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What is a white paper and why should you be using them?

Well, they’re an excellent marketing vehicle for demonstrating your authority on a subject, whilst building customer loyalty that can ultimately translate into sales.

Read on to find out more about the benefits white papers can bring to your business, how to set about writing one, and which brands are using them successfully to promote their products and services.

What is a white paper?

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White papers are authoritative, data-driven pieces of long-form content that deep-dive a particular topic.

These types of documents differ from blog posts in that they contain less opinion and more detail, which makes them a much longer read.

They’re generally not as long as eBooks though, which tend to be an extension of blog topics and can run into hundreds of pages. Unlike both of these formats, white papers are categorically not the place for sales pitches. They should be extremely well-researched and ultimately give the reader a greater understanding of a subject.

White papers have evolved from governmental documents explaining bone-dry legislature to later being adopted by the tech industry to explain new concepts and, more recently, have become the preserve of content marketers aiming to foster brand awareness and generate leads. Nowadays, there are three main types of white papers being developed: the backgrounder, numbered list and problem/solution format.

  • Backgrounder white papers provide an in-depth explanation about a product, service or methodology.
  • Numbered list white papers are one of the easiest formats to pull together and are often designed to present a provocative viewpoint or cast fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) on a competitor product.
  • Meanwhile, the tried and tested problem/solution format is designed to provide a solution to a commonly encountered problem.

Why create a white paper?

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The primary objective of any good white paper is to establish your company as a thought leader in your field.

If you can answer your reader’s questions or solve their problems you’ll gain trust as an established voice of authority. Trust builds loyalty, which ultimately results in sales in the long term.

As such, white papers are a great tool for moving your customers along the sales funnel more quickly.

“Gating” is a common data capture practice that requires readers to enter their personal details such as their name and email address to gain access to the white paper.

Typically, a brief overview or several pages will be freely available before personal details have to be exchanged for further reading. This presents a golden opportunity to leverage these leads into conversions. Just be aware that this technique can limit the readership of your paper. If brand awareness is your goal rather than lead generation, then making your white paper freely available can prove far more effective and often generate more traction in the search engine rankings (because gated content isn’t indexed). A one-click social login is an excellent halfway house that gives you a huge array of additional analytics to shape future campaigns.

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As we’ve mentioned previously, white papers aren’t designed to be out-and-out sales brochures.

However, if you have excellent data points at your disposal, they can be the perfect vehicle for persuading your readers that your product, service or brand is superior. Subtlety is the name of the game here. Remember, you’re presenting concrete facts and figures to make your case, much like an academic essay, to enable your audience to make an informed opinion.

Developing a white paper takes time, there’s no two ways about it. But the payoff, beyond those vital leads and sales, is a wealth of killer content to promote across your distribution channels. Make the most of all that hard work and leverage the eye-catching statistics and surprising results you’ve been at pains to collate across your social channels.

This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to create a buzz and direct more traffic to your white paper.

You could also re-purpose sections of your white paper into shorter blogs that become a gateway to the final document too. Don’t forget to inform your existing contacts either with an email campaign that summarises the key talking points and entices your customers to delve deeper.

White paper format

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A typical white paper includes an enticing title and a table of contents to help your reader to navigate the document. A brief executive summary is a good idea to outline what your white paper is about, followed by an introduction that drills down further into specific discussion points covered in the main body of the document. You can then go to town with the main thrust of your white paper’s content.

Length-wise, your white paper can be as long as it needs to be to make your point. As a result, many white papers tend to be weighty tomes, especially if they unpack a lot of statistical data and include graphs, charts and illustrations. Just remember your main objective here, which is to get your paper read. In the midst of conveying your findings you still need to tell a story to keep your readers engaged. Research and data needn’t be boring as long as it has a narrative to bring it to life.

One final stylistic point to consider is your file format. The traditional approach is to package a white paper into a tried and tested PDF document. It’s quick, easy, professional and universally accessible – the advantages are obvious. Not to mention the fact that a well optimised PDF can rank equally well in the search engine results pages (SERPs) as a web page.

However, if your audience happens to favour mobile surfing, you’ll need to work slightly harder to give them a mobile-friendly experience. Standard PDFs can be unwieldy and slow on a mobile but a good designer can help you to overcome these obstacles, for instance with single column text and minimally sized imagery.

All of which emphasises the need for detailed planning whenever you develop a white paper. The more legwork you put in at the outset, the more effective your final document will be.

The difference between an eBook and a white paper

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If you search online for a clear distinction between eBooks and white papers then chances are you won’t find a definitive answer.

As frustrating as this may be, it highlights the current trend for blurring the lines between content marketing formats. In a nutshell though, the main differences between eBooks and white papers traditionally centre around tone, length and style.

EBooks are more whimsical and entertaining in tone, pitched at non-experts on a subject who are nearer the beginning of their purchasing journey. Because they can cover a multitude of topics, eBooks are generally longer than white papers (although not always) and often employ a more graphical aesthetic to keep the reader’s attention.

White papers are much more serious and professional in tone, aimed squarely at experts who are further down the purchasing funnel and seeking quantitative data to finalise their buying decision.

They tend to be far more text-heavy in appearance, using graphs and charts to illustrate the main points. All things considered, white papers lend themselves better to B2B campaigns.

How to write a white paper – 7 Top Tips

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We’ve looked at what a white paper is and why you might like to create your own. Now, if you’re inspired to start writing, there are several key attributes to every great white paper that you should bear in mind. Here are our seven top tips on how to write a white paper that’s bound to make an impact.

1. Set a clear goal

You’ll want to set aside a significant amount of time towards planning your white paper.

Your first port of call should be to decide your objectives. Working backwards from a cast-iron set of goals will enable you to stay on task and present a really coherent argument.

You’ll also want to be clear about who you’re targeting. Identifying your core audience will shape how you present your findings in terms of language, layout and even format. Once you’ve identified what you need, spend some time considering what your audience needs.

What topics or issues are your customers interested in that perhaps haven’t already been covered and what areas are you experts in and can add considerable value? Getting these elements right at this stage can make or break the success of your white paper.

2. Provide solid data

The backbone of any great white paper is solid data. Sourcing high quality facts and figures is a sliding scale of time, effort and expense.

Depending on your subject matter, you might be able to carry out desk research to aggregate existing research available online and cite these sources within your white paper.

Collating scholarly work into one comprehensive and easily digestible white paper is a budget-friendly option. As is using online surveys, like SurveyMonkey and SmartSurvey, to canvas the opinions of your existing customers. Don’t be fooled into thinking that either is a quick route to success though, because curating and – more importantly – interpreting data is a seriously time-consuming exercise. One that requires a certain level of expertise that might not be readily available in-house. In which case, commissioning a market research firm like Kantar or Ipsos MORI could save you time and effort in the long run.

3. Don’t be salesy

Have you ever downloaded what you thought was an impartial, informative white paper only to find that what you’ve really got is a glorified sales brochure? We have, it’s annoying!

Whatever you do, don’t fall into that trap. EBooks and blog posts are perfectly acceptable platforms for promoting your products or services. A white paper, on the other hand, should help your readers by providing educational, unbiased information that allows them to make up their own minds about a particular topic. Remember, the key to any great white paper is establishing authority. Have the confidence to impart knowledge and statistical data without pleading for a sale. White papers personify the old adage of “show, don’t tell.”

Rather than telling potential customers how brilliant your company is at what you do, show them effective products and services like yours can be at solving certain problems. It’s a subtle but important difference.

4. Write a clear and concise title

The very first visual prompt your readers will use to judge whether they should read your white paper is its title.

Once again, you’ll need to tread a fine line between maintaining the professional air expected of a white paper and developing a headline that’s intriguing enough to make someone want to actually read it. Clickbait or overly sensational titles are clearly not appropriate for this kind of format. Rather, you should aim to provide your readers with a clear benefit.

After all, if they’re going to invest a good chunk of their time into reading your heavy hitting paper, they have to be satisfied that they’re going to be rewarded for their efforts. Use your statistical data to your advantage here and pick out your most striking results to pique your audience’s interest.

5. Make it visually attractive

Just because white papers are a predominantly text-heavy format doesn’t mean you should neglect their design.

Far from it, in fact.

This current era of data saturation and diminishing concentration levels means that visual cues are an important part of helping customers to digest complicated information.

Graphs, charts and graphics are all excellent tools for presenting hard data in a digestible and memorable format. For the best results, you’ll probably want to turn to a graphic designer to package your white paper into a slick and professional document.

Planning your objectives and audience at the outset of this process should enable you to draft a useful brief for your designer to ensure their graphic flourishes are consistent with what you’re trying to achieve and are audience appropriate.

6. Include a clear call to action

The only time it’s permissible to take part in a touch of self-promotion is at the conclusion of your white paper.

Having presented all your research findings and relevant arguments, your outro is an opportunity to sum up everything your reader has learnt and provide them with a clear call to action (CTA) that offers further information, a point of contact, or both. If you’ve executed the rest of your white paper effectively, and your potential customer is satisfied that they’ve gained an advantage of some sort by reading your paper, then it’s a great idea to capitalise on that reservoir of goodwill by gently nudging them further down the marketing funnel.

This could be towards your website or your contact us page, or more specifically towards a particular product or service that ties in with the subject matter of your white paper.

7. Promote it

Last, but by no means least, you’ll want to promote your white paper to the hilt.

There’s no point investing all that time, effort and money into producing a world-class white paper if no-one’s going to see it. Promote, promote and promote some more!

As we touched upon earlier, there are a whole host of platforms for you to maximise the exposure for your white paper. Social media is an obvious starting point.

Considering white papers are professional in tone LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are likely to be the best places to peddle your work.

Don’t just rely on a blanket approach though. We’d advise going deeper than that and exploring where your archetypal audiences like to hang out. Research the most relevant hashtags, LinkedIn groups, subreddits and Quora discussions, for example, and put in the effort to foster relations before recommending your white paper.

Also make the most of your existing platforms, like blogs and newsletters, to promote your paper to your already active and engaged audience. Simply asking them to share your paper with their contacts can also be highly effective.

6 of the best white paper examples

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Here are six of our favourite white paper examples, which score big on nailing the brief and delivering a persuasive argument in one engaging and authoritative document.

Dialogue Marketing: How to Enter and Succeed in the German Market (Deutsche Post)

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Boasting Europe’s largest nationwide mail and parcel delivery network, Deutsche Post has some serious clout when it comes to reaching customers across Germany. Their white paper is designed to promote the German eCommerce space as an enticing place for international sellers to set up shop. How better to get your brand name out there than with some targeted ‘dialogue marketing’, also known as good old-fashioned mail shots delivered by – you guessed it – Deutsche Bank? This white paper delivers (see what we did there?!) with clear and concise language, impactful charts and graphics, and consistent branding throughout.

The future car. Driving a lifestyle revolution (Siemens)

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This detailed backgrounder from technological innovators Siemens paints a vivid picture of what autonomous vehicles might look like and what impact that could have on our daily lives. Siemens themselves have ventured into this tech space, which they unashamedly point out. But we can forgive them this brazen self-promotion because the rest of their paper is festooned with so many cited references and concept drawings that it makes for a fascinating read. This is a great example of a white paper that intertwines existing research with expertise on a subject matter to produce a really compelling narrative.

A Decentralized Global Home Rental Platform (Rentberry)

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Remember we said a white paper shouldn’t be an all-out sales pitch? Well, that’s certainly the case 99.9% of the time. However, if you’re launching a groundbreaking new concept that could revolutionise your industry, then you can be afforded that 0.1% of wriggle room. Rentberry fit that mould with this part-backgrounder, part-problem/solution white paper that outlines their vision for using blockchain technology (the basis of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin) to disrupt the property rental market. The most impressive thing about Rentberry’s white paper is the sheer depth of research and preparation that sings through. These guys clearly know their niche and back their innovation with a full suite of persuasive arguments.

Accident Insurance (Prudential)

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This white paper from American insurers Prudential uses the classic problem/solution technique. It demonstrates the cost of accidental injuries to US workers and the knock-on effects for employers, before making the case for businesses to support their staff with voluntary accident insurance. Save a few illustrative charts, this is a no “bells and whistles” paper that instead relies on really well-researched statistical data to shape its argument. Prudential also employ a frequently asked questions (FAQs) section to great effect towards the end of the paper. This is a great way to provide further explanations on a topic, whilst appearing responsive to the needs of your audience.

Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation (Uber)

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At just shy of 100 pages, this white paper from transport gurus Uber gives a detailed and impassioned view of how vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (or VTOLs for short) and on-demand aviation could drastically cut down commutes and congestion. As major players in the autonomous vehicles market, Uber really flex their expertise here, offering tons of technical data to make the case for VTOLs. It’s certainly pitched at a high-level audience and is clearly designed to persuade decision makers in government, manufacturing and town planning (to name but a few) to get on board with Uber’s vision. Once again, if you’re looking to disrupt existing industries it pays to have great data that you can bring to life with a compelling story that addresses common pain points.

Charting the Course for Ocean Sustainability (The Economist/World Ocean Initiative)

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The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), part of the Economist Group that includes British newspaper The Economist, is a world leader in business intelligence, helping governments and businesses alike to understand how the world is changing. In this hard-hitting, 80-page white paper the EIU has produced a text book backgrounder that not only aggregates a huge amount of academic research but also references quotes from academics and industry experts from across the globe. It also uses case studies brilliantly to show real life examples of ocean conservation work. This is a really impressive piece of research that shows the power of using your own network of experts to pool your combined knowledge in order to demonstrate your business’ collective authority on a subject.

Conclusion

In the right hands a white paper is a very powerful tool indeed. With great power comes great responsibility though and in the case of white papers that means setting aside your usual sales patter (for the most part) and giving your reader a more measured presentation of facts. Having read your white paper they should leave educated and informed, as well as entertained if possible.

If you’re looking to generate your own original research and develop a successful white paper, why not speak to one of our experts at Wyzowl to find out how we can support you.