PB Note: Gordon Graham is the reigning guru of white papers, and he sent me this great overview of the craft (and its exceptionally promising potential). Seriously consider picking up his brand-new new book, “White Papers for Dummies,” an excellent soup-to-nuts primer that’s been called a “must-read that contains priceless information you just can’t find anywhere else.” Take it away, Gordon!
It always surprises me that more B2B writers aren’t doing white papers.
As you may know, white papers are fact-based marketing documents used by B2B vendors to generate leads, build recognition, and nurture prospects through a complex sale. They typically run six to eight pages plus front and back matter.
If you’ve done any journalism, a white paper is much like a feature article for a magazine, only it pays 3 to 10 times as much.
In fact, the “average” fee for writing a white paper today is $4,200. Typical fees range from $3,000 to $6,000. Writers with domain knowledge or experience writing white papers routinely charge $5,000 to $7,000—or about $1,000 per page.
Why do companies pay so much?
1) B2B buyers expect them: Survey after survey pegs white papers as the #1 or #2 favorite content that prospects look at.
2) The competition has them: Any vendor that doesn’t can be out of the running for a million-dollar sale.
3) They work: White papers help B2B vendors sell billions of dollars worth of products and services every year.
All these factors add up to an unquenchable demand for these documents, which are now a standard part of the toolkit for any B2B marketer.
But writing a white paper can be challenging. It requires an unusual mix of writing to explain and writing to persuade. It demands that you find and assemble a mass of impeccable facts, figures, quotes, anecdotes and rhetorical devices into a compelling argument.
Not many writers know how to do all that or have had enough practice at this format. But any experienced business writer has all the essential skills it takes: researching, interviewing, writing smoothly, meeting deadlines, handling comments from reviewers, and so on.
A white paper is essentially a long-form, fact-based piece of marketing collateral. To write an effective white paper, you and your client need to identify a compelling topic, pinpoint a specific audience, gather persuasive proof points, construct a logical argument, and spin all this material into a 6- to 8-page narrative that holds readers’ attention and compels them to take the next step in the sales cycle for the associated product or service.
To do that effectively, you need to leave out any hype, buzzwords and marketing-speak. Focus on providing useful information, not a sales pitch. Help your readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. Stick to the facts or to well-argued logic. Given today’s jaded prospects with their finely-tuned radar for hype, this low-key or “educational” approach can actually help “sell” a prospect far more effectively than outright promotional copy. This is why well-written white papers are crucial marketing tools for many B2B companies.
Okay, but how many clients need white papers anyway? Aren’t they all in software or some technology where you have to understand gobbledegook to get work?
Yes, white papers are popular in technology firms, but they’re now used in many other sectors. I’ve done them for clients in advertising, construction, healthcare, insurance, printing, sports—even children’s toys! Any B2B company selling something relatively new, relatively complex, or relatively expensive could benefit from a white paper.
Being extremely conservative and counting only the traditional users of white papers—B2B equipment manufacturers, software companies, and scientific and technical services—I found 454,244 potential clients in the U.S. alone. Adding in other countries from the developed world that use English—like Australia, Canada, and the UK—that climbs to more than 600,000.
I know for a fact that many of these companies are desperate for a writer who can help them tell their stories. I hear from one almost every day.
How can you learn more about writing them?
1. Go to websites of companies in your B2B specialty, and find half a dozen white papers to download and study.
Chances are, you’ll soon be thinking, “I can write better than this!” You’ll see how most white papers are not nearly as persuasive or compelling as they could be. That’s a great confidence booster when you’re starting out.
2. Visit my website to see dozens of free articles about every aspect of white paper writing.
3. Check out the free cheat sheet for my book here and a lot of extras here.
4. Join my LinkedIn group “Get More From Your White Papers” and post your question. The group members will do our best to answer you.
If you’re an experienced business writer or a laid-off journalist, give white papers a try. You’ll find a ready-made demand with high fees, and lots of interesting work to be done.
Have you done some white papers? If so, what was your experience like?
Did you find them to be easier or harder to do than you’d originally thought?
Have you been surprised at the quality (or lack thereof) of the samples you’ve seen?
If you haven’t yet tried doing white papers, what’s stopped you?
Gordon Graham (a.k.a. That White Paper Guy) has written more than 175 B2B white papers for clients from Australia to New York City, on everything from selecting enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for everyone from tiny startups to Google.
I went to a networking function recently, and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged gentleman who’d recently moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis. He offered event-production services including light/sound design, DJ’ing, and more.
Since his business often involved subcontracting—especially his DJ business—we got to talking about his experiences hiring people in Atlanta versus the upper Midwest. He said he found those he hired in Atlanta to be less professional and reliable than those back home (something I’ve heard many times before). At my prompting, he shared an example…
He’d hired a guy to handle one of his DJ gigs (a wedding reception) since he had several going on one night. At the initial meeting with his client, she was clear that while she was open to all kinds of danceable popular music, she wanted no rap music with vulgar lyrics. He spelled this out to his sub and figured that was that. Well.
After the event, he got a call from the client explaining that, while generally speaking, the evening had gone well, exactly what she didn’t want to happen, happened: his sub had “gone rogue” and played a few offensive songs. When he confronted the guy—with whom he been crystal clear—the sub had no good excuse beyond a lame, “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” Huh?
But it was what he did about it that spoke volumes about who he was. After his client explained what happened, he apologized profusely and told her he was immediately, and with no questions asked, refunding her entire fee for the service (which she hadn’t asked him to do).
When he spoke to the sub, he told him that because of his actions, he’d returned the client’s money in full, adding that he’d never be hiring the sub again, but that he was going to pay him in full, just so that he couldn’t say—to anyone who’d listen—that he’d been cheated.
His telling of the story was delivered in a steady, low-key, matter-of-fact tone—free of theatrics and with little emotion. Just the way it was. In the wake of it, I found myself racking my brain to try and think of ways to hire this guy for something—anything—or to steer work his way.
We’d actually gotten into very little detail about the services he offered, but it didn’t matter. Something told me—as I’d wager it would tell anyone—that if this was an example of his business ethics, his actual services would be top-notch as well.
In revealing how he conducted business, he made an infinitely more compelling case for hiring him than a pitch about his services would ever have accomplished. Which, of course, got me thinking about how this maps onto our world of commercial freelancing—or that of any other free agent out there.
Yes, any prospective commercial copywriting client needs to know what you do, how good your copywriting skills are and how you work, and those things by themselves have been enough to land many gigs for many commercial freelancers.
Yet, seeking opportunities to share who you are and how you conduct yourself as a businessperson—in that same low-key, matter-of-fact way he exhibited, as opposed to grandstanding—can quickly move a future client from pondering taking the next step to putting you to work as soon as possible. It’s in the details about you, your life, what you believe, etc., that people get the chance to “take your measure.”
Arguably, this is another example of features versus benefits. Explaining what you do, how you work and even how strong your skills are, is all about you: features. But, sharing who you are and how you conduct business is benefits: it shows the client exactly what they’ll be getting—someone in whom they can trust and have confidence. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
This can be tricky to pull off, of course. He’d never have shared what he did—and thereby reveal his immense strength of character—had I not prompted him with my questions. But realizing what a powerful reaction I had to it, had me think of ways to harness this idea.
In many ways it’s nothing more than just being and sharing yourself, but given our natural human tendency to compartmentalize—business here, personal there—it can be challenging. But, I say it’s worth exploring.
1) Have you had similar experiences, where you were able to share yourself with a commercial freelancing prospect and have that seal the deal?
2) OR, through a similar character-revealing experience, were you able to take the relationship with an existing copywriting client to a much deeper level of trust, confidence and more business?
3) What are some ways to pull this off in a genuine way, so it doesn’t look like it’s being done for affect?
4) Any other thoughts ideas or comments?
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
PB Note: Great guest post from freelance medical writer and author Laurie Lewis. I must confess, I have been less than rigorous in always keeping track of my time. But, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that getting a handle on exactly how your time gets split up between different project-related tasks could give you some extremely valuable insights. And she shares where those insights can lead (i.e., to higher fees, in some cases). Thanks Laurie! Enjoy.
When I began freelancing a lifetime ago, I used the most basic time-tracking method, simply noting when I began work for the day and when I ended. The best I could say about this practice was that it resulted in a logbook I could show the IRS, if I ever was (gasp!) audited. But to manage my fledgling business better, I wanted a different kind of record: a log that showed how I filled my day. So I started to log by task. More than two decades and many gray hairs later, I continue to keep task-based logs because they are so useful.
Suppose I’m beginning a new assignment. After discussing it with the client, I surf the web for a while and find a couple of good background resources. I spend an hour reading them and make a few notes. Break time! After a trip to the gym and a healthy lunch (not really, but I did say suppose), I get back to work.
More Googling, a few false leads. As I read the good material I’ve found, I realize I might want to take the assignment in a slightly different direction. I call the client to run the idea by him, but he’s not in so I leave a message and follow it up with an email. While waiting to hear back, I start to organize the paper. I see several gaps in my research, and I spend more time surfing and reading until I quit for the day.
My logbook shows that I worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a two-hour break. But my project log shows that I spent 2½ hours surfing, 2 hours doing background reading, 1 hour organizing my thoughts, and a half-hour communicating with the client. Four distinct tasks in a single day!
When you keep records like this every day for every project, you have a wealth of information about “what you do when you do what you do”—information you can use to manage your business better and earn more money. Here are a few personal anecdotes.
The client is always right, except when he isn’t
A client asked me to do a two-day job. I thought he was off base on the time it would take, as well as an appropriate fee. I checked old task logs for similar projects and confirmed that he hadn’t sized up the job accurately. I presented my case, listing all the tasks I’d have to do besides writing (research, develop tables, get quotes from experts, prepare a reference list—you know them as well as I do). Impressed, the client gave me a week to do the job and doubled the fee.
Why the 45-minute interview takes 3 hours
I might spend the whole day on interviews and talk to just two people. I often clock more time trying to reach interview subjects than I spend actually talking to them, and my log sheet notes the time-sapping activity with the entry “attempt to schedule interviews.” Post-interview tasks include going over notes, reviewing tapes, maybe transcribing. Logging these tasks separately gives me a good idea of where interview time goes.
From my task logs, I know to allow slightly more than an hour to transcribe a half-hour interview. I have to plan on as much time to edit my own work as to prepare the initial draft, more if I haven’t done all the research before I begin writing. Knowing my working pace has helped me juggle multiple clients. If I have a looming deadline and I’ve only finished the first draft when another client calls, I’ll ask for a distant due-date for the new work or reluctantly turn it down if a close deadline is set in stone.
The secret to successful project rates
I saved the best for last. When I calculate a project rate, I rely on logs from completed jobs. They remind me of the tasks I may have to do and the time each task might take. With many years of logs, I have enough information to anticipate three scenarios: the cream-puff job, the typical one (as if there were such a thing!), and the job from hell.
What kinds of work logs do you keep?
How do you use the information in your logs?
Do you prefer to log on paper or by computer?
If you use a computer, what software do you like?
Do you keep track of your hours when you work for a flat fee?
So, I’ve been working on an interesting commercial freelancing project lately, one that doesn’t fit the typical list I (and others) rattle off to explain the kinds of things we commercial writers do: “marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, web content, direct mail, case studies, etc.” Here’s the deal…
Every year, a group of folks from numerous foundations go to Washington to meet with their legislators to talk about foundation activity in their districts at home, and the positive difference it’s making. All with an eye toward heading off possible deleterious budget cuts or legislation that could harm their efforts.
Each group (11 states are represented) is armed with one double-sided-page synopsis outlining their home state’s foundation activity, mostly facts and figures showcasing that impact in black and white. But they also wanted one short story that would appear at the top of the first page.
To gather the info for those 11 stories, they originally wanted me to interview all the state “captains,” but as the deadline hurtled toward them, they decided to just send a questionnaire to the captains and let them fill it out.
I created the cover letter and questionnaire, they sent it out, and the responses they’ve received back are my source material to write the mini-stories (we’re talking ~100 words, total).
P.S. Because so many of the players involved in making this happen are crazy-busy, they’ve appreciated the fact that I’ve taken ownership of the project: suggesting and then writing the letter/questionnaire; proactively hunting on a foundation’s web site for story fodder when my source got tied up elsewhere and couldn’t write his story, or the info they provided didn’t include all the salient details, etc.; writing well and quickly, and generally making it easier on everyone (the goal, after all).
Don’t even know how you’d classify this project, except to say it looks very different from most of what we do. And that’s kind of the point here: While a lot of what we do as freelance commercial writers looks familiar and falls into one of categories listed above, a ton more doesn’t and doesn’t.
Meaning, freelance commercial writing can be anything that helps any enterprise (for-profit or non-profit) communicate more powerfully to their target audience, regardless of the form it takes. So, keep your radar up, and don’t be afraid to suggest something you haven’t seen before, if it indeed will help a client speak to their audience more effectively.
In case you’re wondering how I even landed this project… I cold-called a graphic designer last fall, made a relaxed, un-pushy pitch to help out when needed, and we started talking. He first hired me (another atypical project) to rework a two-page white paper he was posting on his site as a credibility-builder for his design business (focusing on non-profits). Think about that for a sec: designers (or any business-owner, for that matter) want to raise their profile and credibility, and writing “reports” on various subjects showcasing their expertise, is one way to do it.
But how many have the time to do them? Or, in his case, how many are confident enough in their own writing ability to post what they’ve written? As it turned out, he was delighted at the results of my rework, and now knows he can bang something out, and for a very reasonable fee (far less than if I’d written for him from scratch), I’ll get it ready for Prime Time. Getting your wheels turning?
So, when he was brought in to design these one-page synopses, he naturally thought of me to help write the stories, and brought me in.
Then there’s my book-titling business (“The Title Tailor”), another unusual specialty, but certainly one that fits the criterion above: “Helping any enterprise communicate more powerfully to their target audience.”
So, expand your field of vision. Know that the project types we typically talk about in forums like these are a starting point, and they can go in a lot of cool directions.
Do you usually think of commercial writing in terms of a fairly strict set of project types?
Can you share examples of some unusual projects you’ve worked on?
Any stories of successfully suggesting unusual projects to clients?
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
Great guest post from fellow commercial freelancer (and fellow Atlantan), Don Sadler. Don’s carved out quite a lucrative niche in his area of specialty, and how it all came about is a good story. I hope it can serve as a good discussion catalyst, and can spur others who’ve either been there as well (or may be in the future) to weigh in! Thanks, Don! Enjoy!
It’s probably the most challenging (and scariest) part of becoming a freelance commercial writer (FLCW): Making the transition from a full-time job, with a regular salary and benefits like health insurance, paid holidays and paid vacation, to a full-time freelancer — with none of the above.
I made this transition myself almost four years ago. I wish I could say that I was fearless and brave and decided to make the jump on my own, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I got the dreaded layoff call, letting me know that my position as an editor with a major custom publishing company “was being eliminated.”
Not exactly the best way to start your weekend! But now, nearly four years later, I can see that it was actually the best thing that could have happened to me professionally. I had wanted to strike out on my own as a full-time commercial freelancer for a while, but the (apparent) comfort and security of the salary, benefits, etc. were tough to give up. And I had a pretty good job, so there wasn’t a lot of urgency to jump ship.
What follows is a brief account of how I made the transition from full-time employment to full-time freelance. Everyone’s situation is unique, so my intention isn’t to provide a step-by-step “here’s how to do it” guide. Rather, I hope that by reading my story, you might pick up a couple of nuggets that could help you make the transition if this is something you want to do. Or at least be inspired that it doesn’t have to be as terrifying as it seems!
Going Back to the ‘80’s
My first professional job out of college (where I majored in Journalism) in 1985 was as a staff writer with a newsletter-publishing firm in Ft. Lauderdale. I worked there for 12 years before moving to Atlanta to work for another publisher in 1997, which in turn was acquired by another custom publisher in 2005, for whom I worked until early 2009.
So, I had about 24 years of professional experience as a writer/editor before going full-time freelance. But the biggest factor in the success of my transition was this: I had spent pretty much this entire time specializing in a couple of content niches: business and finance. As a result of this specialization, I was able to immediately “brand” myself as an expert when it came to writing content in these areas. This turned out to be huge for two reasons:
1. There is a high demand for freelance writers who can tackle these subjects without having to be brought up to speed on basics like the difference between defined contribution and defined benefit plans or the nuances of various banking and financial products and services.
2. Therefore, these freelance writers can generally charge relatively high rates for this type of writing.
The second thing that helped me make a successful transition fairly quickly was the fact that I started doing freelance work “on the side” long before I ventured out on my own as a full-time FLCW.
One of the first things I did when I moved to Atlanta in 1997 was start looking for freelance work. It didn’t take long to land gigs with a couple of business magazines, from which I was able to get pretty steady assignments. Over the decade-plus that I did freelance work on the side, I built up a nice little freelance clientele that eventually formed the foundation for going full-time freelance.
In addition to providing a little “mad money,” this part-time freelance work was invaluable in helping me get my feet wet and learn about how the freelance world worked. Just as importantly, it gave me a sense of “entrepreneurship” and what it was like to look for and gain clients on my own. I found it tremendously exciting and rewarding to land new freelance clients, make them happy and get paid for doing it!
What Should I Do?
Due to these three factors—my long history of experience as a professional writer/editor, albeit as an employee; my well-established content niches of business and finance; and my 10+ years of on-the-side freelance experience—I was about as well-positioned as you can be to make the transition to full-time freelance. And since I kind of saw the layoff coming for at least six months, I had even started to think about what I would do if and when I lost my job: Try to go full-time freelance or look for another job?
I got my layoff notice at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon (which is by the corporate textbook, by the way). Since I was a remote employee and worked from home, I immediately fired off emails to two of my freelance clients letting them know what happened and that I was available for as much freelance work as they could send me. They both replied before 5:00 and said they would have work for me Monday morning.
I took that as my sign that I should give full-time freelancing a real shot before looking for another job. And by the end of my first year of full-time freelance, I was consistently meeting or exceeding my old monthly salary.
Are there other challenges to being a full-time freelancer beyond just landing clients and generating income? You bet! Health insurance, for example, is one of the biggest, but that’s been discussed in another post on this blog. But in my experience, if you can get the freelance ball rolling down the hill, it tends to pick up speed if you are diligent and work as hard at building your freelance business as you did working for an employer.
Lay the Groundwork Now
Like I said, I didn’t write this with the intention of providing a step-by-step guide to transitioning from full-time employment into full-time commercial freelance writing. I realize that not everybody out there has more than two decades of professional writing and editing experience as an employee, or has been able to cultivate a profitable content niche like I was fortunate enough to do.
But if going full-time freelance is something you think you’d like to do one day, I encourage you to start laying the groundwork now. For me, success as a full-time FLCW was far from “overnight”; it was actually more than two decades in the making!
The best advice I can offer is to start doing freelance work on the side from your regular job now. This will help you learn how the freelancing world works and start to build up a small clientele that you can expand when you devote your full-time energy and effort into your own freelance writing business.
Oh, and buy The Well-Fed Writer! I read it about three years after I struck out on my own and I can’t imagine a more practical, hands-on guide to getting started as a freelance commercial writer. Peter confirmed some of the things I was doing and offered some great new tips and insights I hadn’t thought of.
And no, Peter didn’t ask me to say that—it’s really that good!
1. What has held you back from making the transition from an employee to a full-time FLCW?
2. If you’ve made the transition, what are one or two tips you can offer to others who hope to do the same?
3. What is one mistake you made during the transition that others should guard against?
Don Sadler is an Atlanta-based freelance commercial writer specializing in the areas of business and finance. He writes content for all different types of media, both print and electronic, and in all different formats — print and e-newsletters, magazines, search-engine-optimized websites, white papers, blogs, ghost articles and books, etc. Visit http://www.donsadlerwriter.com to learn more.
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.