Writing White Papers: A book review by Bob Morris

Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged
Michael A. Stelzner
WhitePaperSource Publishing (2006)

How to provide valuable information, not just another obvious “infomercial”

For those who are interested in understanding the potential value of white papers to business development and customer relationships, this book and Robert Bly’s The White Paper Marketing Handbook are the most valuable resources on the subject that I have as yet encountered. I strongly recommend both. Opinions vary as to the origin of the genre. Both Bly and Stelzner seem to agree that white papers can be traced back at least to early in the 20th century when what was then referred to as a “white book” consisted of information published by a national government. Perhaps the most famous is the “British White Paper of 1922” (also known as the “Churchill White Paper”) in which the political conflict in Palestine is discussed. Interest in the commercial potentialities of white papers has increased rapidly and substantially in recent years and my own opinion is that exploration and fulfillment of those potentialities has only begun.

In this volume, Stelzner offers his detailed definition of a white paper: “…a technical or business benefits document that introduces a challenge faced by its readers and makes a strong case why a particular approach to solving the problem is preferred. A white paper usually proposes a solution to a problem, but can also introduce a new concept or describe how to perform technical tasks.

He explains with rigor and eloquence “how to capture readers and keep them engaged.” He suggests that there are four primary types of white papers: technical white papers tend to be targeted at engineers, business benefits white papers are usually targeted at decision-makers in management positions, hybrid white papers are usually targeted at both influencers (e.g. engineers) and decision-makers, and government white papers which usually discuss implications of policy decisions.

Here’s a key point that both Stelzner and Bly stress repeatedly: A white paper must never be — or be perceived to be — an “infomercial” in print form. A white paper has value to the extent it provides information and counsel which help its recipients to answer questions and to make decisions. What’s in it for the provider? There are several significant benefits which include positive association with the given answer or solution, the recipient’s appreciation (i.e. good will), and perhaps most important of all, maintaining direct and relevant contact on a non-solicitation basis.
What I especially appreciate about Stelzner’s approach is that he provides a step-by-step framework for what can – and should – become a cohesive, comprehensive, and cost-effect “game plan” for the production, distribution, and promotion of white papers (regardless of type) which will have the greatest appeal to what should be their carefully selected recipients. The ten-step process that Stelzner explains may – and probably will – require a segmented database.

These are the sequential steps:

1. Clarify the topic (“focus your lens”)
2. Identify your ideal reader (s)
3. Decide on primary and secondary objectives
4. Develop a detailed outline
5. Interview the experts (or at least identify expert and relevant sources)
6. Research
7. Write the first page
8. Write the title

NOTE: You may prefer to identify several candidates and select one later.

9. Write the core (“Where’s the beef?”)
10. Hire an editor

NOTE: Stelzner probably prefers that a professional writer be retained but, if that is precluded by limited resources, at least obtain feedback from several qualified persons who meet the profile of the “ideal reader.”

Stelzner thoroughly discusses each of these steps, offering countless “dos” and don’ts,” while reiterating that the most effective white papers tend to be those which address a specific problem and then offer a solution which in no way is – or is perceived to be – self-serving insofar as the provider is concerned. I totally agree. Over the years, my own extensive experience with white papers – either as a provider or as a recipient – has convinced me of the importance of viewing a white paper as a no-strings “favor” or benefit. The integrity (i.e. credibility) of the white paper itself as well as that of the provider must be impeccable.

Initially, I said that I highly recommend both this book and Robert Bly’s The White Paper Marketing Handbook. That’s true. I also strongly suggest that both be purchased and then carefully read, preferably re-read with key passages in each extensively highlighted. Whereas Bly addresses more of the marketing aspects of white papers, Stelzner focuses heavily — and brilliantly — on the craft of writing them, on the “how” as well as the “why.”Absorbing and digesting the material in both books will assist substantially the process by which important writing and marketing decisions are made, then executed successfully.

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