Why Your White Papers Have Your Readers Seeing Red

I suppose you’re here because your boss charged you with writing a white paper. I just finished writing one that is supposed to be released in the next couple of weeks.

“It’s a great opportunity,” they say.

“It will make our company look good,” they proclaim.

And they’re right.

Maybe it’s for a specific marketing campaign or maybe not.

But let me tell you this.

Take it from your friendly neighborhood copywriter. I have read countless white papers every week for the last 5 years. It is my job to take your hard work and summarize it in a way that makes people want to read it.

But that’s a waste of your time and mine if that paper is not worth reading.

And there are a lot of white papers out there (believe me, I read so many of them) that people might download, glance at, then never read. There’s no value in that. It doesn’t make the recipient of my well-crafted copy want to buy your product. And if there’s no value, then there is no reason to spend money on any sort of marketing tactic involving that white paper.

That’s right, I’m mad about it.  And your boss would be too, if they knew.

There are all these people with all of this worthwhile data and knowledge to share.  It’s hidden behind bad design and bland writing.   

Which brings me to my biggest white paper pet peeve.

Jargon

There is a time and place for jargon and its place is actually in white papers. Industry-related jargon is something that is incredibly good for making someone feel included while immersing themselves in your research.

But it shouldn’t be dripping from every line and oozing from every header. There is something off-putting, even sickening, about drinking in words filled with too much jargon. In many cases, you can get the exact same point across without using some sort of specialized word for it.

Limit your use of jargon. It might be an ego boost for you. But while you get a little rush of pleasure every time you use one of these words, everyone else’s eyes are glazing over.

This is true no matter the industry. Jargon is not relatable, which is always what you want when you are addressing your peers. It also excludes people who might be interested in your paper but do not necessarily speak the industry’s language.

 Have a conversation

Leaping off the prior section, it’s critical to speak in a language that your peers will understand and want to engage in. Try to imagine that you are speaking with a coworker in your department. You aren’t going to be using huge words, you are speaking conversationally.

Imagine explaining (or maybe actually explain) to your office mate what your paper is about, then use those words (minus any profanity and slang). That’s what makes a readable white paper. No one cares how many big words you know or how prestigious your education was. They just want to absorb the knowledge and value you are trying to share.

Forget all those SAT vocabulary words and stick to the basics. It’s fine to play with your words a little, in fact, that is definitely encouraged. But keep it conversational and you’ll see a lot more people actually reading your paper.

Play with words

On that same note, make your white papers fun. I know, I know, white papers and fun typically don’t end up in the same sentence. A lot of the people who write white papers don’t consider themselves writers, but it doesn’t take a background in writing to produce a decent one.

Use literary devices or play with prose (alliteration). Again, moderation is key. Occasional use of literary devices will liven up your writing and keep readers on their toes.

The industry that does this the best is marketing, for obvious reasons. These writers are often the authors of books, email copy, and blogs.  They have already learned how to make their writing more approachable.

This isn’t the only path though.  I learned how to write marketing copy by reading. Read literature that already exists surrounding the report you are working on. Figure out what is working, what you like reading most, and what others like to read. Then try that in your writing.

 Design

There is another issue with so many white papers. They’re so… white. Do you know how uncomfortable it feels in a sparsely furnished room with fluorescent lights and white walls? That’s sort of how your white paper of nothing but the text makes a reader feel.

It looks boring and so they figure that it is boring. Then they don’t read it. That’s why some of the most engaging white papers out there are ones that include the use of *gasp* color and data visualizations.

Even if your writing is mediocre, quality graphics and use of color are much more likely to make people spend more time looking at your white paper. Change the sizes of fonts and pull out important bits of information from the main body text. Break up the wall of text with visually engaging elements.

 Ditch the Grossly Obvious Sales Pitch

Sometimes white papers are solely written for marketing purposes. And that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t actually read like that’s the only reason. I had a colleague who railed against many white papers, calling them nothing more than a “thinly veiled sales pitch.” He’s not wrong.

Even if your paper is supposed to be a sales pitch, make sure to make it more than just that. When you send a sales pitch with a couple of statistics floating around it, people can tell. If you’ve done the research, then you can do the white paper. Provide value without the expectation it will lead to an immediate sale.

When it comes to white papers, their marketing value is only as good as the asset. If you produce a report that isn’t engaging, don’t expect it to work as a marketing tool. But produce a good one and expect to see value from it time and time again.


 

Let us know what you think:

  • What are the qualities of the best white paper you’ve read? 
  • Was there a CTA at the end? What was it?
  • How soon does design come into the process of writing a white paper? 

 

 


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