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In Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath present six common traits underlying ideas with staying power:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

Here’s how marketers can apply these same principles to produce powerful white papers.

successSimple. In their book, Chip and Dan quote a successful defense lawyer who says, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.” The same is true of a white paper that tries to cover too much ground – it’s quickly forgotten.

Instead, choose a key message (or theme) for your paper. If you want to touch upon more than one key message, produce multiple white papers. Your readers will appreciate – and remember – a focused paper. And it never hurts to offer a well-stocked resource page on your site.

Unexpected. Made to Stick says: “We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically ‘opening gaps’ in their knowledge — and then filling those gaps.” In other words, surprise people with useful information.

Put this into play in your white paper by highlighting the implications of problems that prospects are facing. For example, let’s assume the problem is the manual process of transferring medical insurance contract terms from a spreadsheet to a pricing system. An obvious issue is the possibility of data errors during transfer. A more subtle implication may be the potential damage to patient and partner relationships – as well as subsequent lawsuits – should insurance claims be priced incorrectly as a result.

Concrete. According to the Heath brothers, painting a mental picture helps clarify our idea. Do this when writing a white paper. Use a combination of graphics and explanations that walk a reader through a scenario, such as a day in the life of a typical businessperson.

Credible. Chip and Dan advocate letting people determine the validity of your argument by weighing it themselves. They include the following example: During a presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan could have cited statistics about the sluggish economy. Instead he asked voters to determine whether they were better off at that point than they had been four years before.

When it comes to white papers, credible third-party stats still hold sway. However, you can still reinforce these points. For example, encourage your readers to consider how the facts might impact them. Let’s assume you reference a Forrester Research stat claiming that 75% of B2B buyers will be using social media by the end of 2009. You could then ask readers to consider what would happen if their competitors adopt social media to reach prospects and their company did not.

Emotional. Made to Stick reminds us that people respond more deeply when we tap into their emotions rather than their logic. And in a white paper, that means you need to explain how you can help the reader on a personal level. Perhaps your offering helps a fulfillment company stuff 1,000 additional letters into envelopes every day. That’s great for productivity – something the company’s executives probably care about. But the fulfillment manager reading your paper might be just as compelled by the fact that your software will mean an end to all the paper cuts suffered while stuffing those envelopes by hand.

Stories. Chip and Dan believe that stories drive action and inspiration. Want an easy way to harness this power in your white paper? Include a pared down case study (or success story) that illustrates how your offering helped a customer achieve their objectives. This enables readers to move beyond theory and into reality, and envision how their existing situation can improve.