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The 3 Types of White Papers (& When to Use Them)

By: Compose.ly — October 25, 2019

If you’re new to B2B marketing, you may have heard about the benefits of white papers in content marketing. Moreover, you may have even heard that there are different types of white papers.

That’s right—white papers don’t come in just one size or shape.

There are a few, and by incorporating the different types into your content strategy, you can boost both your business’s leads and its sales.

The Top 3 Types of White Papers

Award-winning white paper writer and author Gordon Graham outlines three primary types of white papers in his book White Papers for Dummies. Though other resources may refer to these types by different names, they are:

  • The Backgrounder
  • The Numbered List
  • The Problem/Solution

The Backgrounder

This type of white paper explains how a product works and the context surrounding it. If you are showcasing something new to your industry, a backgrounder white paper can help people understand what your product is.

The Backgrounder tends to be more technical, and is usually focused on educating the reader. White papers of this nature often include:

  • Explanations of how a product or service works
  • Scientific studies and data describing your product’s efficacy
  • Well-supported claims that show your business to be an industry leader

When to Use This Type of White Paper

The Backgrounder succeeds at clinching sales prospects, as it generally provides more in-depth information that casual browsers need.

If someone is in the final stages of making a decision, a backgrounder can reassure them that your product is exactly what they want. Just remember to update it as your product changes!

The Numbered List

According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, humans enjoy consuming content formatted as discrete categories, like lists. Enter the Numbered List—the type of white paper that capitalizes on this preference.

True to its name, this kind of white paper uses easily digestible numbered points to convey its message. Usually aimed at a more casual audience, the Numbered List is useful as an introductory marketing tool.

You’ll often find it used for:

  • Answering common questions about your product (“The Top 4 Misunderstandings About VPNs“)
  • Listing tips for your target audience (“10 Ways to Keep Customers Coming Back”)
  • Explaining the benefits of your product (“5 Reasons to Outsource Your Bookkeeping”)

When to Use This Type of White Paper

Given their simple format, these tend to be the easiest white papers to put together. You can use a Numbered List white paper no matter where you are in the sales funnel. Depending on what you need, the Numbered List can easily focus on the rudimentary basics or the finer details of your product.

The Problem/Solution

All products are the solution to a problem—but rather than selling a solution, sometimes the trick is defining the problem in the first place.

The Problem/Solution white paper convinces readers that they need what you are selling. This type of paper establishes the problem in a way that showcases how your product is the perfect solution.

Provided that your company’s focus doesn’t shift drastically, these white papers are generally evergreen—that is, they remain relevant for a long time. As long as the issue your product addresses remains a challenge for users, a Problem/Solution white paper will keep bringing in new readers for months, even years, to come.

When to Use This Type of White Paper

The Problem/Solution format is effective for generating new leads.

Why? Well, when someone has a problem, they usually turn to their trusty search engine. After all, potential clients facing an unfamiliar problem don’t generally search for a specific product in Google—instead, they Google their issue.

And when well-optimized, a Product/Solution white paper can bring your company to the top of search results for your target audience’s specific problem.

Big Tip
Now that you know the different types, find out how to write a white paper in our complete guide.

Successful White Paper Examples

White Paper Example 1: The Backgrounder

OC Systems Aprobe white paper

This Backgrounder white paper by the software company OC Systems provides an in-depth look at Aprobe, “a patented software instrumentation technology that lets you monitor the execution of a software application, log data, or alter its behavior.”

It’s a good example of how the Backgrounder format can educate readers by breaking down a complex topic.

Granted, the OC Systems’ white paper is a rather technical topic—certainly not for the average reader. However, this happens to be where the white paper succeeds. It understands its target audience: experienced programmers and developers looking to improve their work processes and may be considering Aprobe. For these readers, this particular Backgrounder shows off the uses and benefits of Aprobe, giving them more reason to try out the software themselves.

White Paper Example 2: The Numbered List

Published in April 2019, BBN’s “10 Best Practices for Agencies Who Want to Win More Business” details research and advice for agencies looking to grow their business.

This white paper’s target audience is clear: agencies. And for BBN, a B2B marketing agency, the ideal reader represents a potential client.

BBN white paper example

However, BBN gates access to its white paper with a registration form so that anyone interested in reading it must first submit their personal info. The kind of person looking to bring in more business for their firm is the exact kind of person who may be interested in learning more about a B2B agency. As a result, BBN’s white paper succeeds in two major ways:

  • It establishes the company’s expertise by producing and compiling their research findings in an educational white paper.
  • It generates relevant leads for BBN.

White Paper Example 3: Problem/Solution

Moving Targets white paper screenshot

Moving Targets’s Problem/Solution white paper about customer erosion is a great example of how to guide potential clients from their problem to your solution.

Its title identifies both the problem—”retail-customer erosion”—as well as the solution—”capturing new residents.” It’s straightforward enough to pique the interest of anyone facing this challenge and who may also be intrigued by the proposed solution.

The white paper is concise, and keeps the explanation of the problem short. By focusing on the solution, Moving Targets solidifies its value to the reader, and then shows them how to contact the company immediately.

Wrapping Up

Though often underutilized, white papers are one of the most important tools for any business’s content marketing strategy. They act as an educational, shareable resource from which any business can benefit.

Once you determine your goals for a white paper, you can target any part of the marketing funnel with a professional, approachable piece of content. Whether you are looking to explain a complex piece of machinery or intrigue customers with a quick list, there is a white paper format for you.

This article was written by Compose.ly writer Gabrielle Hass.


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