The term “white paper” refers to a few different kinds of reports. According to Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, “Originally, the term white paper was used as shorthand to refer to an official government report, indicating that the document is authoritative and informative in nature.” Today, businesses often employ white papers as a content marketing tool.
White papers have retained the authoritative tone of voice from those historical government reports, but today they serve a different purpose. Nowadays, companies release detailed industry research reports as a way to collect email leads from potential clients. By writing white papers, businesses aim to establish themselves as trusted leaders within a particular field and to generate business-to-business (B2B) sales.
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A good white paper is a long-form document that contains sections with distinct pieces of content. Most white papers begin with a title page and table of contents. Then, the body of the paper starts with an intro to get the readers’ attention. A white paper may also contain sections with original research, a description of methodologies, data visualizations, or case studies. White papers conclude with the company’s contact information and/or a sales pitch to potential customers. The formatting of a white paper often mimics a magazine or journal layout by including sidebars, graphics, and bullet points.
Free white papers normally require an email address. After a customer provides his or her contact information, the white paper becomes available to download. By providing an email, the customer consents to receive email marketing efforts from the publisher.
Many white papers contain original research, content that helps the target audience understand the state of the industry better. Unlike a scientific paper, a white paper does not undergo peer review. The main purpose of a white paper is not to contribute to a body of knowledge. Instead, the goal of the research is to persuade the reader of a certain point of view. Authors of white papers, whether in-house teams or contracted writers, choose to compile statistics and other data that contributes to a persuasive narrative. When you synthesize data for a white paper, you can pull your research from interviews, surveys, government data, or other sources.
Description of Methodologies
Much like scientific research papers, white papers usually disclose how the authors assembled their research. Infographics and statistics within the white paper often lead to footnotes with more information about where the data originated. That said, the methodologies used in a white paper do not face the same rigorous scrutiny as research published in a medical or academic journal. Instead, a white paper often includes data that bolsters a specific solution or point of view. Whereas a scientific journal identifies and discourages conflicts of interest, all white papers possess an inherent bias. Authors of white papers usually include a description of methodology in order to imitate the style of a scientific research paper or government survey.
White papers usually contain infographics and other forms of data visualization. This type of content serves to break up large blocks of text, making the layout of the paper more appealing. These design elements also highlight key takeaways, so that readers can identify important statistics at a glance. The infographics can also be shared on social media channels, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, to help promote the white paper and generate sales for the publisher. When designing infographics, make sure that the content can stand alone and tell a complete story without the full text of the paper. We recommend hiring a designer to make data visualizations as strong and easy-to-understand as possible.
Many white papers feature case studies, showing how different stakeholders use a product or service. Writing from the perspective of B2B customers, the author identifies pain points in each client’s business. After describing how the client struggled with a particular problem, the author showcases the positive results that the customer achieved by implementing a proprietary solution.
To see some examples of case studies, take a look at Facebook’s collection of Success Stories. Usually case studies include quotes from clients, a description of the product or solution they used, and data showcasing an improvement in their business. Case studies usually range from one to two pages in length.
Technical White Papers vs. Marketing White Papers
Two main types of white papers exist, although there can be significant overlap between the two categories. First, technical white papers contain specialized jargon, and they describe a technological innovation or solution. In contrast, marketing white papers can be used to sell any product or service to a broad audience. Great white papers speak to a specific target audience, addressing their business concerns. Marketing white papers address a larger group of potential readers. Technical white papers have a limited scope, and they’re intended for a smaller audience of technical experts.
What is Thought Leadership?
In writing white papers, B2B companies hope to position themselves as thought leaders within their industry. Stephanie Burns, writing for Forbes, explains thought leadership: “It sounds cliche, but the first element to being a thought leader is to be entirely and unabashedly yourself, and take a stance that no one else is taking. But, make sure you have the research to boot.” Thought leaders drive innovation while establishing themselves experts. Both an individual person and a company can become a thought leader by observing trends and projecting a likely outcome.
Still, your white paper should aim to achieve real results, measured in email leads, B2B sales, and backlinks (references to your website across the internet).That White Paper Guy advises, “Don’t fall for the myth of ‘thought leadership.’ Don’t use it as a goal for any white paper, ever. Instead, I urge you to pick something more useful and more achievable.” By creating a strong white paper—one filled with valuable information for your customer—you will achieve thought leadership naturally. Thought leadership should not be your main goal in publishing a white paper.
What Does a White Paper Accomplish?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) | By writing about a specific topic, the company becomes more likely to have a website or landing page rank in searches that involve that topic.
Shareable social media content | A white paper can be easily shared, which helps the company connect with potential customers.
Touchpoint with target audience | By providing enterprise and business clients with information they need, a company positions itself as an expert within the industry. Potential customers learn to view the company as a helpful and familiar resource.
Lead collection | Often, the client must provide an email address (lead) in order to access the document. This allows the company to contact them with a sales pitch.
Quotable material and backlinks | An effective white paper provides information that can be repurposed by others. As an example, Comscore releases yearly reports, such as “The Global State of Mobile,” “The State of Retail,” “The State of Gaming,” etc. Reporters frequently refer to the information published in these white papers, and businesses quote the white papers in proposals, presentations, and shareholder meetings. In this way, Comscore secures backlinks that drive new customers to their website.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.