Hands up everyone who’s written or commissioned a B2B white paper? Great. Now, keep your hand in the air if you were happy with the way it turned out.
Really, 100% happy? And it was downloaded a heap of times, by people who went on to buy your stuff?
OK – well… you can skip this session, head outside, and enjoy the sunshine or moonlight.
Everyone else, eyes forward. I’m not going to waste your time recounting the political origins of the white paper format, or exploring all the studies which testify to its effectiveness as a mid-funnel content asset. You can Google just as well as I can.
Instead, let me lay out what I’ve learnt over a decade of writing white papers for B2B tech brands.
1. You’re a mapmaker (with a not-so-secret agenda)
You know how the B2B buying process is often characterised as a multi-stage journey? Well, your white paper is going to be the map you hand to your prospects shortly after they’ve hit the road.
It’ll describe all the possible destinations, notable shortcuts, and likely hazards ahead, with scrupulous accuracy. But it’ll still – through careful inclusions and omissions – make the correct route unmistakably clear.
Or, if you prefer well-worn jargon to well-worn metaphors: your white paper will educate warm-ish leads, framing the business challenge or opportunity in the context of the solution you’re looking to promote.
However poetic you want to get about it, your white paper’s primary role is to inform and guide.
Remember this, and let it shape:
- Your white paper’s content – which should be original, useful, and at least ostensibly objective, drawing on your company’s true fields of expertise
- Your white paper’s structure – which may nod to academic literature with summaries, named authors, author bios, diagrams and citations
- Your white papers’ voice and tone – which, whatever your broader brand voice, should be clear, concise and confident, like a born teacher. (Not the jaded, abrasive university lecturer I’m apparently channelling today…)
Do all of the above, and your white paper will be a true map: a practical tool that offers its readers genuine value. And along the way, they’ll get to see the landscape from your point of view.
2. Don’t ask your SME to write your white paper
The person who writes your white paper should understand:
- Your marketing objectives
- Where the white paper fits into your marketing activities
- The technology/trends the paper’s speaking to
- Your target audience, and their pain points and ambitions
- How your solutions alleviate those pains and support those ambitions
- How to use language that resonates with your target audience
- How to use language – period
- How to structure a long-form content piece
If you have an in-house subject matter expert who can do all of the above – and there are a handful of genuine B2B tech polymaths out there – then congratulations. But good luck finding them the time to craft you 2,500 words.
They’re almost certainly already contributing to a hundred internal projects, in between excelling at their day job and being dialled in to shore-up crucial sales calls.
At Radix, we have been known to “edit” – i.e. review, rewrite and even restructure – white paper copy drafted by our clients’ regular, non-superhuman SMEs. (The ones who’ve mastered the tech but not all the other pieces of the content writing puzzle.)
While we’ve helped create some stellar white papers this way (like the third example here), they often could have been even more stellar if we’d written the copy from scratch. What’s more, they might have been faster and cheaper to produce. An “edit” might seem like a quick job, but if it goes through multiple rounds of amends it can easily take as long as a project that starts with an intelligent conversation and a blank page, and hits the mark first time.
3. If possible, get a professional
So, who should write your white paper?
Let’s say you’ve no writing resource within your marketing team – or you’re the resource, and writing has never been your strongest suit. You can always find a gun for hire. But who?
White papers are one of the more challenging content formats. So you’ll ideally want a content writer with a solid understanding of B2B sales and the B2B marketing machine, as well as a few years of experience writing for your sector.
They should be a decent interviewer – so they can get what they need out of your SME, even if you can only secure half an hour of your expert’s time. They should also have a portfolio of similar pieces that demonstrate their ability to write with clarity and authority.
My advice? Use your professional networks to find a freelancer you can trust. Or, if you’re likely to need an ongoing programme with supporting content, opt for a dedicated white paper writing service like ours.
4. Be as technical as your audience
It’s easy to think of the white paper as the drier, more technical alter ego of the ebook. Drier, maybe. But more technical? Not necessarily.
I’ve written a lot of white papers that educate C-level decision-makers about business challenges and industry trends. I’ve written very few that educate engineers or developers on the inputs and outputs of specific technologies.
Now, I’m sure there are some white paper projects that simply never cross Radix’s threshold; projects that are so technically niche, even our experienced team would struggle to deliver them. But I think there’s another reason highly technical white papers don’t pour onto our doormat.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen many of our clients arrive at the same conclusion: white papers aren’t the best way to reach technical roles. Better to organize a chance for them to get hands-on with those APIs, or to talk, peer-to-peer, with your own engineers.
All of which is to say: don’t fall into the trap of thinking a white paper has to be more technical than other content pieces. Instead, decide who you’re targeting with your white paper. Check that a white paper is the best way to reach them.
And then, the rule is simple – be as technical as they are.
5. Keep a tight grip on the project
It’s common for white paper projects to involve multiple sales, marketing and product stakeholders. Getting a good paper produced on time and on budget means nailing down costs, and booking input calls. Then it means managing everyone’s expectations, and shepherding busy, opinionated humans through any necessary feedback cycles.
The first part of this process shouldn’t be too tough – especially if you’re using a service like ours, that’s always there when you reach out during office hours, ready to quote upfront, and to arrange SME calls on your behalf.
But the second part can be much harder work. It’s all too easy for great copy to be fed into the feedback machine, mangled, expanded, and spat back out with all of its glorious lustre stripped away.
There are a few things you can do to shepherd your content safely through the feedback cycle:
- Know exactly what you want the white paper to achieve, and communicate this to all stakeholders, at every opportunity. “Mission creep” is one of the leading killers of white papers that show up DOA.
- Provide (or use writers who provide) a rationale for contentious decisions. When you delete the features table your product manager has pasted into the middle of page two, add a comment explaining that, at this stage, your readers are still understanding why they need your tech – instead, let’s link to the data sheet at the very end of the paper?
- Remain open to legitimate complaints. Feedback cycles are there for a reason. However rudely someone sticks their finger through a hole in your work, don’t take it personally – acknowledge their wisdom, and make the change. Welcome your stakeholders’ good ideas, and it’ll be much easier to countermand their bad ones.
We have reached our destination
Have you ever noticed how much a long blog post can have in common with a short white paper? Well… I hope you find this little map helpful. Class dismissed.