Michael A. Stelzner: An interview by Bob Morris

Michael A. Stelzner

Stelzner is author of the popular book Writing White Papers:  How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged and has written more than 100 white papers for corporations such as Microsoft, HP, SAP, Motorola, FedEx, Monster and Cardinal Health. He is also the executive editor of the 20,000-reader WhitePaperSource Newsletter. His blog can be seen at http://www.writingwhitepapers.com/blog/ and he can be reached by clicking here.

Note: The following interview was conducted about three  years ago. Since then, Stelzner has created a new website, SocialMediaEaminer.com, and written another book, Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition, published by John S. Wiley (2011).

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Morris: What’s the background on white papers? Were they not originally government documents?

Stelzner: That is correct.  They started in Parliament way back in the early 1900s.  The most popular white paper was the Winston Churchill white paper.  It addressed political conflict in Palestine.

Here’s how the phrase “white paper” came about.  When political figures needed to rush an argument to the floor, they had no time to bind it in a traditional hardcover.  Rather, they simply wrapped these urgent documents in white paper.  Today, most white papers still take a persuasive stance or position on a topic, idea or theory.

Morris: At what point did business applications of the white paper seem to begin? Why?

Stelzner: They became very popular with the advent of technical products.  By the 1990s, most engineers would have been familiar with the term white paper.  Analysts firms such as IDC and Gartner Group adopted the term to describe the reports they were publishing.  More recently, say since 2000, many white papers were designed to describe the business advantages of adopting a new idea or product.

Morris: How do you explain their popularity in the business world?

Stelzner: Most businesses use white papers to cut through the marketing noise.  White papers are often sought after to help people make decisions.  Because they are typically used in the research stage of a sale, they are excellent lead generation tools.  The need to establish credibility and trust is also accomplished with a white paper.  The latest research about white papers and how businesses use them can be found on my blog by clicking here.

Morris:What are the most common business uses of white papers?

Stelzner: There are really three primary uses.  To establish thought leadership (positioning a company or product as the lead dog), to generate leads (providing quality prospects for salespeople) or to help close a sale (by describing how a product or technology works).

Morris: Now let’s focus on your brilliant book, Writing White Papers. In your opinion, what are the essentials of an effective white paper?

Stelzner: The standard business benefits white paper starts with a quick introduction of the problem and solution faced by the ideal reader.

A market driven discussion typically follows and examines trends in the market that reveal a need.

A problems section should address the challenges faced by the ideal reader when he or she does not have a solution similar to yours in place.

When introducing a solution, it is best to use generic concepts.  Rather than mentioning a product name, introduce the category it falls in.  For example, rather than “Motorola’s Bluetooth Car Kit,” lead with something like “wireless automotive solutions.”

A “what to look for” list could be used to focus on key considerations when seeking a solution.

The specific solution should only touch on the high-level advantages of your solution, rather than hitting the reader over the head with excessive details that belong in a different document.

The conclusion should include a clear call to action, such as a web address that readers can visit for additional information.

Morris: A related question. What qualifications are required of those who write white papers?

Stelzner: A white paper usually persuades AND informs.  It is a cross between an article and a brochure.  This means the ideal writer has mastered the art of persuasion AND informing.  On the dichotomy of writers, the white paper writer sits between the ad copywriter and the manual writer.  This is an art that can be learned.  My book, Writing White Papers, spends a lot of time educating folks on how to master this form of writing, regardless of their background.

Morris: In recent years, much has been written about the business narrative that utilizes various elements of “storytelling.” To what extent (if any) are these same elements relevant to white papers?

Stelzner: Honestly, white papers are really not close to stories.  They differ from the case study.  Rather they are documents that are typically skimmed.  This means the reader need not read the entire document to get the essence of its message.   For writers that are used to verbose styles of writing, they will need to work on making their messages crisp and relevant.

Morris: How do white papers differ from other forms of communication such as newsletters and so-called “e-zines”?

Stelzner: White papers share very little in common with any other forms of writing.  They are the longest document in the marketing arsenal and they are the least understood when it comes to crafting them well.

Morris: To what extent (if any) should white papers that appear only in print differ from those that appear only online? Are there situations in which the same white paper is featured both in print and online?

Stelzner: The same theory applies to white papers regardless of the medium.  Today, white papers are predominately distributed as electronic documents.  The value here is fast delivery and the ability to be quickly passed around.  Because readers have a few seconds to decide to read a white paper, a compelling title and opening paragraphs are critical.

Morris: Please share your thoughts about the use of white papers as a marketing resource.

Stelzner: Often a white paper will work its way across the desks of an organization in a way that no other document could ever hope to achieve.  White papers are able to fly under the radar and penetrate most organizations’ anti-marketing defenses because they are sought after and brought into the organization by decision-makers.  If they are well-written, white papers will not only reach their target, they will influence them.

White papers can be very persuasive marketing tools.  When a good white paper lands in front of the right person, it is a highly effective lead generation and sales instrument.  Research indicates that IT executives examine an average of 30 white papers each year, that nearly 90 percent of executives find white papers helpful or extremely helpful and more than half claim white papers influence their buying decisions.[1]

Morris: You have carefully explained what a white paper is. What is it not…or at least what should it not be expected to be?

Stelzner: A white paper is not an ad.  A white paper is not a manual.  White papers do not fully substitute for direct human contact.  While many businesses produce white papers to create virtual salespeople, it is important to remember that a good white paper must be combined with a well-planned marketing plan.  White papers are super-weapons for marketing.  However, if they are simply posted on your website, they will have no value.  Be sure to get your white papers in front of prospects.

Morris: One final question. Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, do you think the popularity of white papers will increase, decrease, or remain about the same? Why?

Stelzner: The use of white papers is exploding.  In 2001, a Google™ search on the phrase white papers returned a mere 1 million responses.[2] By 2006, that number was a whopping 329 million!  I expect as it becomes harder to persuade people, white papers will become even more popular.

Those who wish to obtain a free booklet from Stelzner about writing white papers are invited to visit his website by clicking here.

[1] Bitpipe. (February 2004). Bitpipe network user study: Readership usage of white papers in the IT buying process, www.bitpipe.com.

[2] Graham, G. (2001). The art of the white paper, www.gordonandgordon.com/STC_Chicago.html.


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