Whitepaper that never went out… Epic Fail!

In a galaxy not so far away…

After much deliberation, we finally got the budget approved for our latest whitepaper. We carefully selected the analyst we wanted to work with and then we set up the conference call to set the wheels in motion. So far, sounds OK – right?

Following the call, we received the agreed upon “Table of Contents” from the analyst. I immediately circulated the ToC to the usual suspects (ie: relevant team members). It seems just everyone is mighty interested in whitepapers! Marketing Director, PR team (including external company) Analyst Relations, Pre-sales Manager, and a several others just had to be on copy.

Then the damndest thing happened, I didn’t get a single reply! Not a one, nada, zip, nobody responded. It was rather strange, after all the fuss to get this deliverable approved, did anyone really care? So I set my plan in motion, The Cafeteria Ambush! While I managed to waylay some of my colleagues and get some feedback on the ToC, there seemed to be a distinct lack of passion for this project. Maybe that should have been a red flag!

Shortly afterwards, back in the office, I compiled everyone’s comments, revised the ToC then sent it back to the analyst. That was the cue for him to start writing. Every couple of days the analyst would circle back on an issue or with a question. Wanting to be a “team player” I would diligently distribute the questions to the team, work hard on getting some responses and send the analyst a summarized answer.

This process went on and on and we finally started to get initial drafts for review. And that’s when the wheels really started to come off. The teams’ comments on the drafts were contradictory, resulting in one confused analyst! I guess we were getting lost from his perspective. I knew things were coming off the rails when most of the feedback consisted of comments such as “I don’t think we should mention this…”, “this is not a good thing to say…” “are we ever going to publish this?” …

Eventually after 3 months, everyone, including the analyst, gave up. We couldn’t finalize the document, it really didn’t say much, in truth it was downright boring, and we even forgot why we wanted to write it in the first place!

We paid the analyst of course, it really wasn’t his fault. We spent a lot of time, money and effort and the whitepaper was put in a drawer, never to see the light of day! In reflection, I probably made one mistake after the other, it was a lesson well learnt. Here’s what I figured out.

Insight # 1 – Make sure the whitepaper is in the plan

We had always been very meticulous about our campaign calendar and content plan, we knew exactly what, when and why we were working on things. Every little thing was planned – from product datasheet updates to product launches, case studies to thought leadership reports. Our infamous whitepaper was not in the plan! While everybody had something to say about it, no one really owned it. Also, it was not a part of any campaign that had specific deadlines – a real outsider.

Our team produces many different types of content – blogs, infographics, reports, solution briefs, customer stories, product and sales presentations, webinars and videos and the like. This highly complex and hard to write whitepaper was not given the focus and planning it really needed to succeed.

Insight #2: The whitepaper we wrote had nothing new to say and no clear message

Don’t get me wrong, I think whitepapers can be excellent thought leadership tools. However, in the B2B marketing world people expect compelling content from “thought leaders”. In this particular scenario, we hadn’t really done our homework and didn’t really know or agree upon the one message that we wanted to convey. In the end, the whitepaper read exactly like that! Trying to please too many cooks, the paper went off in too many directions and didn’t have any solid commitment behind any one of them. We really didn’t know what we wanted to tell the world – not a good point to start.

Insight #3: Don’t screw your analysts’ around its bad for business

In general, most Industry analysts know how to write whitepapers. They know the ecosystem, they know the market, they know the companies in the space. What you need to be clear about is your angle on the topic, the message and the tone you want delivered. An analyst can only work with the information that is provided and will get lost quickly if the information, direction or message is not clear.

Be very attentive to the midway reviews, respond in a timely fashion and present a single “company voice” in comments and feedback. There should be only one subject matter owner within the company. The ToC should be finalized and agreed upon before putting pen to paper. Be pro-active! Make sure you understand and agree to the flow of the paper. Make sure the Analyst understands your position and knows what to emphasize. Work with the analyst to provide graphics, diagrams, spark interesting discussions. The analysts name will be on the cover of the paper, they will want make sure it’s of the highest standard.

While this is a story of failure, in the end there is much to be learnt from this process. Creating technical marketing content is always a collaborative process, it has to be. If everyone understands the plan and their respective roles, and appreciates each other’s competencies, you will most often get a great piece of content on time. Otherwise, well you can see what happens…