For many, the term “white paper” conjures images of tedious government reports bound in, well, white paper. While the original white papers issued by the British government in the early 20th century did, in fact, consist of reports bound by white covers, modern white papers created for marketing purposes look and function little like their predecessors.
Today, white papers are one of the most powerful business-to-business marketing tools in your content wheelhouse. Created to help readers solve a problem, understand an issue, or make a decision, they give you a chance to show thought leadership on a deeper level than other kinds of content — yet in a way that doesn’t directly promote or sell your products or services.
With appropriate research and sources, you can make a convincing (but not overly promotional) argument that a particular technology or method is superior for solving a business need, and that’s where your white paper can serve as a window into your company’s offerings and value proposition. It might allow potential partners, investors, clients, and advocates to learn more about your work than they can from your websites, blog posts, email campaigns, and social media posts.
Yet creating a top-notch white paper isn’t easy. And despite best intentions, many companies misinterpret the real purpose — and end up producing something more akin to a longwinded sales pitch than a true white paper. How can you create one that hooks or at least piques the interest of your audiences with valuable information instead of a sales pitch? These guidelines can help you set off on the right path.
Know your purpose
White papers need to educate. They need to solve a problem or describe the benefits of a methodology. Before you start writing, determine your goal. Is it to drive prospects to a specific product? Educate about your particular type of service? Describe a use case for those on the threshold of purchase? Then, as you write your paper, deliver the goal in a convincing way so your reader moves further down the sales funnel.
It’s not uncommon for a company to feel compelled to tell its entire story in a white paper. By that I mean the company history, from start to finish; its mission statement; descriptions of all products and services; and bios of its team. While some of this may make its way into your final product, be very selective about what you include. Trying to cover it all will distract from your purpose.
Answer a pressing question
As you fine-tune and figure out what angle to take, think of your white paper as a response to a pressing question. Imagine, for instance, a non-profit organization that provides preventive healthcare services to families in need, and hopes its white paper will attract major partners (hospitals, health clinics, government agencies, school districts) to expand the number of locations in which it offers services. The white paper might answer these questions:
- What health risks do today’s families in need face? What can lower the risk?
- How would a preventative care model affect our country’s economy, workforce, and potential in the global marketplace?
- Does preventive care cost less than acute care? In what way?
- Why is the acute care model unsustainable for our current healthcare system?
Essentially, you want to tackle big questions that are difficult to answer but build your case as a solution to a problem. You can’t just talk about yourself in your white paper. You have to make your story larger by talking about trends in your marketplace and industry, all while weaving in bits and pieces that present you as a viable solution.
Back up your claims
You might have a team of experts in your organization, and that is all well and good — be sure to utilize them. Know, though, that you can’t only back up your claims with in-house points of view. You can say all you want that preventive care is the solution to our nation’s problems, but unless you back it up with credible research, you’re not really substantiating your claim.
Given the more formal air of a white paper (versus, say, a blog post), you need to pick your sources carefully. You don’t want to send your prospects, potential partners, or investors to claims made on Wikipedia or to small-scale polls with questionable credibility. Garner the most credible research at your disposal, and your message will come across all the more authoritative.
Consider your title
You worked hard to draft a compelling case, so do your white paper justice by titling it appropriately. Whatever you do, don’t include the words “white paper” in your title. Give it a name that conveys something about your paper’s key points and motivates audiences to read it. Also make it easy to find (meaning search engine optimized). And know that if you include your product name, your white paper will likely come across as sales collateral.
Put yourself in the mindset of your target audiences — what information would galvanize them to think seriously enough about the subject of your white paper to push them toward consideration of your product or service? Title your white paper accordingly.
Include an executive summary
Your white paper is a chance to explore a relevant topic at length, but you can’t expect everyone to read it in full. We live in a hectic world, and your white paper is up against countless other white papers, blog posts, eBooks, emails, and so on. Be sure to include an executive overview that summarizes key points.
Probably more important than any other part of your white paper are the first few paragraphs of your executive summary, so don’t get sidetracked with basic information about your company or product — assume your readers know this already, and work your way to the crux of your argument. At the same time (and this is where it gets tricky), don’t attempt to summarize absolutely everything and give your readers no reason to continue. Tease the reader a little — make it interesting enough for your audience to want to read on and keep learning about whatever it is you’re saying.
Market your work
While you will want your white paper to remain available on your website, probably with a landing page to capture a reader’s contact information before they can download it, don’t forget to let people know it’s there. Create some buzz by creating a campaign around your new white paper. Write a blog post about it, send an email to your client and prospect list, and distribute it across your social media properties (and ask your colleagues to distribute through their networks, too). Then make sure your content is easy to find on your site, preferably on your home page while it’s still new.
Remember, your white paper needs to educate and serve a specific purpose. It needs to be substantiated by solid research and real-life relevance. Built solidly, it can be a useful tool to deepen your relationship with your prospects.