A white paper can be valuable marketing collateral — always do your research, know your audience, and use meaningful design.
At their best, white papers serve as informative and eye-catching long-form marketing and sales collateral. They are designed to answer pressing questions for your potential customers. Often, for the chance to read what your company experts have to say, readers will provide their names, email addresses, and additional information.
This could be the start of a great new client relationship, so don’t disappoint readers with a thinly-veiled sales pitch. If you get it right, a white paper can build your reputation by offering in-depth research and new ideas that demonstrate your unique insights into your industry.
The Pros and Cons of Writing a White Paper
White papers are valuable collateral for any business looking to assert their expertise. Because they’re designed to answer real, substantive questions and provide thought leadership on a specific topic, your readers are likely to seek out your content — especially key decision-makers looking to solve a problem. They will offer up contact information in order to download the white paper, and they may even pass on your report internally or to other potential customers.
However, white papers do require some heavy lifting. There’s an upfront time investment, as writers need to do extensive research, interviewing, fact-checking, and proofreading. They also must work closely with designers to enhance their ideas with infographics, charts, and other visual elements.
Since white papers require significant time and effort, you should also consider whether you can repurpose white paper content for other collateral or web content — blogs or infographics for example.
Finally, to make sure you’re getting the ROI you expect, you will have to do more than post the white paper once. You’ll have to use social media and other campaigns to continually direct traffic to the landing page.
How to Write a White Paper with Impact
A great white paper doesn’t write itself. You’ll need a crackerjack content and design team that is willing to follow through on these three principles:
1. Go In-Depth on a Compelling Question
To choose a compelling topic for your white paper, start with the questions your customers are actually asking. What challenges are they facing today? What innovations or changes does your industry anticipate in the near future? Avoid rehashing well-worn subjects unless you have a new perspective to offer. Instead, look for a fresh, specific angle on a subject that lets your in-house expertise shine through — whether it’s an in-depth “how to” paper or a forward-thinking trends piece.
With your driving question in hand, it’s time to educate your audience. You’re making an overall point, but you need to support that point with relevant subsections, sufficient fact and research (and a footnotes page), plus illustrative examples that bring the subject to life. Don’t be afraid of citing outside sources, and collaborate with subject experts when possible — especially for technical subjects where buyers may be looking for insider expertise.
Note that you shouldn’t try to say everything in one white paper. Keep your message focused, and go deep rather than wide with your research. That also gives readers a reason to come back for future content. At the same time, don’t be afraid of length — up to about 10 pages can be appropriate. Fewer than four or five pages including design elements however, may feel insubstantial.
2. Be a Real Resource for Your Audience
To make your white paper a valuable resource, keep your ideal reader in mind. You likely deal with a range of customer types, but what is the industry and role of the specific person you’d like to read your report? Knowing your audience helps you refine your language and your tone — it’s important to decide whether you should be serious and straightforward or conversational yet informative. (Always avoid unnecessary jargon and marketing “fluff.”) Decide whether you’re targeting a general audience, the C-suite, or technical experts. For instance, a CEO may be looking for a visionary strategy while an engineer may prefer specific examples and data-heavy charts.
Your salespeople may fight you on this, but don’t make your white paper a sales pitch in disguise. Today’s readers are savvy, and they want objective, trustworthy information. Play it cool — there’s no reason to remind them repeatedly of the value your specific product would bring. Add your call to action to the last section, and make an appropriate, transparent link between the white paper’s subject and your company’s solution. As a whole, you want customers to come away feeling like your white paper was a genuinely useful and insightful document.
3. Use Eye-Catching, Meaningful Design
If you want to ensure that readers will actually remember your white paper, design can’t be an afterthought. Collaboration between writers and designers makes all the difference for creating an appealing final product. Smart decision help emphasize your key points, and well-placed headings, bulleted lists, and pull-out quotes can help readers retain important information even with a quick visual scan. Charts, graphs, and images help break up the text and make the information more digestible.
Design also communicates your company’s brand and helps underscore the tone of your piece. Technical yet visionary? Playful and human-focused? Your design choices can communicate a great deal about the purpose and content of your piece before the reader even starts.
Stand Out from the Crowd
A well-crafted white paper has it all — a compelling question, thoughtful research, and an audience-focused approach to storytelling and presentation. Although the length of a white paper can be daunting, many companies find that the effort is worth it for the results. A white paper can enhance your company’s reputation and generate leads. If it proves authoritative and useful, readers may even share it with other potential customers. Invest in the writing and design process, and your white paper may very well help your company stand out as a leader in your field.