Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

How to Stop the Runaway White Paper

Without a well defined problem and a strong point of view, your white paper may never see the light of day. Here’s how to keep it from going off the rails.

No doubt you’ve seen the phenomenon of the runaway white paper. They take months to finish, ignite angry debates over big and little points, and provoke immense frustration among everyone involved.

Oh, and sometimes these papers never even see the light of day.

A white paper can deliver a weighty point of view from a firm that wishes to set its audience straight on how to solve some business problem. We’ve seen great white papers become big lead generators, and lead closers. But nearly every firm we have worked with during the last 18 years has a runaway story — a story of a white paper that didn’t deliver.

Runaway white papers come at a high cost: they arrive late to market; they often sand down a once-sharp point of view via compromise; and they spawn bad feelings between subject matter experts and marketing professionals — sometimes bad enough to discourage future collaboration.

So why do runaway white papers happen, even when smart, capable people collaborate on them? Moreover, how can you avoid a runaway paper?

Let’s examine the root causes of trouble, and how to steer around them. As we do, we’ll recount the recent experience of a leadership consulting firm, FMG Leading, that developed a white paper the right way.

Learn more about how compelling thought leadership content can become a lead generator — and how to work with your company’s experts to develop it — at our virtual “Profiting From Thought Leadership” conference Nov. 16-20, 2020.


What Leads to Runaway White Papers

White papers that disappoint or never see the light of day typically begin with high ambitions from both a company’s subject matter experts (the authors) and its marketing professionals (charged with perfecting and marketing the paper). However, that excitement quickly vanishes if there’s little agreement at the start among authors and marketers about what constitutes a strong paper.

Even when there is agreement on what makes for a strong paper, a white paper can get off to the wrong start when multiple authors aren’t on the same page about the exact problem they will address in their paper, and their solution to it.

In both cases, the work on the paper will soon unravel — whether or not the authors or marketers realize it. The authors will have articulated the problem statement in a fuzzy way, or failed to agree about it. And many times the authors will introduce a second issue: For the fuzzy problem, they will propose a mundane solution, one barely different than what competitors have proposed. There’s little, if any, new advice for readers.

With a fuzzy problem statement and mundane solution in hand, the article’s authors and marketers often will go round and round in trying to sharpen the problem and differentiate the solution. The authors may argue with each other over the problem and solution. And often the marketers, to appear as positive contributors to the process, will keep going, hoping the problem statement will somehow crystalize and the solution will turn novel after a first draft of the article emerges.

But no matter who does that first draft – the authors or marketers — the issues of the fuzzy problem and mundane solution will not go away. They just carry over to the drafting process. Here’s where things can get really ugly. We’ve seen three types of infirmities break out:

  • Tangled Up in Views: When the problem statement is blurry, the solution ordinary, and multiple authors (even when pressed to go deeper) won’t get on the same page, the paper’s core argument can only get twisted. A clear and compelling argument is not likely to emerge from this tangled mess. Like the classic Bob Dylan song, this affliction will leave readers with multiple interpretations of the core message. That may be good for Dylan. But for thought leadership, that’s death.
  • Debilitating Drafts: When the first draft emerges, no sharp-eyed author or marketer is likely to be happy with the results. Even if the prose is readable, the core message will be unclear and unremarkable. But the authors may call this a writing problem. It isn’t; it’s an argument problem. The thinking about the problem and how to best solve it haven’t jelled yet. Without that, the next draft will be met with the same reaction: “Not there yet.” It’s like trying to hang wallpaper over a structurally defective wall and hoping the paper won’t tear or wrinkle. No amount of great prose can’t shore up a weak central argument. Meanwhile, each draft takes its toll: Authors and marketers become weary of the time being spent on the white paper.
  • War of the Words: Orson Welles’ 1938 fictional radio program, “War of the Worlds,” scared Americans into believing Martians had set foot on U.S. shores. In white paper development, verbal war can erupt between the paper’s authors and marketers over what terms to use to describe complex concepts. We’re talking about jargon, acronyms, and the like. These editing conversations can turn nasty.

At this point in the process, the white paper starts barreling down the track toward an unstoppable end: a train wreck document with a fuzzy problem statement, unremarkable and often convoluted solution, and lousy readability.

Stopping this runaway train must begin early: It requires a different white paper development process.

Stopping the Train Wreck: Three Steps

We have used a three-part process to help our clients develop white papers for years. I’ll describe each step, including the goals, activities, and roles and responsibilities of a paper’s authors and marketers.

Step 1: Assess

The goal of this step is to decide whether to proceed with a white paper, and if so, how. In the most effective marketing functions we’ve seen, marketing acts as traffic cop on white paper proposals, giving the go ahead or not, at each step.

When meeting with marketing, the paper’s authors should share material that the paper will be based on. Even better, the authors should write a short synopsis of their idea in “problem/solution” format: the target audience, the problem this audience has, why existing solutions far short, the new solution the authors advocate, the evidence this solution works, and how to overcome the barriers to adopting it.

Authors and marketers should review the proposed concept using mutually agreed upon criteria for what constitutes a strong argument. Then both sides should decide how the current argument stacks up, and what may be necessary to improve. That could mean crafting a sharper focus (e.g., addressing a narrower problem for a narrower audience, which we’ve written about here) or summoning evidence that establishes the problem is real and widespread. It could also mean gathering case studies (client work or other examples) that show the benefits to companies that adopted the recommended solution.

Following this assessment, the next step is a go/no-go decision. If the authors fail to offer a novel solution or lack evidence that it works, then the marketers should ask the authors how they will remedy those shortcomings. If the answer is they won’t, then marketing must decide whether the project will be worth the time and cost investment. Again, the most effective marketing departments we’ve seen will not let the paper continue at this juncture.

Remember, in the minds of readers, a poor white paper will erode the image of the firm that published it. So the firm is better off not publishing a weak paper at all. Customer research in the consulting industry proves this.

But if the assessment is positive, the next step is a “deciding author” must be chosen for the white paper. This is particularly important for white papers that will have multiple sources of input and authors. Even a white paper authored by two people must have a decider – the person who determines how to resolve contradictory views on issue focus, solution, and other matters.

Step 2: Develop

The most important message in this article is about the work in this step: developing a strong core argument. This is not a writing challenge; this is an argument development challenge, and it’s one that ultimately only the authors can solve. However, marketers can play a big role here: helping authors recognize weaknesses in their core argument and how they could shore it up (e.g., more examples, a sharper focus, thinking harder about what separates leading companies from lagging ones, and more).

Few white papers will have their core argument 100% developed before the authors and marketers assemble. Almost always, some argument development work will need to be done. But the way to develop these ideas is not to rush into writing prose. The goal of this step is to create a sound and profound argument – not beautiful prose.

That argument should be laid out first in a high-level outline that the authors and marketers can review. If this outline is clear and compelling, then a detailed outline should be written that expands upon the high-level outline, leaving no logic undeveloped and no assertion under-supported.

This is a key point about Step 2: From our experience, a paper’s argument is best developed through the outline process – not through drafts of prose that will follow the outline. Any further disagreements about the core argument should be worked through in this stage.

This comprehensive outline will be an unambiguous blueprint for the writer’s use in crafting prose in Step 3, whether the writer is one of the article’s authors or a ghostwriter. The detailed outline can often be longer than the final white paper because the authors or marketing collected an excess of supporting data — examples, statistics, etc., from which they can choose the best.

At the end of Step 2, the authors must sign off on the detailed outline – and agree they will not revamp it after they see copy produced in Step 3. This will help you avoid the Tangled Up in Views problem and the Debilitating Drafts problem, because the core argument, at a detailed level, has been articulated.

Step 3: Capture

The goal here is to communicate the argument in clear and compelling prose. The iterations of these drafts (there shouldn’t have to be more than three) should be reviewed for clarity. The outcome to strive for here is superb prose that fully captures the compelling argument constructed in Step 2.

The length of the paper will vary, but in all cases should be the fewest words necessary to convey a compelling argument. That might be 2,000 words, or it might be 10,000 words, or somewhere in between.

One key rule of engagement between authors and marketers during this step: Marketers should have the final say about how ideas are expressed. They’re the people you hired to communicate your firm’s expertise in language your audience can understand. That should prevent the War of the Words from breaking out.

How a Consulting Firm Used the Process

A number of consulting firms we’ve worked with over the years have told us about white papers that began with high hopes but ended up badly. Invariably, when we ask them about the process they used to create those papers, we typically hear that there wasn’t much of one.

But this wasn’t the case at FMG Leading, a human capital strategy consulting firm. The firm followed the three-step approach described above starting this spring. In Step 1 of the development of their white paper, the firm’s principals decided to develop a white paper on a big part of the firm’s work: helping private equity firms evaluate executives and executive candidates at their portfolio companies. FMG Leading then assembled its people who had the most experience on the issue, including its CEO, Matt Brubaker, and VP MaryCay Durrant, to work on the paper.

After considerable discussion about what their focus should be, they decided to narrow it: They would write solely on how PE firms should evaluate the CEOs or CEO candidates for their portfolio companies. While they had substantial experience in assessing the capabilities of leadership team members beyond the CEO, FMG Leading’s principals concluded that by examining just how CEOs should be assessed, they would be able to go much deeper on the issue. And, by going deeper, they had a better chance of bringing a whole new view to market.

In Step 2, Brubaker, Durrant and other FMG Leading consultants wrote down their thoughts about the six parts of a thought leadership argument: the core problem and target audience, their current ways of addressing it and why they fall short, the solution at a high level, solution in depth (with evidence it works), overcoming the adoption barriers, and next steps. Then, over the next nine weeks, the FMG Leading authors used the high-level and detailed outline process (and several conference calls) to drill down on their logic, gather extensive research their firm has conducted since 2009 on the leadership qualities of the best-performing CEOs of the PE firms they have worked with, and discuss their extensive client experience on the issue. Through multiple iterations of the outline (which ended up to be a 12-page, 5,000-word document on its own), they significantly sharpened their starting core argument.

It’s important to note that the FMG Leading authors developed their core prescriptions through the outline step, not through drafting prose in the step that followed. That actually speeded up their overall white paper process — and it improved their prescriptions. Had they gone quickly to drafting prose after their first meeting, they might very likely have fallen into the rut of debilitating drafts.

In Step 3, five weeks were spent to turn the authors’ detailed outline into prose (with four iterations that reflected fine-tuning – not rewriting — of the first draft). That stretch of time was due largely to the authors’ schedules: Located at nearly opposite ends of the U.S. and busy on client work, they found it difficult to spend concerted periods of time together on the paper. But by mid-July, their white paper was complete — graphically designed and turned into a PDF. (They had the graphic designer working in parallel starting in June.)

The impact since then: A PDF that has been downloaded nearly two dozen times from the firm’s website (registration is required) and has generated leads and sales discussions. As well, from their white paper FMG Leading carved out an opinion article submission that was accepted by Harvard Business Review and published on Sept. 6. The HBR article brought prestige to the firm’s expertise on the topic. The article also exposed it to a much wider audience: HBR’s 3 million followers on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. (On Twitter alone, viewers have referenced the firm’s HBR article more than 500 times.) In a little over two months, the white paper and HBR article have brought FMG Leading five highly qualified sales conversations and three in-person meetings with PE firms.

Start Smart

Thought leadership white papers can generate significant attention for a firm and its expertise. White papers can also do double duty: You can later carve them into multiple, smaller pieces such as opinion article submissions (as FMG Leading did), infographics or short blogs, leading back to the longer white paper.

But the content development process for these white papers must be rigorous and effective – otherwise the outcome will underwhelm all parties: the audience, the authors, and marketing.  Bring a better process to the white paper game and start smart.

Originally published 10/4/2016

Learn more about how compelling thought leadership content can become a lead generator — and how to work with your company’s experts to develop it — at our virtual “Profiting From Thought Leadership” conference Nov. 16-20, 2020.

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