White Paper Projects That Don’t Go Well – Part I

White paper project broken, but still works

Have you ever run white paper projects that didn’t go well? Most marketing managers and writers do, eventually.

But sometimes, even if the process is broken, you can still end up with a decent white paper. This time, I’ll post about that kind of project.

White paper projects that don’t go well — but result in a good white paper

These are like the basketball games in which you make mistakes, bad passes and poor shots, but you win anyway. It’s an unexpected victory, but you’ll take it.

There are warning signs, and you can watch for them.

Infinite review loop

It can take a lot of time and nagging to get comments back from your reviewers. Then you have to send the changes back to the writer, who incorporates them. Then maybe it goes to Legal for review, and some of the execs want to take another look. All of that can burn out a lot of people on a project like this.

Some conscientious managers worry about taxing the writer’s patience, but I worry more about taxing the people on my side of the fence. The more people you pull into the review loop, the clunkier and less focused the paper can become. That’s how you start to tax the patience of the interviewees, subject matter experts and creative services team, as the paper keeps popping up in their in-boxes.

Scope creep

In a similar situation, newly suggested topics crop up and obscure the original scope. Think about that when somebody says your company needs a thought-leadership paper. I had one of those projects that went on for six months because execs kept coming up with thoughts they wanted to be seen as leading.

The result was a splendid paper, but it’s way too long. The download numbers have been good (mostly because of a good title and even better search engine marketing), but I doubt that anybody is really reading it.


Nobody wants to touch this one with a 10-foot pole, but everybody knows it’s there. Sometimes there’s too much of it. Say an exec commissions a paper, has Marketing hire a writer, makes life difficult for the writer and the manager, then guts the paper and rebuilds it because the message is wrong. Other times it’s the writer’s ego that gets in the way.

You may get a good paper out of this, but the process is painful for everybody.


If you’re going to have multiple managers involved on a white paper project, one of them needs to lead it. On one project, I had two product managers so concerned about peaceful collaboration that the writer never got clear direction. Neither PM wanted to offend the other by taking a stand. The writer was a good sport about it – and was getting paid to keep up with our hesitation – but we all learned the lesson about too many cooks in the kitchen.

Still, at least you get something out of these projects. I’ll post shortly on the other category: white paper projects that don’t go well and result in a bad white paper (or none at all).

photo credit: Iain Farrell


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.”