5 Common White Paper Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

8/08/22

White papers are long, complicated documents that help guide clients through a client journey. Given their slightly persuasive yet mostly informative nature, you can’t simply open your laptop and type away to produce a white paper in an afternoon. You must be sure you’re actually ready for a white paper and know how to avoid common mistakes with these specific projects. 

When done correctly, white papers are one of the four most effective types of marketing. When done poorly, you could seem inexperienced, out of touch, or, even worse – untrustworthy. These common mistakes could cost you a client and your reputation.

Avoid the following mistakes at all cost! You’ll be glad that you did.

Mistake #1: Writing the White Paper Yourself Rather than Hiring a Professional Writer

White papers are used to inform readers above all else. But, you also need to gently hint that your product or service could solve your ideal client’s problem, or make their life better. To do both well you need someone who understands your industry and knows how to write conversationally, informatively, and persuasively. While it maybe tempting, don’t write the white paper yourself, don’t ask a SME to do it, and don’t put this task on your marketing team.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) may seem like good candidates because they’re experts on specific topics, but their explanations might be difficult for your intended audience to understand. And, if you’re trusting an SME of another topic to write your white paper, you’re missing out on working with an expert writer. Why wouldn’t you want to have both pushing your project forward?

Your final product should be written at a 5th-grade to 9th-grade reading level (or as close as possible) to make it accessible to all readers. This doesn’t mean a 5th-grader will read your white paper. It means the people who are reading it won’t struggle to understand what you’re saying. Keep it as clear and simple as possible.

Your marketing team may seem like a good option for creating a white paper, but do they know the topic well enough to write effectively? Are any of them experts when it comes to writing? White papers are technical documents with subtle persuasion, not a traditional sales pitch.

Your white paper will need extensive research, writing, and editing. SMEs and your marketing team might not have the time or energy to take on such an intense project. Tasking them with a white paper may lead to a lackluster project, or a project that never gets done.

Another place you may look for a writer is a content mill site. Do so cautiously.

While they are convenient, content mill sites like Upwork can make it hard to find a truly qualified writer. We’re not saying there aren’t good writers on Upwork (I’m on Upwork!) but typically work is given to the lowest bidder. You’re putting in a lot of time and effort to create a white paper that builds customer relationships, not to cut corners. White papers are an investment, so set aside money to make it one that stands out and find a writer known for their white paper writing skills.

When looking for a professional writer for a project of this magnitude, look for the following traits to ensure your white paper converts as expected:

  • The writer has white paper writing experience.
  • They’re certified to write white papers by an accredited institution.
  • They have technical writing experience or long-form writing experience.
  • They have a reputation for executing quality work on deadlines.
  • They have referrals or testimonials they’re happy to share with you.
  • They’re a professional writer, not just a freelancer looking to make a quick buck.

Hiring a professional writer will bring you a bigger return on your investment than someone without experience.

Mistake #1 When Writing a White Paper: Not Hiring a Professional Writer.

Mistake #2: Not Hiring a Professional Designer

You just put so much effort into finding a great writer. Don’t ruin all that great content by not hiring a designer to take your project to its final state. 

Connect your writer and designer so they can discuss how the copy and design will work together. While writers don’t usually design the final white paper, they’ll have a lot of great ideas for how the design can support the information. If they’re not able to connect in person, have your copywriter send a Loom video sharing their design vision.

Your white paper design should have:

  • Photos to break up the text and add color
  • Graphics that “show” the information and add clarity
  • Charts that sum up information and make it easily digestible
  • Other visual points of interest like pull quotes
  • White space as to not overwhelm the reader

Long solid pages of text will bore your reader and make reading your paper feel overwhelming. You can find some great white paper examples from big names to give you some inspiration.

Photos and graphics also help people with different learning styles access information. Images should support your text and help solidify the information. Be selective with the graphics and photos you do chose.

You don’t want so many graphics that your white paper looks like an ads section of a newspaper.

If you can only invest in the writer or designer, choose the writer. This advice likely comes as a surprise to no one, given that I’m a writer. That said, design templates are available in Microsoft Word or Canva if hiring a designer isn’t an option. The writing should always be the priority, as that’s what your client is looking for… the information.

A beautiful design with mediocre writing won’t help your client or persuade them to do anything.

Mistake #3 When Creating a White Paper: Rushing the Process

Mistake #3: Rushing the Process

A big mistake often committed by creating their first white paper is not allowing enough time for quality research and writing. A white paper is not a quick explanation to make a sale. 

  • Account for one week to onboard your writer. Send them any research or information you have, and connect them with SMEs. 
  • Allow at least one to two weeks for research. This will give your writer time to find high-quality sources that fully explore the topic.
  • Writing a white paper will take one to two weeks. This gives your writer time to digest information and weave the copy (your subtle persuasion) into the information. 
  • Editing will take about two weeks. The more editors you have, the longer this phase could take.  

Pro tip: Have your team agree to the goals before you begin the white paper process. Provide edits through one person in the company to streamline the process and avoid conflicting changes.

Your white paper will take 4 to 7 weeks to complete. It is possible to write a white paper faster, but if you rush the process you may end up with sloppy copy, inadequate research, or confirmation bias.

Mistake #4: Making the White Paper About the Sale, Instead of the Topic

White papers walk a fine line between copy and content. The focus of your white paper should answer a question or provide helpful information for your ideal client while nurturing your relationship with them. 

Take time in your white paper to build trust with your customers by using data-backed research. If you’re objectively sharing the facts and supporting your opinions with research, they’ll trust more of what you have to say. 53% of consumers believe trusting a company is the most important factor when making a buying decision, even over price. 

Your ideal customer likely needs information. They also want to know they can trust you before they buy from you. Your white paper’s #1 priority should be helping and educating your audience to answer their questions and build their trust with you.

The average American sees 4,000-10,000 ads per day, but we’ve created a mental filter to automatically tune out ads we don’t care about it. You probably notice this when ads pop up on Facebook or YouTube. Your filter patiently waited for the “skip” button to get to the content you really wanted. 

Don’t make people wait for the content they really want. Lead your white paper with value. Share your knowledge and show your expertise by staying objective and exploring all sides of the topic. Your reader should finish your white paper feeling informed and ready to make a decision.

Mistake #5: Not Considering Where Your Client is in Their Journey

Each customer is likely at different points in their journey. Some are just beginning to research a problem while some are exploring solutions with the intent to buy. A white paper that you can put in front of someone who’s ready to buy is not the same white paper you put in front of someone who’s trying to understand a problem. Knowing the difference can make or break your white paper success.

  • At the beginning of the customer journey, explore the problem to build trust and authority. Imagine you had a problem you were trying to solve and someone explained all available options. That would be super helpful, right?
  • In the middle of the journey, the customer is ready to hear the details and find the best solution. This is a good opportunity to share things your customer may not have thought about. You can help them see what could go wrong if they choose something other than your product or service. This is also the perfect time to plant little seeds of doubt around competitors’ options, and hint at why your product maybe the best fit.
  • At the end of the journey, present the product. Share the specific features, differentiators, and results you’ve helped others achieve. Give an example of how someone used your product to solve their problem so they can visualize themselves having the same success. 

Tailor your final product to your customer’s journey to show them you understand their needs. Sending a white paper to pitch a product at the beginning of a customer’s journey will seem too salesy. Using it to introduce a problem when a customer is at the end of their journey may make them feel like you’re wasting their time.   

By avoiding these common white paper mistakes and you’ll have an audience that’s well-informed, trusts your brand, and ready to buy.

Other Frequently Asked Questions About White Papers

White paper or white papers?

Up for debate. According to Stanford Law, the term ‘white paper’ began when government papers were color-coded by distribution. A “white paper” was for public access. The term “white papers” is now commonly used to describe reports used by businesses for marketing or sales tools. Things you didn’t know you needed to know…

How long should a white paper be?

Short answer: as long as it needs to be. A more helpful answer: between 5-10 pages. This helps you share in-depth information thoroughly. 

How do I market a white paper?

This is a great question, worthy of another blog post. Look for it coming soon! 

I’ve heard you can write a white paper in one day, is that possible?

Sure, it’s possible, if there’s already about three weeks of research and outlining done. White papers are technical documents so you need to have solid sources and thorough research before writing.

What’s the next step to start a white paper? 

To get started, fill out my contact form to talk about the goals of your white paper. I’ll get back to you in one to three business days.

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