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Your White Paper Tanked: 3 Common Mistakes To Avoid

In my work with industry-leading publications and the Fortune 500 brands that sponsor their content, I spend a lot of time with best-in-class marketers, hunting down good ideas like a pack of wild truffle pigs who’ve caught the scent.

Unfortunately, though, we don’t always dig up the most valuable idea.

I see the cause: Marketers pulled in too many directions, distracted by what’s performing well on the publication’s site, intrigued by creative ideas, and a bit leashed by their leadership team as to what’s going to look good regardless of how it performs.

Without proper boundaries, the ideas that go into development can end up being the same trite but not true fungi buried in the bottom of their blog archive.

But today, the pressure is on. The majority of B2B companies do strategic content marketing. And sponsored content can be expensive, sometimes consuming a brand’s paid advertisement budget on one or two white papers — so it had better be good.

Over the years, I’ve identified three common strategy mistakes marketers make when brainstorming ideas for high-performing white papers. You’ll save a lot of time and end up with a killer white paper concept that meets or beats your lead-gen goal.

Mistake 1: Focus on the past, not the future

The first mistake marketers must avoid is talking too much about how we got here and not enough about the exciting potential of the future. It’s like telling a bass fisherman what a fish is.

Marketers often go into great detail about the past in white papers. It’s like telling a bass fisherman what a fish is, says @AwYeahSarah via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

I’m sympathetic to the passion marketers have for explaining the context of their product, but it isn’t helpful here. They overlook one simple fact – the reader already is living it every day, and rarely need it to be summed up as a backgrounder white paper or in the first one to two pages of most white papers. Including too much backstory — or focusing on it — is a surefire way to deliver the least-downloaded white paper you’ve ever done.

A truly innovative company fell victim to this practice in a recent example that came across my desk. This brand uses data science to help retailers predict the perfect product orders across store locations. The subject matter expert dove into all the details about how hard it is for retailers today. And yeah, it’s hard for retailers today. But retailers already know it’s hard. They know the pressure they’re under from all sides: low margins, high expectations, changing (and expensive) technology. That’s not a topic for a white paper or even something covered too densely in the introduction.

The better white paper topic is how data science has advanced enough to bring these really unique applications to their industry at a much lower cost than they can imagine, that the tried-and-true way they monitor sales and predict orders is woefully out of date and an easy problem to fix. That’s what the average retailer doesn’t see in mainstream or industry headlines, and they certainly don’t get any news like that packed with the kind of examples they’ll want to download, read, and follow up on.

Mistake 2: Holding back on your product’s genius

Marketers can sometimes feel pressure to keep the company’s secrets close to their chest. And by secrets, I’m referring to how their product or service works and why it’s better than their competitors. But there’s an Annie Dillard quote I love that applies to writing but also to product marketing:

One of the things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

And this should absolutely be your motto when developing clickable, downloadable, life-changeable white papers: Don’t hold back on your company’s genius, and don’t shy away from sharing your secrets.

Don’t shy away from sharing your company’s secrets in your white papers, says @AwYeahSarah via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

When you’re creating long-form content, it can be and must be revealing. Root out your secrets and put them on display. Show potential customers how you do it and what they’ll get, give them examples of how you really change things up for a customer. Treat nothing as precious. Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.

Perhaps you might not want to publish technical things so as to maintain your edge. But for the most part, I’m not sure there’s any such thing as proprietary information anymore. The risk of a competitor reading a white paper and stealing your secrets is nothing compared to the potential benefit of a target customer being so blown away about how clear and specific you are that they call you up right away.

The most recent example that comes to mind is a B2B learning management system company in the higher education space. This company didn’t shy away from producing account strategists, happy customers, and delighted students who spilled every detail. And the resulting white paper was an overflowing cornucopia of details about how this company supported universities, colleges, and community colleges in driving higher enrollment and greater student success. They used their white paper to throw down the gauntlet to every other learning management system in the space, saying, “Look at what we’re doing, the support we’re offering, and the results we deliver, and we dare you to top it.”

Mistake 3: Choosing a topic not aligned with your whole company

When you brainstorm a white paper topic, only reach into your own cupboard. By that, I mean eligible ideas are the ones that are in alignment with the whole brand, not just because they’re popular or might score some downloads.

In fact, one of the most dangerous disconnects in marketing is when the marketing or content development team is working out of sync with leadership or the rest of the company. Because the ideas that can come out of those brainstorming sessions — based solely on marketing’s idea of what will capture attention — can introduce or highlight fundamental misalignments that can damage the company. That’s the very opposite of what white papers for thought leadership should aim to do.

One of the most dangerous disconnects is when the #content development team works out of sync with leadership, says @AwYeahSarah via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

I lived through this example. One company wanted to create a practical, immersive guide for agile project management. (It really was a different topic, but I used this one to protect the guilty.) But the deeper I got into it with interviews, I found out the company didn’t use agile project management.

You heard that right. The company helps other people do it didn’t use it themselves. The subject matter expert I interviewed wouldn’t even use the word in the proposed title of the white paper.

From a marketing standpoint and a connection point with potential customers, that’s one of the most inconsistent revelations I could possibly hope to come upon. Why would anyone want to read a white paper on a solution that the company doesn’t use? And what good could possibly come out of the publication of the paper? If I am reading your white paper on agile, and I decide to work with you on agile, you better tell me about your own agile processes, or I am hanging up.

As a bonus, focusing on your product’s true genius can also help you avoid epic topics that seem popular but that really don’t suit your brand.

I’ll take some creative license on this example, but I was brainstorming topics with an office snack provider brand and what kept coming up was that diversity, equity, and inclusion are hot topics today.

Now, let’s be honest with each other. When you think of stunning thought leadership and world-changing views on diversity, equity, and inclusion, do you think office snacks? I hope not. It would be hard for that brand to deliver on that topic, and the results would probably be lackluster — just another white paper for the content vault. But what if that office snack brand wrote about their own industry — about the new landscape of wellness benefits for knowledge workers at technology companies? Jackpot.

So, stop and consider your company’s unique contribution to the world, the issues that fill the currents operating above and below your organization. What do you alone know and see about your customer? What are they asking about and thinking about when they’re considering your company? That’s going to be a thousand times more compelling than another 99 Ideas to Build Remote Culture piece that has no hope of delivering qualified leads.

Do better

In the early days of content marketing, a good idea was just one you could execute. The first team to put together a long-form piece on a decent idea, design it, and publish it, won. But today, the data is in and the jig is up. We now know that content marketing works, which means everyone is doing it. And as the competition heats up, bad ideas will sink to the bottom of the sea of mediocrity. If you want your investments in white papers and long-form content to pay off, you need to bring your most hopeful, original, and relevant ideas to the table, and it starts with avoiding these three common mistakes.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute