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.

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