Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Five Biggest White Paper Mistakes

White papers are a great way to convey thought leadership, solve customer problems and create interest for marketing programs. But many companies make some basic mistakes when writing a white paper. Here are the five we see most often:

1. Overselling: A white paper may be part of your marketing program, but its first goal is to educate or inform. If you try to oversell, you will likely lose credibility and the opportunity to make a sale later in the sales cycle. Sure, you can mention your product or service, but it should be primarily in the context of an example or a solution that can help solve the problem that your white paper has helped illuminate.

2. Give the conclusion first: Readers of white papers are just like everyone else: busy! Give them the findings on the first page. Then, spend the rest of the paper building the background and logic for that conclusion. Too many writers “keep their powder dry” until the middle or the end of the paper. Readership falls off dramatically from the first page to the last. Make sure the reader gets your key message(s) up front.

3. White papers don’t have to be just “black ink on white paper”: Use illustrations and diagrams to help make your point. Studies show that pictograms—the combination of words and pictures in an illustration or diagram—are one of the most effective methods of communication. And don’t forget to add an explanatory caption to these visuals. Make sure you tell the reader what the diagrammatical “take away” is. Don’t assume they will get it.

4. Two columns are too risky: If your white paper will be read from a computer screen, don’t format it in two columns. You may like the two column look when the document is printed, but it forces the electronic reader to scroll back up and then down the page again—twice per page. That’s a sure-fire way to lose them.

5. Have someone else say it for you: Research by KnowledgeStorm and others shows that third-party quotes and research from analysts, journalists and other informed sources carry a lot of weight with readers. Use this information as much as you can. Put it in callout boxes and footnotes as needed. Make sure it stands out.

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