Shades of Grey: the Problem with White Papers

How do you define a white paper


More than two-thirds of all marketers—71% (Content Marketing Institute) —use white papers as a part of their toolkit. But how do you define a white paper? What exactly is it? 

Ask three people and you’re likely to get five different responses. This is because there is no such thing as a definitive white paper. The definition varies from industry to industry, even company to company; it can be just about any length, take a variety of forms, and cover a range of topics. 

That said, most of us know one when we see it: a 4-12 page pdf (sometimes shorter, sometimes longer) that you can access once you prove that you are not a robot. It will say “white paper” on the cover page and advance a business case or proposition with recourse to visuals illustrating salient data points and trends. Beyond this, white papers can – and do – vary widely.

The term “white paper” was coined by the British to describe a type of official government report. Today, they have become popular marketing tools for companies to advance a specific position or solution to a problem. The goal is to inform and persuade as they lead readers toward an inexorable conclusion…and a complementary set of practical recommendations.

While  there is no such thing as the definitive white paper, there are general principles that we can apply based on what works and what doesn’t in making them maximally effective.  See the White Paper on White Papers for more. 

NSFW: Dealing with the Fake News Freak-Out


(Excerpted from NSFW, Charles Epstein’s monthly humor column in Workspan) 

“Nobody knows anything,” said William Goldman, writer of a handful of the most memorable films ever made. The quote has become almost biblical in its concise authority. Now, more than 30 years since its writing, the number of people not knowing anything has increased exponentially. Opinions are paraded as facts, anything inconvenient is labeled as fake and an armchair army of like-minded people are backing you.

What happens when this starts seeping into everyday life and your elderly parent shrieks “fake news” when you gently try persuading him to use his walker? Or your toddler blurts “fake news” when you try making a fact-based case for eating the steamed broccoli? All of which brings us to HR.

You’re responsible for communicating with your workforce regularly. For years you’ve sent emails and newsletters on all the standard topics, all of which were met with the usual degrees of what we’ll politely describe as casual interest. But that’s about to change.

“Fake news!” thunders Richard Wald, responding to a critical performance review.

Click here for the full column.

NSFW: Not Safe for Work

HR Humor Column



(This is excerpted from our maiden montlhy HR humor column, NSFW, in Workspan. Each takes a humorous look at an aspect of HR. Comments, as always, are welcome – within limits, of course).

Years ago — we’re talking the days of MS-DOS and WordPerfect — someone showed me this amazing office trick. I was working on the editorial side for what was then a hot, new media company, and I found myself spending more time hanging with the programmers and IT folks, asking them a lot of annoying tech-related questions as it was all so new, certainly to me.

I was standing over Johan’s left shoulder, mesmerized by whatever new video game he was obsessing over that week . . . when suddenly and with terrifying speed, he hit a combination of keys (Alt+G, if memory serves), whereupon the screen immediately filled with a spreadsheet and pie chart.

“Whatcha got there, Johan?” asked Jim, Johan’s boss, peering over a sheaf of printouts as he sharked past the cubicle.

“Hey, just looking at some numbers,” Johan replied, satisfying Jim’s seemingly casual curiosity.

Johan had hit the “game key” in the nick of time. Most of the video games he played had a game key, each calling up a light variation of the same spreadsheet. (FYI, this scenario predated the 1999 movie “Office Space” by six years.)

It’s funny to think that back then a silly, nonexcessively violent computer game was considered “not safe for work,” when today you need a hazmat suit to wade through the wildly inappropriate, shocking stuff that cascades from all corners of the internet on an hourly basis. Then again, there was a time when showing up to the office sans necktie or sensible shoes was considered not safe for work, so the definition of what’s unacceptable continuously changes (what will make your employees blanch, your boss irate and your colleagues inconsolable in the not-too-distant future is sure to be an order of magnitude more horrific than what we’re seeing now).

Click here for more.