Whitepapers are a lot of work. Which is why it is incredibly disheartening when they underperform. The good news is that the common issues with whitepapers can be easily fixed by modifying your approach at the start of the project. Read on for the most common mistakes I see during client audits and my simple tips to fix them.

Whitepaper Mistake #1: Not Hitting Your Target

You’re not writing a whitepaper for everyone. You’re writing it to attract and add value to your target audience. And if you don’t know who that is and ensure you are creating value, then you’ve made a big mistake.

To Fix: Before you outline your paper, determine the following three things. Don’t start outlining until you’ve got these clearly identified.

  1. Who is the target audience for the paper?
  2. What is the value you intend to provide them with?
  3. What are the key points you plan to include that will peak their interest?

Whitepaper Mistake #2: Mixing Stages

Mixing stages happens when you include content for prospects in different stages of the marketing and sales funnel. An awareness whitepaper should be very different from a whitepaper used to help close a deal. Whitepapers are such a big asset that stakeholders tend want it to cover everything. But, you can’t go from awareness to purchase in one whitepaper.

To Fix: Before you outline and after you’ve identified the target audience, determine the stage of the sales cycle that you are targeting. To help make this decision, look at existing assets and discuss with sales and demand generation where you have gaps. Then when you write, make sure you include value for a reader in that stage of engagement.

Whitepaper Mistake #3: No Outline

The outline is the most important step in creating a whitepaper. It should be used to get buy-in, organize thoughts, ensure value to a target audience and overall to validate that the whitepaper is even worth the time to write. When a whitepaper doesn’t have a clear story and seems disjointed, it is often due to writing without an outline.

To Fix: Make time to outline and bring stakeholders in during this process. A good outline will include section headlines, a description of what will be discussed, key stats and/or quotes and references. And based on the design (see Mistake #4) and the content, a good writer should even be able to plan out the number of pages for each section. This is helpful for stakeholders to get a feel for the depth of coverage.

Whitepaper Mistake #4: Not Designing First

The most common mistake I see in whitepapers stems from writing without having any clue about how the paper should be laid out. You can tell when each page is different—some have too much text, some not enough. One has a quote in a sidebar, another has a blank sidebar. Basically, it turns out disjointed and not optimized for easy reading. 

To Fix: Always consider design before writing. Specifically, design should be a discussion after you’ve finished the paper outline and have a good feel for stats, quotes and graphics that may be included. This will make design choices obvious and help a designer plan a layout. Then comes the hard part—the writer needs to write for the paper format. Cutting copy down to fit, creating the right sidebars and features. When you take this approach, the paper will be completed in less time and will be much easier for the reader to consume.

Whitepaper Mistake #5: No Promotional Strategy

Wait, why would you need a promotional strategy before you write a whitepaper? The answer is that it saves time and will make writing, creative and demand gen more effective. This is a hard one for people to get their heads around, but when I’m writing a whitepaper for a client I help them create a promotion plan before I write. 

To Fix: Make sure your writer is creating a plan with demand generation before drafting. If they are hoping to get an infographic out of the paper, it is best to plan that in advance of writing. If they want eight social posts, you can ensure sidebars lend themselves easily to that format. If they want three blogs to promote the paper, it is typically easiest for the writer to come up with those ideas and draft them simultaneously during the process. This simple step pays major dividends.

Whitepaper Mistake #6: Ignoring the Skim Factor

We all skim. It is necessary in our busy world. Before we invest the time to read a whitepaper, we need to ensure that it will add value. To do this, we take 60 seconds to flip through it and see if anything resonates or seems useful. If it does, we read it. If it doesn’t, we click on to the next thing. Many whitepaper don’t pass this test either due to layout or to writing that is too dense.

To Fix: Create a paper that is easy to read with lots of callouts, lists, good use of boldface and white space. Then test it. Give it to a peer and ask them to skim it for 60 seconds and tell you what they noted. If they don’t mention the key value points of the paper, then revise it until the value points are crystal clear to skimmers.

Whitepaper Mistake #7: Featuring Features

If you are writing a whitepaper for late in the sales cycle, go wild with features. But the majority of whitepapers are written for the early stages to generate demand and get leads into the funnel. One of the worst mistakes that a writer can make is including feature/function in a thought leadership piece. It happens often because now that marketers are measured with revenue objectives, they feel the need to sell. 

To Fix: Take a hard line with stakeholders and keep reminding them of the sales cycle stage you are writing for. If it is an early stage, defend the absence of feature/function as if your life depends on it. It is just that important. You have to be adding value for the majority of the funnel and you can’t sell too early or else you lose engagement and with it any hope of meeting your revenue objectives.

Whitepapers that Practically Write Themselves

When I write white papers, clients are surprised by how fast I can draft them. The reality is that using the above best practices and taking the time up front in planning makes writing go quickly. And for any marketer who has waited for product marketing to churn out a paper, you get how important that is. But hey, if product marketing isn’t moving fast enough, try to help them through these steps or use a gig economy resource to help take it to the finish line.