If you’ve written off white papers as an overly complex, low-ROI piece of content, think again.
White papers offer incredible potential and versatility for your brand. Not only can they enhance your company’s authority, but they also help attract new leads. In this way, putting in the work necessary to create an effective white paper is an opportunity to take stock of your company's status quo and to develop a plan for the future.
White papers don’t just come in one shape or size. Find out what the three types of white papers are and how best to use each in your own content strategy.
What is a white paper?
The term "white paper" is sometimes misapplied. While no two white papers are identical, these informational documents address or promote a specific issue or solution. Companies and non-profit organizations often use them to market ideas and products, though they are not inherently "sales-y" or promotional.
<div class="tip">White papers aren’t the only successful piece of content out there. Try these other types of content to round out your content marketing strategy. </div>
Use and Value
White papers provide companies several benefits; namely, they help:
- Inform and educate readers on a specific topic
- Establish your brand’s industry expertise
- Present your product or service as a possible solution to an issue
An excellent white paper can entice readers to answer your call to action, but not as a sales pitch. They’re often included in a business proposal or application for grants and government programs. In this way, they serve as supporting documentation for a large-scale project or business partnership.
White Paper Structure
Most white papers include the sections below, though some white paper authors use slightly different terminology or present information in another order.
However, regardless, a successful white paper provides a thorough analysis and discussion of its given subject. Below are their major components and tips for how to write one.
Descriptive Headline or Title
A compelling white paper title tells users what to expect and entices them to read. To write an effective title, follow these best practices:
- Be concise and straightforward.
- Avoid writing a title that overpromises or sounds too good to be true.
- Remember that your white paper should support the headline with facts, data, and cited research. If you can't back it up, it's not the right headline.
Some examples of successful white paper titles include:
- “The Rise of Digital Money” from the International Monetary Fund
- “Investing in Wastewater Treatment Upgrades: Boosting the Triple Bottom Line” by Johnson Controls
- “Achieving Hospital-wide Patient Flow” by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement
- “Can Consumers Recycle Your Product? The Importance of Recycling Availability Reporting” by Earth911
The executive summary is a short description of the white paper's focus and purpose. This section is sometimes called the "abstract."
Unlike a scientific research paper, this is not the place to list key conclusions. Your white paper should entice the reader to read until the very end. Save the best for later!
The introduction gives the reader a preview of the information in the body of your white paper. Again, don't give away your key conclusions just yet. Instead, offer compelling reasons to keep reading.
This section makes up the bulk of a white paper. Here, you’ll hone in on your topic and demonstrate why your company is equipped to tackle the issue.
Rather than one endless piece of text, break down the body of your white paper into subsections and use each to bolster your claims. Also use plenty of accurately cited research to strengthen your analysis.
Well-Defined Problem or Need
Readers need a clear picture of the problem or issue presented in your white paper. Avoid vague, meandering explanations and stick to a targeted, specific issue.
Though it may be tempting, this is not the place for flowery or sales-y language. Avoid overstating the issue, and back your claims with research and data.
State the issue right away, in a single sentence. For example:
"The disposal of lithium-ion batteries designed for electric cars is a challenging activity for manufacturers."
From there, support this assertion with a few paragraphs that demonstrate the strength of your claim. Each of these paragraphs should start with a statement that strengthens your claim.
An example support sentence might read:
"Environmental regulations create cumbersome legal barriers for efficient disposal or recycling."
Then include another sentence or a few that show the reader why the topic sentence is accurate.
A statement that supports the above topic sentence could read:
"Manufacturers are required to fully dismantle each battery and dispose or recycle individual components using methods detailed in EPA regulations."
Support this sentence by referencing the associated regulation or a related authoritative report or article.
The high-level solutions section of your white paper should demonstrate a generalized, overarching plan of action. Think of this section as an elevator speech, a method for describing yourself or your business in just a few sentences, or even a single sentence.
High-level solutions are inherently vague but should provide enough detail to be clear and understandable.
A high-level solution for the lithium-ion battery issue outlined above might read:
"Manufacturers can reduce the impact of these issues by outsourcing battery disposal to a third-party company that specializes in efficient, environmentally friendly disposal and recycling."
Ideally, you will be able to offer more than one potential high-level solution. Dedicate a short paragraph to each.
In this section, readers evaluate whether your proposed solutions are realistic and likely to solve the headlining issue.
Structurally, this section is simple to set up.
- Back any claims with solid, authoritative citations.
- Refer to each high-level solution and provide details about how to implement these solutions. Moreover, give specifics about why your company, in particular, is poised and ready to tackle the issue at hand.
- Demonstrate your company's capability, expertise, and breadth of knowledge—however, remember to take a subtle approach versus blatant marketing.
- This is also the appropriate section for explaining why your company's services are superior to others in the field. Don't disparage your competition, but instead, draw distinctions. The goal here is to convince the reader that you are the go-to solution to solve the overarching issue.
Finally, you've reached the place where you can plug your brand. Bearing in mind that a white paper isn't meant to serve as a blatant sales tool, convey to readers the value of your services. It may take a little practice to strike the right tone, but above all else, aim for authenticity.
A rule of thumb in the Benefits section is never to oversell your services. Yes, you're providing an attractive, affordable solution to a program plaguing your industry. You aren't saving the planet from assured destruction in the face of a meteor strike.
Get specific about how your company is solving the issue outlined in your white paper. Readers will only answer your call to action when they feel confident you can solve their real-life problems with real-life solutions.
Summary and Call to Action
The summary is just that. Summarize the issue, potential solutions, and present a few key takeaways. Remember, white papers should be solution-oriented. Use the summary to review how your services can solve the problem.
Consider including a call to action at the end of your white paper, but again, keep it light. For instance, invite the reader to contact you for a consultation or a friendly call. An appropriate call to action could be as simple as "Visit our website to learn more about [Your Company.]"
Index and Citations
While a white paper index is optional, citations are mandatory. Even if you use footnotes on each page to list citations, you should still include a list of your resources at the end. Readers should be able to quickly locate each source to do further research on their own.
An index can be a handy tool for both reader and writer. Include a list of essential terms and where to find them in the paper. You can also define jargon and complex industry terms here.
Nuts, Bolts, and Good Grammar
Regardless of your industry, the most successful white papers are well-organized, authoritative documents that readers can refer to again and again. Keep the following guidelines in mind to enhance your own white paper.
White papers are unique documents, but they should still adhere to the same common-sense guidelines that apply to any professional communication.
Best practices for these documents include:
- Consistency: Use the same names and acronyms throughout, and stick to the same writing style and citation method. Stay in the same tense and use the same voice (second or third person). Stylistically, use the same font.
- Clarity: Explain technical concepts in a clear, understandable way. Present data in easy-to-read charts and graphs. Connect your ideas in a straightforward, focused manner.
- Integrity: Demonstrate professionalism by taking pains to cite every source you consulted. Refrain from bad-mouthing your competition. Present your company in a positive, optimistic light.
- Accuracy: Get your facts right, and spend plenty of time proofreading. Simple grammar and spelling mistakes can lessen the impact of your argument. Readers may even lose confidence in your brand if your white paper is full of errors.
- Organization: Assume the reader is too busy to sift through a confusing, unorganized document. Each section should flow into the next and follow the same basic format. If you include a table of contents, double-check the page numbers before you release your paper.
Design and Readability
A white paper isn't an academic paper—consequently, it shouldn't be formatted like one. Design your white paper for optimal readability with these tips:
- Break large blocks of text into shorter (and more digestible) paragraphs. Where appropriate, use numbered and bulleted lists.
- Add some color and variety to your pages with sidebars, infographics, or pull-quotes.
- Incorporate visuals like photos, graphics, or charts to add interest and give context. These elements can help break up the page and make the document more visually appealing.
Editing and Proofreading
Chances are, the first finish line you reach when you're wrapping up your white paper is likely not the last.
The editing stage is every bit as important as the writing and research stages. If at all possible, get colleagues to read through your paper and give honest feedback. You could also set it aside for a few days and reread it with fresh eyes.
Other tools worth using include:
- Grammarly: Check for grammar, usage, and spelling errors spellcheck may have missed.
- Readable: Test your content’s readability—that is, the objective complexity of your text.
Once you incorporate necessary edits and you are confident your white paper is error-free, it's time to go live. Turn your paper over to your PR or marketing team, or develop a plan to send the document to the most appropriate, helpful B2C or B2B contacts.
A well-written, thoroughly researched white paper is sure to advance your brand and attract new leads. Besides establishing your industry expertise, this type of content is an opportunity to show the world why your services are the answer to a specific problem.
But remember: though an effective content marketing tool, white papers primarily serve an informational purpose. Your final white paper should provide concrete value to readers—and not focus solely on pitching your product.
This article was written by Compose.ly writer Sarah Bricker-Hunt.