What Makes You Think Your White Paper Is Any Good?

May 31, 2016

Props to you and your team: after months of debate and discussion, your big new white paper is out. It reads smoothly and looks terrific. It’s making a splash inside your company; the sales leads for three diamond clients sent it to their contacts this morning. Your media people already have two top publications interested. And you’ve got to feel good about that nice note from the CMO yesterday.

But is it really any good? Will it meet its objectives as part of your latest campaign? Does it make your company stand out? How would you even know whether it does or doesn’t?

Scorecards (cough.) Of course, you’d know for sure that the paper is insanely great if a big new contract came in and the new client’s CEO said she’d called your firm because she’d read your paper. But let’s get back to the real world.

The real world revolves around widely agreed-upon standards for gauging excellence. Scorecards (cough.) The Olympics, the Queen’s Awards, Michelin-starred restaurants, ISO 9000 production lines, TripAdvisor, the Afghan Hound Club of America – all make use of ratings systems that promote superior performance, establish minimum acceptable levels, and create confidence among those using whatever is being measured.

I’m glad somebody mentioned scorecards. They are a vastly underrated tool when it comes to raising the quality of thought leadership in your company. The rating system that we at Ergo Editorial believe hits all the right notes is the one developed in 2007 by White Space (part of Source Global Research, the top provider of research, data, and strategic advice about the global management consulting industry) and used consistently since then.

White Space continually samples firms’ thought leadership, rates the pieces against a standard set of questions, and then scores the answers. Their criteria, based on research with senior executives in large organizations, gauge what drives execs to pick up a piece of content in the first place; what encourages them to read past the first paragraph; what gives them confidence in what they’ve read; and what inspires them to act on what they’ve absorbed.

It’s a well thought-out and well-run rating system. Specifically, White Space bases its sample reads on a minimum of 20% of a firm’s output over six months or 10 pieces, whichever is the greater. (For firms that are cranking out more than 150 pieces of thought leadership in those six months, White Space caps its reviews at 30 pieces per firm.)

All the content reviewed is what target readers – senior business executives – would view as thought leadership. It might be a traditional pdf, an online report or article, or material that appears on an interactive site. Each piece is rated individually against a series of questions. For each of the four main criteria, the piece gets a score between 1 and 5, which translates as a total score for each of between 4 and 20.

Check out White Space’s methodology to see the questions for yourself. And look at some real world examples from industry leaders to see how the ratings allow White Space to showcase truly top-notch thought leadership. At time of writing, they’re heralding a new paper from Deloitte titled “Enforcement actions in the banking industry.” “This is an excellent example of Deloitte bringing together its own industry experts with data scientists to deliver new insights,” note White Space’s reviewers.

So here comes a niggling question: why, when such effective scorecards have been around for the better part of a decade, are so few producers of thought leadership using them regularly, or creating comparable ratings mechanisms themselves?

We can count on one hand – a few fingers, in fact – the firms we know of that have scorecards and put them to good use, and even fewer where those scorecards are standard practice all across the firm, across every geography and practice area and business unit. Yes, we often see helpful guidelines for authors but they’reguidelines, not performance metrics. We also see lots of tracking of click-throughs and page views, but we don’t hear about forceful feedback loops designed to spur higher click-through rates.

Nor have we ever caught a whiff of accountability behind any of those guidelines or click-through metrics.

My bet is that most marketers think of success in thought leadership in squishier, more anecdotal terms. Not unlike advertising, actually, where the old joke is about which half of the ad dollar actually works.

Here’s my appeal to you, then: start applying metrics to your thought leadership content. Your firm already tracks its customer retention rates, bid win rates, utilization rates of its top talent, and all sorts of other performance measures. So why not consistent, company-wide metrics as a springboard for expressing your firm’s best ideas far more persuasively than the other guys?