10 Steps to Project Manage a White Paper and Finally Get it Done

crumbled white paper

B2B marketers love white papers. They serve as cornerstone content that educates your audiences, establishes your brand or business as an expert, and gets results. Plus, they’re a repurposing gold mine.

But with 10,000 other things that need your attention right now, how do you keep such a monster ship moving without sinking into the half-done-project abyss? Proper planning and relentless follow up.

Before we get into the nuances, let’s take a step back.

Why White Papers?

According to a 2022 Demand Gen report, over half (52%) of B2B buyers surveyed said they’ve read their share of white papers over the past year. For certain audiences, these reports heavily inform purchasing decisions.

TechTarget report found that 91% of the IT buyers surveyed ranked white papers as the most influential content type in the buying process, second only to product literature. However, of the Demand Gen report respondents—a mix of high-tech, professional services, business services, media/entertainment, and financial services—only 34% ranked white papers as the most valuable content format for making purchasing decisions.

While white papers due favor tech industries, if you craft a white paper right (read: objective, in-depth, fluff-free) and promote it well, it can easily inform, influence, and persuade B2B buyers of all stripes.

White Papers Defined

Look around and you’ll find tons of definitions. Here’s one I like from Hubspot: “A whitepaper is a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution.”

Another good one from Hoffman Marketing Communications: “a marketing/sales document that complements other marketing collateral by providing objective, useful information to a defined audience of prospective buyers about a particular business problem and potential solutions.”

The key words here are: objective, authoritative, and useful. White papers are not the place for marketing messaging. Some of the best white papers don’t even include the company’s name other than in the boiler plate. If your white paper sounds like website copy, or if it only scratches the surface of your topic, you’re doing it wrong.

White Papers Done Right: Start with a Plan

If a white paper is part of your content strategy, give yourself about 8 weeks from kickoff to launch. If it has to run through legal review and/or if you plan to do it all in house, add 2-4 weeks.

Why more time? An experienced white paper writer with expertise in your industry will allocate the time to plan, write, and revise your white paper. They aren’t overwhelmed with nonstop Teams messages, sporadic meetings, and fire drills, which means they can get the job done faster.

Step 1: Discovery session

Gather all decision makers: your marketing lead(s), anyone who needs to review and approve the white paper, your writer, and (if you have one) project manager. Discuss and agree on the purpose of the white paper, the topic, and the scope. A few important agenda items include:

  • Business goals
  • Target audience(s)
  • The topic and the thesis.
  • Relevance: what will the audience get or learn from reading this that they can’t find anywhere else?
  • Available internal materials for background
  • List of subject matter experts who will contribute to the project (2-4, depending on the length)
  • Their availability
  • List of all reviewers (no more than 3 is ideal)
  • Your timeline: determine your go-live date and work backwards

Top-tier white paper writers often include a white paper plan as part of their process. This is a separate deliverable that culminates in a report that details all of the above points and more.

For a minimal investment ($800 if you work with me), you get clarity on your topic, your goals, and your process, and confidence it will get done and done on time. All you have to do is herd a few cats onto a Zoom/Teams/Google Meet call.

Step 2: The Outline

Provided you’ve nailed down a topic and you’ve got a plan in place, it’s time to start content development. The writer should have everything needed to create the outline. If not, consider scheduling a short (~30-minute) fact-finding call with the writer.

– The outline not only helps the writer focus their thoughts, it gives you an opportunity to confirm the direction of the piece. Starting with an approved outline lessens the odds of time-consuming, plan-derailing rewrites later.

– Outline should be reviewed by the reviewers (makes sense, right?). Aim to gather all feedback within one week.

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Step 3: The SME Interviews

Scheduling interviews is where many projects fall apart. Get 30-45 minutes on each SME’s calendar as soon as possible.

With the white paper plan in place, you’ll have a good idea of the timeline. Start checking calendars and sending invites then. Don’t wait until the outline is approved to approach SMEs. In most cases, they’re busy, and if you wait, you create a gap in your timeline.

– Aim to schedule all SME interviews right after outline approval. Fit them into the same calendar week if possible.

Step 4: The Draft

As soon as the SME interviews are complete, your writer disappears and works their magic. By this time, they’ll have everything they need to complete the draft. They may surface to ask a clarifying question or two. Maybe not.

Allow the writer at least two weeks to complete a 2,000-word (ish) draft. If longer, add more time. If the writer needs more or less time, they’ll say so.

Step 5: Reviews

Once the writer submits the draft, give it a good look over right away. Provided you don’t notice any glaring errors, distribute it to reviewers.

Watch out: next to interview scheduling, the review process is where projects can get seriously off track. To keep your white paper moving forward, give your reviewers clear deadlines. Instead of “please review when you can,” think “please review and return with your edits/comments by EOD Friday, September 15.”

Good practice: send them a reminder the day before their deadline. Send another reminder day of. If they miss the deadline, keep following up, always with time-bound deadlines, and a note emphasizing the importance of their timely input. Think polite, persuasive, persistent.

Allocate about a week for reviews.

Another good practice: after all reviewers have submitted their input, resolve comment conflicts. Reviewers can carry on entire conversations in Word and Google Doc comments. If there’s no consensus, the writer can’t resolve the problem.

Step 6: Round Two

Send the reviewed draft to the writer. The writer will incorporate all edits and comments and re-review the draft for grammar, clarity, and tone. Allocate 2-4 business days for revisions.

Step 7: Final Drafts

Follow the same process as Step 5. For this round, ideally the reviewers will have few edits. They’re reviewing to make sure their original concerns were addressed. They shouldn’t have substantive edits at this stage—that’s for round one.

It’s possible, depending on the length of the white paper and the extent of the edits, the paper will need another round of edits. In most cases, two will suffice. Perfect is the enemy of the good, the very good, and the done.

After you’ve got what you believe is the final draft, pass it along to legal for review. Cross your fingers they don’t find anything substantial.

Intermittent Step: Proofreading

Before the design phase, and after everyone has had their hands on the white paper, assign it to a good proofreader. You want your final product to be typo-free, grammatically correct, and in compliance with your editorial guidelines. A proofreader will find things even the most meticulous writers and editors miss. It’s worth the investment.

Add 2-3 days per proofing round.

Step 8: Design

A pro writer will offer suggestions for pull-quotes, callout boxes, tables, graphs, and other images. By now they know the topic and your business. If they know white papers (and they should) they’ll have some good ideas. This makes the designer’s job easier, and your white paper more impactful.

Time frames vary depending on whether you have an in-house designer or work with an outside graphic designer. One week to 10 days is a safe estimate.

Step 9: More reviews!

You may not need all reviewers here, but do dedicate at least one reviewer and one senior stakeholder to review the designed pdf. Changes should be primarily design-focused. For the sanity of your designer and writer, substantive copy edits should be completed before design.

Repeat the review cycle 1-2 more times and give it a final proofread.

Step 10: Celebrate – and Promote!

Congratulations! You got your white paper done.

Now it’s time to promote it.

Start developing your landing page copy, email copy, and other promotional copy once you have the final draft complete. That way, you’ll be ready to launch when you get final sign-off.

Important final step: pat yourself on the back. Well-done white papers are complicated projects because they have so many moving parts. Thank your team for their hard work…and remind them to share your stellar new white paper liberally on social media!

To get your next white paper done, get in touch to find out how I can help you plan it, write it, and promote it.

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