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Feb 18, 2003
How To

Five Steps to Create White Papers That Impress Prospects and Reporters

SUMMARY: This useful how-to article for business-to-business marketers was actually inspired by the efforts of a marketer who approached our reporter with a white paper to write about.

Thing is, normally reporters are deluged with "oh please write about my new white paper" emails. Find out how to get through the clutter and make your paper stand out so you get more press and more sales prospects.
If you have a fabulous white paper, you can use it to get more press mentions, run as your offer in sales lead generation campaigns, and send to current leads to keep them warm during the sales process.

The only problem is, these days white papers are so common that it is hard for yours to cut through the clutter. Many are so badly done that prospects who've been burned by boring or salesy content in the past have stopped responding to offers.

We interviewed a well-known tech business reporter (who asked to remain anonymous) to get some very practical tips for your white paper's success:

Step #1: Limit Yourself to One Short Topic

No one on the client side or press side has time to read much anymore. White papers used to be around a dozen pages. Then they slipped to about seven. Now you may need to go as short as four-five.

This does not mean you skip all the interesting details that make your paper useful. Instead cut introductory and generalized commentary to the bone. Look at your white paper and think, "What's the most useful information in this entire thing?" and then just keep that.

In general, prospects turn to white papers because they want to solve a specific problem. If your topic is too broad (a topic that requires a book to cover properly) then your white paper will not be appealing or useful.

Remember, just as with a single email newsletter issue, one white paper does not need to contain all your knowledge. In fact it is better if you limit it to a small, but fascinating, slice.

Later you can do the next slice, and end up with a compelling library of papers that's valuable as part of your site and sales kits.

Step #2: Solve a Tactical Problem or Offer Fascinating Data

"Avoid the strategic, think tactical," advises the reporter we interviewed. "Most people don't solve problems at the 40,000- foot view strategic level. Too many white papers are trying to be big picture. Demonstrate your expertise in specific ways; don't put business book-style stuff in your paper."

Instead, he suggests one of four different topic-tactics:

a. Survey data

People love numbers. Pick a pain-point (something your prospects are worried about) and run a survey with no more than three quantifiable questions. (Open ended questions are much harder to get answers for, and harder to compile into useful results.)

You will need about 250 responses to get any kind of reliable data. In B2C you would need 1,000.

If your own in-house list will not be big enough, consider partnering with an email newsletter or news site in your field. Often you can mix a branded survey with a sponsorship buy, plus their reporters are certain to do a story on your results.

b. Research data

It is often surprisingly easy to create a research report featuring some numbers on a topic your prospects care about.

If you are an ASP, you may be able to look at aggregated client data to come up with an interesting number. (Note: Check your client contracts, some ASP's contracts do not allow them to reveal data even when presented anonymously in the aggregate.)

If you are serving a limited field (such as the Fortune 100) you may be able to assign a junior-level marketer to simply look into one fact about those companies that is publicly available and compile that data into report.

The sexiest numbers to look for are problems. Where do things or processes break? What does not work? What are common mistakes?

c. How-to

Unlike numbers, how-to papers will not generally get you press. However, if they are well-written and useful, you can pick up lots of links from resource sites, and use your paper for campaigns such as Google AdWords and Overture when you want a compelling offer.

Plus how-to white papers can be fairly evergreen, unlike surveys the information is not dated, which means your library of white papers becomes more valuable over time.

Again, limit yourself to a how-to topic that is very niche. It should *not* be "How to choose a vendor in our field" because that's too obviously a sales pitch (even if you try hard to not let it be one). There is a reason most trade magazine editors turn down vendor-contributed columns with that topic.

A how-to white paper can include links to extras such as an Excel spreadsheet that make it even more valuable.

d. Educational 101

If you are in a rapidly changing or evolving field, ask your sales reps what things prospects are most confused about in general. Often you will get an idea for a white paper that is more like a quick tutorial.

Valuable-feeling content you could include: - activity check lists and timelines - glossary - quiz/self-evaluation form - flow charts - benchmark data on commonly requested stats

Step #3: Title & Write Using Language Enticing to Prospects

The biggest mistake many marketers make is to try to make their white paper sound important by either using pompous language "Best Practices in Utilization of Value Proposition Theorems;" or, trying to sound unique by making up terms no-one else in the field uses "Enterprise-level Supply Formulation Analytics Solution."

Some of this stems from years of trying to impress analysts and venture capitalists with big MBA-style words.

It does not impress prospects or reporters.

They do not want to know how smart or unique you are. They want you to help them solve their problems. In the case of reporters, they need a topic that sounds compelling, fun, and useful so their article about you will get read.

In the case of prospects, they want to hear about your topic described in their own language. Your white paper title and the paper itself must feature words prospects themselves would use when talking about this topic.

You may know better words, you may have even invented better terms. Do not use them. As our expert source says, "There are no better words than the words in the readers' minds."

Ask your sales reps and customer service what terms prospects use. Also check your site's web logs to see what search terms visitors used to find your site by.

Then go to wordtracker (, a service that tracks keyword and phrase use across a wide array of search engines, and find out how popular the terms you have chosen really are. Is there another word that means the same thing that's more popular?

Use it in your title.

Last but not least, if your paper title or press release headline includes statistics that relate to people, consider changing your wording from a percent to a human being.

Instead of "25% of webmasters" maybe you should say, "one out of every four webmasters." People pay more attention to people.

Also, look at your stats in both directions. Which is the more exciting number? The 25% or the other 75%?

Step #4: How to Get Press to Cover Your New Paper

Email reporters a note about your white paper. The best format is a personal text-only note with a link to the paper. Specific tips:

- Attachments

Unless you have checked with that reporter in the past, do not include attachments. If they do allow attachments, send a PDF *not* a Word Doc because Docs are infamous for carrying viruses.

Whether you include an attachment or not, also include a link to view the paper online on a page that does *not* require registration. (Reporters will not bother. Most will just leave your site immediately.)

Do not ask reporters to RSVP to get the paper unless you intend to offer an exclusive. Few have the time and you will lose press coverage that might have been yours.

- Exclusives

Yes, offering an exclusive is a great way to get almost certain coverage and to build a strong relationship with an influential journalists. They look good and feel good when they can proclaim a story is "exclusive."

If it is really hot, bloggers and other reporters will pick it up and link back to the original story, so you will get more coverage from the exclusive than you expected.

Give the reporter a time limit on exclusivity (seven days to three months depending on their publishing calendar) so you have the option to take it elsewhere if the item does not get the attention you think it deserves.

- From line

Reporters receive an astonishing amount of email. Most of it unsolicited releases and pitches. Many sort through this barrage by looking at the "from" line.

If the email is from someone they do not know, they are less likely to open it, or to open it quickly.

Your best bet: Divide your press list into files based on who at your company or your PR firm actually has a personal relationship with that reporter. Have the email sent from that person's account.

Example: If a reporter interviewed your CEO, then have the note come from your CEO. If your CIO sent the reporter a complimentary (non-we-do-this-too) note on a story he/she wrote recently, have the note come from your CIO, etc.

- Subject line

If you work for a company the reporter has certainly heard of, then put the company name as the first word in the subject line.

Next, use the rest of your subject line for a news headline. Remember, the reporter is looking for ideas for stories, hand them a sexy headline on a silver platter.

Example: Microsoft shows 3 ways IT directors...

Do not waste your subject line real estate on "Press Release," "Announces," or "News From." Everything in the reporter's inbox says that. Use your space to show why your email is worthy of being opened and read.

Step #5: Production tips: Avoid 8 Common Mistakes

Most marketers distribute their white papers in PDF format because it's fairly ubiquitous. If you do, avoid problems:

a. Always include a live contact for people to get in touch with if the PDF "isn't working." For example, execs at very large companies may not be able to download a PDF due to firewalls.

b. Make the file as slim as possible. Often colorful cover art and logos on every page can blow a short PDF up into a big file that is harder for people on slow connections to download. Put your PDF on a diet.

c. Put your company contact info on every page as part of the standard header or footer. Do not assume they will skim to the first or last page to contact you.

d. Make sure hotlinks are easy to hand-type in. Many prospects and reporters will print out a white paper to read offline. If your hotlink is an underlined word, or a long scary set of figures, you will not get the clicks you were counting on.

e. Consider including your complete library on your PDF download page after prospects have registered to access one white paper. You may as well impress them with everything you have. They may want to browse.

f. Add a "tell a colleague about this free resource library" form on the top or far right of the downloads page, so you take advantage of the viral aspect. This especially helps marketers selling to committees.

g. Do not require re-registration (or entry of user name and password) every time a visitor returns to your site. Ask your webmaster to cookie visitors to allow returning registrants to see everything they would like to without jumping through additional hoops.

h. Do not assume that because a registrant gave you their email address to see a white paper, that this means you can add them to your list and send them broadcasts. You must ask for permission to send different types of email by putting checkboxes on the form as well.

i. Reassure visitors confronted with the registration form that you have a strict privacy policy. Put a link to your policy with comforting language such as "We value your privacy" or "Your name will not be sold or rented" immediately next to the box where you ask them to type in email address.

Good luck with your white paper marketing!
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