On March 17, 2004, Beau Cain gave an enlightening talk on why white papers are important for the future of technical communicators. He explained what white papers are and how they open opportunities to sell our communication skills to employers. Beau presented a small sample of the materials in his class on writing white papers, which he teaches at San Jose State's Professional Development Center. Beau is also the recently elected Region 8 Sponsor for the STC.
What Is a Business White Paper?
A business white paper is a marketing document for presenting persuasive content. It describes how a product, service, or new idea meets the needs of decision makers. In other words, it is a tool that decision makers use to evaluate a product or idea. (Government white papers are a whole different animal outside the bounds of this topic.)
Writing white papers requires switching to marketing communications. But as Beau pointed out, technical communicators have a full complement of transferable skills for marcomm. Both kinds of writing require knowing the audience, understanding the project requirements, mastering the product features, following style guides, and completing the cycle of planning, review, and approval.
Changing Times, Changing Markets
During the dot com boom, companies were focused on being the first to get product to market. Other considerations, such as development costs and profitability, were secondary. Employers were willing to spend lavishly to hire technical communicators to create user assistance for the products.
In the dot bust world, things are different. Profitability is now the primary focus. To cut costs, managers are no longer spending lavishly to hire technical communicators. In this environment, everybody's work must contribute to profits. And this is where white papers come into the picture. They allow technical communicators to create documents that describe how a product, service, or concept satisfies the needs of decision makers during all phases of the sales cycle.
Ten Types of White Papers That Open Up Doors
There are 10 types of white papers. Each has a different purpose and role in the sales cycle. Beau used the following table to sum up the types of white papers.
|Type||Function||Stage in Sales Cycle|
|Thought Leader||Establish the organization or product as a leader, define the playing field, set the agenda, and specify decision criteria. Establish the credibility and authority of the organization.||Early review|
|Business Benefits||Establish the reasons why the organization needs this product.||Early review|
|Competitive Review||Position product and differentiate from competitors.||Early review|
|Position Paper||Clarify the organization's position on an issue relevant to the purchase, such as a standard or regulation.||Early review|
|Corporate Overview||Position the company and define its strategy.||Early review|
|Evaluator's Guide||Provide a thorough explanation of features, functions, and positioning.||Early review and technical evaluation|
|Technical Review||Offer an in-depth discussion of technical issues that may become obstacles.||Technical evaluation|
|ROI Analysis||Provide a framework for evaluating the return on the investment.||Pricing and financing discussions|
|Implementation and Configuration Summary||Provide guidance on selecting the appropriate configuration of product and add-ons.||Detailed evaluation|
|Services Guide||Explain accompanying services and support programs.||Detailed evaluation|
Each type of white paper in this table points out an opportunity for technical communicators to increase their value to employers. Beau put it this way: "Technical communication professionals can insinuate themselves into all of these areas by writing white papers for each phase of the sales cycle." And that is a very good thing.
Marc Smircich is a technical communicator with over 15 years experience in documenting enterprise-wide systems for human resources, payroll, and financial applications. He is also the newsletter editor and treasurer for the San Francisco Chapter STC.
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