No matter how good a software white paper is—how well organized, researched, and designed—it will get you exactly nowhere if it’s on a topic your prospects don’t care about.
Yet you’d be surprised how little research actually goes into choosing the topic sometimes. I’ve worked with several C-level clients who have come up with their initial white paper ideas off the tops of their heads. This might be a legitimate place to start for someone with tons of industry experience, but there’s too much riding on your white paper not to investigate further.
If you want to write a white paper people respond to, download, share and talk about, you have to hit a nerve with the topic. And it can be difficult to do that without some digging—even for industry experts.
Here are some steps I recommend taking before you decide on a topic for your white paper.
Talk to your customers. No matter how well you think you know your customers, your buyer persona likely only tells part of the story—and talking to the customers directly can sometimes be hugely eye-opening. Get in touch with some of your most valued customers and ask them about the industry problems that matter most to them. Get a sense of their pain points, what keeps them up at night, and what keeps them late at the office. Keep an ear out for the most stressful and frustrating parts of their job—that you know your software can solve.
Make sure you’re talking to the people who make the buying decisions. When selling enterprise software, that might mean multiple job roles within a company. But that’s not bad—the more you understand what your audience looks like and what matters to different segments of that audience, the better you can decide who to target and what type of white paper they need.
Listen in on some conversations. Where do your prospects hang out? Go to the LinkedIn groups, Google+ groups, forums, and social media platforms where they are. Type in some important keywords as hashtags in Twitter and see what conversations come up—and who’s having them. See what kinds of problems your prospects discuss on a daily basis.
Do some keyword research. Keyword research can be a hugely valuable tool in finding out both what your prospects are searching for, and what language they use to describe it. Use Google Analytics or another search tool to type in the keywords around a problem your audience faces. See what searches come up. Try entering key phrases in question form to see what kinds of questions are being asked around these issues. Calibrating your white paper around a high-potential search term (one with a high number of searches and a medium or low level of competition) can be a powerful tactic in getting it more views.
Talk to your salespeople and customer service people. Your salespeople are on the front lines everyday, talking to your prospects. They know exactly who the decision-makers are, how they think, and what problems they face. They know which questions they’re always answering, and which problems prospects are most concerned with. Your customer service people hear from your customers all the time about the problems they continue to face. If you’re not talking to these people, you’re missing a huge opportunity to plug in to your target market.
Send out a survey. Design a survey for your prospects. Ask them about which major problems they face in their industry and which white paper titles or topics most appeal to them. Keep it short—a lot of your prospects are probably busy and won’t take the time to fill out something long—and sell the concept in an email that highlights what they’ll get out of filling it out—better content that takes their needs into account.
Read the industry news—and the comments. Is some new legislation or development having a strong effect on your prospects’ industry? Now may be a great time to develop a white paper highlighting some new problem your prospects may face because of this new development, as well as the best solutions. Check out the industry news. Look at the comments to get a better sense of how the news is hitting your prospects.
Look for other white papers. Before deciding on a white paper topic, be sure it’s not about something that’s been done before. Even with the best planning, your topic—or at the very least your angle on it—has to be new. Check out , , or  to search for recently-published white papers in your topic category and see what else people are writing.
If you pick the right subject, everything else should fall into place (if you have an outstanding white paper writer on your side, that is). Don’t just go with the first idea that comes to you. Test out that idea on customers, salespeople, customer service employees, and your wider prospect audience in online forums and on social media. Do this research, and you’ll have a much better chance of developing a white paper topic your industry needs.