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Top 5 financial white paper mistakes that sabotage your results

I’ve seen many white papers fail to attract and educate readers. That’s often because they make the top five financial white paper mistakes.

1. They discuss a topic, not a problem.

Bad white papers fail to identify a point and to proceed toward it. In contrast, the best white papers tackle a problem—and offer a solution. They don’t ramble aimlessly about a topic.

A “topic” is “small-cap stocks.” A “problem” is “What should I invest in?” or “Should I invest in small-cap stocks?” These problems are solved by white papers with titles such as “The case for small-cap stocks” or “How small cap stocks can improve your portfolio’s diversification.”

On a related point, white papers shouldn’t originate simply because portfolio managers or other financial professionals have an idea they’re excited about. White papers should be tied to client needs. If you’d like to respectfully rein in portfolio managers, read “Reader question: How can communicators manage difficult portfolio managers?

2. They are brochures, not white papers.

If a paper focuses on its publisher’s products and services, it’s a brochure, not a white paper.

Most good financial white papers wait until the last page to plug their products. Usually the promotion consists of a call-to-action (CTA) statement to contact the firm or to click through to learn more about a product. The CTA is often set off in italics or separated from the body of the paper by other formatting. This visible separation tells readers, “We understand the difference between educating you and explicitly pushing our services.”

Of course, white papers have a marketing agenda. They’re effective because they discuss problems that their products or services solve.

3. They’re too long.

People’s attention spans are limited. They won’t read long white papers.

Attention spans differ for institutional vs. retail audiences. Institutional readers will stick with you longer, partly because, compared with individuals, they require more proof of the points that you make in your white papers. They won’t take your statements on faith.

I’ve seen retail white papers that work with lengths as short as 1.000 to 2,000 words. On the institutional side, I’ve written white papers that run 5,000 words or longer.

4. They’re poorly written.

Bad writing drives readers away, unless the readers are highly motivated to learn about your topic and have nowhere else to turn. Even highly motivated readers will struggle to grasp your message if your white paper is poorly written.

Writing that achieves the 3 Cs of being compelling, clear, and concise make it easier for prospects to become clients.

5. They’re poorly formatted.

Cramped, unattractive white papers make it harder for readers to absorb your message. They also suggest that your firm is less than 100% professional in its approach to communications with clients and prospects.

Good formatting and design are easy on the eyes. They help busy readers to quickly assess whether your white paper can help them solve their problems. They enhance the effectiveness of information that you present in charts, graphs, and sidebars (which are boxes that are separate from your white paper’s main flow).

How to avoid financial white paper mistakes

For industry professionals’ perspective on what makes for a good financial white paper, read “White paper marketing: Walk a fine line.”

Consider hiring professionals to help with your white papers. A writer or editor can ensure that your papers are well written. If you’re a small firm that lacks access to a professional designer, consider hiring a designer to create a template for you. Then you’ll have a good layout and some good ideas about how to format graphs and other exhibits. Help makes it a lot easier to avoid financial white paper mistakes.