These white papers aren't even white!

Well, not quite. But my good friend (and sometimes boss) Larry Marion, CEO of Triangle Publishing Services, does the next best thing with these gloves-off scoring of actual IT white paper by brand-name  vendors.

You’ve all probably heard the best practices for white papers – skip the hard sell, prove your claims, make the text easy to read. But it’s not often you see someone who creates content for a living bite (or at least snarl at) the hand that feeds him by calling out vendors who have succumbed to the temptation to pitch rather than educate.

(By way of credentials, Larry’s has more than 20 years of research, writing and editing reports on the use of technology, interviewed hundreds of senior executives at large organizations about technology, and served as a judge of a major white paper contest for many years.)

Database giant Oracle got a dismal 42 out of 100 for a white paper on “Big Data for the Enterprise.” On the plus side, says Larry, writing “isn’t bad,” the first half covers the right issues and it provides lots of hypothetical examples of how “big data” (the analysis of very, very large data sets) can help businesses.

On the down side, though, he complains of “exceptionally heavy Oracle references,” and only “ one third-party reference, despite many debatable assertions,: no information about the author’s credentials (he’s  in Oracle product management, not exactly an unbiased source) and only one graphic that didn’t focus on Oracle’s product, rather than on customer needs. Finally, he says, there was no clear call to action, and several obvious errors caused by poor editing.

Thoroughly depressed on behalf of Oracle, I trolled through several other critiques in search of good news. But a Siemens white paper on “The Communications Tipping Point” did only slightly better, with 61 out of 100 points. On the plus side: Original survey data, lots of charts, a strong writing style and point of view, a good mix of external data sources and what Larry playfully calls “self-control – Siemens doesn’t  plug its solutions until the last page.

The weaknesses:

  • Headline needs a subtitle, so you know what the paper is about
  • Poorly conceived charts
  • Missing information
  • Who is the author? His/her credentials?
  • Some assertions lack data to support them
  • Some comments reflect unfamiliarity with business budgeting and spending practices
  • No clear call to action

(I would add that nowhere in the executive summary, which is all some people will read, did it describe what the “tipping point” is and why the reader should care. But this is Larry’s rant, not mine.)

A quick glance through Larry’s list showed no white paper got even a gentleman’s “C” for best practices. Was he too kind? Too cruel? Feel free to drop a note and let him know. But his basic protest – that too often vendors use white papers to sell rather than educate — is spot on and ignored too often. Let the street protests begin.

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

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