If you have a business to promote, you’ve probably heard of white papers. You know they’re supposed to be good marketing tools. Maybe you’ve even read a few. But if you want to put them to work for your business, what you really need to know is how to write a white paper of your own.
Let’s explore what white papers are, how they can benefit your business, and how you can outline and write a white paper to generate more leads.
What are White Papers?
In order to understand what a white paper is, let’s first establish what it is not:
- White papers are not e-books.
- White papers are not articles.
- Similarly, white papers are not blog posts.
- White papers are not direct sales letters.
White papers are none of those things. They’re more like a mix of the best parts of those other types of content.
They can delve deep into a topic like a short e-book. White papers inform or educate like many articles. They’re broken down in easily-digestible sections like well-written blog posts. And good white papers will help you make sales.
White papers are often tossed under the general “content marketing” umbrella these days, but they’re actually well-established public relations and sales tools. They’re traditionally used in B2B outreach, and they’re perhaps most common in the tech sector.
What White Papers Do
Companies publish white papers specifically to influence high-level decision-makers at other companies. For example, a software company selling enterprise licenses to corporate clients would be a great candidate for writing white papers.
These days though, white papers are used as marketing, PR, and sales tools across a wide variety of industries covering topics from IT security to patient payment processes in the healthcare industry.
White papers have been used in B2B marketing successfully for decades. And they’re still highly effective. In a Content Marketing Institute / MarketingProfs survey, long-form publications like white papers and e-books were rated the most effective type of content by 62% of respondents.
But in what ways are white papers effective? Let’s look at the three key ways white papers can help you promote your business, products, or services.
White Papers as Thought Leadership Publication
White papers are not “salesy” documents. They’re meant to be informative. And the reason they’re such effective PR tools is because they help position companies, and their owners or executives, as thought leaders in their industries.
In other words, white papers should convey authority. They should address real problems in convincing and thought-provoking ways – not simply regurgitate basic information already published elsewhere.
White Papers as Lead Generators
While some companies make their white papers freely-available to download, they’re more often used to generate sales leads. The downloads are still free, but you would collect contact information for your marketing list before providing the download links.
Is this tactic effective? Well, when 75% of B2B respondents report they’re willing to part with their information for access to white papers, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
White Papers as Persuasive Sales Tools
While white papers are primarily informative in nature, there is a sales component, usually at the end. This is where the company providing that information aims to convert readers into buyers. We’ll look at that more shortly.
Think of a White Paper as a Conversation
White papers can be long. They should be authoritative. And they can be incredibly important in certain sales channels. But that doesn’t mean they have to be complicated.
We’ll look at how to outline a basic white paper in a moment. But before we get there, think about it like a conversation first. This is basically what should happen when you have a well-written white paper:
YOU: “Were you aware X is a huge opportunity for your business to shine, and you’re not taking advantage of it yet?”
READER: “Well, gosh. I didn’t realize. But are you sure my particular business could take advantage of this opportunity?”
YOU: “Yep! I’m 100% sure, and here’s the data to prove it.”
READER: “Awesome. I guess I should do something about this then. Any idea how to go about it?”
YOU: “You bet! As an authority in this area, here’s the solution or steps I suggest.”
READER: “Fantastic. I’m ready to get started, but I could use a hand from a pro. Know anyone who can help?”
YOU: “As it just so happens, I’m your guy / gal. Let’s talk about how I can help you.”
Now let’s look at how you can take this hypothetical conversation and turn it into a more formal outline for your white paper.
How to Write a White Paper: The Outline
First, you should know there’s no single right way to write a white paper. Some traditional versions will follow an outline like the one below rather strictly.
Others will stray from that traditional style – be list-oriented, feature more technical specs, involve more industry insight, or be more heavily research-oriented for example.
But these basic elements will appear in most white papers in some format or another. Use it as a guide for planning your own.
1. The Problem or Opportunity
This is the reason someone would want to read your white paper. What’s in it for them? Use the introduction to your white paper to lay this out.
You’ll often hear that your content should solve a problem. But that’s only half-true. You can also take the approach of presenting an opportunity. Let’s briefly look at the difference.
What is a Problem?
You know what a problem is. It’s when something goes wrong.
When it comes to white papers, a problem is a challenge your target buyers are currently facing.
In this case, you’ll lay out the problem to get their attention, and you’ll use your white paper to demonstrate that your company is the right one to help them solve it.
What is an Opportunity?
An opportunity is similar, but there’s no current harm facing your readers. Instead, there’s a chance before them to grow, increase sales, or otherwise stand out in their industry, and they aren’t taking it yet.
In this case, your white paper would map out what opportunities are available, and how your company can help them take advantage of them to reach their goals.
2. Proof of the Problem or Opportunity
White papers are fact-based publications. You can’t simply state that a problem exists and expect your target customers to believe you and rush to buy from you.
You need to prove the problem or opportunity exists first.
You’ll do this with data and statistics after conducting industry research. That data should not only support your claim, but it should also create a sense of urgency in the reader.
3. Additional / Related Problems
This is an area that commonly appears in white papers, but it isn’t always necessary.
Sometimes the main problem or opportunity you’re focused on has related ones attached to it. It can pay to highlight them, though less in-depth, because different issues are going to be more and less persuasive to different readers.
For example, let’s say your white paper is related to medical equipment your company sells to hospitals. The main problem or opportunity might have to do with research and testing showing your equipment is more effective at treating patients than the current standard.
In this example, a secondary problem or opportunity might have to do with the cost to the hospitals. Perhaps existing methods or equipment require significant upkeep costs or are very costly to replace, and your newer option would not only help more patients but also save on overhead.
4. Your General Proposed Solution
Once you’ve demonstrated to readers there is a problem, and you’ve convinced them they want to solve it, your white paper should tell them how.
Don’t pitch your company or your products yet though. You won’t usually even mention them by name here.
Instead, when you write a white paper, you’ll want to present a more general solution first. Take the medical equipment company from the example above.
In that company’s case, they won’t pitch their product here. Instead, they’ll describe the type of equipment or technology that can solve the hospital administrators’ problems.
A white paper should be progressively persuasive. You build trust by writing in an authoritative way. You present a true solution to a problem. And only then do you go for the sale.
5. Your Call-to-Action
After you’ve convinced your white paper’s reader that you understand their needs and you’ve shown them a viable solution, you’re finally ready to make your pitch.
This section is more directly sales-oriented, not only describing your product or service but featuring your call-to-action (CTA).
This section will often range from around ½ to 1 page. And it’s where you’ll prompt your reader to take further action. Depending on what you’re selling, you might link them to a place where they can make a purchase immediately. But for larger-ticket products and services, you’ll generally nudge them to contact you for more information in a sales call.
This is when your reader either converts into a customer or a hotter lead.
How to Write a White Paper: Basic Formatting Tips
When it comes to how to write a white paper, you now understand the type of content you’ll want to include. But what should it look like?
Here are some simple formatting tips to help you prepare your new white paper for publication.
How Long Should a White Paper Be?
There is no correct length for a white paper.
Some are as short as 5 pages. Others run 10-20 pages. This will vary quite a bit based on your industry, the type of buyer you’re trying to reach, and what you’re promoting.
According to white paper writer and author of White Papers for Dummies, Gordon Graham, white papers are usually 3000-5000 words. So that gives you something to aim for.
What Should a White Paper Look Like?
When thinking about how to write a white paper, you’ll want to keep structure in mind. Think of it in terms of a report.
Paragraphs and sections should be long enough to say what needs to be said, but short enough that the overall content is “scannable.” This means you’ll break it up with things like lists and headings when appropriate.
You should include images, but don’t go overboard. The content is the most important thing. Make sure any images you use are relevant, necessary, or otherwise help make the content easier to understand.
For example, skip the stock images, and focus instead on relevant charts, graphs, or images directly illustrating the problem or solution.
Now that you’ve learned some of the basics of how to write a white paper, what are you waiting for? Brainstorm some topic ideas and figure out how white papers can fit into your content marketing strategy.