As far as weight and credibility goes, white papers fall somewhere between a case study and a research report. They are a perennially popular form of educational marketing and means of demonstrating thought leadership. White papers vary considerably in quality, format and length, ranging from detailed technical papers to blatant product promotions. A high quality white paper will focus on a compelling topic or issue and help people make decisions by pulling together information that supports a particular solution. The most effective white papers emphasize customer education and avoid anything that would come off like a sales pitch.
1. Topic Selection
Choosing the topic of a white paper should be straightforward. Every market segment has a burning issue, emerging technology, or technical area that’s a source of customer confusion. After identifying the general topic narrow it down to the most compelling and urgent aspects. What knowledge and insights can you provide that would help the targeted audiences accomplish their objectives and do their jobs better now? It’s never too early to think about titles that would catch market attention as a subject line in an e-mail blast or as a headline in a news release.
2. Reporting & Research
A good white paper will incorporate material from a variety of sources, including industry experts and practitioners, as well as secondary and primary research. Research and reporting can easily consume twice as much time as the actual writing. Like any writing endeavor, the higher the quality of the inputs, the higher the quality of the end product.
Organize notes, research, interviews, and other material into a logical flow of primary and secondary arguments and supporting observations. It’s generally best to put the strongest arguments at the beginning where they are most likely to be read (the classic inverted pyramid structure). If possible get feedback on the idea flow or outline to make sure the primary points of emphasis are where they need to be. Tangential topics or brief case studies work well as sidebars and will add graphic variety to the final layout. The typical white paper ranges from 6 to 12 pages, or 2,000 to 5,000 words. The exact page length will depend upon the amount of white space and the number of charts, tables, diagrams and other illustrations. Footnotes and sources for additional information add credibility.
White papers tend to follow a professional or academic writing style. That’s not to say that a more creative style would not be appropriate for a particular audience. Avoid gobbledygook words, excessive acronyms and marketing speak when possible. Shorter sentences are generally easier for readers to follow, but good writers will vary sentence length based on meaning, and use short sentences for emphasis. Conclude the paper with a clear course of action and specific recommendations.
5. Editing & Revising
Solicit feedback from everyone who has a stake in the white paper’s accuracy, main argument and final appearance. Edits and revisions typically require little direct time, but it can take weeks to receive suggested changes from all interested parties. So plan accordingly.
The typical white paper usually starts with a title page and summary, such as a single-page executive summary or a brief descriptive paragraph to entice the targeted reader into downloading and reading the document. Near the end it's commonplace to include a prominent description of the sponsoring organization that highlights their expertise and, if appropriate, brief professional bios of the authors.
Today most white papers are distributed electronically as static electronic pages or in more interactive formats. They can be promoted as a source of more in-depth information in printed advertisements and newsletters, and used as marketing collateral for sales calls and at trade shows. Distribute them in any way that will initiate a relationship with targeted customers or generate sales leads.
What have I missed? What are some of the best practices that you have used to develop engaging white papers and put them in front of the targeted audience?
The basic process and tips presented here are based on my own experience with clients. If you're looking for more detailed and extensive information on creating white papers, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Michael Steltzner's website and his white paper on how to write white papers.