White paper mistakes are common in most industries. Even experienced marketers and professionals whose work demands extensive writing often make major mistakes when they try to develop white papers. It’s really not their fault (or yours), because most people misunderstand how white papers work or are unfamiliar with the roles they can play for them and their organizations. I’m not suggesting there’s some kind of magic formula for avoiding white paper mistakes. What I’m saying is once you really understand white papers and how they work, you’ll instinctively avoid these, the most common white paper mistakes:

We’ll write it ourselves!

Seriously, I got a B+ in my freshman composition class, so I think I’ll be good at it. Or let’s ask Braden the engineer to do it. He understands all this … stuff. Even if you or your team members are skilled writers, you may not be able to articulate the key messages in the most coherent, convincing way.

As for Braden, people who have significant amounts of technical knowledge — like attorneys, CPAs, and scientists — often struggle to escape the specialized jargon of their professions and write in ways people outside their professions can understand. It’s hard to explain these things to someone who hasn’t attained their level of education.

There’s an even more practical reason: nobody has the time. It’s probably going to take you more time than you realize to develop your white paper. And what happens to the rest of your workload while you’re spending hours trying to find the right words and organize them into sentences and paragraphs? Will your colleagues jump to pitch in, or will you be getting home late (again)?

Besides, a professional white paper writer will bring more objectivity to the process, approaching white papers not from the point of view of your company, but from that of your audience. They come to you with fewer preconceived notions and internal assumptions about your company and its product or service, and they may challenge the biases and opinions you and your team hold – not to be combative, but to make your messaging as clear and effective as possible.

I want it to sell, sell, sell!

Most marketers, executives, and owners understand at least the basics of advertising and marketing. And those who are successful tend to make the most effective use of their investment in advertising. They offer something that clearly differentiates them from their competitors, and they’ve honed it into a jingle radio listeners and local TV new viewers recognize instantly. So when they want to develop a white paper, they believe it should exhibit the same approach and messaging used in those radio and TV ads.

But white papers aren’t advertising. They’re information, knowledge, and wisdom. When prospective customers pick up a brochure or read an ad, they know someone is trying to sell them something. When they read a white paper, their goal is to obtain information about an issue or a challenge.

The most effective white papers explore the facts related to situations, needs, or challenges to educate those readers, helping them become more confident about whatever decision they’re about to make. They also convince the reader that the company creating the white paper may be trusted.

Readers see right through blatant promotion, so it compromises your company’s credibility and the perceived value of your white paper. They’re less likely to believe the arguments that are being presented and won’t view the information and advice per as objective.

Let’s pretty this up!

Our #1 competitor just did a white paper, and look at it! Just lots of words and diagrams. No color at all. Like one of those college textbooks I bought and never read. Let’s make ours splashy, like that brochure we did back in  ’14.

The most effective white papers are simply set up to look like trade magazine articles with fewer pictures. The reason is simple: when the reader picks up your white paper, they’re looking at it to help them understand something or solve a problem they’ve been struggling with. They don’t want to be sold on your company – though should they find your recommendations credible, they’ll be pre-sold before the first contact.

White papers are meant to be read, and they should be designed that way. For example, they should use readable typefaces (fonts) like Times, Palatino, Century, Garamond and Goudy. They’re familiar and easy on the eye. And if anyone in your white paper’s target audience is over 45, make sure the type is large enough to be seen without having to find those damned reading glasses.

Visuals are a great idea, but not things like happy staff members sitting in a meeting in which every attendee is about to explode from excitement. Charts and graphs that support your explanation can be helpful. So can brief items called sidebars, that share something interesting that didn’t really belong in the text … or touch briefly on a related topic.

This needs to reflect the complexity of the engineered solution!

No matter how complex, complicated, or discombobulated your solution may be, your white paper has to be written in a way your target audience understands. Go back to Braden, and he’ll write in the language his physics prof taught him. Which is great if you’re a physicist, but there aren’t any of them in your target audience.

So instead of sounding like friendly documents providing guidance, Braden’s white papers become highly technical, filled with jargon, or poorly organized. Professional white paper writers focus on the perspective of the reader. What do they want to know? What’s the level of knowledge they already have? Why should what you’re discussing matter to them? And most of all, why should they trust you? When people understand what you’re saying, they’re able to obtain value from your messages.

Uh, so what do I do now?

When people finish reading your white paper, what do you expect them to do? The answer may be obvious to you, but it probably won’t be to your reader. That’s why good white papers include what’s known as a “call to action.” In simple terms, a call to action tells the reader the next step they should take. If you leave out a call to action, they may not do what you hope they’ll do.

Calls to action companies have used in white papers include:

  • Please call our sales team for a free, no-obligation demonstration.
  • Visit our website for a free copy of our specifications guide.
  • Please share this paper with the head of your company’s IT department.
  • Contact us to discuss your company’s specific needs.
  • Order our amazing new product at our website.

If you want people to take a particular course of action, tell them. And if you don’t want to do that, at least give them enough information so they can draw their own conclusions.