White Paper Boom is Boon for Back-to-Basics Public Relations

Searching for a PR tool that will simultaneously deliver credibility and visibility, relevance for customers and functionality for your sales force? The white paper, a staple of good, old-fashioned PR, offers all that and more if done properly. White papers are seeing a resurgence in popularity as organizations search for PR vehicles capable of providing more than just the high-level publicity that characterized years leading up to today's crisis of confidence. One source says he is seeing between 30 and 35 new white papers a day posted on Web sites that catalog them. "I feel like during the last two years, [it] was all about hype and instant results," says David Doolittle, a VP with Ketchum in Atlanta. "People didn't really want to take the time to educate the media with an instrument like a white paper." Today, PR practitioners are embracing the white paper as a way to educate the media and provide a wide variety of stakeholders with detailed, trustworthy information. We spoke with white paper veterans about how to create the perfect white paper for your organization - from generating a topic to writing and design. What we discovered boils down to this: Skip the hype, focus on relevance and leave your readers with information they can use. The Light Bulb White papers vary widely in terms of subject matter, but always keep your audience top of mind when homing in on your topic. Kay Bransford, VP of marketing and communications for Vocus, wrote her first white paper after attending a variety of trade shows in the late 1990s and realizing no one was addressing the topic of PR and the Internet. "I wanted to find out how to use the Internet to do a better job with my PR." Bransford's personal quest for information conveniently fit her company's mission to create software for PR pros doing business online, but it also fit the needs of her audience. "Most white papers I've seen don't offer specific nuts and bolts. I wanted to leave [my readers with] things they can use whether or not they use Vocus products." Bransford began conducting research into what reporters are looking for in online newsrooms. Her quest resulted in a white paper well-known within the PR industry on the top ten items for online press centers. The product helped establish her company's position in a relatively untested market, a classic role for white papers. "They make a great validation tool if you're trying to create a new product for an emerging market. They're a great way to establish viability," says Theresa Maloney, an independent marketing and communications consultant based in Oakland, Calif. The white paper can also be used to establish executives as authorities in an industry. Ketchum's Doolittle, for example, worked with the CEO of Atlanta-based Enterpulse when the CEO began a crusade to engage the technology sector in a discussion of the Web as an instrument to connect people, rather than as a technology. The competition was heavily focused on the software behind the Web, so Doolittle and his team conducted research with 1,000 Internet users to find out what happens when Web sites don't make the connections people are seeking. What they uncovered: Two-thirds of users whose initial experience with a site is unsatisfying never return. The CEO's personal thoughts on the matter, combined with the research, made for a tremendously successful white paper. "This white paper made Enterpulse stand out from the crowd," Doolittle says. The white paper was downloaded off Enterpulse's Web site 1,000 times, and 250 of those downloads turned into solid sales leads. Doolittle recommends that you hone your topic with three key factors in mind: Relevance to the audience - The paper should address an urgent need for your target audience. Education - If you're writing about a product, offer in-depth information on benefits as well as case studies on real-life applications. If you're covering an industry issue, you'll have to offer viable stats and a variety of expert opinions. No hype - Even if you are producing a product white paper, understand that you'll have to cover the benefits and the downfalls. Putting Pen to Paper Once you've defined a topic that meets those criteria, consider whether or not to outsource the writing. Selectica, a b-to-b software company in San Jose, Calif., outsources many of its product white papers to the Aberdeen Group. "There was an article in The Wall Street Journal recently about how people are [paying for publicity] by paying analysts to do white papers," says Laurie Spoon, VP of corporate communications for Selectica. "Yes, we fund it, but we have less input than if an analyst were doing it independently." Selectica provides background information and a customer contact to Aberdeen, and then an analyst meets with the customer and often uncovers the bad along with the good. "There have been a couple of white papers where we look at them and say, 'Ugh, we could have lived without that line,'" Spoon says. But including the pitfalls offers valuable credibility for the white paper and often points out areas for your company to improve. The downfall to outsourcing to a relatively objective writer is cost. Spoon pays Aberdeen anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 for her white papers, depending on length and depth. Your PR agency can produce a white paper for less. Tim Schellhardt, EVP of editorial services at Ketchum, produces white papers for anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500. Whether the paper is targeted at engineers or the mainstream media, write as plainly as possible, Schellhardt says. "You have to solve a problem and do it succinctly. Even the most savvy folks don't want to read something so dry and dull that it's painful." Experts disagree on length, with some saying a three-page white paper is little more than a gimmick and others saying anything longer than 10 pages will end up at the bottom of readers' in-boxes. But most agree that 15 pages is the upper end of what most audiences will be able to handle. Design is another gray area: Most of our experts caution that you should avoid slick paper stocks and flamboyant design. But color and a design that makes the paper more easily navigable - especially for longer papers - are acceptable. "Guide your design choices by the content," Maloney says. Hit all the points correctly for your audience, and you'll have an incredibly powerful PR tool. "The white paper is a tried and true tool, and it's coming back into vogue," says Doolittle. Promoting Your Paper Once you've put together the perfect white paper, leveraging it to its best effect is key. The best white papers will have legs for the PR department as well as for other departments throughout your organization, including sales, marketing and product development. First, "by all means you want to make it free," says Maloney. While some organizations do consider white papers an opportunity to create a new revenue stream, if the white paper is written primarily to build your organization's credibility and establish its presence in the industry, distributing it widely and at no cost is likely the best option. Rob Gelphman, of Gelphman Associates, recommends including the white paper in any information packet, whether it's a press kit at a trade show or a leave-behind package for a sales lead. Many companies are using pdfs of their white papers for email campaigns, and posting the white paper on your Web site for stakeholders to download is not only a valuable distribution tool, but allows you to measure response. Check out Web sites like Bitpipe.com, which catalogs white papers from the technology sector. (Contacts: Doolittle, david.doolittle@ketchum.com; Bransford, kbransford@vocus.com; Maloney, tmaloney@sbcglobal.net; Spoon, lspoon@selectica.com; Schellhardt, 312/ 228-6874; Gelphman, robert@gelphman.com)

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