When White Papers Get Poisoned (and 3 Antidotes)

This post was written by John White on Tue, 09 Mar 2010 20:31:50 +0000
Posted Under: graphics,ideal reader,process of writing,tell your story,white papers

Poisonous white papers“White paper” covers a multitude of formats, and it’s rare to find two people who take it to mean the same thing. Poisoned white papers harm the publisher more than the reader, but there are antidotes.

I’ve looked at a half-dozen documents called “white papers” in the last few days and marveled at the variety among them. It’s a maligned term, really, and I think it has come to represent a type of marketing communications content that:

  1. is long;
  2. is different from a brochure, a case study or an advertisement.

That covers a lot of ground. I’ll leave it to folks like Jonathan Kantor to describe what a white paper is and isn’t, but whatever you or your marketing communications writers have produced, you should make sure that you don’t poison it – let alone your readers or your reputation – with it.

4 Ways to Poison Your White Paper…

  1. Wall of text – This can more resemble a rant than a white paper. If you go on for more than a page or two with nothing but text, you’re probably poisoning your readers, no matter how engaging your content.
  2. Aimlessness – This is more like a blog post (and a poor, long one at that) than a white paper. It is usually a sign that the author is enthusiastic about the product but does not know how to tell a story about it.
  3. Leading the reader by the nose to your product – This is more like a brochure than a white paper, because the goal of a white paper is for readers to sense that they are drawing their own conclusions – at least, some of them. If you’re not leaving them with that feeling, then it’s a brochure.
  4. Hiding it under a bushel – This is more like a diary entry. White papers are the main course at The Content Buffet, and they should be prominently posted, tweeted, Facebooked, excerpted and blogged about. If you’re not thinking “Write once, use many,” you’re missing most of the social media wave.

…and 3 Antidotes

  1. Break up the text in your paper with diagrams, charts, callout boxes, photographs, quotations and anything else graphical that gives the reader’s eye a much deserved rest. It’s easy to go overboard on this, but if you can give your readers a vacation once per page, it will be easier for them to get through the entire paper, and they’ll remember you more fondly for it.
  2. Maintain a balance among sections. For example:
    • 5% summary
    • 25% introduction and presentation of problem
    • 30% current approaches and why something new is needed
    • 30% details and advantages of new solution (ours)
    • 10% conclusion and follow-us.

    This is the antidote for aimlessness because it gives readers a mental pace to keep.

  3. Focus on your ideal readers. If you really know them well enough to aim a white paper at them, you should be able to include miniature case studies that tie applications of your product back to real-world people and companies. This is a very powerful antidote because it introduces relevance.

So, whether you’ve produced a pure-land, bona fide white paper, or just something that is long and is not a brochure, take care to remove the poison from it before handing it on to your customers and prospects.

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/-cavin-/ / CC BY 2.0

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