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What is a White Paper?

You may have heard the term ‘White Paper’ – sometimes written as ‘whitepaper’ – and wondered what exactly it is. A white paper is a document written using a persuasive style of language to describe and analyse problems and offer potential solutions. The definition of a white paper is very broad and varies from industry to industry, which can be rather confusing. A governmental white paper, for example, is a detailed report on a specific topic, while a business white paper has a lot in common with a marketing presentation, although it has much more technical detail.

Why is a white paper called a white paper?

The origins of the white paper lie in politics. Churchill’s ‘The White Paper’ of 1922 is frequently cited as the earliest and best-known example of a governmental white paper, and dealt with the Palestinian crisis. The term was derived from the white colour of the document’s cover – so it stood out from the blue papers. Today, white papers are used to formulate government policy while green papers are consultative documents.

By the 1990s, the term ‘white paper’ was a common tool to introduce new concepts and innovations, especially in the marketing and technology sectors. White papers have since evolved to be a hugely important part of business-to-business (B2B) marketing. They are long-form content aimed at the promotion of content, products and services of a company.

What is the purpose of a white paper?

The aim of a white paper is to offer its readers a deep understanding of an issue – to give them the knowledge they need to make an informed decision. White papers are widely used in the marketing sector to act as a kind of problem-solving handbook and engage readers at a more profound level than a typical brochure or e-book.

White papers are used to generate leads, persuade prospective customers, establish marketplace leadership and inform interested parties, such as journalists, potential clients and investors.
While a white paper is never going to make the New York Times bestseller list, there is no denying that they have many uses and are more than holding their own in the digital age. They are brilliant resources for members of your sales team, for example, and they can help your company cement its reputation for being credible and trustworthy.

What are white paper industry standards?

There aren’t any minimum requirements, but there are accepted formats and lengths for a white paper. Staying within the guidelines is highly advisable to avoid diluting the message and alienating the readership.
A white paper should

  • Have a minimum length of 6 pages – including any illustrations and references, Of course, many will far exceed this, although a white paper with more than 40 pages is definitely at the upper end of the scale.
  • Have a clearly defined structure with a contents page, a brief introduction or executive summary, and a conclusion followed by references. The body of the white paper should consist of several pages explaining the issue, several pages offering a solution or solutions and several pages outlying the company’s position.
  • Be formally presented, ideally in a PDF format with a standard portrait orientation. An effective white paper is not meant to be casually leafed through – in fact, readers should be prepared to read it carefully several times to absorb all the content.

How should a white paper be used?

A well-written white paper can be a highly effective marketing strategy. It should be used to convince clients of your company’s ability to deliver its promises, highlight the fine details of your business, showcase your industry expertise, and even develop your brand personality. Gordon Graham, who has written over 200 highly regarded white papers, has identified three main types of marketing white paper, each of which serves a specific purpose:

  • The Backgrounder – a detailed examination of products and services and typically consists of more than 8 pages. Ideal for supporting technical evaluations, product launches and for establishing a position as an industry leader.
  • The Numbered List – a lively roundup of bulleted points, aimed at anyone interested in the issue. Can be in a question-and-answer format. Good for generating attention with provocative views, creating a climate of fear in rivals, and clarifying the key issues in a complex negotiation process.
  • The Problem/ Solution – Uses a persuasive style of writing to present facts and logic as the answer to a problem. Aimed to educate readers, raise brand awareness and generate interest in your business.

However, white papers are not a sales pitch. They should not be straightforward advertising copy but should consist of details solidly backed up by formal references and ideally written by an industry specialist. They have more in common with academic papers than blog posts or e-zines, although the design, format and colour of a white paper should be as attractive as possible.
White papers aren’t intended to be as flashy as other marketing materials. This means, however, that the content should be extremely well-written. This does not mean, however, that a white paper should be dull. The most effective white papers will manage to stimulate interest in the dullest of products and are often very engaging to read.

Tips for creating your own effective white paper

  • Think about the title – a snappy title can be the difference between a good white paper and an outstanding white paper. Make sure the title is attention-grabbing and punchy.
  • Use internal links to promote any other assets if they are relevant to the content of your white paper. It’s a fine balance between making the most of the opportunity and avoiding any aggressive marketing.
  • Pay close attention to your spelling and grammar. It’s a serious document, so great care should be given to the editing and proofreading process. Run the finished paper through several editors before submitting it, as once it is out of your hands, you won’t be able to correct any errors.
  • Although not a sales pitch, including a brief call-to-action as part of the concluding summary, is perfectly acceptable. Keep it precise and direct clients to a specific action, such as ‘Visit this landing page’, ‘Request a free trial of our product’ or ‘Complete this quick online survey’.

White paper marketing should be of fundamental importance to all content marketers, and statistics confirm this. A CMI study, for example, revealed that white papers are one of the most commonly used tactics by B2B content marketers. Nearly 80 per cent of customers used white papers in the last year to research their buying options.

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