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4 Keys to Compelling Content Marketing with White Papers

white paper successIn my opinion, one of the most important posts on content marketing this year was Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose’s, Build a Successful Content Marketing Strategy in 7 Steps.

The post remains significant, not only because of its content (which includes a concise summary of the Content Marketing Institute’s philosophy), but also because it introduces the white paper they coauthored: The CMI Content Marketing Framework: 7 Building Blocks to Success.

This Framework is an example of white paper marketing at its very best. Just 10 pages long, it concisely communicates the principles that drive CMI. It also reflects a perfect partnership between text and graphics. 

Unlike a lot of white papers, it’s also an “evergreen” white paper — one that will remain a relevant and compelling content marketing vehicle for a long time.

Exploring the origins of white paper success

All my life I’ve been intrigued by the origins of creative success. (My grandmother used to give me alarm clocks to take apart and “fix,” an early example of my interest in how things operate.)

Naturally, I was interested in learning the “inside story” on the origins of the Framework white paper, and how it came together. Accordingly, I contacted Joe and Robert, and asked them if I could interview them about this compelling content marketing effort. They immediately agreed.

The following are the key takeaways from our discussion. (If you are interested, you can download the entire unedited transcript of the interview.)

Key # 1: Discuss your ideas and plans

One of the most important takeaways from my interview with Joe and Robert was the way the Framework white paper originated through a discussion rather than writing.

If you have been trying to write white papers by yourself, or have been delegating them to a single content creator, you might want to look for ways you can add additional perspectives and dialogue from the earliest stages of white paper development.

Takeaway: Outline the process; don’t limit the possibilities

Long before they sat down to write, over a series of telephone calls and face-to-face meetings, Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose had hashed out the content marketing process they wanted to describe. Since writing Managing Content Marketing two years ago, they had been meeting content marketers around the world and working with clients of all sizes. As Robert says, their goal was to accommodate change by, “advancing the practice of content marketing — not trying to put a static definition on it.

Viewing content marketing as a process, rather than focusing on one linear definition, enabled them to accommodate the discipline’s dynamic strategies, as well as its variations among different types of businesses. As Joe says, You can’t just say, ‘Oh, this is the way you do content marketing strategy.’ I think the framework really builds around that from where you are, your position, and who you are trying to reach and build the steps you need to take in your organization.”

Having agreed on the goals of the white paper, they met face-to-face. In Robert’s words, “Joe and I sat down at a table and talked; we white boarded out the steps — the nodes in the framework, if you will.” When they finished, they had a working plan for the white paper.

Takeaway: Focus on the big picture

The second major takeaway from the discussion occurred when I asked, whether they had a publication date in mind from the start, or if they just said they would publish it when it was ready.

Robert affirmed that they started with a target end date and worked toward the deadline — a process he estimates to have taken about eight weeks, total.

Joe elaborated on the reasoning behind scaling out the project the way they did: They weren’t solely focused on the white paper; rather, they were focused on CMI’s overarching strategy, and how this particular content effort fit in with the bigger picture:

The content of the white paper, and the seven different steps, was also linked to what we were doing on the website. So you’ll see those seven steps [in the white paper], but they are also on the sidebar of every page of The Content Marketing Institute’s site. That’s why our content director and project manager, in this case, was keeping us tied to the production schedule — she had to meet her dates, so we had to meet her dates, too.”

Key # 2: Draft your copy

Because writing can often be a solitary effort, I was curious about their decision to have two people involved in creating a single white paper. So my next question was, “Do you agree to write different parts of the white paper, or do you each prepare a first draft and combine them together?”

Takeaway: Let creativity — and collaboration — flow in your writing process

Robert explained, The way Joe and I have always worked together as a writing team is each one of us prepares entire drafts, and then we fuse each other’s thinking into it… trading it back and forth, so it ends up being very infused with each of our thoughts.”

When I asked if they wrote or transcribed their individual drafts, Robert responded, “No, I just type a lot,” while Joe commented, “I just let it go onto the screen and see what happens.”

Key #3: Combine your materials and assets

Joe and Robert felt that the discussions that started their process really paid off, as their first drafts came together very quickly: According to Robert, We had a draft, literally, within a week-and-a-half or so, because we’d outlined this [ahead of time]!”

At this point, they were well into the revision phase of the white paper, and were ready to move on to the design and graphics stage.

Words, of course, are just part of the story of any white paper. As is often the case with any compelling content effort, white papers benefit from the inclusion of graphical elements that bring the information and ideas to life. With this in mind, our discussion segued to the Framework graphic that appears on Page 2 of the white paper.

framework graphic-white papers
Reprinted with permission by Content Marketing Institute

There are several lessons content marketers can learn from the way the CMI team developed this Framework graphic — all of which are particularly important if you have delegated graphic design and layout to an outside freelancer and discover you may have left too much up to them. 

Takeaway: Know your artistic vision — even if you don’t yet know how to represent it

For starters, Joe and Robert devoted a significant amount of time and consideration to the graphic before they even brought their ideas to the designer:

In Robert’s words, “We traded emails on a lot of different imagery metaphors that we were thinking of. We didn’t want it to be the typical Venn diagram, or the typical sort of process with circles and arrows and all that… because… we didn’t want it to look linear… More importantly, we wanted it to represent a framework that could be interchanged, but [where the points all] related to each other in very specific ways.”

In other words, although not graphic designers themselves, the authors spent a lot of time identifying what they were looking for before any work on the graphic commenced.

Takeaway: Use images to enhance content, not detract from it

The second lesson here relates back to the project’s eight-week schedule, which allowed sufficient time for the graphic to be fine-tuned. “[The graphic] was the [one component of the paper] that went through the most iterations,” Robert admitted.

Participatory oversight and iteration are essential to creating meaningful visual content — as opposed to using graphics simply for the purpose of decoration. Robert and Joe’s direction ensured that the graphics would be message-based, rather than subjectively designed. And developing a timeline that provided adequate time for revision ensured that the final graphics would be polished and refined, rather than compromised by last-minute production constraints.

Key #4: Collaboration

One of the themes that occurred throughout the interview was Robert and Joe’s continuing emphasis on collaboration.

  • Coauthor collaboration: Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose did not write in a vacuum. They talked, they traveled, and they taught together, and these experiences helped drive their initial white paper planning sessions, which also involved sitting at a table together and working on a white board. After writing their individual drafts of the white paper, they shared their versions, and developed a composite that incorporated the best elements of each version.
  • Design, editorial, and production collaboration: Joe and Robert did not “turn their white paper over to others;” rather, they continued to work together and with their creative team throughout the entire life cycle of the project. At one point Joe commented, “Where you’re looking at the process of creating a white paper and looking at design… the earlier you can get your creative people involved, the better, instead of just being done and throwing it out there. The process needs to work concurrently and not just, ‘oh, we’re done with the copy and now we can get it to creative.'”
  • White paper and website integration: Again, this white paper was not created in a vacuum: All of Joe and Robert’s content creation, design, and development plans took CMI’s overarching content marketing strategy into consideration.

Later in the interview, I mentioned how much I liked the way that each of the seven steps in the Framework had its own structure (i.e., the introduction; the list; the closure, etc.). Again, this decision was the result of collaboration: The elements of text architecture used for the final white paper didn’t actually originate with the coauthors.

Robert explains: That comes back to Joe Kalinowski, Content Marketing Institute’s Creative Director; Michele Linn, the Director of Content; and all the people who took the time to lay that thing out. That’s not Joe and me. Those are the people who are experts at doing that… understanding how to lay something out just beautifully.”

And Joe elaborated: “Anna Ritchie [a frequent CMI contributor] was involved too. If you look at the process, a lot of people say, ‘Oh you get a writer, a designer, and off it goes.’ It took Robert, myself, Anna, Michele… we have a proofreader, a creative designer, the web person… There’s a whole team [involved] to get this done.”

Questions to ask yourself 

The origin story of this white paper holds valuable lessons about creating white papers, overall; but it’s likely that it has also sparked some questions in your mind about your own firm’s white paper processes, such as:

  • Editorial calendars: Does your firm have an editorial calendar that leaves enough time for creating white papers without interfering with other projects and responsibilities?
  • Writing processes: Do you stress the importance of planning before you write? Regardless of who writes your white papers, do you encourage them to start with a mind map or outline based on your market’s personas, the message you want to communicate, and the way you’re going to use the white paper? In particular, do you encourage your firm’s top voices to partner on projects, with each one creating his or her own drafts, then rewriting and building upon each other’s ideas, until a richer viewpoint emerges — one that goes beyond what either alone could accomplish?
  • Collaboration: Most important, does your business or association — regardless of size — have a dependable team of writers and designers to create your white papers, plus established communication procedures to engage everyone involved in your content marketing success?

Please share your comments, questions, and your firm’s best practices for white paper creation below.

Looking for more ways to maximize the impact of your e-book and white paper content? Get practical insights, advice, and answers in our 2018 Guide to Essential Content Marketing Tactics.