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How NOT to write a white paper

Feb 12, 2023 | White papers

White papers are a business-to-business (B2B) marketing staple. But if you do it wrong, you might be doing more harm than good. We take an in-depth look at the pitfalls to avoid.

Great white papers are one the most shareable content around, with 79% of B2B buyers saying white papers are the content they’re most likely to share with colleagues. But if they’re done badly, such as long and boring, the wrong level of detail, too salesy, poorly written or shoddily designed, they won’t get read and you will miss a key marketing opportunity.

In the worst-case scenario, you might even find yourself out of consideration in the buying cycle – indefinitely!

Working in the B2B tech marketing space for over 20 years, we have seen clients struggle with many problems – and we have often been hired to fix white papers that have gone wrong. But getting it right first time is much quicker, better and cheaper.

Here are 10 of the most common problems that can bedevil the white paper process:

1. Your marketing objectives weren’t agreed at the outset.

While it should be self-evident, some white paper projects are doomed to fail from the start. It is essential to have a clear marketing objective for your white paper – and stick to it. Who are you targeting? What do you want to achieve with the paper? Is it educational and therefore top of the funnel, or is it focused on your approach, which is more about conversion? And what is your call to action (CTA)? If it is part of a campaign, how does it fit in with the other elements, such as blogs, brochures, animations or videos?

2. Your messaging in the paper is unclear.

You’d be surprised how many companies use the white paper writing process to start building a message house. If you do this, the chances are you will end up changing the messaging multiple times throughout the writing process. This not only takes longer, but also will probably result in a paper with mixed messages that doesn’t please anyone. Your messaging needs to be clear in advance. If it isn’t, take time to do that before you start the white paper – and get signoff from all stakeholders.

3. You made it a sales pitch document.

White papers are not the place for a sales pitch. Readers are looking for information and advice, that you hope will influence their decision-making process. White paper content that’s too salesy will make readers switch off. Leave that content for brochures and product sheets, when your readers are looking to find out about your products. There is a time and place for everything.

4. You didn’t align your paper to your prospect’s buying journey.

Well done, you planned it out and aligned your white paper with your own business goals, but then you neglected to factor in what your target audience wants to know and read. If it doesn’t address your target’s needs and buying journey queries at each stage, it’s of no use to them. Demand Gen Report’s B2B Buyer Behavior Survey, 61% of buyers choose a vendor who delivers a mix of content that is appropriate for each stage of their buying process.

5. You didn’t include trusted third-party opinions.

A white paper essential, but you’d be surprised how many people forget to put them in or just overlook them. Quotes from subject matter experts and stats from research companies like Gartner, Forrester and IDC are critical if you want to put out an authoritative white paper, because numbers back up your paper’s claims and add credibility.

6. You didn’t use a professional writer.

A white paper can be a hugely effective marketing tool: over the past 12 months, 71% of B2B buyers have used white papers to research purchasing decisions. But crafting a compelling white paper takes time and skill and B2B marketing teams are often small, busy and simply don’t have the necessary skills to write lengthy pieces of content. Marketing teams can be much more effective when outsourcing this process to specialists. A professional copywriter, with subject-matter experience, can take your white paper from thoughts and ideas to reality, and turn your marketing messages into compelling, persuasive arguments.

7. You ran before you could walk.

One of the most common mistakes we have seen is in managing the process and timeline. All the stakeholders who will contribute need to be aligned to the objectives and messages, and then be available for interview – but don’t expect that to happen in one week. Your writer is dependent on this input. Furthermore, all stakeholders will need to agree the outline before copywriting begins. When you move to the review stage, this is not the time for key stakeholders to make their first input. If you follow a methodical approach, you have a much better chance of being on time, on budget and on message.

8. You didn’t bother getting it designed properly.

You’ve got great content, but in addition to being easy and interesting to read, it needs to stand out visually. Don’t just drop it into a simple template or use PowerPoint to create a document. Use a professional designer who understands your company brand, gets the technology and can present your paper properly. The right layout, look and feel and imagery will make it stand out from the crowd.

9. You didn’t promote it.

Don’t then just throw it up on your website and expect the downloads to rack up and the leads to pour in. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t that simple. You need to promote your white paper, via a combination of blog readership, an email campaign, a webinar about your white paper’s subject, a SlideShare presentation of the paper’s content, LinkedIn advanced targeting features and more.

10. You thought a download was success in itself.

If you’re going with a gated white paper that requires people to fill in a form to download it, try to keep the form simple and quick to fill out. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that a download alone is a success or indicates an interest to buy. Use white papers alongside blogs, brochures and events as part of a lead scoring process.

Download our ebook on best practices on writing white papers to avoid these pitfalls and create assets that resonate with your audience.



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