White paper writing lessons

I took a close look at a white paper from the industry's best known writers. Surprisingly, it had 10 problems, both in structure and style. It proved more helpful on how not to write a white paper, rather than how to write a white paper well.

Structural problems

1) Soft on "So What"?

Arguing or selling anything takes more than a need. It takes an acute, unbearable want -- a complication. A complication answers the "so what" question: if you dont' do this, then, these unprofitable things will happen. This white paper talks about the challenges of delivering ads across channel, but fails to draw out the consequences of not solving this problem in terms of lost sales,  customer satisfaction, or any other business consequence.

2) No trace of a business case

This leads to the biggest "so what" of them all: what's the value of solving the problem? Why care? The point of any technology is to solve a business problem and communicate that value publicly in a white paper, and privately, in a business case. No trace of ROI, economic or financial analysis appears in this paper. Instead, the document concludes with the extraordinary claim that "AdServer will turn corporate cost centers into revenue-generating machines." The writer felt no need to explain cause-and-effect or scar the story with specifics.

3) No alternatives means no decision

Without an alternative, there is no choice; therefore, no decision. An affliction common to white papers and business cases is to ignore alternatives. Now, we are not expecting anyone to give competitors air time in their marketing collateral, but a smart way is to discuss the superiority of your approach or framework.

4) Fear of definitions

This whitepaper avoids defining what we are talking about:

  • Is it software? Hosted or installed at the client?
  • Is it a service?
  • It's an "AdServer," where does the server live? 
  • How do I pay for this? License? As a service?

5) More is less

Any quality management consultant or lawyer knows the best way to make an argument is to state it as starkly as possible by stripping out details that don't support the argument. The same principle applies when making the value argument for a technology -- a white paper is the first step.  So, it's puzzling that the Connecting the Dots white papers devotes half of its eight pages to the technology's features and benefits. Giving the reader a list of abstract topic headings such as "Advanced Delivery," "Managing Channels" and "Event-Based Merchandising" makes for dismal reading and a dull argument.

The client company for this white paper, DoubleClick, were interesting and exciting enough for Google to pay $3.1 billion for them. Little of what Google saw comes out in this white paper.

Style problems

6) Helpless headlines

A title starting with a cliche -- connecting the dots -- means it's time to worry. It gets worse. The one-sentence sub-title is pure mush:

"Seamlessly providing relevant and consistent marketing messages across multiple channels and empowering departments to share channel "real estate" is a business imperative for large corporations."

 Now I get having a consistent message across channels. But the rest raises skepticism:

  • I have yet to see a technology that works "seamlessly" and technology buyers typically switch off when they hear the word. Not a good idea to start a sentence with a snore word.
  • I have no idea what an empowered department sharing channel real estate would look like, or why you would want one.
  • A business imperative. Why? For whom? Just large corporations? How do you define large?

7) Lard

Richard Lanham describes the Lard Factor in his book Revising Business Prose. It's a measure of unnecessary words. You calculate it by taking the difference between the number of words before and after revision. Here's an example from Connecting the Dots:


"However, conflicting priorities between marketing and service departments coupled with divisional branding within a corporation make it very difficult to properly market through all available channels." 26 words.


Without working hard or losing meaning, you can cut this down to:

Distinct brands and separate marketing and service departments make effective digital marketing difficult. 13 words.

If you prefer the main point at the front of the sentence:

Digital marketing is difficult because of distinct brands and separate marketing and service departments. 14 words

The original sentence had a lard factor of 50%.

8) Mixed up metaphors

Spend too much time with white papers (or corporate rhetoric in general) and you soon spot popular metaphors. Personal dislikes are:

  1. Sports, especially, Lance Armstrong, often combined with a mountain metaphor (number 3).
  2. War
  3. Mountains
  4. Violent weather conditions, especially, storm, hurricane, and tsunami
  5. Appeals to abstractions, especially, the American People, the average consumer, or modern society (always 24/7 and completely global)

Connecting the dots gets off to a flying start with an unusual combination of a number 2 and a number 6, "The war of mixed messages is very real in modern society." And war rears its ugly head again with "a multi-front invasion."

Soon you reach a section called, "The Challenge of Counting Sheep." Here: "Corporate shepherds" battle to "keep track of a herd of moving sheep on single hillside, imagine trying to track them as they wander through the valleys, rivers and prairies." This is a real home run!

9) Mostly me

White papers often don't know whether they are marketing and/or selling. So, they try both. For clarity: they should market by showing authority on an industry issue, the value of solving the issue, and a superior solution (based on proven business cases).

Connecting the dots has no confusion. It's selling, and hard.  The paper is riddled with self-applauding, evidence-free claims: "pioneer," "leading," "premier," "most comprehensive."

10) Peculiar punctuation

Misuse of punctuation is rife. Inverted commas suffer special abuse. Connecting the dots wraps them around real estate in the sub-title, "...share channel "real estate" is a business imperative."

If the image was less inane, you wouldn't need to give it distinct punctuation. Even, if you think the image is helpful, it's still doubtful whether it falls within acceptable usage. For example, in Karen Gordon's, The New Well-Tempered Sentence:

"Quotation marks are used (and should not be overused) to indicate an original, ironic, or unusual turn of phrase or nomenclature."

If you are interested in a concise and compelling white paper please Contact Me.

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