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When I ask clients about the audience for a white paper, I sometimes hear: “the technical and business decision makers” (i.e., we’re trying to reach everyone with this one piece) or “the CIO” and that’s where it ends.

Your ability to connect with your audience hinges on how well you understand what makes that person tick – what keeps her up at night, how she solves problems, how she prefers to consume content, who influences her decisions…that’s just a start. The key is that the more you know about your audience, the more likely you’ll produce a focused white paper that hits the mark.

Let’s assume you’ve defined the ideal reader as the director of HR at insurance firms with 500 or fewer employees who is:

  • Overstretched on a daily basis
  • Reliant on in-person training sessions for new hires and other HR issues
  • Skeptical of qualitative statements about the marketplace
  • More concerned with the ways technology helps her do her job than understanding how it works
  • Wondering whether her daily struggles are the industry norm
  • Just beginning to research the topic

Here’s how this information can shape your white paper.

Align with the buying stage. Since the prospect is in the early stages of the buying cycle and not aware that she has a problem, write a paper that educates her on industry trends, and shares best practices for addressing the types of issues she’s grappling with. In other words, do not talk about your product or service – it’s much too early to get into those details.

Grab attention. Once your paper has been written, getting your paper noticed and read starts with the cover design, title, and executive summary.

  • Cover design: When your white paper is competing for attention in a sea of white papers on third-party sites such as IT Business Edge, TechTarget, and FindWhitePapers, you need to make it stand out. It’s a no-brainer that a well-designed cover is more likely to catch the eye than a bland one.
  • Title: You have about three seconds to capture someone’s attention so your title is key. And since most prospects come across white papers while conducting searches – either on a major search engine or a site that syndicates white papers – your title needs to include the keyword phrases that your prospects will be using in their search. According to MarketingSherpa, prospects search on terms related to their problems far more often than they search on terms related to a solution. As an example, papers with the term “spyware” in the title were 77% more likely to be downloaded than those with “anti-spyware” in the title. You also want to make it clear who should read your paper. Include the ideal reader’s role in the white paper title – for example, “Six Ways HR Directors Can Trim Training Costs.”
  • Executive summary: The executive summary gives skim readers a good idea of the entire paper at a glance. This is especially important if you are targeting busy executives. Sometimes all they have time to read is the executive summary – if that resonates with them, they’ll often pass the paper on to a subordinate for a full read. By focusing on the salient points, you should be able to convey the essence of the paper in a few paragraphs. Similar to crafting a title, you want to keep in mind the following when writing the executive summary:

+Avoid terms specific to your offering. Focus on the terms that prospects are likely to search on – that’s probably not going to be your product or service name.

+Spell out who the paper is intended for, e.g., “This paper helps HR directors at mid-sized companies gain insight into blah blah blah…”.

+Highlight the problems or challenges or opportunities that your paper covers.

Format for readability: Again, your audience is a group of busy HR directors. If this person does decide to read your paper, it’s more likely than not that she’ll start by scanning or “power browsing.” Here’s what you can do to help your reader glean the essence of your paper at a glance:

  • Use headings and subheads to succinctly describe the section – and convey the key message.
  • Pepper the paper with call-out boxes and quotes that highlight important points.
  • Format the paper so that these elements stand out – ideally in a column dedicated to call-outs and sidebars.
  • Insert graphics – drawings, charts, or photos – that help illustrate critical points.

Move the prospect to the next stage. At the end of your paper, include a call to action that guides the reader to the next logical step. Remember, this person is early in the buying cycle, so she’s looking for information that will help her better understand her issues and options. At this point, it may make sense to encourage her to sign up for an educational webinar or download a podcast interview with an industry analyst. Whatever you suggest, spell out how the prospect will benefit by responding to the call to action.