share buttons in the document, but planning a social launch of the paper even before you write it–preferably from the outline. Creating buzz about your white paper by sharing bits of it in the social platforms your audience frequents before, during and after the content is published measurably increases its lead generation power and longevity.

    Making your paper socially sharable also goes hand-in-hand with designing your piece so that it’s easy to skim, read and absorb. My friend and colleague Jonathan Kantor calls it designing for the “short-attention-span reader.”  The biggest complaints about white papers that I hear a lot these days is that they can be stodgy, text-heavy, or just plain boring. No one has time for that anymore. If your white paper doesn’t grab attention and engage the reader immediately, or it looks like “work” to read, guess what? It doesn’t get read!

    Thanks again for your insights–you’re right on the money!

    • Manya


      Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I, too, studied white paper writing with Mike Stelzner and I agree that the needs assessment is a critical piece of the project. It’s something I need to improve in my work on white papers as I haven’t always pushed back as hard as I thought I should. Like I asked Rachel below, how do you fight for the integrity of the paper you believe it can be if the sponsor is pushing back hard or has a different view of the final product?

      Your comments about making the paper socially sharable from the start of the project and sharing pieces as you go along are great. As you note, this helps create buzz and shares the content with those not initially inclined to read an entire white paper. I like this approach!


  • Amanda Maksymiw


    Thanks for the tips.  These can easily be transferred from white paper to creation to virtually the creation of any larger piece of content like ebooks, videos, and presentations. 

    • Manya


      So true! No matter the format, the larger the project, the more moving parts, the easier it is to miss the mark if you don’t have a solid plan.

      That is definitely my thing: outlining, dividing up projects into manageable chunks, planning ahead. I naturally see big projects through that lens. It might not come as naturally to some.

      Thanks for weighing in,

  • Amanda Maksymiw


    Thanks for the tips.  These can easily be transferred from white paper to creation to virtually the creation of any larger piece of content like ebooks, videos, and presentations.