I often see marketers treating white papers like commodities, randomly producing one after another as widgets coming out of a factory.
The result: Readers view and treat these white papers the same way - uninspired pieces of content that do not add any value in their lives.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
White papers which are planned, researched and written properly can be powerful assets for your brand. In fact, a study found that around 79% of B2B buyers share white papers with their colleagues.
So let’s discuss what white papers are and figure out the right approach to create and use them to drive your business forward.
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What Is A White Paper
A white paper is a document produced by an organization that argues for or against a specific issue relevant to their target audience. It can also be a guide to solve a particular problem or accomplish a specific goal.
The objective of a white paper is to make a case for a new approach or way of thinking. As mentioned by PurdueOwl, “When used for business, a white paper could influence decision-making of current and prospective customers.”
If you’re feeling nerdy, you’d also appreciate knowing that white papers originated as official documents created and used by the English government. In fact, there’s a Winston Churchill White Paper, back from 1922.
However, considering the benefits, they soon found their way as key assets in the world of business, especially when it comes to B2B sectors like Finance, Consulting etc.
Why Create A White Paper?
Ask a number of marketers what they think about white papers, and many would assert that the white paper is dead.
White papers serve many of the key sales and marketing functions. These include:
A white paper has been a proven way to collect contact information from your prospects and turn them into leads.
In fact, more than 50 percent of those surveyed by Business.com said white papers are a “valuable” or “extremely valuable” source of leads.
White papers boost your brand’s reputation as a thought leader in its space. By advocating a new or best way of solving a pain point common to your target prospects, you’re demonstrating your expertise in your subject.
This is important because prospects prefer to buy from companies they trust and see as an expert in their niche.
In a survey by EcoloMedia, more than 50% of respondents reported that they read a white paper before making the decision to purchase.
The readers of your white paper will soon begin to connect your brand with extensive knowledge on certain topics. This creates trust that when they are ready to pay for a solution, yours will be a no-brainer.
As I mentioned before, many marketers are not aware how powerful white papers can be. And among the ones who are, many are producing white papers which do not add any value to their industry.
As a result, we are swimming in an ocean of white papers which are poorly planned, written or designed. Fortunately, this opens up the opportunity for your brand to stand out.
By creating visually appealing and value-rich white papers, you can build an authority that your competitors will need a long time to catch up with.
When To Use A White Paper
However, there are some important aspects which make white papers different from other collateral, as Gordon Graham mentions in his piece on when not to use a white paper.
White papers are more formal, research-backed and authoritative in nature. The style of writing is closer to academic content than marketing content.
In addition, they are focused on a single hypothesis. When creating a white paper, you are expected to pick one narrow topic and explore it in depth.
A white paper is not a place for loose opinions. Your claims need to be verified, based on hard facts and data.
On the other hand, content like case studies or ebooks are written to be more approachable, engaging or promotional in nature.
An ebook’s tone, for example, can be formal or casual. Moreover, you have the option to choose a broad topic and cover all the aspects associated with it.
While you go deep into a topic when writing a white paper, an ebook allows you to go both deep and wide.
To sum up, the type of content you create for a given topic will depend on your objective and target audience. Once you have this information, you can make an informed decision accordingly.
White Paper Examples
I can continue with more information about white papers, but it’s better to show you instead. Here are some white paper examples from prominent brands for analysis and inspiration.
Forte Announcement By Vox Media
Vox Media used a white paper to announce their new product offering, Forte. The product was a platform intended to help businesses connect with their target audience efficiently across websites in Vox’s portfolio.
Since they wanted to create content focused exclusively on Forte and the objective was to demonstrate the value of the platform, writing a white paper was the perfect move for them.
Google Security Whitepaper
What’s the one thing that worries cloud users the most? Security. So naturally, a brand like Google would want to cover this topic in a way that’s credible and trustworthy.
This white paper outlines Google's approach to security and compliance for Google Cloud, suite of public cloud products and services.
The Empathy Gap
The folks at IronClad wanted to highlight a critical mistake many marketers make - falling prey to the empathy gap. They assume that their target audience are just like them and care about the same things.
So a white paper was the perfect way to call attention to the fact that all your targets aren’t exactly the same. And to offer a solution in terms of how to market to different audiences.
Azure Stack HCI White Paper
This white paper by Microsoft covers how their Azure Stack HCI service can help professionals with beginning their journey with hybrid solutions.
The Path To Data Veracity (IBM)
In search of instant analytical insights, businesses often prioritize data access and analysis over governance.
However, without ensuring the data is trustworthy and consistent, leaders cannot be confident their decisions are rooted in facts and reality.
This was the point IBM was looking to strike home with their target audience. So they created a white paper to convey the right approach.
Writing A White Paper
Writing a white paper which adds value to your business isn’t easy. However, if you’re willing to put in reasonable time and effort, it can be done. Let’s see how.
Know Your Audience
Before you begin, it pays to define the exact audience you are writing for. Consider who they are, what they do and what is their level of knowledge in the field.
Knowing this information helps pick an interesting topic, establish the voice, and determine the level of complexity and jargon you’ll need to unwind.
Most importantly, it’ll ensure that the statistics and information covered in the white paper is actually valuable to the readers. See my detailed guide for more information.
Pick A Specific Topic
As we discussed before, not every topic would warrant creating a white paper. First and foremost, it should be something that would resonate with your target audience.
It should also be a laser-focused solution to a particular problem or research-backed analysis of a specific issue.
Second, it should be relevant to your business and something you can actually talk about as an expert.
Your white paper should have something valuable and meaningful to say. White papers which are created just for the sake of creating white papers perform the worst.
Keeping these factors in mind, here are some popular ideas that make for good white paper topics:
Research Studies: Doing original research or collecting research statistics on a specific topic in one place is a great starting point for white paper writing.
For example, think about something that is often claimed by experts and influencers in your niche, but has no data-driven evidence. Then conduct an experiment or survey to test the hypothesis.
Introduction To A New Term/Concept: Every once in a while, an industry expert coins a term or phrase which really catches on. For example, Instant Gratification Monkey by Tim Urban and “Growth Hacking” by Sean Ellis. So you can try a similar approach with your white paper.
A Definitive Guide: If something is worth learning, it’s going to be somewhat complicated. Writing a white paper on the subject is a great way to uncomplicate it.
So you can write a white paper which covers all aspects of a given topic, leaving little room for questions or gaps.
Conduct Thorough Research
White papers are supposed to be well-researched and authoritative. Not just that - the contents of a white paper are based on the writer’s experience and expertise on the subject.
So it’s important that whoever is writing or contributing to the white paper knows the topic well.
Make sure to refer to multiple sources of information. Don't shy away from interviewing subject matter experts in your company who can speak from real experience. See Andrew Heinzman’s guide to online research.
Pen A Compelling Intro
A good introduction paragraph captivates your audience, makes them curious and lures them into reading more. So it’s wise to provide a brief summary of what your white paper is about in the beginning.
Summarize the content into a single theme while mentioning the concrete benefits readers will get from your white paper. For more information, see Rachel Foster’s article on drawing readers into your white paper.
Draft White Paper Content
White papers are not the place to bluntly promote your business. As such, it shouldn’t have any overt ads or offers to try your product or service.
Instead, it’s supposed to provide an abundance of valuable information useful to your target readers. It doesn’t matter if they later turn into leads or customers.
Your main goal is to showcase how much of an expert you are on the topic by giving them helpful information. In other words, you are not telling them that you know a lot on the subject, but showing them.
Garnering a reputation for being a reliable source of information on a subject is far more beneficial to your business than for blowing your own horn. Prospects buy from brands they like and trust.
Make It Visually Appealing
Creating a white paper isn’t just about the content it covers. The look and feel of your white paper is also important.
First, make sure the design of your white paper is consistent with your brand. From colors and fonts to logo and graphics, all the components should be aligned with your identity.
Next, wherever possible, always take the opportunity to present information with the help of a visual aid.
This could be a diagram, chart, table, screenshot or whatever is relevant to the point you’re making in a particular section of the white paper.
The more attractive your white paper, the better it’ll respond to promotion. To learn more, refer to my guide to using graphics in your content.
If design is not your strong suit, you can use a tool like Venngage to create stunning white papers.
With several readymade templates and easy to use editor, Venngage makes it possible to design white papers with a professional look and feel.
Over To You
So by now I guess you should have a good idea on what a white paper looks like. In addition, we also covered different scenarios which call for writing white papers.
If you were to take away one key point from this piece, it would be that a white paper provides your readers original, valuable and well-researched perspective on a specific subject.
So if you plan to write a white paper, avoid rushing the process. Really put the effort and make it the best it can be.
Did I miss anything? Do you create or plan to create white papers? Share your thoughts below in the comments section.