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Successful White Paper Planning: A Proven 7-Step Process

by | Nov 7, 2016 | Lead Generation, White Papers, Technology Marketing, Content Marketing | 0 comments

This is the third and final installment in our series on white paper planning. In our first post, we discussed why many white paper projects fail. In the second, we looked at the benefits of putting together and gaining agreement on a White Paper Plan (WPP) before beginning development of your actual white paper. Click on the links above if you’d like to review either of those essays before proceeding with this one.

If you’d like to get the whole series – and many additional tips – in a single PDF, click here.

A 7-step process for white paper planning

In our last essay, we introduced the White Paper Plan (WPP) – what it is and the benefits of using one. Today, we’ll take a look at a proven process for crafting an effective WPP.

The following outlines an adaptation for marketing managers of CopyEngineer’s own process for planning white papers for clients. It has been developed based on recommendations from other experienced white paper writers and CopyEngineer’s own lessons learned from developing successful white papers. Its flexibility should allow you to adapt it to your own procedures and best practices, and you are encouraged to do so.

A more detailed description of this process can be found in CopyEngineer’s latest special report, ‘How to Plan a White Paper: A 7-Step Process for Minimizing Headaches and Maximizing ROI.’ To learn more and find out how you can get a copy, click here.

Step 1: Select Your Writer

The most critical member of your white paper team – the one who will likely do the most “heavy lifting” during your white paper’s development – is your writer.

Your writer should help you create your white paper plan. You may even want your writer to take charge of the planning process, if he or she has experience in planning and managing white paper projects.

In any case, selecting your writer must be your first step.

Decide exactly what you want in a writer. Do you have an in-house writer who can handle the job, or do you need to hire a freelancer? Are you in need of  just a writer, or do you also want your writer to manage the project for you? Is there specific industry or technical domain knowledge you require, or is white paper writing experience and expertise more desirable? Make a list of the factors important to you before you begin your search.

Step 2: Determine Your Business Objectives

Once you’ve selected your writer, the first question he or she will probably ask when discussing your project with you is: What are you hoping to accomplish with your white paper project? More specifically:

What is your most important goal?

This question is critical to the success of the project. It is the single most important question to answer before starting your white paper. It’s best to give it some thought ahead of time. Do you need to:

  • Support a product launch?
  • Generate leads?
  • Build mindshare for your brand?
  • Nurture leads through a complex sales process?
  • Cast doubt on competitors, or respond to their assertions?
  • Win more head-to-head competitions at the end of the sales process?

You may have more than one objective, and that’s fine, but you really need to identify your single, most important goal for the project.

Once you’ve settled on your primary goal, there are a number of additional questions you’ll need to answer:

  • Who is the ideal reader for your white paper?
  • What secondary audiences should the writer consider?
  • How will the white paper be used and distributed?
  • At what point in the sales cycle (ideally)should the prospect encounter it?
  • Do you have any SEO objectives for the white paper?

Your answers to these questions will determine the type of white paper your writer will create for you (more on this in Step 5).

Step 3: Assemble the Rest of Your Team

Once you’ve determined the objectives for your white paper with your writer, you’re ready to put together the rest of your team. Besides your writer, this will likely consist of (1) subject matter experts (2) reviewers, and (3) a graphic designer or two.

First, choose your subject matter experts (SMEs).

  • Who are the best sources of information on the topic to be addressed?
  • Who will your writer need to interview?

Second, determine who needs to review the white paper.

  • Who needs to review the white paper’s technical content?
  • Who will review the paper from marketing? From sales?
  • Who needs to approve the final white paper?

It’s extremely important to establish and freeze this list of reviewers as part of the WPP approval process.

You need all reviewers to agree to the scope of the white paper at the outset of the project. Late addition of reviewers who haven’t bought into the agreed concept can create confusion and drastically slow the review process.

Finally, you’ll need to decide who will provide the graphic design.

  • Do you have a trusted designer who can handle the project?
  • Has he or she done white papers before?

If not, you may want to consider hiring a freelance graphic designer. If you’re hired a freelance writer, he or she may be able to supply design for an additional fee.

Step 4: Agree on Schedule and Deliverables

Next, you’ll want to discuss your schedule needs with your writer, as those needs may impact the scope of the white paper. You don’t want to be overly ambitious with the content if you have a tight schedule.

  • Do you have any real world deadlines you need to meet?
  • Do you have a product launch or trade show to support?
  • Have you already purchased ad space in a trade journal where you want to promote the white paper?
  • Will any staff editorial bonuses be affected by delivery?

Make these needs known right up front.

Of course if your needs are flexible, let your writer know that, too. Hopefully, you’ll be planning your white paper well in advance of your need date, as a more flexible schedule will allow your writer more time for thoughtful editing and is likely to result in a better white paper.

Step 5: Get Content Recommendations

Now that your writer knows your objectives and schedule needs, it’s time for him or her to provide you with some recommendations on what your white paper should look like when it’s finished. Naturally, you may already have a subject in mind for your white paper, but the writer should base his recommendations not only on topic, but also on the objectives and constraints you’ve laid out.

The purpose of this section is to gain approval of the plan by all stakeholders. Everyone will be able to see what they’re agreeing to, and what they’ll be working toward during development.

Your writer’s first and most important recommendation will likely be the type of white paper he or she will produce for you.

The vast majority of marketing white papers either fall into one of three major archetypes – categories of white papers – or a combination of two of them. The three white paper archetypes – or flavors, as Gordon Graham, author of White Papers for Dummies[i] calls them – are:

  • Problem/Solution
  • Backgrounder
  • Numbered List

The reason this choice is so important is that each of these white paper archetypes is far stronger than the others in different phases of the sales cycle and for achieving different marketing objectives.

The problem/solution, for example, works best early in the sales cycle, for lead generation. The backgrounder, on the other hand, is a better choice for the end of the cycle, for supporting sales calls and customer’s final product evaluation. The numbered list is most effective in the middle of the sales cycle, for nurturing leads.

(For more detailed information on the different white paper archetypes, see the following article: The 3 Types of White Papers and When to Use Each One.[ii])

Other recommendations your writer might make could include (but are not limited to):

  • Possible titles
  • Call to action
  • Overview of contents

Step 6: Document Other Important Factors

Along with your objectives, your team, your schedule and your writer’s content recommendations, you’ll want to document any other important factors that may impact the project.

Such factors may include (but, again, are not be limited to):

  • Marketing strategy (and where the white paper fits into it)
  • Promotional plan for the white paper
  • Available supporting documentation (to aid the writer’s research)
  • Competitors to be examined
  • Corporate design template (if you have one)
  • Spelling and style guide to be used (U.S. or UK spelling, for example)
  • Translations planned (if applicable, for foreign-language markets)

Step 7: Gain Approval of the White Paper Plan

The final step of your white paper planning process is to distribute your white paper plan for review and approval. This step can be very simple or very complex, depending on the size of your organization, but approval of the plan should signify the following:

  • All stakeholders agree upon and accept what the development team will be working toward
  • Changes to the team will not alter the plan (new team members accept the approved plan)
  • The plan will be the primary reference (final arbiter) in settling any disagreements that may arise regarding the objective, scope and content of the white paper.

Remember, the WPP is like a constitution for the development of your white paper. Its purpose is to keep everyone pointed toward the same goal and to defend the rights of all involved. It may also be a binding agreement, if you’ve hired a freelance writer. So, approval of a WPP is like the ratification of a constitution, and an approved WPP shouldn’t be amended without careful consideration and due process.

Take-Away Points

To review, the seven steps you need to carry out in developing your successful White Paper Plan are as follows:

  1. Select your writer
  2. Determine your business objectives
  3. Assemble the rest of your team
  4. Agree on schedule and deliverables
  5. Get content recommendations
  6. Document any other important factors
  7. Gain approval of the White Paper Plan

Next Steps

If you would like a more detailed description of this White Paper Plan process, with plenty of tips for making your White Paper Plan – and thus your next white paper – a more certain success, sign-up for my free, monthly e-letter, Technical Response. When you do, you’ll receive a copy of my new special report:
How to Plan a White Paper: A Proven 7-Step Process for Minimizing Headaches and Maximizing ROI.

Want help planning and crafting white paper that won’t fail?  Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or email me at



[i] Graham, Gordon, White Papers for Dummies, John Wiley and Sons, 2013.

[ii] Cole, John, The 3 Types of White Papers and When to Use Each One, CopyEngineer, December 2013.

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