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How to Write a White Paper That Wins Consulting Projects: Interview with Gordon Graham

By Michael Zipursky


Interview Transcript:

Mike Zipursky:  Hi, everyone. It’s Michael Zipursky from Consulting Success®. Today, Gordon Graham, we have him on the show. He’s a white paper writer and consultant. He’s worked with Google, Oracle, Intuit among many other Fortune 500 companies. He’s interviewed over 200  C-level executives and written over 170 white papers. Gordon is based in Ontario, Canada. I’m excited to have Gordon on the show today because he’s not only a white paper writer. He’s a very accomplished consultant and a master at marketing his craft. Gordon, welcome.

Gordon Graham:  Thank you very much.

Mike Zipursky:  Gordon, I touched on the kind of companies that you worked with. Did I get that right? Can you tell us more about the work that you’re doing these days?

Gordon Graham:  Sure. I’m basically a B-to-B copywriter. I’ve done lots of other things in my life – technical writing for a software companies and journalism and then I was a marketing executive in a software company. That’s when I found that there are certain types of marketing documents that really work better than others so I focused on those.  Now I’m an independent copywriter and I really specialize in white papers and case studies.

Mike Zipursky:  Okay. I think you’ve accomplished a lot from our previous discussion but I think it’s also important – and you touched a little bit on this – that it’s important that people listening to this realize that you spent many years working as a freelancer then an employee then a VP of marketing before really establishing your specialization, correct?

Gordon Graham:  Yeah. I guess it was around 2001, I got very, very interested in white papers and in 2005 or so, I set up my website. Gee, I guess I was already in my forties at that point. It took me a little while to hit the thing that I think I’ll be doing the rest of my career.

Mike Zipursky:  Right. Let’s talk about that specialization for a minute. Before we do that, when you were the VP of marketing at a hardware/software company, you found that most methods of marketing weren’t working that well but one did better than all the rest. Can you share that story?

Gordon Graham:  Sure. Are you talking about the little booklet we did, the little special report that we did?

Mike Zipursky:  I think so, yeah, kind of talking about how that maybe led to the white papers and exploring that whole area.

Gordon Graham:  Well, that was in the late 90s and we were a quick-growing software company, hardware company. We did barcoding or data collection for ERP systems like Oracle and SAP. We were an add-on product to those big giant products and we really tried every possible channel of marketing. We had our website early on, which was fine. We tried all different types of marketing collateral. We went to trade shows, of course. We did some advertising. We did direct mail. The two things that I found really got the most traction were case studies or customer stories, and there’s a kind of industry standard format for those kind of two-page PDFs written up like a magazine article. Those just get eaten up and prospects love them because what they do is really reassure someone that looking at buying from you that another company pretty similar to theirs had a good experience with you. They’re an extended testimonial from a third party, much more powerful than, say, advertising, where you’re beating your own chest. They’re very factual. They’re very driven by actual events.

White papers tend to be on a higher level talking about an entire problem that afflicts an entire industry. Where a customer story talks about a specific experience of one customer, a white paper talks about a whole industry or a whole niche that’s experiencing a certain problem and suggests a better way to tackle that problem. That’s also quite – ideally they’re quite educational. They provide very useful information that can actually help a business person to understand an issue, to solve a problem or to make a decision about which way to go in the future.

Mike Zipursky:  I just want to ask you, Gordon. Back to when you were the VP of marketing in this company. What specifically were you – you said you were trying a lot of different things and then you noticed these case studies, you know, customer stories, were working really well. Can you give us a little bit more insight into exactly what you were doing at that time and how were you putting these out? Were they just put up on your website? Were they going to trade publications? A little bit more detail around how you were actually using these.

Gordon Graham:  Okay. Well, the classic way to do a customer story hasn’t changed much over the years. You have a customer that’s very, very happy, sort of a raving fan, who agrees to be interviewed. You interview them and write it up in a one or two-page article that you format as a PDF and put it on your website, but that’s only the beginning. Customer stories are so powerful because you can repurpose them in about 25 different ways. For instance, you can pull some slides or a company slide deck out of it. If you record the interview, you can extract a nice little mp3 audio testimonial out of them. You can use the little snippet on the website with the company’s logo and then you can click through to get the bigger story. You can use an especially detailed customer story for a presentation at an industry event or a conference. They’re just the most rich materials for repurposing. You can, of course, also include those, tuck those into any kind of package where you’re responding to an RFP or you can send a link to them or the PDF themselves out to a fresh prospect.

Really, my advice for those is to make sure that you have one for every major customer segment. Say you sell on the east coast. Okay, you want to have a good customer on the east coast but say you consult into two different vertical markets. You want to have one customer story for each vertical market so you would have two great customers and the right location, one in each of your chosen verticals and that covers your market. Then you think, how often do you need to put out a new one. You might want to put out a new one every six months or every year or so, but you have to keep a nice fresh flow of those coming. That’s in terms of the customer stories.

The white paper that we really did that got us the incredible results was – you wouldn’t look at it and think it was a white paper because we published it like a little booklet and it was called How to Unleash the Power of your ERP System with Barcoding. It was kind of like a fictionalized customer story because the story was a walkthrough of a fictitious company we called ACME Tricycle Works and it was our two classic personalities or personas involved in a sale. It was Victor the vice president and – I forget the name of the engineer but there was a kind of an IT, I can call him Ivan the IT adviser.

Mike Zipursky:  You really set the stage, though, within this so that the people that would generally be involved in a sale, those were kind of the two main characters.

Gordon Graham:  Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. It was as simple as a children’s story. They were basically walking through the tricycle works, pausing at every section of their factory so they were at shipping and receiving then they were at their inventory of parts supplies, and then they were at their main production line. Then they walked through the office and they pointed out where the finance guys sit. They would talk about, “Remember how terrible it was last Christmas when we had all these orders and we couldn’t fill them and everybody was going crazy? Boy, last Christmas after we got our data collection system things were so much smoother.” “Oh, yeah, that was great.”

It was mostly dialogue plus sprinkled with some factoids. I went back through about ten years worth of trade magazines for that niche and sprinkled in a lot of little facts and figures about the smallest barcode ever made were once glued to the abdomens of honeybees to track honeybee, you know, travels, and the biggest one ever made was on the side of a battleship, stuff like that, just to give a little interest. That book was about, I think 48 pages. It cost us a fair bit. It cost us about $25,000 all told, to print that and research it and write it, but the result was millions and millions and millions of dollars worth of sales. What our west coast sales rep put it best, and he said, “When I go into a meeting with a prospect and I lay out a copy of our handbook in front of every place for everybody on the selection committee, I can see in their eyes that we have just raised up the vendor list to the very top of the list, because we look serious and we’re doing something that we obviously invested in that we believe in because it’s a physical object that’s printed. It’s really simple and accessible and explains, it helps paint the picture of some of the benefits that our prospective company may enjoy if they buy from us.”

That was an expensive project – probably more expensive than your listeners will want to tackle – but the principle remains. If you put out useful information that helps your prospects understand an issue or solve a problem, they are going to really, really eat it up.

Mike Zipursky:  That’s a great example because even though it cost you $25,000 back on those days when you launched it, it made you millions and millions of dollars. Your ROI on that was obviously very strong.

Gordon Graham:  Yes, because the typical sale including hardware, software and services was $150,000 and up so we didn’t have to make too many sales to pay back for that booklet.

Mike Zipursky:  Let’s talk a little bit more about why do white papers work so well. I mean, even going back to this scenario, I’ve heard you say a few different things. The one that you mentioned just right now is that when the sales person goes into a meeting and puts his booklet on the table, that got their attention as a way to stand out. What are the other reasons that a white paper works so well as a marketing tool?

Gordon Graham:  That’s a really great question and I’m going to think for an instant and give you my best answer. I think on the highest level, white papers fit into this huge trend of marketing with content. Your listeners have probably heard that although I guess it may be a little fuzzy idea for some people. The idea of marketing with content really arose because of the web. In the old days people – B-to-B buyers – used to have to deal with sales people to find out any specifications or any pricing or any, really, anything about your offer, they would have to talk to a sales person and the sales person would get them in their clutches and do the typical sales thing.

The sales people have been more or less dis-intermediated. They’ve been cut out of the process. The middleman is gone. The last survey I saw was 96%, I believe, of all B-to-B shoppers start the process by doing a search and most of those are going to be doing a Google search, two thirds of them, right? This is how a B-to-B sale begins these days. People serve themselves. B-to-B buyers serve themselves, so they come to your website in Google. They click on it and they look around. What are they going to be most attracted to? I have something a little bit of a hard truth to impart, which is that nobody cares about your company, really. There we are, trying to get a good image and get a nice logo and get our website altogether and tell people how proud we are of our company. Nobody cares. They care about their problems just like we care about our problems.

I guess one of the things I would recommend to your listeners is to stop fussing about their branding and their logo and their company name and stop twiddling with the graphics on their web pages. The most important thing is to really turn it around and put yourself in your prospects’ shoes and think about their troubles. Marketing with content, what it does ideally is B-to-B vendors generate content that really engages prospects that helps them, that gives them some useful information or education. Of course, there are all different channels of content and there’s all the social media right now, but I would separate in our minds things like social media – Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Those are not really a waste of public content. Those are a waste of point to content. It doesn’t matter if you have 8500 followers on Twitter. If you don’t have anywhere to send them, they’re not going to be very engaged but if you go out to Twitter and say, “Hey, we just published this fantastic white paper about six things you really must know before you sign on the dotted line for our type of service, and it’s a useful piece of content, you’ll get a lot of traction out of that.

I guess that’s a high level marketing. White papers are a form of marketing with content. There’s all different forms. Customer stories are a form of marketing with content. But I believe that white papers are really at the top of the pyramid, the king of content, because nothing else will work for as long and generate the kind of results as consistently as a well-done white paper.

Mike Zipursky:  Why is that, though, Gordon? I must applaud you. I didn’t really set up this, this is where I think we really dig in to the action bite for today. I didn’t really set that up but I think where this conversation is going – and I’m glad that it is going this way – is really getting into the heart of what we’re going to cover in the action bite so let’s just keep rolling with it. On that point, again, why does it work so well compared to other things out there? You’re saying that the white paper is kind of the king but when you look at all the other options that people have, what is it really that makes the white paper work so well?

Gordon Graham:  Let’s compare it to one that’s growing in popularity. Say, videos, right? Everybody likes watching videos and there’s a big discussion right now – are white papers dead, nobody likes to read, people are going to just watch video from now on, forget all those texts, just do video. Well, I have a few problems with that. One is that I’ve seen first hand and I know how I operate and I talk to my clients all the time and they tell me about how complex B-to-B sale takes place. They’re getting more complex and they’re taking longer and they’re drawing in more and more people because everybody is more risk-averse these days, right? Nobody wants to make a mistake. It could be a really career-limiting problem if somebody in the company hires the wrong consulting firm or buys the wrong system or even buys the wrong office chair. Everybody’s cautious and everybody’s watching their pennies.

So no other form of content is as meaty and as substantial and as well researched and as thoughtful as a white paper – a six to eight page white paper with footnotes that took a group a month or six weeks to create. That is going to have some meat in it compared to, say, a video walkthrough of your company showing people dancing on their desks or even a video showing your top executive as a talking head going, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” I mean, people may watch that but the people that I want to influence are the people on the selection committee who are going to spend hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars, and those people have to do more than watch videos. Those people have to do some serious reading and thinking and talking and make a wise collective decision. Nobody’s going to say, “Hey, I saw this great movie on video. Let’s everybody – the CFO and CEO and everybody – let’s all sit around the conference table and watch this video on YouTube because it’s great!”

Are you kidding me? That just does not happen. What happens is people pass around reports. They email each other things. They may snip out the first page of white paper and pass it around everybody on the committee. A white paper sums up a vendor’s best thinking and best argument and their best shot at their competitors. Very few people have the skills or the budget to do that in a video. I mean, videos are great but if you wanted to do a video that was as effective as a white paper, you’d have to spend five times as much to produce it and you’d have to get an experienced director and experienced scriptwriter and some acting talent and lighting and makeup. I’m not saying that video is a bad medium. It’s fantastic. Everybody likes watching video. But to really move a business buyer down the sale cycle, for a complex expensive sale, a white paper’s going to work far better than a video.

Mike Zipursky:  Gordon, let me ask you this. Two things that you’ve mentioned here that I want to dig into, one is, initially you talked about how you put together this booklet in the previous company when you were the VP of marketing – 40 pages, big impact, big ROI it got for you – but you just mentioned here that a white paper really only needs to be six to eight pages, well researched and obviously well put together, so that’s I guess one thing to clarify. It only needs to be around six to eight pages, is that correct?

Gordon Graham:  Yeah. The typical length for a white paper is six to eight pages. That booklet that we did, that’s why I’m saying that you might not look at it and think it was a white paper but it really serves the very same purpose and it was just a slightly more elaborate one. I wrote a white paper for Google that I think was 25 pages but that was trying to sum up an entire industry development and it was used at a conference and they made a presentation based around that. I mean, these things that can be longer or shorter. In fact, if we want to talk about maybe my action bite that I might suggest to your listeners, I think that just about every consultant should have some kind of numbered list white paper and those could be really only a couple of pages longer. They could be three pages. They don’t have to be six to eight pages.

Mike Zipursky:  Yeah, let’s talk about that. That would be great because as you were mentioning what the kinds of white papers that you’ve created and some of the examples up to this point, a lot of that I think some of our listeners might be thinking, “Well, that sounds,” – maybe it’s for a much larger company or for going after maybe a much more complex sale – but if we can put this in context for a consultant that would be great.

Gordon Graham:  Well, let’s talk about what you just said because that was an excellent point, Michael. People think that only large companies do white papers. If you manage in your two to three person consulting firm to put out a nice white paper, you’re going to look big. It’ll help level the playing field between you and a bigger competitor so I’m just zipping down as we speak through some that I’ve done and I want to read out the ones that I’ve done for small companies.

How to Avoid Five Blind Spots in Internet Filtering, that was a very small software company. There’s one that I’m looking for, How to Cut Wireless Costs: Five Strategies and 14 Tactics for CFOs, that’s a two-person company. Seven Steps to a Sensible BYOD Strategy so you can Sleep at Night, that’s for about a ten-person consulting company in North Carolina, and BYOD is Bring Your Own Device, so this is the idea that people will bring their own iPhones and their own iPads to work and use them, so Seven Steps to a Sensible BYOD Strategy so you can Sleep at Night. One of my favorite ones – I’m looking for it here so I’ll make sure to get it – Nine Best Practices for Colleges and Universities Moving to Online Course Evaluations. I’m reading you all the ones that are numbered lists. Even Google, I did one, Seven Factors to Consider when Choosing a Search Optimization Platform, Seven Tough Questions every Insurer Must Ask about your Next Hospital Contract, that’s a very small company.

Mike Zipursky:  Gordon, really, what you’re saying here, though, is that it doesn’t matter the size of your company and it doesn’t matter if you’re consultant or a technology firm software, you know, or otherwise. Really, consultants can use white papers to differentiate themselves in the marketplace as a very effective marketing tool to get the attention and earn trust of the kinds of clients that they want to work with.

Gordon Graham:  Absolutely. You’re just saying so many great things. Let’s look at the trust factor. I started talking about marketing with content and putting out useful information. What’s the difference between a company that publishes useful content – even if they’re a one-person company, like I’m a one-person company. I’ve got some contractors but I’m a one-person company. I’ve got a special report on my website that’s been downloaded something like 1500 times. It’s called How to Pick the Perfect Flavor for your Next White Paper. It’s about a 15-page white paper on really trying to help people understand the three main types of white papers. I call them chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, so the cover of that report is three scoops of ice cream. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “Oh, I just love that ice cream report.” That’s what I call it – my ice cream report. That’s what everybody calls it, and we’re thinking of doing a chocolate flavor. That is so great. I’m not saying at the end of it you have to come to me and I’ll write you a white paper. I’m saying here’s how to use white papers more effectively. That’s an example from my own personal business.

Here’s the one I wanted to tell you about, Six Things You Must Know Before You Buy Business Process Software. Now, this is a one-person company. He’s a process consultant and he really understands this one genre of software very well. It’s called business process software. What he’s saying in here is this kind of software only works for very structured processes. Most of what knowledge workers do as unstructured. The most valuable business processes are unstructured. Your key people probably won’t want to use this kind of software but there’s a middle way to bringing and getting some of the benefits of this type of software – we’re calling that a framework – and your key people will enjoy using the framework if you present to them correctly. So it’ll be saying, “Wait. Before you buy some of this stuff and tie your company up on knots, read this.” I have to believe that somebody that reads this and goes, “Hmm, maybe we were about to make a huge blunder and spend a quarter million dollars on this business process software and, you know, according to this guy it’s not even going to help us. It’s going to hurt us.”

I have the feeling that a lot of people are going to pick up the phone and want to get him in for a call and this is his main go-to market device he’s been using and it’s been working just fine for him because he’s helping understand a problem or see an issue or see a wider horizon. Now, he basically wrote that and I helped him tweak it a little bit, but you can see these six things, five things, seven things, four issues, seven gotchas. The numbered list is what I call it, is a fantastic format because everybody likes reading them. They promise a nice, short snappy read. You can repurpose them as blog posts. They’re just fantastic.

As far as the trust goes, say that you’re company’s looking at three different consulting firms and one of them gives them a white paper like this and the other two say, “Oh, yes. We can help you install a business process software.” Who do you think they’re going to trust more – the ones that are saying, “Oh, yeah, we’re so good and we can really help you, sign here,” or the guy that’s saying, “Wait, here’s something you have to understand before you go for this. Here’s some useful information I’ve learned in my ten years working with this kind of software.” Who are they going to trust? I think that most buyers are going to trust the company that gives them some useful information instead of just trying to get them to sign on the dotted line. This is totally applicable to small consulting firms.

I have interviewed lots of business executives and the number one problem that they generally get around to saying, “If I ask what’s your biggest problem,” you know, especially smaller companies, they will often say, “Well, you know, sure it’s hard, the economy and everything, but what’s really hard is us standing out from the crowd. Everybody in our niche talks the same. They use the same lingo and we all have about the same prices. It’s really hard for us to stand out and be different. If we’re up against some competitors, it’s really hard for us to get our edge and gain any kind of advantage over them.” Marketing with content is the way to gain an edge. Becoming a trusted adviser is exactly what consultants want, right? I mean,  we want our customers to trust us and listen to us and, well, I guess the classic thing is meet us, know us and like us, something like that.

Mike Zipursky:  You said it very well, Gordon, before when you said that everyone wants to stand out from the crowd but no one wants to do anything different, so it’s like this mindset that, as you mentioned, everyone wants to really have an advantage. They want to be seen in the marketplace as an authority. They want to have that trust but at the same time most consultants and most people in business end up doing the same thing that everyone else is doing, just thinking that they’re going to try and do it better, but there’s clearly ways you can’t stand out in the marketplace and using white papers is one of those really good ways to do that, so I think that’s great.

I’m looking at the time here and I want to dig in to one thing that really stood out to me. That’s that I think you have one of the best-defined specializations and focus I’ve seen. On your website your value proposition, your statement, is very clear. You say, “I help B-to-B technology firms tell their stories with crisp compelling white papers. When you work with me your white papers generate more leads, create more buzz and cement more sales. That is so focused. Here, also, Gordon, why aren’t you saying that – in the beginning you mentioned that you’re really a copywriter – but why aren’t you saying that you’re a writer or a marketing writer or a copywriter on your website and in your marketing materials? Why are you focusing so narrow on being a writer specifically for white papers?

Gordon Graham:  Well, I guess it goes back to when you do an elevator pitch. A lot of people give their elevator pitch as a label, just a kind of genre of, “I’m a copywriter,” “I’m a B-to-B copywriter,” “I’m a consultant,” “I’m a process consultant,” “I’m a share point consultant.” That really isn’t a very good conversation starter, because what reaction do you get? You usually get, if you just label yourself then other people just nod and go, “Okay,” and then they go back to wanting to talk about baseball or whatever they were just thinking about. It’s not open-ended at all. By me saying I help companies tell their stories, that’s a little bit open-ended. It might intrigue somebody. They might say, “How do you help a company tell their story? What does that mean, anyway? Crisp compelling white papers, what are white papers? I wonder if white papers could help my company tell our story.” The benefits after that are, you know, this is how I stand out from the crowd. There are a lot of copywriters out there.

Mike Zipursky:  I know when you first got into this business and really selected a specialization, didn’t you have the concern that by saying that you specialize in white papers and even going further than that, just saying that you do it just for B-to-B technology firms, didn’t you have a concern that you would lose business?

Gordon Graham:  That happens to be a huge niche with more business than I can possibly deal with so I was fortunate there to have rich happy hunting grounds, but it doesn’t stop anybody that I know of. I still got lots of inquiries from people saying, “Well, do you write about medical devices? Do you write about the insurance industry? Do you write about consulting companies?”

Mike Zipursky:  And you will, right?

Gordon Graham:  Sure, sure. My sweet spot is really technology software but I’ve written about medical devices and hospitals negotiating with insurance companies over healthcare cost and all kinds of things. I have to admit that when I go out of my specialty it takes me more research and those projects are a little less profitable but they’re interesting. I didn’t want a totally steady diet of just one thing but if, say, you Google copywriters. You’re going to probably get – I should do that right now and tell you – but you’ll probably get millions.

Mike Zipursky:  Right.

Gordon Graham:  What have we got here, 34 million results for copywriters. If you Google white paper writers – and I’m fortunate I’m at the top of the list there – you get one tenth as many, so I don’t know.

Mike Zipursky:  You know, Gordon, I’m playing a bit of the devil’s advocate here because this is what I suggest to all consultants as well, is that the importance of having a specialization and using that to really establish your credibility and your authority status and all that, you know, it makes so much sense but a lot of people have this concern that by focusing so much you’re really going to be shutting down a lot of the market and losing a lot of potential business but I found it to be the opposite. I think you’re a great example of just how that’s not the case and how your business has really benefited from having a clear specialization. At the same time, you just mentioned that you’re still open to taking on other projects even though it may not be your sweet spot or the core of what you do, but if it’s a good fit with a client and it definitely hasn’t stopped clients from other industries that aren’t in that sweet spot from contacting you because if they say the need for them, then they’re obviously curious if you’re able to help them as well.

Gordon Graham:  Yeah, and it gives a conversation opener, right? They’ll contact me and say, “Well, have you ever worked with anybody in our niche?” Chances are, I have or I’ve done something similar or I’ve helped the company with their marketing challenge.

I wanted to maybe help your listeners drill down into that idea of specializing a little bit, because I think there’s really two dimensions of specialization. There’s a horizontal specialization and there’s more of a vertical specialization so I would say, I’ll start with an example of my own business and then maybe we can extend that out. Say, as a writer I can specialize in a type of document like white papers or case studies. Copywriting is pretty fuzzy so if you focus that down in – I focus that down in on white papers – I would call that the kind of a horizontal focus in what I’m doing. Then I can focus in a vertical market like B-to-B technology or even more fine like B-to-B software. Then of course, like going to medical devices or something is a little bit outside of that. If you put those two on top of each other you get a super laser focus, you know, I write white papers for B-to-B software companies. That’s super focused and fortunately that’s a nice big market, as I was saying.

How would that apply to any other consulting company? Well, I think there’s vertical markets, of course, and many consulting companies specialize on a certain vertical like manufacturing or retail or travel or whatever. Then there’s this horizontal slice, too, about what do you actually do. Do you help people generate more leads? Do you help people hire effectively and manage their staff and keep them happy? Do you help people factor their invoices? I mean, there’s’ a million things that consultants can do and talk about and help, right? If you take that slice of what you do but you do it for anybody in any industry then at certain times you’re going to have to learn a little bit more about a certain industry or there’ll be some differences from one industry to the other that will, you have to do a little bit more research, but you can do it if you have a deep enough company. You can do pretty well that horizontal task – that thing that you specialize in for anybody, that activity – I look at that as the horizontal thing. The vertical is the type of company. It could be the size. It could be the location. Most often it’s the economic niche or the sector that they’re in. When you specialize by sector you learn, of course, all of the jargon and all of the main players and the trends and the issues within that sector very, very well so that you can speak knowledgeably to anybody else in that sector. So the hyper specialization for a consulting company would be, we do this for companies in this niche.

Mike Zipursky:  Right, so the horizontal is what you do. The vertical is who you do it for. Maybe one thing to add to that, if I’m correct here, is – I think you do this very well – is talk about what the results you generate are, so, you know, we do this for this and this is the result or the expectation or the deliverable or the outcome that you’ll be able to achieve.

Gordon Graham:  Yeah, and the ultimate way to prove your results is to have your own customer stories or testimonials. I’ve been kind of too busy to write up my own but I do have a list of samples with a short little testimonial from about 12 different companies on my site and that’s doing the trick for now.

Mike Zipursky:  Right. Gordon, as we’re getting near the end here, could you offer a few quick tips for the consultant listening to this that’s thinking, “Okay, I’m sold on the idea of white papers. It’s something that I think I should move forward with or consider creating.” A quick overview of some key points that the consultant should keep in mind when creating white paper.

Gordon Graham:  Well, I think that it’s really to put yourself in the shoes of your prospects. Forget talking about your own company and think about what is a nagging problem that they have been dealing with, the problem that your company or one of the problems that your company exists to help them solve. Think about that and start off with that frame in mind, and then think about what you could say – your best thinking that you could offer them – that you’re not to give away.

A lot of consultants are afraid to reveal their methods or their concepts or their insights. Gee, you know, as long as you’re afraid and you hold yourself back and you do what everybody else does, you’re not going to stand out from the crowd. Believe me, as soon as you start standing up and saying, “This is what we think, this is what we believe and this how it helps people and this is this terrible problem that our industry is facing and these are the ways that people have tried to tackle in the past. None of us are any good and here’s a better way to do it.” You’re not doing it in a pushy salesy kind of way. You’re doing it in a way to try to help educate people. That will help you stand out and the numbered list is the best way to do that.

All you do for a numbered list is you basically take one of these issues that your prospects are, kind of keeps them up at night. You take one of these terrible problems and then you just start free associating and thinking, “Gee, what seven or eight things could we tell them about that?” Try and get a list of 20 things, 20 tips about – I read you down the list of the six things you must know before you buy a business process software so that’s an example, but you think about just bullets. They don’t have to be built into any big long connected narrative. It’s a mosaic so it’s an idea here, an idea there, and another thing and another thing and another thing. Oh, and what about this? Yeah, there’s that too. Yeah, here’s another thing.

It can be tips. It can be questions. It can be gotchas. It can be best practices. Then keep the best. Keep the most powerful six, seven or eight of them and write up a couple of paragraphs under each one and there you have a very, very handy useful white paper. In fact, I can give you quick example and this is at the very, very low end of the market, the most simplistic version of a white paper you’d ever hear.

Say, Joe the plumber. There’s Joe the plumber, there’s John the plumber and there’s Jake the plumber. How is Joe going to stand out? He decides to put together a little report and it’s Eight Plumbing Jobs You Can Do Yourself and Four You Should Never Touch with a Ten Foot Pole. He can say, “Okay, you can replace the washer. Okay, you can whatever. But you better not try to replace the whole toilet by yourself or replace the whole water heater by yourself. If you’ve got water all over your basement and it’s leaking out of your water heater that broke, you better call a plumber. He puts that out in his website and somebody’s looking for a plumber. They come across John, they come across James, they come across Jake and then they’d come across Joe. Joe is the only one of the batch that’s got something, “Here is our free special report about eight jobs you can handle yourself and four that you really should call a plumber about.”

Who do you think they’re going to trust more and who do you think they’re going to like more and who do you think they’re going to call? They’ll call up Joe and I bet you dollars to doughnuts, some of them are going to say, “You know, I saw your report and I can do most of my own plumbing but I got a job here that’s number three in your list of I better call you, so I figured I’d give you a call.” You’re actually helping them understand something and figure out something and deal with a problem.

Mike Zipursky: Gordon, I saw on your website. Your website is You have an article section, which actually has some great resources. For anyone listening to this thinking about writing a white paper, check out Gordon’s site because he has some great resources there to help you to plan your white paper. Even bigger news is that you have a book, White Paper for Dummies, coming out soon. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Gordon Graham:  Yes, that’s one of those infamous books with the black and yellow covers on it, White Papers for Dummies. It’s 384 pages. It’s selling at Amazon for about $15. Wow, that’s about a dollar for every year’s worth of learning and advice that I packed in there. It’s the most comprehensive book on white papers that’s ever been published. It’s certainly the longest and it has everything in there from writing to research to managing to picking the right type to, which type can eat up which part of the funnel, even some tips for how to design a white paper, links to samples on my website. I really hope that people find that helpful and I really packed everything I’ve learned into that book and I’m very excited. I haven’t actually seen it in my hands yet. This is spring of 2013 but it’s supposed to be out any day now.

Mike Zipursky:  Okay. Gordon, again, thank you so much for doing this interview. I really appreciate you sharing your wisdom and experience. Again, thanks.

Gordon Graham:  Thank you. I hope that was useful and if any of your listeners want to call me up for quick chat time I’m always available to give people my two cents worth.

Mike Zipursky:  Great. Thanks so much.

Gordon Graham:  Thank you.

5 thoughts on “How to Write a White Paper That Wins Consulting Projects: Interview with Gordon Graham

  1. Robyn says:

    Great article, thank you for sharing this info!

  2. Victor Igharo says:

    Mike, I thoroughly enjoyed your interview with Gordon. As a young consultant in Nigeria, I think the idea of the white paper is invaluable. Keep on the great work, best regards.
    -Victor Igharo

  3. Rhea says:

    Great article really enjoyed it!

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