I have another guest post on Content Marketing Institute's blog. Many thanks to Michelle Linn and Jodi Harris whose editorial skills refined and dressed this up quite a bit.
A few weeks ago, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) relaunched its online platform for thought leadership content, bcgperspectives.com. Content marketers can learn a lot from how the company handled its launch efforts:
Read more at contentmarketinginstitute.com.
As far as weight and credibility goes, white papers fall somewhere between a case study and a research report. They are a perennially popular form of educational marketing and means of demonstrating thought leadership. White papers vary considerably in quality, format and length, ranging from detailed technical papers to blatant product promotions. A high quality white paper will focus on a compelling topic or issue and help people make decisions by pulling together information that supports a particular solution. The most effective white papers emphasize customer education and avoid anything that would come off like a sales pitch.
1. Topic Selection
Choosing the topic of a white paper should be straightforward. Every market segment has a burning issue, emerging technology, or technical area that’s a source of customer confusion. After identifying the general topic narrow it down to the most compelling and urgent aspects. What knowledge and insights can you provide that would help the targeted audiences accomplish their objectives and do their jobs better now? It’s never too early to think about titles that would catch market attention as a subject line in an e-mail blast or as a headline in a news release.
2. Reporting & Research
A good white paper will incorporate material from a variety of sources, including industry experts and practitioners, as well as secondary and primary research. Research and reporting can easily consume twice as much time as the actual writing. Like any writing endeavor, the higher the quality of the inputs, the higher the quality of the end product.
Organize notes, research, interviews, and other material into a logical flow of primary and secondary arguments and supporting observations. It’s generally best to put the strongest arguments at the beginning where they are most likely to be read (the classic inverted pyramid structure). If possible get feedback on the idea flow or outline to make sure the primary points of emphasis are where they need to be. Tangential topics or brief case studies work well as sidebars and will add graphic variety to the final layout. The typical white paper ranges from 6 to 12 pages, or 2,000 to 5,000 words. The exact page length will depend upon the amount of white space and the number of charts, tables, diagrams and other illustrations. Footnotes and sources for additional information add credibility.
White papers tend to follow a professional or academic writing style. That’s not to say that a more creative style would not be appropriate for a particular audience. Avoid gobbledygook words, excessive acronyms and marketing speak when possible. Shorter sentences are generally easier for readers to follow, but good writers will vary sentence length based on meaning, and use short sentences for emphasis. Conclude the paper with a clear course of action and specific recommendations.
5. Editing & Revising
Solicit feedback from everyone who has a stake in the white paper’s accuracy, main argument and final appearance. Edits and revisions typically require little direct time, but it can take weeks to receive suggested changes from all interested parties. So plan accordingly.
The typical white paper usually starts with a title page and summary, such as a single-page executive summary or a brief descriptive paragraph to entice the targeted reader into downloading and reading the document. Near the end it's commonplace to include a prominent description of the sponsoring organization that highlights their expertise and, if appropriate, brief professional bios of the authors.
Today most white papers are distributed electronically as static electronic pages or in more interactive formats. They can be promoted as a source of more in-depth information in printed advertisements and newsletters, and used as marketing collateral for sales calls and at trade shows. Distribute them in any way that will initiate a relationship with targeted customers or generate sales leads.
What have I missed? What are some of the best practices that you have used to develop engaging white papers and put them in front of the targeted audience?
The basic process and tips presented here are based on my own experience with clients. If you're looking for more detailed and extensive information on creating white papers, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Michael Steltzner's website and his white paper on how to write white papers.
One benefit of coming from a journalism (and liberal arts!) background is that you're expected to ask dumb questions. People tend to presume that you know next to nothing about them, about their company, and sometimes even about business in general. I don't take it personally.
What they don't always realize is that asking dumb, a.k.a. basic, questions allows you to quickly understand the fundamentals of their business. In fact, starting with the basics and getting people to explain the core elements of what they do and why, is the first step to asking really insightful questions.
Once you understand their core business issues and processes, it's easier to see when an initiative or a program or even something happening on the factory floor doesn't fit or connect with what they say they're all about. You know you've identified something worth exploring and possibly developing into a story element that could be interesting to customers when the response begins, "That's a really good question…."
Early the other morning when I was reading instead of sleeping I was reminded of the value of asking dumb questions by Patrick Lencioni in his most recent business fable, Getting Naked. The book is about overcoming common business fears that can sabotage client loyalty. Because it reinforces a position of honesty and vulnerability, asking dumb questions is one of the practices that he explicitly recommends for overcoming the fear of being embarrassed and building loyalty.
In a consulting capacity asking basic questions about something in a budget or a business plan that doesn't make sense to an outside observer might only reveal your ignorance most of the time. But the few times that your questions spotlight real issues and potential pitfalls, Lencioni argues, is what clients will remember and appreciate.
Whether you're developing a case study, gathering primary research, or conducting an interview, ask the dumb questions and try not to care too much about revealing what you don't know. Dumb questions force everyone—especially subject-matter experts immersed in the arcane jargon of their specialties—to explain what they mean in everyday words that everyone can follow. The end product that you create will be better because the key points will be more insightful and it will be easier for your target audience to understand.
Have you asked any dumb questions lately and been rewarded or surprised by the response?
All organizations have processes—documented or not, well executed or not, effective or not—for doing what they do. Generally speaking, these processes depend upon the talent of your employees and contractors, your customer relationships, your fulfillment methods, how well your assets are developed and managed, and the resources of your investors. That list could obviously be much longer and deeper, but let's limit it to those elements for now.
It could be argued that management's core purpose, no matter what role you play or level that you are at, is to optimize the execution of these processes and sub-processes. The processes for which marketing is traditionally responsible are summarized by the American Marketing Association's (AMA) old definition of marketing: "Marketing is the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational goals."
AMA's definition was updated in 2007 to: "Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large." [emphasis added]
It now resembles the definition by Philip Kottler in his classic textbook Marketing Management: "We see marketing management as the art and science of choosing target markets and getting, keeping, and growing customers through creating, delivering, and communicating superior customer value." [emphasis added]
So marketing's scope has expanded from merchandising, which is still critical of course, to shaping and owning the customer value message. Thought leadership initiatives identify, articulate and communicate that value message. The challenge is to communicate that message using traditional research, white papers, case studies, etc., as well as social media outlets, in a way that continually engages your targeted audience. Ah, there's the rub.