“Give me the content I want, not the content I ask for.”

If you learn nothing else here about hiring a writer, keep this in mind:

Projects live and die on how well you communicate to the writer what you want, and on how well the writer demonstrates that he understands you.

But what happens when you don’t know what you want, or when you ask for something that is different from what you want? Don’t count on the writer to make a lucky guess about what you want. If you confuse him enough, a smart writer will simply decline your project and leave you to go confuse somebody else with it.

That happens a lot with white papers.

Marketing managers think they need a white paper because it’s a magic carpet to more leads or industry recognition. You can do a lot with a white paper, but it’s not a panacea.

In March, I met a marketing colleague in a telecom company. He was using a form-fill page to offer a white paper he had written. He also wanted to find a writer to create follow-on white papers and develop much more content for his site. In May, we exchanged e-mail on how the project was going.

I’m questioning the white paper project now. Take a look at my form-fill page: [He sent me a link to it.]

I’m only getting about 1 request per day for my current white paper. Am I doing something fatally wrong? If I’m going to invest the money in more white papers, I want to make sure they pay off quickly.


Yes, I had a few thoughts:

  1. The form included too many questions, which turned people off. You can’t start a conversation that way.
  2. The white paper wasn’t interesting, and it didn’t tell people how to save money. Why else would anybody want to  on their long-distance calling.
  3. “1 request per day” tells me that the white paper was a standalone effort, and that he wasn’t publishing content or other attention-getters driving people to the paper.
  4. “White papers” and “pay off quickly” are two concepts that don’t really belong in the same sentence. Race track bets and slot machine expenditures may pay off quickly; white papers do not.

This manager knew what he wanted: lead-generating content.

But he was asking for the wrong thing – white papers. I suggested that he think more broadly about content that would serve his purpose, like case studies, blog posts, how-to articles and email newsletters.

If he hired a writer to do a white paper, he would end up with what he’d asked for, but not what he wanted, and he would become even more frustrated for having spent the money on a white (paper) elephant.

Writer Gordon Graham weighed in on this as well:

Caution: Many people say “white paper” when they really mean a customer story, a brochure, or even a press release. Perhaps your client REALLY means a white paper, perhaps not. Don’t be afraid to propose what a prospect really NEEDS, not what they say they want.

It’s important to listen carefully to what prospects are trying to accomplish, and then give them your best advice about how to achieve that, regardless of their preconceived ideas.

Do you trust your writer enough to talk about your broader content plans with her? If you try it, and you don’t get useful feedback, find somebody with whom you can talk it over, until “the content I want” equals “the content I ask for.”


Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”

1 thought on ““Give me the content I want, not the content I ask for.”

  1. Good post. I’ve gotten burned by this issue before. I allowed the client to brief me over the phone for a rush project. I took notes furiously at their ‘stream-of-consciousness’ briefing, received all the extra info on email that was supposed to help “fill in the gaps,” but when I delivered the final product, it wasn’t what they wanted. I accepted responsibility for this one, and learned two things from the experience:

    1. I should have forced the client to put their needs down on paper or on email, so at least it would have been in writing – and then far more difficult for them to say “this isn’t what I wanted.”

    2. Don’t accept any more rush jobs (ie. jobs that need to be completed in 6 hours or less)

    As long as you learn from the mistakes, it’s not a complete failure.

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