A white paper is an educational piece used primarily in business-to-business marketing. It typically explains a new or best way to solve a specific problem.
For example, a company that offers corporate training seminars in business writing skills might produce a white paper titled “How Ineffective Writing Can Cost You Sales.” The document would explain the effect that bad writing can have on customer service, sales, marketing, and public relations.
Is a white paper always called a white paper? Not necessarily. For the sake of variety and distinctiveness, some are labeled as executive briefs, special reports, or overviews. Many don't have labels at all, just the document title. So the term white paper is often just a descriptive term.
White papers are used extensively by business-to-business companies to hand out at trade shows, add oomph to sales presentations, get known in a niche market, and enhance credibility. They are often made available as a download on company Web sites and used in lead-generation programs. In fact, business people are constantly being inundated with invitations via direct mail, e-mail, and advertising to download a company's latest white paper.
What Does It Look Like?
A white paper is typically five to ten pages in length. Some can be as short as just two pages, while others — especially in the IT and pharmaceutical sectors — can have dozens of pages, approaching the length of a short book.
White papers are usually not as glossy as a brochure. Often they are simply designed and laid out to complement the nonpromotional style and tone of the piece. Most of the visuals used are charts and illustrations to support the content. The idea is to make the white paper seem unbiased, with solid information that the reader can truly benefit from. But make no mistake. Ultimately a white paper is designed to help the company get sales. That's why the conclusions drawn at the end of such a document almost always tie directly to the company's own products or services.
Here's an example of the opening few paragraphs of a typical white paper:
The Power of “Factory Thinking” in Sales Lead Generation
How leading companies are using management techniques, traditionally applied to manufacturing, to optimize and accelerate sales lead generation
Can the lead generation process really be like a factory? Can the cost-control, predictability, and overall rigor of goods manufacturing be applied to the seemingly tumultuous world of sales and marketing?
The answer is “yes” — but with some important exceptions.
This paper discusses how leading companies are using “Factory Thinking” to optimize and accelerate demand generation. The results? Lower costs, predictability, higher sales-sooner, and, in many cases, a significant competitive advantage.
In the following pages, we take a closer look at how factory thinking works, the limits of this analogy, what management techniques from manufacturing can be applied to sales and marketing, the steps to take, and recent examples of how companies are benefiting…
Writing a white paper is a major project. Often, you're expected to do extensive research, conduct interviews, and submit a detailed outline for review by your boss or client before you even type the opening sentence. It's like writing a little book. A white paper is usually structured as follows:
A cover with a captivating title and perhaps two or three subheads.
A one page (or less) executive overview that gives the reader the gist of the issues that the white paper will cover.
An introduction to the problem or issue.
The explanation of the solution — what it is, how it works.
Supporting evidence, including statistics, charts, graphs, research results, and authoritative opinions from outside experts.
The benefits of implementing the solution — results in terms of cost savings, revenue gains, productivity gains, new markets, or sales increases. Often case studies are integrated here.
A summary, or next steps, which tells the reader what to do next to implement the suggestions in the white paper. (This is usually a thinly veiled pitch for the company's products and services.)
Take another look at the white paper excerpt above. Notice the extensive use of facts, statistics, and other information from authoritative sources. This is what makes or breaks a white paper. To be successful — which means to be taken seriously by the target audience — it must build a solid argument based on unbiased evidence and opinion. If your white paper doesn't, it will be seen as nothing more than a sales brochure in disguise.
Proven Writing Strategies
Writing a white paper can be a challenge, simply because it is so different from most promotional pieces. You really can't compare it to a brochure, Web site, or anything else. Here are some proven tips that will help:
Be a relentless researcher. Dig for all the facts and other evidence you can find to support the theme of the white paper.
Write an attention-grabbing title. Your target audience is exposed to a lot of white papers, so make sure your title will stand out in the crowd.
The writing style and tone should be highly informative, descriptive, and educational — not promotional. You're not trying to sell something. You're trying to influence the reader's thinking which, hopefully, will lead him or her logically to your company's product or service.
Readers may not have the time to read the entire document. So make sure you summarize all the salient points in your first page or executive summary. This is like the abridged version of your white paper.
White paper expert Gordon Graham advises, “No one likes TLA that MTFD. In other words, no one likes Three Letter Acronyms that Make Them Feel Dumb.” Unless you are certain that the audience will understand a particular term, buzzword, or acronym, be sure to explain it at least once in the document.
If possible, include case studies and other real-world examples of success. These help build belief, which is especially important in white papers because the topic is often a new technology or methodology that may be yet unproven to the reader.
It can be difficult to sustain the nonpromotional style of a white paper, especially when you're used to writing more aggressive sales copy for such projects as advertising and direct mail. What do you do if you're in doubt? Err on the side of being too educational rather than promotional. The number one complaint among prospects who read white papers is, “I've been duped! This thing is nothing more than a long-winded sales pitch.” That's an impression you don't want to make.