Whitepapers are a key component of most content marketing programs. And nobody knows more about whitepapers than That Whitepaper Guy, Gordon Graham. He literally wrote the book on whitepapers — he’s the author of Whitepapers for Dummies.
Gordon recently performed an extensive analysis of 300 whitepaper projects he’s worked on over the past 20+ years in an effort to determine what it takes for a whitepaper to succeed. After all the number crunching was done, Gordon was able to identify three key ingredients for whitepaper success.
1. A Dedicated Team
According to Gordon, whitepapers are a “team sport.” This team usually includes the executive sponsor, in-house sources and reviewers, the creative suppliers (including the writer and designer) and the marketing staff who promote the finished paper.
“The sponsor must have enough clout to resolve differences between reviewers and make sure they perform their tasks,” he says. “And the sponsor must tell the rest of the team what’s going on. Sponsors also need to ensure open communication by creating an atmosphere where everyone feels safe to speak up and not letting anyone ‘pull rank.’”
Meanwhile, reviewers need to be properly briefed on the purpose of the whitepaper and its intended audience, flexible in case any conflicts arise and willing to perform reviews within a reasonable timeframe. “This sounds simple, but it doesn’t always happen,” Gordon says. “We’ve had almost 20 whitepapers ruined or undermined by reviewers who never did their reviews or could not agree with one another.”
2. The Right Resources
Gordon stresses the importance of being realistic about what kind of resources you can commit to a whitepaper project. “This means allowing enough time and money to do a proper job and having sensible expectations about what you can achieve with a single whitepaper.”
Let’s start with a realistic timeframe. According to Gordon, it takes between six and eight weeks from startup to completion of a final document. “So if any prospective client expects to snap their fingers and get a whitepaper planned, researched, written, designed and promoted in two or three weeks, I tell them to think again. A real whitepaper is just not going to happen that fast.”
So what’s a realistic budget for a whitepaper? Gordon says that the average total cost to write, design, produce and promote a whitepaper is about $6,000. Not surprisingly, the writing represents the bulk of this cost — about $4,200 — with professional design costing about $1,000 on average.
“Hire an expert writer who knows your industry, add a few custom graphics and shell out for a few weeks of pay-per-click advertising and you can easily get up to around $10,000,” he says. “If these numbers scare you, you’re probably not ready to produce a whitepaper. I don’t recommend trying to do this on a shoestring budget.”
3. Strong Editorial and Design Skills
These skills aren’t hard to visualize, Gordon says. “First, you need a writer with professional-level editorial skills to research, write and polish the text. And you need a graphic designer with professional design skills to dress up any rough graphics and create readable pages.”
But there are two more skills specifically related to whitepapers that you also need. “The first is what I call picking the right ‘flavor,’” says Gordon. He uses the analogy of vanilla, strawberry or chocolate to describe the three main whitepaper templates you can choose from. “These templates dictate what will go in the main body of the whitepaper and what will go in the ‘wrapping’ of the front and back that go around it.”
Click here to download Gordon’s infographic that explains the three flavors in more detail.
The second unique whitepaper skill you need is the ability to choose the right topic for your whitepaper. “The right topic is one that engages prospects at the right part of their customer journey,” says Gordon. “It must be a provable hypothesis — or in other words, an argument you can find some proof to support.”
In performing his analysis, Gordon discovered seven whitepapers that failed because there was simply no story to tell or no evidence to back up the sponsor’s claims. “You can avoid this by doing a few minutes of preliminary research before committing the whole team to a certain direction. If you can’t find anything that supports your theory, it’s better to change course early on.”
Set Realistic Expectations
Gordon stresses that any whitepaper can be the cornerstone of a great content marketing campaign, but it can’t be the whole campaign. “Don’t expect prospects to read one whitepaper and place an order or even call to talk to your sales team — that’s asking way too much. Adjust your expectations to align with what content marketing does best.”
For example, whitepapers are good for getting the word out about your product or company and helping prospects get to know, like and trust you. “But no single whitepaper can generate a lead, nurture prospects through a complex B2B sale and get them to sign on the dotted line,” says Gordon. “If you expect that much, you’re bound to be disappointed.”