Before you get started on your next white paper, there are several pieces that you need to have in place. The most important of these is a clearly–and narrowly–defined topic and scope for what you will cover in the white paper.
I have written white papers for companies across the institutional asset management, private wealth management, investment banking, estate planning, and consulting industries, and by far the No. 1 mistake that financial professionals make when setting out to write a white paper is having a topic that is too broad. Trying to write a white paper that is too broad in scope can cause several problems, including spreading the depth of your expertise too thin and creating a production process that is too cumbersome.
Why Narrow Trumps Broad for Financial White Papers
Trying to “boil the ocean” is a bad idea for all sorts of projects, and this certainly applies to writing white papers. Here are three reasons why it’s better to have a narrowly defined topic for your next white paper:
- Show the depth of your expertise: If you try to tackle a topic that is too broad, you will either have to a) make the paper interminably long so that you have enough space to properly address all of the relevant subtopics or b) avoid going into the proper level of detail for all of the subtopics. Option A is bad for the reader, and Option B bad for your firm’s reputation. And Option B is especially unappealing because the whole point of publishing a white paper is to showcase the level of expertise that you deliver for clients.
For example, let’s take a private wealth management firm that wants to write a white paper about estate planning. To properly cover a topic as expansive as estate planning, you would have to address a long list of subtopics. Setting up trusts, naming executors and trustees, understanding the probate process, utilizing the annual gift-tax exclusion, teaching children about family wealth, hosting family meetings, understanding the different exemption amounts at the state and federal levels … the list could go on and on. Rather than trying to tackle all of these subtopics in one massive document or talking about these subtopics at only a high level, I’d recommend breaking the project into two or three shorter pieces. Then within those “mini-white papers” you can dive deep, using case studies and other tools to showcase the level of expertise that your clients can expect from you.
- Get more mileage out of your marketing efforts: Another major benefit of narrowing the topic of your white paper is that it allows you to get more mileage out of your thought-leadership efforts. Think about an institutional asset management firm that wants to write two white papers per year: one on opportunities in fixed-income markets and one on opportunities in emerging markets. Following this approach, the firm might end up with a nice fixed-income piece in June, but then they have to start from scratch on the emerging markets piece in the second half of the year. Also, this firm would have a six-month gap between their publications.
An alternative–and more effective–approach would be to break those semi-annual white papers into more narrowly focused quarterly pieces that alternate between fixed income and emerging markets. For example, the firm could write about opportunities in high-yield and mortgage-backed credits in the first quarter and trends shaping governmental and municipal bond markets in the third quarter. Then, on the emerging markets side, they could cover Brazil and Russia in the second quarter and India and China in the fourth quarter. By using this approach, the firm has doubled the number of times they are publishing thought leadership and connecting with clients and prospects.
- Create something that the audience has time to read: If you are like most people, no matter how interested you might be about a topic, you probably don’t have time to sit down and read through a 25-page white paper. In fact, one of the first things most people do when they download a white paper is to look at the PDF reader to see how many pages it is. If it is more than nine pages, there is a good chance it won’t get read.
By keeping your topic narrow, you can create a piece that provides in-depth analysis while staying in single digits for the page count. Let’s say you work in private equity, which type of investment banking white paper are you more likely read on your train ride home: 1) a six-page paper about trends in M&A activity in a specific sub-vertical, or 2) a 25-page paper that talks about M&A, equity, and debt trends in a broader industry?
One final benefit of starting with a narrow topic is that it simplifies the production process. One of the hardest things about writing a financial services white paper is getting started. When faced with an expansive topic, it is easy to get intimidated. Not only does a broader topic make it harder to organize your thoughts, but a broader topic also means you will have to do more research and get more subject-matter experts involved to review your work.
About the Author
Scott Wentworth is the founder and head writer of Wentworth Financial Communications. He has written white papers for firms across the asset management, private wealth management, estate planning, investment banking, consulting, and accounting industries. He has no idea who came up with the phrase “boil the ocean,” but he is pretty sure that it was a consultant with an MBA rather than an engineer with a PhD in physics.