How to plan your B2B white papers and thought leadership content: a checklist of 10 questions to answer first
There are many reasons to commission a white paper or piece of authoritative content.
Lead generation, increasing awareness of your product/solution, accelerating buyer journeys, powering marketing/sales narratives, and giving your business development team material to have deeper conversations with prospects are just a few.
But creating such a piece of content can be a daunting experience. What are the steps you should take? And how do you make sure it achieves what you need it to?
Below are a few questions I typically ask when planning a piece of B2B content.
1. What is the target audience?
The first step you need to take is to determine your target audience. Who is it that you want to target with your content?
Typically this audience will be your buyers and decision makers. But they might also include those who influence the process. For example, you might want to write a piece to influence journalists, industry analysts or sector experts that speak to your buyers.
You will want to be as specific as possible. Being detailed now will help you in the long-run as you will be better able to steer your content towards to correct target.
To help you narrow down your target audience there are a couple questions to ask.
- What job titles do you want to reach? Content for lower management will likely be different than content intended for the C-suite.
- What types of company are you targeting? Size, industry, geography and level of maturity are aspects that should considered here.
If you have a key account list, take advantage of it. It is an invaluable tool. Additionally, developing marketing personas can also help you really get to know your target audience — and if you already have them, get them out for the next steps…
2. What actions do you want your target audience to take on reading this content?
The next thing you want to consider is what you want your audience to do after reading your content. What is the action or actions do you want them to take?
Typically, the actions will fall into one of two categories: hard and soft actions.
‘Hard’ actions are tangible and measurable. They include attending a webinar, downloading further content or spreading to a sales representative.
‘Soft’ actions are intangible and challenging to measure. These actions include having the audience thinking differently about solutions to a problem, having an emotional response to a piece of content, or being inspired to learn more about the topic.
3. What are the pains and gains of your buyers and decision makers?
Consider what the pains and gains of your buyers and decisions makers are. By understanding what your buyer’s expected or desired gains are as well as the pains they are facing and mapping these out, you can demonstrate a product-market fit and persuade the buyer to consider your solution.
A useful tool is the Value Proposition Canvas, as detailed in the book Value Proposition Design. Using the canvas can help you visualise your buyer’s pains and gains as well as show how your solution can directly relieve their pains as well as the gains the solution will create.
If you work for a tech company, check in with your product or user experience team — they might have done a lot of the hard work for you in filling this out.
4. How do these pains and gains come into play at different stages of the buying journey?
Another way to visualise your buyer’s pains and gains fall within the buyer’s journey is by using a customer journey map (also known as a ‘buyer journey map’ — and I use the terms interchangably). The map is created from the buyer’s perspective and is customised for each buyer depending on where they are within the buyer’s journey.
There are various examples of these around the internet, and you may find that you already have produced them internally (some companies refer to them as ‘use case kits’).
If you’re in need of an example, below is one I produced for the Econsultancy / AdRoll Account-Based Marketing report.
As you begin to complete the map, individualise it by using buyer persona information and their workflow details. Work through each step of the buyer’s journey answering each of the vital questions listed along the way.
You’ll see on the left the activities, pains and gains are listed on the left hand side. Along the top row are the questions your customer will be asking as they progress through the buying journey, eventually into become an advocate for your brand.
5. Are there any mindset shifts that need to happen in your target audience?
Sometimes, people have to change the way they work or think quite drastically to adopt the solution.
An old example comes from Salesforce. This giant company had to overcome two primary mindset issues when it was founded.
First, people were used to paying one-off fees for software. It wasn’t a subscription, or a ‘service’. You paid once, that was it. You wanted the new version, you needed to buy again. Hence this strange mascot…
Second, companies generally hosted their databases on-premise using their own hardware. Using the ‘cloud’ was a novel idea. And Marc Benioff is happy to even offend the fashion police to get the message across…
(P.S. Marc says these shoes made for excellent marketing).
As you can see, cloud-based SaaS is no longer a novel concept. But it took time before people were ready to make the shift.
If you need to change mindsets, make sure you list the details.
6. What evidence or proof points could you surface to help solve their information needs?
Now that you have an idea of what information needs your buyer or decision maker may have at any given point of the buying journey, you now need to convince them of your position.
Making the strongest case possible as you answer their questions requires evidence.
Ask yourself these questions when curating information from other sources:
- Are there stats and figures already available online?
- What case studies exist to support best practice?
- Conversely, are there horror stories of bad practice available?
- Are there experts providing an on-the-record opinion?
You may also have to collect primary data to support your case. Surveys, interviews, or data gathered through proprietary means can all help. But as this is expensive, make sure you will take a structured approach — I’d recommend taking a hypothesis-based approach.
7. What resources can you deploy to collect this evidence?
Oft-cited examples of great content marketing companies have spent years on their efforts. With this in mind it’s important to be realistic in terms of what resources you can use at this moment in time.
Your total budget should be high on the list, as should the human resource you have available in-house to create this content.
That being said, working with external assistance can help you get things off the ground more quickly and make a greater impact. Those that might be able to help include:
- Analyst companies
- Market research agencies
8. Is there any other key messaging that needs to align with this evidence?
If you already have a key theme or messaging document, it’s important to make sure it aligns before beginning work. The last thing you want to do is to invest resources up front that later do not align with your overarching themes or messages.
If you have brand or communications guidelines (or a comms calendar) these can be especially useful.
Likewise, there may be some form of tentpole idea or a phrase your company wants to be known for — even if only for SEO purposes.
9. What is your plan to make use of the asset?
Creating an effective white paper is not a simple endeavour. Fortunately, a white paper can be used as a launching point for other forms of content and media. Here are a few possibilities to consider:
- Blog posts
- Social posts with imagery
- Slideshare decks
- Briefing sheets
- Sales collateral
The below graphic from a post on white papers by Ted Ives illustrates how the hard work that gets put into one main piece of content should spill out into a much wider array of marketing activity.
As a rule of thumb, make a plan that lasts for at least a year to get the most out of your white paper. While this might seem a lot of work, it’s much cheaper to get a content writer to repurpose and slice up existing content than to create it from scratch.
10. How will you start this process off?
While answering all these questions will help you scope out your B2B content or thought leadership keep in mind the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, ‘…plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’
While I think writing B2B content is nowhere near as much of a challenge as fighting a battle, situations do change. But without a plan, and without a start date and activity to launch your whitep paper, you won’t get around to do it.
So, write down the first action you’ll take and when you’ll take it as soon as you’ve done the hard work in planning.
So in summary…
And if you’ve got this far, here’s the questions in summary:
- What is the target audience?
- What actions do you want your target audience to take on reading this content?
- What are the pains and gains of your buyers and decision makers?
- How do these pains and gains come into play at different stages of the buying journey?
- Are there any mindset shifts that need to happen in your target audience?
- What evidence or proof points could you surface to help solve their information needs?
- What resources can you deploy to collect this evidence?
- Is there any other key messaging that needs to align with this evidence?
- What is your plan to make use of the asset?
- How will you start this process off?
How can I help?
As a dyed-in-the-wool B2B marketer, I’d be very happy to help you out, so feel free to get in touch!