17 January 2024
Make white papers work harder
In IT and telecoms, the purpose of a white paper is to provide research-based insight into a technical topic area or a technology-based solution to a business problem. Companies and vendors often use them in business-to-business (B2B) sales models as part of a content marketing strategy. Typical white paper characteristics are:
- A document containing narrative text and informative charts.
- Four pages or more in a portrait PDF, including an executive summary.
- If intended for print, use a pagination parameter divisible by four.
- Used before a sale to provide facts but not unsubstantiated opinions.
Well, those are the objectives. The truth is less altruistic. Let’s face it. Most white paper writers do so with the unvarnished intent of influencing a prospect’s purchasing decision. Creating a white paper seems a three-phase process. Research it. Write it. Put it out there. Right? Not.
Structuring the white paper
Generally, a white paper should be structured around the following elements:
- Title page and introduction including problem statement.
- Background reflecting the research carried out.
- Proposed solution with a brief explanation of how it works.
- Conclusion and call to action.
- References or citations.
Note that unlike most academic papers, the solution (ultimately, the main argument) should appear towards the end of the document, after supporting information and analysis has been presented. In tactical terms, tips in drafting a persuasive white paper include:
- Put distance between the topic area and you and your company’s offer. It must be written in the third person, don’t use language that oversells (i.e., it must not be a direct sales pitch), and avoid lecturing your audience.
- Include statistical evidence of the efficacy of the solution described, but don’t include quotes from named people in your own organisation.
- If you are going to use material from journals, magazines, brochures, academic papers, etc., make certain they’re approved for use in the public domain and always include an attribution with name of source and publication date in month/year format.
Seven best practices when researching and writing a white paper
Brainstorm: Start with a brainstorming session with key players. Talk over the needs of the audience and what points the paper must cover to be effective. Analyse the market by getting input from everyone in the know.
Do your homework: Research the topic extensively, using as many sources as you can. Consult industry publications for unique viewpoints your client probably won’t get anywhere else. The insight this conveys will build audience trust.
Start with a summary: Writing a summary first helps organise your thoughts and guides the content of the paper as you write it. Alongside, establish a broad framework to build from and get feedback from stakeholders early in the writing process.
Organise and conduct the research: Having written the summary and settled on a framework, think hard about the messages you intend to convey and arrange them in a logical order using a simple three-column structure (1) topic area, (2) key messages, (3) attributions and URLs. Use that structure to work through the research process and keep detailed progress notes. Note-taking is critical to avoid losing your way.
Start writing and use subheads: White papers must be readable, so subheads break up big blocks of text and help organise the paper so it’s easy to follow. This guides the reader and makes your work more digestible. Busy readers get more value, faster, by skimming subheads and can go back to them if they have a question.
Charts and bullet points are important: Presenting data in diagrams, bulleted lists (short), and logical process charts also assists readability and understanding, and offers the opportunity to be creative. Note that charts are likely to be used by readers in presenting to their own senior management. A valuable plus point, which you should emulate by looking at other white papers (for ideas, but don’t simply copy).
Make it punchy: White papers must not be boring and wordy. Highlight critical data, keep paragraphs short, adopt bullet points, and use simple language instead of jargon. By making it more user friendly, you increase the chance the reader will absorb the information and, more importantly, retain it.
Finally, to be good at producing white papers one needs to be a competent writer not necessarily a great designer. If your words sing, a skilled graphic designer will quickly be able to whistle along with the music. Creative ideas for charts can be imparted to them by a pencil sketch on a piece of paper. Colours are most often dictated by your brand values. They can choose images for their ability to convey the ideas in the story you’re telling. The sky’s the limit.