B2B White Paper Interviews – 7 Questions (Part 2)

Subject matter experts (SMEs) have the story in their heads. White papers help make that story readable, and these questions help build the paper.
Sec. Salazar - B2B white paper questions

Continuing from the previous post on interviews and how to write them up into a white paper, here are 4 more customer interview questions for generating the information readers want to see.

4. What are some current approaches to solving this business problem? Why are they inadequate?

Your readers are already making do, but they’re not very happy with what they have in place because:

  • it’s a chewing-gum-and-baling-wire hack
  • it’s too slow/expensive/low-performing
  • time is not on their side

That’s why they want to read your paper. This is also the opportunity to shake them out of their inertia by pointing out threats you’ve identified that haven’t yet occurred to them; e.g., “If another, less understood scenario of universal health care plays out, providers will also be on the hook for…”

5. Why/how can the approach you’ve chosen overcome these inadequacies?

This information forms the turning point for the paper, as discussion changes from listing problems to solving them. The SME’s time on this question is best spent relating how s/he has seen the approach work in the real world, in a variety of situations. Don’t soak up valuable interview time with a detailed discussion of the approach that already exists in other documentation, slide decks, technical content, etc.

Arm your readers with information and let them draw their own conclusions.

A true white paper will describe the approach rather than your product or service itself, then let readers figure things out on their own. If the paper needs to include a discussion of your product, label it a “technology overview,” “buyer’s guide” or similar. link to rant on mislabeling white papers>.

6. Which particular advantages do they get with your company’s implementation of the approach?

Again, in a true white paper, the goal is not to flog a product, but to build trust and educate. Describing a potential advantage to readers is more proof that you’re in their shoes, thinking of things that have not yet occurred to them.

For example, if the technology you’ve chosen for compressing digital movies also includes the advantage of encrypting them for protection against privacy, mention this in a clinical manner as a potential benefit, without naming it as a feature of your product.

7. Describe a few steps in adopting and integrating this approach in environments familiar to readers.

The white paper is not an implementation guide or a user manual, but this information anticipates the technology questions that will arise at the next level of scrutiny. The people responsible for installing, maintaining and living with the product or service have an itch that the white paper needs to at least begin to scratch, so don’t ignore that itch.

With the answer to this question, you can demonstrate your technical chops to all readers, even those with a business focus. Tell them about replacing the carburetor with fuel injection, but don’t go into which hoses to switch or bolts to loosen.


Once you see how to write customer interview questions that focus on real customer problems, you’ll begin to draw out the kind of information that builds trust with readers.

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. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: DeepCwind

B2B White Paper Interviews – 7 Questions (Part 1)

Subject matter experts (SMEs) have the story in their heads. White papers make that story readable, and customer interview questions help build the paper.

B2B white paper questions
“We want you to interview our SME, then write up the result into a paper we can use in our content marketing effort,” you say to the marketing communications writer.

Sounds easy enough. But most SMEs don’t think like a writer. They think like a businessman or exec or technologist or financier. And if they simply improvise their way through the interview, the content will suffer for it.

Not all writers understand interviews or how to write them up into a white paper. And not all SMEs give good interview. Send your writer in with concrete customer interview questions designed to tease out the information you need.

7 interview questions

Here (and in the next post) are questions whose answers make a balanced white paper easier to write.

1. Who are your ideal readers for this paper?

The better you understand this, but more readily you can make the jillions of small decisions that will go into the paper: word choice, technical depth, amount of background information to include, hypothetical scenarios and examples to cite. It’s easy to answer this question incorrectly – or to think you know the answer, yet be wrong – and end up with a white paper that misses the mark.

2. What do you want them to do once they’ve read it?

The short answer is, “Move along in the sales funnel,” which can mean a lot of things:

  • click on a link
  • pick up the phone and call you for more information
  • think that you’re cool
  • pull out their credit card
  • discuss it with their boss
  • Tweet/Like/share it

Make your expectation clear in the opening summary; e.g., “This paper will equip readers with a business case for integrating baseball card database management in their own companies.”

3. What keeps these readers awake at night? What are some of the biggest problems they face (that your product/service can solve)?

Readers will devote about 2/73rds of their attention to your product and the other 71/73rds of it to their business problems. If they’re thinking about your product at all, they’re trying to figure out how it would fit in with whatever is causing those problems and envisioning life afterwards. Given that, shouldn’t you write from their perspective?

Information about customer problems is what you and your marketing communications writer need from the SME to demonstrate to readers that you understand their predicament and, in fact, have been dealing with it in lots of variations. When readers see that you you’re thinking more about their problems than you are about your own products, they begin to trust you.

In Part 2, we’ll see customer interview questions that touch on your products, but only obliquely. Remember, nobody really cares about your products. They care about their problems and whether they can trust you to help solve them.

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. Sign up for his Content Buffet Newsletter and get the free eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

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Six Reasons You Can’t Get Your Content Marketing to Work

Excuses, reasons, challenges, obstacles…call them what you will, they’re mosquitoes at your Content Buffet that hamper marketing efforts.

Man pushing car

Marketing managers: If you’re trying to understand content marketing, you need to follow these three sources:

  • Marketing Charts – thought-provoking data and useful factoids served up daily
  • Content Marketing Institute – most of what you need to know about the mechanics of using valuable content in your marketing
  • MarketingProfs – webinars, forums, lessons and list-posts for anybody with the word “marketing” in his/her title

These three FREE resources sometimes converge to give you gems like this:

In other words:

Six reasons you can’t get your content marketing to work

Which of these do you need to fix in your organization?

1. Producing engaging content – 42%

You put content out, but its boring. Nobody comments on it, nobody is quoting or re-using it, it’s not helping you in the search engines, and it’s not moving the sales-needle. Whether it’s blog posts, case studies, white papers, podcasts or video, it’s just not adding up to an engaging story. It probably isn’t valuable (meaning “valuable to your prospects,” not “valuable to you”).

Try this: Have your marketing communication writers write for a real human being, not for a demographic or market segment. And since nobody cares about your products, have them write about your customers’ problems instead.

2. Producing enough content – 20%

How much content is enough? If you’re serious about getting onto the first search engine results page (SERP), you need to put out valuable content with masterful use of relevant keywords about five times per week. Hey, what marketing manager can’t do that, especially with legal reviews of the content?

Try this: Cross-examine yourself. If you land on page one, will you necessarily attract qualified prospects and the kinds of customers you want to have? Or will you attract tire-kickers, time-wasters and people who wannabe you? If you can’t generate enough content to get above the noise in your keyword-space, then generate enough to look credible to prospects who find you through other means. That’s a different “enough,” but it’s an important “enough.”

3. Budget to produce content – 18%

This goes hand in hand with #2. You ask the VP of marketing or engineering for budget to write a white paper, or to hire a marketing writer for a series of case studies or blog posts, and she tells you “no dice.” It happens a lot in a soft economy.

Try this: Find content other people are already producing about you and ride those waves. Here’s the Yelp listing (B2C) for a nearby restaurant with hundreds of reviews; that represents acres of valuable (because user-generated) content that nobody needed budget to create. Here’s the Facebook page (B2B) of Johnson Controls, with a mixture of free content they want and free content they don’t want. They may not have a white paper budget, but they can use this as a starting point for producing content.

4. Lack of executive buy-in – 12%

Yes, some execs still haven’t gotten the memo, or don’t yet consider it dangerous that their competitors are consistently generating valuable content. Content marketing can be a tough sell, especially if you have to justify return on investment (ROI).

Try this: You may not be able to get attention around producing new content, but nobody in his right mind would ignore things – both good and bad – that other people are saying about your products and services. If you can’t sweet-talk your execs with terms like “content marketing,” then shake them up a bit with “reputation management.”

5. Producing a variety of content – 7%

Limited resources, unlimited possibilities: video, podcasts, white papers, case studies, eBooks, newsletter articles, blog posts and more. But especially on a small team, it’s hard to produce every kind of content you want and do it consistently and well. Or, maybe you’re accustomed to just one or two kinds and haven’t tried any others.

Try this: Do a six-month rotation, generating two types of content per shift. At the end of a couple of years, you’ll know which types are the best match for your organization.

6. Budget to license content – 1%

Instead of generating your own content, you decide to shore up your website with somebody else’s content. Or, maybe you want to license a report with independent (favorable) information about your products. That’s not so much “content marketing” as it is “someone-else’s-content marketing.” Fortunately, not many of you face this predicament.

Try this: Build your own brand with your own content instead. And get your customers to rave about you so that you don’t have to pay industry analysts to do it.

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. Sign up for his Content Buffet Newsletter and get the free eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: Toronto History

Before You Load It into the Email Cannon, Read It!

When your marketing copy ends up in unintended places, make sure it doesn’t embarrass you. If it’s not good enough to be caught anywhere, it shouldn’t be your copy.

Fire email cannonI subscribe to Fierce Wireless. Every day, they send me a free newsletter with wireless industry news. Big names – Cisco, Ericsson, AT&T, Nokia – sponsor the newsletter, so every week or so I get email with an ad.

I don’t mind an ad, but I do mind lousy copy in an ad.

And I really mind a datasheet that somebody mistakenly used as an ad.

The wrong copy for email

Twice in a week I received a sponsored email through Fierce Wireless from the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company (not its real name), an outfit that certainly knows a thing or two about marketing.

The email reads something like a product announcement, with lots of jargon-crammed bullets describing capabilities, features and benefits. It tells me all about active network abstraction and an XML-based Broadband Query Language (BQL) API.

I don’t care about this stuff.

I might care, if the copy talked about the problems that afflict people who need it. But the copy doesn’t even give me that chance.

The copy does mention (twice) that service providers and other network operators can now upgrade. But it doesn’t tell them why they should care.

The wrong email for the audience

Obviously, I’m not a network operator, so I shouldn’t have received this message. It was the wrong email for such a broad audience. It was wasted on me.

But it really didn’t have to be.

People are going to see your marketing communications – white papers, case studies, Web content, newsletters, blog – whether you intend those people as the audience or not.

At the very least, a poorly targeted impression should still help you as a marketing manager to build your brand. Your copy shouldn’t turn potential acquaintances off in a hailstorm of features and benefits.

Don’t put out dull copy. You never know where it’s going to land. Or whom you’re going to turn off when it does land.

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. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: foxypar4

A Japanese Take on Content Marketing

Marketing communication managers grow long-lived bodies of content like white papers, case studies and blog posts. What if time didn’t matter in content marketing?

Consider a Japanese approach to content marketing in which the content disappears after about a day. What can you learn from that?

American content marketer extraordinaire David Meerman Scott wrote a book called Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, which is now available in Japanese and enjoying brisk sales.

Scott has partnered with Shigesato Itoi on the localization and publication of the book, and saluted the real-time nature of the content on Itoi’s site, Hobonichi. In an interview with Itoi, Scott comments:

A particularly interesting aspect is that daily content is available for only 24 hours, and then disappears. There is no archive of the daily information. This unusual content strategy is exactly the opposite of what SEO experts would tell you to do and therefore, because it is unique, is a very Grateful Dead approach.

Whether you’re Japanese or not, transitory content feels more like a conversation with your readers. As Itoi says,

Maybe it’s because it allows me to discuss the same theme over and over again. It’s natural: don’t we do that every day? Perhaps I wanted to replicate this behavior.

It’s not important to show people what you and your organization were thinking six months ago, or even last week. The important thing is to take what you’re thinking TODAY and turn it into engaging content. That would be easy, except that today becomes yesterday (then last Tuesday, then last month, then last quarter…) awfully fast.

This Japanese take on content marketing spans both this Content Buffet blog and my Localization Project Management blog, which focuses on international product marketing. Isn’t it surprising how people in other parts of the world think about and relate to content? What if it’s only in the West that time matters to content marketing?

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. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

Feelings and White Papers – A Deadly Combination

Marketing communication managers shouldn’t worry about hurting their writers’ feelings. This is business.

White papers and feelings - a bad combinationStop and think: Have you ever said to a marketing communications writer,

“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

If so, it’s very nice of you, but it shouldn’t be necessary. Marcomm writers don’t have feelings. That’s why they’re writers.

A writer with a fragile ego?

Maybe you haven’t put it quite that way. Maybe you’ve said, “The team and I went over the white paper you wrote, and we made a few small changes here and there – nothing big, really, just some minor tweaks,” or “Have a look at our comments. They’re pretty straightforward,” which means you made a zillion changes. Or maybe you didn’t say anything and just made all the changes yourself because you didn’t want to cause a fuss.

If you’re trying to trivialize the changes so that you don’t trigger additional charges for a rewrite of the white paper, that’s one thing. That’s business.

But if you’re trying to avoid bruising your writer’s fragile ego, you should probably adopt a different mindset. Or a different writer.

This isn’t personal; it’s about a work product that is either adequate or inadequate. You don’t need to be rude, but you should be ruthless with your writer, because you’re the one on the hook for copy that falls short.

As I’ve mentioned before,

Writers don’t write. They suggest.

Part of your job as a marketing manager is to reconcile their suggestions to realities your writers do not see: technology changes, market dynamics, layout, tone, fit, office politics and so on.

Don’t worry about hurting their feelings simply because the white paper needs more work.

Good writers can deal with it. Good writers are made of fire.

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. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: ncanup

When is a White Paper Not a White Paper? When It’s a Playbook

Marketing communication managers don’t need to call everything a white paper. In fact, they often do better to give that designation a rest.

From MarketingProfs comes this post about the YouTube Creator Playbook for planning, posting and maintaining video on the site.

Have a look at it to see what they mean by “playbook.” It’s a very clever hybrid of:

  • user guide
  • how-to
  • samples gallery
  • collection of blog posts

from a company that knows something about content marketing. For that matter, it looks as though they may have created it in their parent company’s own humble Google Docs Presentation app.

Most of us in marketing would probably have called it a white paper. Why?

  • It reveals a lot of technical detail.
  • It explains how users can get the most out of the product.
  • It describes the product in sufficient detail even for people who aren’t yet using it.
  • You put it down and think, “These guys are giving away a lot of useful information for free.”

Most important, it persuades without trying to persuade.

For homework tonight, forward this playbook to several of your co-workers in sales, executive management and PR. My hunch is that, within a few days, at least one of them will walk into your office and announce, “This was really good. We need a white paper just like this.”

Fine. Get a good marketing communications writer to create it for you. Use it in your next content marketing campaign.

Just don’t call it a white paper. You can be more creative than that.

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. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

Case Studies and Your Prospect’s Head – 3 Takes

Marketing managers use case studies to explain how their products are used. What kind of ideas do your case studies plant in your prospect’s mind?

21st CenturyHow does your organization use case studies? Do you realize how potent a tool they can be in your Content Buffet?

[Quick factoid in case you want to be convinced: Eccolo Media’s 2011 B2B Technology Collateral Survey finds that 68 percent of respondents rated case studies as “very” to “extremely influential” in 2011, as compared to 39 percent of respondents in the 2010 survey (page 8).]

Why do case studies work?

They work because people don’t want to feel alone in taking a chance on your product. Whether you’re selling mixing bowls, gas turbines or a college education, nobody wants to be the first to try your product.

So keep that in mind when your marketing communications writer is creating your case studies. Instead of describing how cool your product is, tell a story in which your prospects can see themselves so that they don’t feel they’re taking a big risk by sending you their check.

Of course, you can’t calm everybody’s nerves with one case study, so organizations with a content marketing strategy create a series of them and give them titles that make it easy for people to find one in which they can see themselves.

What’s in your prospect’s head?

Depending on how your marketing communications writer executes your content marketing strategy, your case studies will trigger one of these thoughts in the brain of your prospect:

  1. “These guys have some big customers.” Sometimes you want a case study that drops names. Who can resist that temptation? If you landed the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company and made them happy, trumpet that from the rooftops and put that idea into your prospect’s head. Most of the time, though, the namedropping is pretty transparent and it’s wrapped around a frankly rather dull Problem-Solution-Result structure. It’s not pretty, but if you have to get the piece approved by a phalanx of your client’s reviewers, you may need clinical, succinct copy.
  2. “This is the same problem I have, and these guys understand it.” If you want to plug the reader right into your socket, show that your customer actually had multiple problems – they always have, somewhere – and that you didn’t stop asking questions when you reached the first one. Explain how you fixed them, in as much detail as you can get away with.
  3. “If these guys can frim the jim-jams for them, maybe they can frap the krick for us.” For this, you need to drive imagination with a case study that tells a real story, especially a story about an unexpected use of your product. You have to show your readers what your customer accomplished with your product, then put them in the frame of mind to think one step removed. That accelerator was designed for a robot? What if we used it in a history-making tchotchke?

What kind of ideas do your case studies plant in your prospect’s mind? Does it align with your content marketing strategy?

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. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: gurdonark

“Why Should We Keep Putting Out White Papers?” Influence.

Veteran marketers may tend to become jaded about the value of white papers, but that’s unwise. For one thing, they’re still influential. For another, not everybody knows what they are.

Influence, baby.Eccolo Media has released its 2011 B2B Technology Collateral Survey Report, covering 501 executives of US companies with influence on technology decisions. I want to mention two findings in particular.

White paper consumption down, influence up

White paper consumption decreased 14 percentage points since 2010, from 76 percent to 62 percent.

However, white paper influence increased from 41 percent to 65 percent, as measured by the number of respondents who found white papers influential or very influential.

So, marketing managers may encounter internal resistance to white paper campaigns because “fewer people read them,” but those who do read them, rely on them more.

So, write better papers and assume that they’ll be of greater impact.

Not everybody knows about white papers

This one really threw me.

Twenty-eight percent reported that they began consulting white papers for the first time in the last six months.

Huh?

So there you are, a marketing manager assuming that most decision-makers will instinctively reach for a white paper, when in fact 28 percent of your audience had never used one until recently.

Have that many people been promoted from the shop floor to management in the last six months? Unlikely in a – can we talk? – double-dip recession.

So, no matter how big the intended audience of your white paper, assume that it could handily be about one third larger.

Have a look at the entire report (free download) from Eccolo Media. It’s a good arrow to have in your marketing manager’s quiver.

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. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: Jesse757

White Paper Blues – When Execs Want to Help

You can’t fault an exec for wanting to get involved in creating your marketing content. But you should handle it delicately.

When execs want to help with your white paper“So I have good news and bad news,” the director of marketing started off.

Just when I thought we were out of the tunnel on this campaign…

“The good news is that we’ve shown an early draft of the business-benefits piece to our CEO, and he quite likes it. In fact, he himself wrote a paper for a C-level peer at one of our customers a few months back that draws the business case around our product, and he’d like to provide it as material for our project.

“Obviously, that’s also the bad news.”

He laughed. I laughed. The agency laughed.

Drat.

Managing executive expectations for marketing content

As a kid, I spent a lot of time at Milne Brothers Bike Shop on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California. Mr. Jenkins had a sign on the wall in the service department out back that read:

Labor Rates

$5.00/hr.

$7.50/hr. if you watch

$12.00/hr. if you help

I’ve thought about that as a model for managing customer expectations and involvement, but I doubt most businesses would get very far with it.

The point is that people who do know what they’re doing, don’t generally welcome the involvement of people who merely may know what they’re doing.

So consider these levels of involvement for the executives of your client-companies:

  1. “Let me make sure we’re on the same page.” – When, as in this case, the CEO has devoted some time, thought and potentially high-value perspective to his own material, you cannot afford to have your marketing content run afoul of how your CEO sees things.
    1. It’s probably better if you can convince the exec to let you review his material, instead of having him review yours.
  2. “Let me just approve what you’ve written.” – This is smart. One of my favorite CEOs did this with all the content we generated beyond datasheets and product briefs. He never rewrote our copy, but he had his fingers on its pulse, and we knew that he had the ultimate say.
  3. “Let me help.” – This is a pain for everybody. Execs rarely have time to help on these projects, and they become bottlenecks, if well-intentioned bottlenecks. Writing a paper or a thought-piece with a VP or C-level exec is usually very difficult. You’re better off recording her at a conference and turning that into a paper.
  4. “Let me butt out.” – Optimal for most parties concerned, in the short run. Really, though, you should try to make your work visible to the execs, if only to justify your effort.

The sound marketing director

“I’m just kidding,” continued the marketing director. “I plan to manage the process so that we can keep our campaign moving ahead without delays. The CEO told me he’d like to see the early direction of the piece, and I’ve told him that I would like to review the material he put together.”

Whew. Option 1.1.

“He wants to be in the loop on this piece. I think he’ll have useful input, and he’ll be receptive to our description of business benefits. It’s a win for us, so long as we manage the changes smoothly.”

The sound marketing manager can make things like this work well. How do you handle it when execs want to help?

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. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: Kelvyn Skee