How do we create a useful white paper?

January 29, 2019
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I’ve been getting a LOT of questions about white papers lately.

What’s the purpose of a white paper? How long should it be? Do you have a white paper template? How much technical detail do we include in a white paper?

Need a White Paper? Ask These 6 Questions First

The answers, of course, lie in what your expected results of creating a white paper are. Let’s start there. Before you start writing, have all stakeholders answer these questions:

  • Who should read the white paper?
  • Will they read it?
  • How are you hoping to be perceived after they read it?
  • What are you hoping they will do with the white paper?
  • How will it be used? For example, as a marketing lead generation piece, a sales leave-behind, part of a thought leadership library, or other purpose?
  • Will it be peer reviewed?
  • Do you expect it to be printed? Shared?

Once you have the answers to these questions, it’s much easier to determine the shape of your white paper, because, as you guessed, there is no one perfect white paper template. It should be created to suit your brand story and business objectives.

You might even realize at this point that you don’t need a white paper at all, because it doesn’t fit within your overall business or content strategy. You might be better off spending your time elsewhere.

A Quick Definition of White Paper

That said, let’s consider the definition of white paper. A white paper (or whitepaper) is a self-contained document that informs the reader of a specific concept, problem, solution, or discovery. It can be highly objective and scientific or quite subjective and one-sided, yet in both cases, it usually has a strong thesis. The intention of the white paper is to convince the reader that the thesis is accurate. In other words, it’s usually, but not always, designed to be persuasive.

White Paper Types

Here are just a few of the common white paper types:

Technical White Paper

Generally written for engineers and scientists about the technical aspects of how something works. References are generally not needed, because the white paper itself is intended to be the original reference.

Scientific White Paper

This one often involves several writers and peer reviewers and will be scrutinized closely by the science community at large. Just the facts here, with lots of references to back them up.

Informative or Educational White Paper

I think of these as altruistic white papers, designed to help raise awareness and help people help themselves regarding a specific topic. They are often part of a thought-leadership endeavor.

How-To White Paper

Somewhat self-explanatory, these white papers provide the details necessary for someone to use a product or service in a straight-forward or more creative way.

Comparison White Paper

When two things seem very similar to your audience, and you need to point out the differences in a seemingly unbiased way, a comparison paper could do the trick. For brand, product, or service comparison white papers, the audience usually wants to be convinced, so a bias isn’t usually a problem. Consumer advocate groups are one exception.

White Paper Length

One beautiful thing about a white paper is that it can be however long you need it to be. Typically, the expectation is that it’s long enough to give more than an overview and some kind of substantive information, like charts, statistics, study results, that kind of thing. We suggest more than two printed pages to get this kind of depth. If it’s shorter than that, publish it online as an article or post.

Three to five thousand words feels about right for most papers.

White Paper Voice and Tone

Even though white papers are typically biased, especially when driven by sales and marketing, most readers expect a straight-forward, just the facts tone. We recommend avoiding phrases that you cannot substantiate, like “this is the absolute best solution.”  If you feel it’s the best, describe why, but don’t state it. Also avoid flowery adjectives and most adverbs.

That said, white papers do NOT HAVE TO BE BORING!

You do not have to put on an air of sophistication or use jargon and talk about yourself in the third person to be considered a serious white paper. The passive voice simply makes people feel passive.

Use the same voice (or personality) that your brand typically uses, and then apply a tone (or mood) of a professionalism on top. Remember, using language similar to your reader is the best way to connect with them.

Naming Your White Paper

You don't have to call your white paper a white paper. In fact, if it will turn away your reader, don't use it at all. Call it a Handbook, eBook, Fact Sheet, Resource Guide, Business Guide, Kill Sheet, Comparison Document, How-To Resource, Backgrounder ... whatever works for your audience. These are all other names for a white paper.

I hope this answers your questions about white papers and how they might fit in with your content strategy as a whole.

More questions? I’m here for you.

Sample White Papers to Inspire You

Photoshelter: The Photographer's Lighting Handbook

GatherContent: Content Strategy for Website Projects

Sharpspring: Lead Nurturing Trends

Webflow: The Modern Web Design Process

Journal of Sports Sciences: Improving Paddling Efficiency (technical, scientific example)

About the Author: Shelly Bowen

Shelly Bowen, content strategist

Shelly Bowen, MFA, is a content writer, content strategist, and founder of Pybop.

For decades, Shelly has written for businesses on complex topics from disease prevention and medical devices to alternative energy and leveraging data. Today, she's hyper-focused on supporting B-B technology businesses. In her spare time, she hikes, kayaks, draws, and works on her T-Bird.

A wide variety of brands rely on Shelly as an essential freelance writer and content strategy resource.

Follow Shelly on Instagram @pybop or connect on LinkedIn. More about Shelly and Pybop.

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