Of all the tools in the thought leadership toolbox, the industry survey, discussed in my last column, may be the most underutilized in terms of return on investment (ROI). Even so, it is the white paper that is the thought-leadership workhorse. This is where most firms make their first attempt at trying to substantially leverage their intellectual capital, moving beyond the shorter and more technically focused “alerts” that many firms issue in response to regulatory developments or seasonal issues.
Because issuing white papers often represent a critical growth point in the firm’s marketing capabilities, how a firm undertakes its white papers often provides the groundwork for later thought-leadership efforts.
Identify the Basic Form of the Successful White Paper
White papers typically center on topics of strategic significance to the client (for example, Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB)/International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) convergence, succession planning or managing business risk during a downturn). As such, they should have a certain critical mass of at least 1,200 words or 1,500 words. They should provide the context for the issue, a comprehensive roadmap of the various elements involved and conclude with recommendations so that the reader — your current or potential client — can implement what has been learned.
The challenge of the marketing department, of course, is to manage the process of getting the knowledge and insights of the firm’s principals into this structure, give it a compelling package and positioning it for optimal use in the firm’s business development. The following six guidelines can help minimize the frustrations and maximize the payoff:
- Establish a standard look and feel. The publication libraries of too many firms look like a grab bag of papers from a range of enterprises. Without a standard look and feel, your white papers will not reinforce the overall firm brand as they should. This notion of a standard look and feel extends past the graphic design to the structure of the document (for example, short introduction up front, an “about the firm” section at the end). The use of different photographic images and/or colors can be used for different service lines, practices or audiences, giving each a distinct look that still clearly falls under a single umbrella.
Indeed, remember that “white paper” is just a phrase. Even if you are only using a Microsoft Word template, there is much that can be done with pull quotes/call outs (short excerpts that highlight a key point and are set in a larger type size), creatively chosen stock photography and other basic design elements to give the document visual sophistication and make it easy on the readers’ eyes.
- Manage the pipeline. White papers happen as individual projects, but when shepherding the process it’s important to think in terms of developing a pipeline, so that there is a steady stream of fresh material. This will also make it easier to produce papers that are coherent not only individually but as a group, covering the right range of material collectively.
In establishing your editorial pipeline, it often makes sense to try and bite off more than you can chew. The expected impulse is to try and tackle white papers one at a time. In practice, however, setting up the necessary conversations with the partners or other subject-matter experts behind each paper takes an unpredictable amount of time; it may take a week or a month. Better results are thus obtained if two or three white papers are attempted simultaneously, because mundane logistical challenges will have the effect of ordering the projects one-by-one and building a robust pipeline. If you plan in parallel, you’ll end up executing in series. If you plan in series, you risk barely executing at all.
- Tap into the intellectual energy sources. When trying to envision a series of white papers, it is common to start by thinking about the topics the firm wants to own in the mind of its clients given its business development goals and then match people to the topics. But consider starting with the people within the firm who will be most enthusiastic, who have the most interesting things to say and who will most readily set aside necessary time and focus the papers on their areas of expertise. The success of their projects will build momentum throughout the firm as others seek to emulate them.
- Center on the takeaways. Thought leadership isn’t just content, but actionable insight that helps clients solve strategic problems. Picture yourself on the receiving end: You’ve just read this paper. Now what? If you’re not walking away with some to-dos or a roadmap against which to check some aspect of your operations or a sense of clarity about a complex issue, you probably need to go back and put some more meat on the bone.
- Sell by example. White papers (or any other type of corporate thought leadership) aren’t academic exercises — you’re writing them to highlight firm capabilities and grow your business. But overt selling will only undermine the authority of the document. Instead, incorporate concrete case studies to establish your credibility and show how you have helped clients successfully deal with the issue at hand and include an “About us” section at the end that briefly outlines your relevant practice or service-line capabilities in addition to a short boilerplate background about the firm in general.
Case studies often work best as freestanding sidebars, rather than incorporated in the text of the article itself, bringing the added benefit of breaking up the body copy and injecting some visual diversity to the document. But make sure you clear the case study with the client first, unless you are sufficiently “blinding” it (removing the client’s name and specifics) so that the client will not be identifiable.
- Provide the needed editorial support. Very few partners or other thought-leadership experts within the firm will be able to produce on their own the polished, clean copy that is needed for a quality white paper. Just as important, each partner will write in his or her own voice, making each paper sound like it came from a different firm. At a minimum, the marketing department needs to be able to thoroughly edit what the partners produce so that the end results are all at a common standard and voice. More likely, however, the head of marketing (or his or her lieutenant) will have to act as managing editor of the firm’s thought-leadership materials, not merely editing, but working with the firm’s partners and other subject-matter experts to develop their ideas and shape a series of products.
Writing a white paper is about much more than writing. It’s the fundamental way how firms take the intellectual capital of their partners and other subject-matter experts and form it into something that can be disseminated in the marketplace. It isn’t easy, particularly in the beginning, but establishing a solid white-paper process provides a solid foundation for the firm’s entire thought leadership initiative.
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Bradley W. Bloch is president of Athlon, a New York-based consultancy that helps professional services firms design and execute effective thought-leadership campaigns.