If you’ve been following this series since determined your objectives, chosen a winning topic, and precisely identified your target audience. Now it’s time to get into the meat of the project — research.
The first step is to gather any existing company information appropriate to the topic. This could be sales brochures, employee training manuals, data/spreadsheets, internal communications or anything else applicable to the topic at hand. You also want to identify appropriate company experts in order to prepare and schedule interviews. As you go through the documents, build your base knowledge and look for any gaps in the information. These gaps will form the direction of your further research and expert interviews.
Third Party Sources
It is at this point in the process that you want to consider the outside source. Third party sources add credibility and objectivity to your white paper. They act as an endorsement of the information in your white paper. When a white paper only includes in-house information, savvy readers may start to question the validity of the report and start to look at it more as a sales brochure then an educational resource. Remember, a white paper should provide valuable information that indirectly leads the reader to your product.
One of the most obvious opportunities to utilize outside data is early in the paper as you define the problem at hand. There is often solid data available demonstrating excess expenditures, waste, etc. Third party data can also be used to quantify the benefits of the proposed solution. When using outside sources, be sure to properly cite the sources using MLA or APA style. While it probably doesn’t matter which style you use, ALA tends to be more common in scientific or technical fields. It is doubtful however, that anyone will notice the difference. (Here’s my favorite “cheat sheet” for formatting citations: http://citationmachine.net/)
The key to successful, efficient interviews is preparation. As mentioned above, the direction of your interviews comes out of gaps in the initial research. Use these gaps to develop initial questions and set objectives for the interview. Having a solid foundation in the topic at hand will result in a much more productive interview and reduce the need for followup interviews. Your goal is to get everything you need in the first interview.
Technical experts often speak in technical terms. Your job is to translate that information for the target audience. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions or to rephrase information to verify that you understand what is being said. These clarifying questions often serve as a sort of “prewriting” as you develop the language of the white paper.
Finally, ask for further resources. This may be information your expert has readily available or suggestions on where find more information. This can save a great deal of time searching for data or resources. It might also lead to third party experts to interview. As mentioned before, quoting a third party source can greatly increase the validity of a white paper.
Pulling it all Together
Research is often the most time consuming aspect of creating a white paper. By the time the research is complete however, you should have a fairly good idea of the content of the paper. Go through the information and organize using note cards, post it notes, whatever works best for you. Also be aware that determining the information you won’t use is just as important as determining the information you will use.
The next step is to organize your thoughts and develop a working white paper outline — and that’s what we’ll talk about in Day 5.