Building a Better Thought Leadership White Paper
Once an obscure discipline practiced by only a handful of upper-crust consulting firms, thought leadership marketing has spread to virtually all industries. And for good reason. As business executives increasingly want to be educated as part of the sales process, and B2B companies face ever-growing competition, demonstrating the power and uniqueness of a company’s expertise has proven to be a very effective response: It helps companies differentiate themselves, show how they can solve clients’ and customers’ business problems, engage with executive buyers, and ultimately grow their business.
One of the most prominent and time-honored elements of a traditional thought leadership marketing program is the white paper, and it remains a staple today. In fact, according to a survey by the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs, 65 percent of B2B companies use white papers in their marketing efforts (see chart). This statistic, as well as other similar research, shows that white papers (as well as other long-form content) are still an important tool for many organizations.
Source: B2B Content Marketing 2017 – Benchmarks, Budgets & Trends – North America, Content Marketing Institute
But not just any kind of white paper. For every white paper that’s insightful, educational, and informative—and that generates business for the company producing it—there are dozens or more that are just the opposite and, not surprisingly, fall flat in the marketplace. How can a company ensure its white paper is in the former category?
Over the past 20 years, Alterra Group’s professionals have helped myriad consulting and other B2B companies develop compelling thought leadership content. During that time, we’ve worked on hundreds of white papers and have witnessed firsthand what works and what doesn’t. We’ve distilled our experience into the three most important factors that determine whether a white paper is an asset or an anchor in a B2B company’s marketing program.
Pick the Right Topic
Building a better white paper begins with selecting the right topic. By “right,” we mean the topic meets three key criteria.
For starters, it must be relevant to the target audience. It has to address an important issue those executives are grappling with or a business problem they’re trying to solve, and clearly lay out how the company’s services or products can help. Most companies choose white paper topics based on informal input, such as what’s being talked about in the business and management media and what the company’s professionals hear in conversations with clients or customers. However, leading companies use more formal methods to keep their fingers on the pulse of clients and customers. These include conducting client/customer surveys or panels, applying analytics to their website traffic to pinpoint which pages visitors are most interested in, monitoring the “chatter” on relevant social channels to see what people are talking about, and determining which keywords are most popular in online searches. Such efforts often can uncover unique angles on issues that haven’t been widely discussed and, thus, enable a company to say something new and different in its white paper.
The right topic also has a manageable scope. In other words, it must be focused enough to be covered in sufficient depth in a white paper’s limited length. A white paper is not a book. It has to be short enough for busy executives to read in a reasonable amount of time while still providing valuable insights. When a company tries to take on a topic that is far too broad, it ends up with a white paper that simply skims the surface of the issue and doesn’t convey enough detail to be useful to readers or demonstrate the depth of the company’s thinking and expertise.
Last, but not least, the topic must match up with a company’s expertise and support an important offering or focus area of the business. This is perhaps obvious, but it bears mentioning. Companies can be tempted to produce a white paper on a popular topic to become “part of the conversation.” However, if it doesn’t have sufficient relevant expertise to say something meaningful, the resulting white paper will be superficial and fail to enhance the company’s image in the marketplace. A white paper also typically involves a significant investment of time and money to produce. The return on that investment will be disappointing if the paper doesn’t spur interest in and demand for something the company actually sells.[Read our related white paper on the seven key elements of superior thought leadership marketing content.]
Create the Development Team
Once the paper’s topic is confirmed, it’s time to identify and mobilize the people who will bring the paper to life. The three key players on the development team are the author (or authors), relevant subject matter experts (SMEs), and the writer.
The white paper’s principal author is typically a senior person at the company—such as the head of a consulting firm’s practice, a lead researcher in a company’s internal think tank, or the head of a particular product group or line of business. This person may not necessarily contribute substantively to the paper. But because the bulk of the author’s days are spent talking with senior executives at client or customer companies, he or she can provide valuable direction on what the paper should accomplish and how to position the content so that it resonates most strongly with target executives. Importantly, because the author can see the big picture, he or she also ensures the paper aligns with and supports the higher-level messages and image his or her area of responsibility, as well as the company at large, want to advance.
The second key members of the development team are the subject matter experts (one of whom may also be the author). These individuals generally have “boots on the ground,” day-to-day experience with the issue at hand. They see firsthand the client’s or customer’s pain points, how the company’s offering addresses them, and the benefits that are generated. In consulting firms, for example, SMEs typically include professionals whose job it is to be on site with the client delivering projects. Similarly, technology company SMEs often are those who work closely with customers to implement a new solution. The insights SMEs gain from their hands-on client or customer work, and the examples they can bring to the table, are the white paper’s bedrock—its “meat.” Without them, there is no paper.
Other SMEs also could contribute to the paper. Large companies, in particular, have a bounty of expertise scattered throughout the organization, and it would be foolish of them to not solicit input from others who could have something important to say. But in the effort to leverage the company’s best thinking, a company must avoid the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. We’ve seen countless examples of a white paper’s development being stalled or misdirected by efforts to be too inclusive. It’s important to have a few SMEs—no more than three is ideal—as the primary contributors who make the call on what input from outside the core group goes into the paper and what stays out.
Because a company’s senior executives and SMEs generally aren’t professional writers, it’s critical to have one who can support the white paper’s development. Equally critical is having the right kind of writer on the team.
Different types of content require certain types of writers, with the choice hinging largely on the degree to which the experts’ ideas must be developed and the sophistication of writing skills required. For important white papers, a developmental writer is most beneficial. By developmental, we mean a writer who is skilled at pushing and often helping to shape subject matter experts’ thinking. To some extent, developmental writers use the writing process to hone the ideas that are communicated, although the ideas must be sufficiently developed before they come to the table. Such writers can be former journalists (particularly those with experience in in-depth feature stories on complex topics), researchers with good writing skills, or even others in the company with good writing skills.
To be effective, developmental writers need to have more than a passing exposure to the subject matter they’re writing about. This doesn’t mean they are experts on the topic. But it does mean they are sufficiently knowledgeable to ask the right questions of the SMEs, recognize deficiencies in the material, and add content and insights of their own that build upon the SMEs’ thinking and strengthen the overall paper. Having a writer with strong content knowledge also speeds the white paper’s development—the company doesn’t have to waste time getting the writer up to speed on the topic or industry the white paper’s focused on. And it removes the burden of doing the heavy lifting—organizing the content, structuring the argument, and writing the prose draft—from the author and SMEs, whose time is better spent selling and delivering new business.[Read our related white paper on why great writing matters in thought leadership marketing.]
Develop the Paper
With the right team assembled, a company is ready to move forward on developing the white paper. One of the early keys in development is gathering the appropriate source material the writer will draw on. This includes three key activities:
- Doing the necessary research. Executive readers expect white papers to be rooted in reality. That means a company must be able to back up what it says in the paper with real data—case studies, examples, statistics, survey results, quotes, and the like—where appropriate. It’s preferable such research has been done by the company itself—that helps the company “own” the topic and say something distinct. But if it’s not, the data cited should come from other credible sources, such as well-known research firms, influential publications, or prestigious academics or institutions.
- Identifying other relevant documents. In many companies, especially large ones with a strong thought leadership content program, certain documents may have already been published on similar or related topics. These presentations, proposals, white papers, and other pieces should be made available to the team to help inform the new paper’s development. Doing so will minimize the chance of reinventing the wheel, strengthen the paper’s overall messages, and reinforce and align with what the other pieces are communicating.
- Conducting interviews with the author and SMEs. The primary sources of material for the paper are the author and SMEs. Through a series of well-structured interviews, the writer obtains the base input he or she will use to shape the paper’s argument and content. For a typical white paper, the interviews explore, at a detailed level, the business problem (or case for action), the company’s solution to it, examples of how the solution was used in a client or customer setting, and how the client or customer ultimately benefited. [Read our related white paper on keys to optimizing the SME interview.]
Drawing on all of the relevant source material, the writer then creates a detailed outline. The outline is the most powerful tool in the writing process—it’s the foundation of the paper. Just like no one would try to build a house without first creating a solid foundation, a company shouldn’t attempt to write a white paper without a detailed outline. An outline serves many valuable purposes. It helps firm up the structure to avoid time-consuming and messy rewrites later in the process. It helps develop the argument the company wants to advance and illuminates holes in logic and data that need to be filled (in many cases, with additional research) to make a strong case. And it ensures the narrative is understandable and easy to follow.
Another important function the outline serves: It keeps the author and SMEs focused on the ideas and not the words. Everyone intuitively understands that an outline, by nature, is not written in fully formed, polished prose and is not the “final” representation of the concept. Thus, when reviewing an outline, the author and SMES are much less tempted to waste time tinkering with passages instead of doing what they’re supposed to be doing: strengthening the content.
Contrary to what many believe, the outline phase—not the actual writing—is where the “heavy lifting” occurs. In fact, it’s not uncommon for an outline to be twice or three times the length of the final article because the outline will amass a wide range of material that ultimately will be considered and condensed for the final product.
The development process culminates with prose draft creation. If the team has done its work to this point, actual writing is the easiest step. But that doesn’t mean it’s not critically important. Thought leadership content—especially that produced by companies, such as consulting firms, that don’t sell a tangible product—represents a company’s expertise. In fact, for professional services firms, their words effectively are their products, and it’s critical for their white papers (as well as other thought leadership materials) to be superbly written. When such firms don’t pay enough attention to the writing process and produce materials whose messages are unclear, jargon-filled or simply not compelling, they eventually discover that it can be fatal to sales and marketing efforts. Not only are executives likely to be turned off by substandard writing, they could get the impression that the firm’s ideas (or, in the case of other B2B companies, their products), are equally low in quality.
This is where having a top-notch writer involved in white paper development pays big dividends. Beyond helping to develop the white paper’s ideas and argument, the writer ensures that the language and tone employed is right for the intended audience; that the paper is highly readable and understandable (i.e., is written in the target executives’ language); and that the copy doesn’t suffer errors in grammar, spelling or punctuation that might undermine the paper’s messages or the company’s reputation. In short, while the writing stage might be the shortest, it’s still vital to ensuring the white paper is engaging, compelling, and resonates strongly with executives.
One final note about development: Don’t forget the visuals. Informative and eye-catching charts, tables and other graphics are critical to adding visual levity that helps break up the copy and attract readers’ attention. They also are very effective at reinforcing the key points the company ultimately wants readers to remember.
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While many companies have climbed aboard the “shorter, snackable content” bandwagon, smart organizations know there’s still plenty of room—and need—for long-form content like white papers. Quickly consumed content has its place—it’s a great way to get an executive’s attention and provide a sample of a company’s point of view on a topic. But there has to be something substantive behind it.
A superior white paper—one that focuses on the right topic, is packed with insights and proof points, and is expertly written—goes far beyond just getting attention. It enables a company to deeply explore an issue important to target buyers and illustrate how the company addresses it. In other words, it presents a convincing argument for why the company is the best choice to solve an executive’s business problem.
And that’s not something a company can do in 140 characters.