Tips for White Paper Planning and Budgeting

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White paper writing is a bit like project management, where time, cost and scope are the three main variables affecting the paper’s outcome.

Keeping to a project’s budget, managing the breadth of the content and getting it all done on schedule can make a white paper writer feel like they are walking on a tight rope!

Below I’ve outlined a set suggestions for white paper project management, from the early stages of planning through to the promotion of the document after it’s been published.

Early Planning
Among other problems, white paper writers often report difficulties with time management, lack of clear feedback, changes in direction and getting approvals. Successful white paper writers sooner or later devise ways to deal with these issues.

The most effective strategy is to head off these problems before they happen. Here are four quick tips for avoiding these pitfalls during white paper planning:

1. Round up approvals from all stakeholders early on.

2. Submit short deliverables for discussion, like a creative brief or a one-page outline, before you start writing a 10-page document.

3. Get your client or company to make a tangible commitment to completing a white paper. For example, freelance writers can get a partial payment in advance; in-house writers can get an okay to forego other duties, while writing the document.

4. Work closely with the designer and make sure they understand the white paper format.

Define the Project’s Scope
If you are creating a white paper, but aren’t sure which type of content will work best, you can narrow down the focus with three straightforward questions.

1. What is the purpose of this paper?
-Gather leads for the sales force
-Educate prospects, media, sales and channel partners
-Influence a selection committee
-Be published in a trade magazine or on a website

2. When will this white paper be used?
If used early in the sales cycle, your white paper can be more high-level and general. If used later in the sales cycle, your white paper should be more detailed and specific.

3. Who is my audience? What do they want?
IT people generally want to see technical details. They will tolerate longer papers with modest production values. In fact, a slick and colorful format tends to make them suspicious.

Executives want to see bottom-line benefits summed up in a page or two. They want to hear about lower costs, better sales, higher profits or improved customer service. Executives expect polished production, with clear graphics they can understand at a glance.

Managers want to hear about streamlined workflow and labor savings. They are keen to see how a new system would affect their area and their people.

User representatives want to hear about ease-of-use, training and support. They can be more or less technical, but they will likely be detail-oriented. Users are not often a significant audience for white papers. But if a user rep is involved in a selection committee, you need to address their concerns at some point.

A mixed audience or selection committee may want to hear everything touched on above. In this case, you may need several white papers, each with a different flavor and each with content geared to a somewhat different audience.

Budget for Costs
There are several costs related to producing a white paper:

-Research, writing and editing
-Illustration and design
-Translation, if applicable
-Printing, if applicable
-Promotion

Each of these costs can be outsourced, or handled in-house. In 2005, executives from the white paper syndicates told me that medium-sized technology firms can expect to spend $3,000 to $5,000 to have a white paper written and illustrated.

Five years later, that still sounds close to the ballpark. The White Paper Writer Industry Report surveyed 600+ writers in 2007 and showed three tiers of pricing:

-At the low end, about a third said they can write a 10-page white paper for US $2,000 or less
-In the middle, 40 percent said they charge between $2,000 and $5,000
-At the high end, about 25 percent said they charge $5,000 to $10,000.

The more experience a white paper writer has, the more they charge. Illustration, design, translation and printing will likely cost less than the writing. But publishing, promoting and syndicating of a white paper on other websites can easily cost more than the rest of the budget put together.

And there are “soft costs” in terms of the time it takes your subject matter experts to answer interview questions and e-mails and to review drafts. All this is to say, a white paper is a significant project in anyone’s book. Trying to do a white paper on a tiny budget will not yield adequate results.

Stay on Schedule
According to the White Paper Writer Industry Report which surveyed 600+ writers in 2007, the typical white paper takes between 24 and 50 hours to complete. That means one to two weeks full-time should be enough to complete a white paper (if everything falls into place). The more experience a white paper writer has, the faster they tend to work, and freelancers tend to produce faster than in-house or non-professional writers.

Like any corporate writing project, you must allow time for interviews, research, outlining, drafting and perhaps coming up with diagrams. In my experience, working on more than 85 white papers, it takes 6 to 8 weeks to get from the first interview to an approved white paper draft. And it can easily take longer, if people travel a lot, or take their time with reviews. If you manage this process well, writing a white paper can be smooth and efficient. If not, it can turn into a never-ending project that drags on and on.  

Illustration and design can take additional weeks. Translations, if required, take more time. And then the promotions can begin and run for many months. A vendor can often continue to use the same white paper for one to two years. This long life helps to achieve a very position return on the investment of time in a white paper.

Promote the Final Product
Simply writing a good white paper is not enough. Simply posting it on a vendor’s website is not enough. To earn an acceptable ROI, a vendor must actively promote a white paper in every known way. The most popular ways to promote a white paper include:

-Post it to websites
-Run advertising campaigns on it
-Send e-mails about it
-Tweet about it on Twitter
-Mention it in newsletters, e-zines and blogs
-Give it to prospects on sales calls
-Give it to prospects at trade shows
-Pay a third-party service to syndicate it.

The more effort a vendor invests in promoting a white paper, the more likely it will succeed.

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