A beginner’s guide to writing a white paper
Many companies often avoid producing white papers because of their lengthy word count, depth of research, and strict structure. After all, why would a potential customer want to read a report when they can engage with your brand on social media instead?
Well, here’s the surprising thing: according to B2B content marketers, white papers are the second-most valuable type of content for turning prospects into buyers, ranking higher than video, webinars, and (you guessed it) social media posts.
More than 50 percent of respondents even said white papers are a “valuable” or “extremely valuable” lead generation tool.
Within this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to write and format a successful white paper, and you’ll also find some white paper examples to inspire you.
Writing a White Paper
- 1. What is a white paper?
- 2. White paper examples
- 3. How to write a white paper
- 4. White paper format
1. What is a white paper?
A white paper is a long-form, authoritative piece of content that uses expert knowledge and original research from reliable sources to educate readers about a specific problem and a proposed solution. The depth of the research involved gives them a formal tone and more authority than other types of content. Further, they are typically designed to feature on-brand stylistic elements, images, and data visualizations that help to make the content easier to digest and remember.
Companies, particularly B2B organizations, often use whitepapers to position their products or services, share their philosophies, and gain thought leadership in their industries. While traditionally downloaded by audiences in PDF form, some companies are also converting them into interactive presentations that can be clicked through online. White papers can serve as a helpful part of a content marketing strategy that helps to move a company’s prospects toward conversions.
2. White paper examples
To help you better understand white papers and how they can help your business accomplish its goals, here are a few white paper examples to get inspiration from.
Startups CX Benchmark Report 2020: Zendesk
Zendesk is a CRM company that provides businesses, often startups, with software solutions that improve customer relationships. In 2020, it examined the customer experiences of over 4,400 startups and shared the results in this interactive white paper. The company performed its own original research which helps to add to its thought leadership and authority. Further, it shared the findings in an easy-to-understand while demonstrating the need for its service offering.
Harnessing the Power of Content: Mdg, A Freeman Company
Mdg is a marketing agency that offers solutions to corporate, event, and association clients. With a history of relying on conferences, trade shows, and meetings, COVID-19 and the subsequent suspended events left a void in their revenue stream. As a result, this paper helped them to pivot to online content where they can drive year-round engagement. The layout is interactive and gradually makes the case for content marketing using statistics and client case studies. To wrap up, it provides tips and best practices followed by a call to action.
The Middle: Indianapolis – WorkingNation
WorkingNation is a non-profit organization that started a campaign in 2016 to educate the U.S. about an impending unemployment crisis. This white paper by the organization examines what it means to be middle-class in Indianapolis today, aiming to raise awareness about the nationwide problem by shining a spotlight on one problem area. Throughout the interactive paper, you get to know about the people of Indianapolis and examine the various parts of the problem (raising, keeping, and attracting talent). It closes with what needs to happen to find a road to recovery. Overall, this is a well-designed interactive white paper that effectively shares its message to move the organization’s agenda forward.
3. How to write a white paper
White papers are highly strategic pieces of long-form content rooted in research that are more formal than other content types like blogs, articles, and emails. They aren’t supposed to be promotional, except at the very end, and use verifiable research to make a logical case. While they may seem a bit intimidating at first, once you understand the formula, you’ll be able to write them without hesitation. But where should you start? Follow these steps, from identifying your target audience to editing and polishing.
Identify your target audience
First things first, who are you trying to reach? Before doing anything else, it’s important to identify who you want to read the white paper and why you want them to read it. For example, if you are a digital payment processing company and your primary target audience is small business owners, you would want your paper to be interesting to small business owners so they’ll use your service. It can make sense to target a broader audience to start, like small business owners in general. Then, you can write subsequent white papers to target more niche audiences and their problems, like owners of coffee shops.
The more you understand your audience, the better, as it empowers you to communicate with them more effectively. For example, by knowing your customers, you can understand if industry-specific jargon is helpful or hurtful and where your voice should be on the range from casual to professional. If you’re talking to millennial solopreneurs, you’re going to have a different tone and approach than if you’re talking to high-level executives at large corporations.
To flesh out who your audience is exactly, you can create one or more buyer personas. Buyer personas are profiles that represent the types of people who are often your customers. To create one, you’ll want to research your audience demographics and then identify the following information for each persona:
- Level of influence
- Personality traits
- Pain points
- Media preferences
By understanding your target audience in-depth, you’ll have the basics you need for the next steps.
Select a topic
Once you know who you want to reach, it’s time to think about a topic that will be most relevant to them, while also helping your business achieve your goals with the paper. White papers often cover a problem the audience faces, the causes and impacts of the problem, and the solution provided by the authoring company (with proof).
So think about the main problem(s) you solve for the target audience and buyer persona(s) you’ve identified. For example, in the case of the digital payment processing company, one problem their audience faces is finding an efficient and cost-effective payment processing solution. The paper could explore the main pain points they experience, like expensive transaction fees, payment holds, and security. Then, it could present how those can be solved with the company’s services and technology.
The topic you choose should be interesting and highly relevant to the audience, it should be within your area of expertise, and it’s also helpful if it hasn’t been covered in depth by other content out there. If you’re feeling stuck, you can:
- Look to feedback from your customers (survey, reviews, testimonials, etc.) to identify the main problems you solve for them.
- Ask your team to brainstorm ideas based on what they’ve experienced with customers.
- Perform market and SEO research to see what kinds of questions people are asking in your industry.
Plan a narrative arc
With a topic in mind, it’s time to plan out the structure of the paper. While white papers are research-heavy, dense pieces of technical content, they can’t be boring and dry or you’ll lose the reader. It’s still important to bring vibrance and interest throughout the piece to keep your audience engaged. A great way to do that is by following the tried-and-tested narrative arc.
A narrative arc means the story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, which includes the following components:
- Exposition: A thorough explanation of the idea or theory (introduction of the problem).
- Rising action: A series of events that build on the conflict and increase tension (explaining the details and impacts of the problem).
- Climax: Where the plot’s conflict is finally resolved (introduce the solution).
- Falling Action: What happens as a result of the climax (flesh out the benefits of the solution).
- Denouement: Conclusion (summarize the problem, solution, and next steps).
The white paper should have a logical flow that tells a story, even though it’s more formal and rooted in research.
Pack it with value
With an audience, topic, and plan in place, you can start writing the main body of the white paper. A good place to start is to write down the key pieces of research and information that make a case for the problem and the solution.
For example, using the digital payment processor example, you might list the industry’s average cost of transactions and average payment hold times in the problem section. Then, you might share your company’s averages which beat the industry numbers in the solution section.
With the key points that bring the main value to the piece, it’ll be easier to flesh out the story around them. Be sure you have verifiable sources so that your case will be credible and you can establish yourself as a reliable source of expert information.
Engage in the intro
The introduction is key to the white paper’s success because it sells the piece. If you don’t engage the reader in the first paragraph, they’ll never get to the body of the paper. Being so, once the body is done, you’ll have a complete understanding of the value the paper offers.
At this point, brainstorm how to get the attention and interest of the audience. You want to emphasize the value they’ll get from the paper and how it will solve a very important problem. However, be careful as you don’t want to give too much away. Give them a reason to read it!
Sell in the outro
The next step is to wrap up the whole paper and encourage the audience to take the next step. You’ll want to summarize the problem and solution to bring the paper to a natural close. Then, while the bulk of your paper should not be directly promoting your company, the conclusion is where you can introduce your company, your product or service offerings, and how the reader can gain access to them.
Edit and polish
The last step is to edit and polish up the piece. Content is rarely in its best form right off the bat. After the piece is created, it can be helpful to have different people from your company review it and provide feedback. They may have insight on additional research to include or tweaks that can help to better make the case. It can also help to let it sit for a bit and come back with a fresh set of eyes. Don’t be in a rush to publish right away. Take the time to edit, review, and get it to its best possible state.
4. White paper format
With your white paper content written, polished, and perfected, you may be ready to send it out into the world — but wait! All of your hard work on the paper’s creation and the logical case may go to waste if you don’t wrap them up in a pretty, reader-friendly package. By that, we mean the paper needs to be designed to catch the reader’s eye and make the entire reader experience easy and enjoyable. Otherwise, they may click “back” to go look for another piece of content that’s easier to digest. Here’s what you should keep in mind.
Follow the common whitepaper layout
White papers are similar to other business reports, but they follow a common structure. Be sure that your paper clearly identifies the following:
- Title: The paper should have an engaging title that’s prominent on the page while clearly presenting the value of the paper. Keep in mind, it needs to entice readers and pique their curiosity or they’ll never click on the white paper in the first place. It can be well worth the investment to partner with a copywriter who knows the business of effective headlines.
- Abstract: An abstract is a brief overview of what the reader can expect from the white paper. This is often included in the introduction.
- Problem statement: The problem statement is the basis for why the paper exists. It should be clearly stated in the introduction and the rising action part of the paper.
- Background: Background on the problem will also be included during the rising action part of the paper. This section should dig into why the problem exists, its prominence in the industry, and its detrimental effects.
- Solution: The solution will be found in the climax of the paper. It should be clearly communicated and apparent that this section of the paper is resolving the problems laid out in prior sections.
- Conclusion: It’s important to include a clear and marked conclusion at the end of the paper where readers can get a summary of the major findings. While many business reports include a conclusion summary at the beginning, white papers put it at the end. It’s also important to feature your recommendations in this section.
- References: The reference section is key to ensuring your white paper is credible and trusted. Be sure to include sources for any claims within the paper and include details on the sources so readers can fact-check them if desired.
Use design to engage
Once you have the proper layout squared away, your paper should be handed off to a trusted graphic designer who will choose a fitting background and color scheme, along with typography styles, graphics, call-outs, and more. As with the writing, it’s important that the design decisions are made with your target audience and buyer personas in mind. Further, they should align with your company’s brand and other marketing assets. In the end, it should be a work of art that creates an engaging and educational experience for the reader.
Make it mobile-friendly
With more than half of internet traffic coming from mobile devices, it’s also important to ensure that your white paper is easy to read and digest on mobile. Surprisingly, the majority of white papers are still downloadable PDFs. This format creates a difficult experience for mobile users. PDFs are full-page documents designed to be viewed on desktop computer screens. Mobile users will need to zoom in and pan around to consume the content. Instead, consider presenting your white paper on a responsive web page that automatically resizes based on the device a person is using.
Another factor to consider is the document’s readability. While white papers are often more dense than other types of content, that doesn’t mean the presentation should be cluttered. It’s important to prioritize the key information and leave space for the reader to breathe. Emphasizing too much or too little can deter readers. So once the paper is designed, analyze how easy it is to read and understand, and then decide if anything should be removed.
Consider current trends
Lastly, you don’t want your white paper to seem dated. Take some time to look around at other recently published white papers to see what’s popular and trending. For example, bold color schemes and fonts, color gradients, 3D designs, and cartoon illustrations are all “in” in 2021. That said, don’t follow a trend just for the sake of being trendy. It also needs to fit in with your topic, brand, and target audience.
White papers are one of the most valuable types of content for converting prospects into customers. They’re even considered to be more effective than video, webinars, and social media posts.
You see, white papers are a great way to establish your company’s expertise, address a pain point experienced by your target customers, and present your product or service as the solution – all in a professional and educational way.
The lead generation doesn’t just end there either. The beauty of an effective white paper is that it can be both marketed and re-purposed into the future, whether as a blog post, email newsletter, podcast, webinar, or video series. This allows you to increase engagement, reach a wider range of your ideal audience, and boost your white paper success ten-fold.