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

crumbled white paper

B2B marketers love white papers. They are cornerstone content that educates your audiences, establishes your brand as an expert, and generate quality leads. Plus, they’re a repurposing gold mine.

But with the 10,000 other things that need your attention right now, how do you keep such a monster ship moving? With proper planning and relentless follow up. Without that, you run the risk wasting tons of time and energy on a project that never sees the light.

With marketing budgets shrinking every year, and with executives questioning the ROI of content, it’s time to make the most of what you have. So if your content plan includes hefty lifts like white papers and eBooks, make sure they get into your prospects’ hands.

The 10 steps below will help you develop and publish white papers and eBooks with renewed efficiency. They’re the steps I follow, and now, for the first time, I’m sharing them with you.

For specific timelines and tips for each step, plus best practices for writing and promoting white papers, download my free guide, White Paper Power: A 10-step process to get your white paper done—without going bonkers.

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.

If you craft a white paper right (read: objective, in-depth, fluff-free) and promote it well, it will work harder than a thoroughbred to move prospects along the all-mighty marketing funnel.

What Is a White Paper?

Look around and you’ll find tons of white paper 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 8 – 12 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 so much time? You need time to plan, and you’ll need to wrangle a few subject matter experts and possibly a key opinion leader or two. Plus, you need to allocate time to write and revise.

An experienced white paper writer with expertise in your industry will allocate the time to plan, write, and revise your white paper. When you outsource to a writer with experience developing white papers from start to finish, it actually speeds up the timeline.

Why? Because they aren’t overwhelmed by the Teams messages, sporadic meetings, and fire drills that come with life as an in-house marketer. They can turn off all the alerts and focus on your project without distraction.

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 your project manager if you have one. 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. A plan brings clarity to your topic, your goals, and your process.

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.

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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.

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.

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, time-bound deadlines.

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.

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.

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.

Step 9: More reviews!

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, all 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!

clinking wine glasses

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!

Get your white papers done. For real this time! Get the full guide to create and manage your white papers from concept to published asset.

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