In today's increasingly post-literate culture, the idea of a 10-plus page linear narrative may seem out of date. But not so. The role of the marketing/technical whitepaper is on an upswing as companies recognize their effectiveness in communicating with audiences that demand authenticity and detail when making business decisions.
The big problem with whitepapers, however, is that their length and complexity make them vulnerable to delays and budget overruns, usually in the late phases of the document review process.
Death-by-review is often just an end result of a project that should have been managed better in earlier phases of its development. This article proposes a comprehensive, seven-step approach to keep whitepapers (and other complex creative projects) moving along at maximum speed and resulting in optimum end-product quality.
Step 1: Project Definition, Concept and Messaging
First, every whitepaper needs a project manager. The project manager can be a marcom or other marketing manager, agency account executive or even the whitepaper author. This person takes ownership for the development of the paper and for guiding it through the process.
The project manager should begin by proposing a general concept for the paper and identifying the information sources, the writer, reviewers, and production support. Following this, the project manager, writer and "customers" (marketers, managers, etc.) need to agree on what the whitepaper is going to try to tell its readers.
Key questions here include, What is the mission of the paper? What are the three to four main messages conveyed in the paper? What should readers do after they read the paper? This step should generate a formal creative platform to document buy-in by interested parties before the project proceeds further.
Step 2: Research
Gather facts and information to be included in the whitepaper. Since credibility is crucial to the persuasive success of the finished paper, it is important to be able to document the facts and evidence cited in the paper.
Step 3: Outline
Creating a detailed outline is essential in developing a logical and concise end product. During later drafts and reviews, it's a lot easier to fix bad writing than a weak structure.
The outline should be treated as the first significant deliverable expected from the writer, and be subject to review and approval by the project manager and "customers" identified in the Concept and Messaging step.
Step 4: Drafting
The fewer drafts, the better. Writers should strive to make the first draft as clean and close to a final as possible. A completely clean first draft may not always be possible; however, information gaps should be clearly marked.
It is also a good idea to include full footnotes in early drafts to verify information sources. These can be removed in the final document to maintain readability. Also, versions should be numbered in the footer of each page (software-style "v 1.x" versioning works well) and controlled by the project manager. Things can get very confusing when multiple versions are flying around an organization. Nonetheless, getting off to a good start here shortens the review process and speeds time to market for the end product.
Step 5: Review
To avoid infinite loop review processes, define in advance who needs to see the paper, when they need to see it and what you expect from them as reviewers. The deliverable here is a routing slip attached to the draft to make it clear who will be reading it as it moves through the approval process.
Earlier-step reviewers will play different roles than later-step resources. Generally speaking, working-level product managers, technical staff and marketing managers will comment on message alignment and technical correctness. Later-step reviewers such as lawyers and executives should also be briefed that they are reading the paper for legal and final executive blessing, respectively. By the time it reaches them, messaging, technical and factual issues should have been resolved in earlier review steps.
Also, make it clear on the routing slip and email messages accompanying the document what deadlines apply. The project manager should be assertive in reminding reviewers of deadlines and demanding action from them.
Step 6: Production
Whatever template an organization uses for whitepapers, it should be applied consistently across a generation of documents. It looks strange when a company produces whitepapers that look very different from each other.
Formatting does not need to be fancy. Papers produced with modern word processing applications can look just as neat as efforts put through heavy-duty publishing tools. While printing hardcopies of whitepapers for distribution at trade shows, briefing centers and sales-call leave-behinds remains standard practice, 90% of readers will probably receive the document as a PDF, HTML or other electronic version.
Step 7: Promotion
Work on the whitepaper is not finished until it is actively promoted to potential audiences. Publicizing a whitepaper is an opportunity to get attention for your company's message and its positive role in the marketplace.
The existence of new whitepapers can be heralded via web marketing as featured content on home pages and as news alerts to customer, developer and partner communities; they can be pitched to editors, industry analysts and other influencers—or relayed to customers and prospects through the sales force.
Also, be sure to include some kind of feedback mechanism for readers to comment or get additional information.
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To sum up: Assertively managing whitepapers in the early steps of the process is the key to high-quality, on-time, on-budget end products. Key deliverables include creative platforms, detailed outlines, drafts, and review routing slips.
Finally, don't worry about freelance writers who may be concerned that this comprehensive project management approach may hinder their creativity. Professionals will welcome anything that keeps a project moving ahead and lets them bill earlier rather than later.
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