What’s the best way to explain a complex business concept?

You could try a short video or presentation, but you might miss some of the details. Or, you could go the opposite route and create something long, like a full report or a technical manual. But these can be daunting.

A white paper is a good compromise. At about 5-30 pages, it provides hard evidence and persuasive language. A white paper is the perfect method to comprehensively sell a solution, and it’s digestible in one sitting.

Let me share a short story: one time I was listening to a professor speak about “auto-parametrically excited vibration energy harvesters” (basically, self-winding watches). But after 45 minutes, I was none the wiser.

Then, I tried reading a lengthy academic report, and I still didn’t get it. Later, I interviewed the speaker, and it only just started to come together. I was still struggling to figure out how it worked, let alone how it would be applied in real life.

I would have given anything back then to have a white paper, but alas.

For businesses, you can’t afford to leave people behind like this. You need to keep both the technical and novice audiences engaged. A white paper is the best of both worlds. It treads a line between in-depth expertise and straight talking. It explains a complex business concept in the best possible way.

Let’s go deeper on what defines a white paper.

Summary

  • The definition of a white paper.
  • Why white papers are so popular.
  • Why white papers are an essential part of doing business.
  • Examples: well-written, successful white papers.
  • How to write a white paper.
    1. Research potential topics.
    2. Read existing white papers on your chosen topics.
    3. Choose an angle.
    4. Write an outline.
    5. Schedule Subject Matter Expert (SME) interviews.
    6. Write the first draft.
    7. Subject Matter Expert (SME) review.
    8. Editing and proofreading.
  • Designing your white paper.
  • Promoting your white paper.
  • White papers explain your value.

The definition of a white paper

There are no strict rules or regulations on what a white paper can or can’t be. Here are a few definitions:

“White paper: In various countries, including Britain and Australia, a government report on a particular subject giving details of planned laws” — Cambridge Dictionary

A white paper is a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution.HubSpot (Lindsay Kolowich)

A great way to think of a white paper is as a popular nerd, like Bill Nye the Science Guy. This guy amazes and delights at every turn, and uses hard facts and logic to do so. A white paper should reflect this mood. It’s knowledgeable, but the emphasis should also be on being charismatic and approachable.

In more practical terms, a white paper is also a great method to gain valuable leads for your sales team. Create a landing page on your website, set up a short form for readers to fill out, and promise them an amazing white paper in return. Pretty soon you’ll have a list of interested prospects.

A whitepaper is low maintenance marketing, relatively low cost, and better yet, it’s evergreen content. Use it again and again for blog content, sales follow ups, training, recruitment and more.

Most savvy marketers know a white paper is an essential part of a content strategy. It’s one of the most powerful marketing tools available.

However, white papers weren’t always associated with business.

How did white papers start?

Cover page of Winston Churchill's white paper on the Israel-Palestine conflict

Why do we call it a “white paper” in the first place?

First used by Winston Churchill and the British Government in 1922, the “white paper” referred to the document’s white cover. It explained the government’s position on a very complex subject (in Churchill’s case, the Israel-Palestine conflict) and gave details of planned laws. Along with white papers, there are also “blue books” for explaining economics, and “green papers” for consultation stages.

This white paper was intended to help sway other politicians and get a law passed. By releasing the document publicly, the document also increased awareness, educated the public, and involved business leaders.

As you might have guessed, some aspects of white papers have changed while some remain the same.

How have white papers changed over the years?

Popularized by government, white papers soon entered the private sphere. They became a favorite of the tech industry, used in the 90s and 00s to explain innovations from Sage or the original Bitcoin white paper.

Due to their success, white papers have spread into a range of industries and are used to explain technologies, issues, innovations, and concepts. However, white papers are still most frequently used by industrial, technical, and software businesses.

They usually appear to support an intended action. In government, this is legislation. While in business this could be a product release, sales deal, or event.

As white papers have expanded in use, they have also changed in many important ways. Their language, format, and the way they are hosted are completely different.

What do they look like today?

Considering it’s been 100 years since the very first white paper, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there have been many changes. Here are a few key differences:

  • Language. The first white paper used phrases like: “...his courtesy in allowing us the honor of viewing the draft of the proposed order…” In business, this won’t cut it. You need something persuasive, modern, personable, and in line with what you are selling.
  • Length. Churchill’s white paper was 32 pages of dense, single-spaced copy. Massive slabs of text are never appealing. Today’s white papers use lots of white space, as well as color, diagrams, breaks, and subheadings.
  • Digital. One hundred years ago, you’d need a large printing budget to order a white paper campaign. These days, you can post a white paper instantly to the web. The white paper space has since become more accessible and competitive.

One thing hasn’t changed: white papers address an issue of importance. The document should explain a problem and solution at length, usually in about 5 to 30 pages. It should be long enough to cover the topic comprehensively and short enough to digest in one sitting.

Understanding the rich history of white papers gives an insight into what makes them so popular in today’s marketplace.

Why white papers are so popular

A few reasons white papers have grown in popularity and are one of the most effective marketing tools are because they:

  • help you focus on niche problems, questions, and markets.
  • solve problems directly.
  • show that you know your stuff and are a true industry expert.
  • provide unbiased advice based on research and analytical evidence.
  • speak to the C-suite and technically-minded buyers.

There is research to show they are a valuable tool far beyond the optics.

White papers are an essential part of doing business

Still unconvinced about white papers? Here is some recent research:

  • Seventy-six percent of B2B technology buyers read a white paper before evaluating a technology purchase. Sixty-seven percent had turned to case studies, 59% to video and 40% to audio.
  • From the same study, 83% of respondents said that white papers were “moderately to extremely” influential in their decisions.
  • Most people (76 percent) are willing to register and share their information in exchange for a white paper. Compare this to podcasts (19 percent), video (19 percent), and infographics (24 percent).

Why is registering and sharing information important? When people share their email address in exchange for your white paper, you start a relationship with the reader. This is a relationship your sales rep can use. White papers work so well for sales because your customer actually gets value first through free information.

Now that you’re aware of how valuable a white paper can be, it’s time to start writing. But first, let’s look at some of the best examples.

Examples: Here are some well-written, successful white papers:

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” — William Faulkner

Before writing, you need to read the best. Here are three great white paper examples:

Google Security Whitepaper

Excerpt of Google's security white paper on "security culture" among its employees

This white paper is aimed at companies interested in secure cloud services. After a cover page, contents, and introduction, it gets into Google’s “security culture” among its employees. Then it gets more technical covering technology, certifications, data, and compliance.

With this document Google is attempting to gain businesses’ trust. The topics covered are extensive, giving a feeling of authority. The report goes in-depth, but is not so technical that an average person couldn’t understand.

The design is clean and minimalist, reflecting the Google brand. It has high-quality and authentic pictures. The layout makes good use of balance and colors. In some sections, the slabs of text are a little long and could be further broken up using indents or line spacing.

However, it’s successful in persuasive writing, using empirical and detailed information. Google acknowledges its dominance in the marketplace, and matches their tone accordingly: “…over five million organizations across the globe, including 64 percent of the Fortune 500, trust Google…”

Apple ProRes

Graph showing bits per frame in a ProRes video sequence

Apple’s ProRes white paper is aimed at post-production professionals. It covers products summaries, explanations of how codecs work, and how Apple codecs differ in quality and performance. There’s also a handy data appendix and a glossary.

The white paper aims to persuade video editors, special effects teams, and sound designers that Apple’s products are top of the line. There are detailed diagrams, extensive evidence, and strong pitches. Form follows function here; there are no useless sentences that could be cut.

Even if you don’t understand what a video codec is, you can appreciate this Apple-esque ultra-minimalist design. Low on exciting graphics, this white paper reflects the target audience of technically-minded professionals. It’s surprisingly easy to read too, thanks to simple language, clean layout, lots of white space, and attractive font.

Sundog “Winning at Local SEO” (email required)

Example of a local search result listing

Sundog’s white paper seeks to convince businesses to use Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The marketing company explains the basics of why SEO is important, the technology involved, helpful tools, planning, implementation, and how to measure results.

The white paper feels light and is easy to read. It doesn’t claim to be an absolute authority, providing plenty of links out to other sources. This approach reflects Sundog’s place in the market.

The writing style is friendly and informal in tone, mirroring the target audience of small business owners. By asking for an email before downloading, the company is building a lead list that it can nurture.

The document is nicely paced using subheadings and bulleted lists. While it might not be as polished as the above two examples, it gets the job done (for a lot cheaper, probably) and still oozes expertise.

If you want to read more examples, try looking within your industry. Check on your competitors and role-model brands you aspire to. You can find examples on their websites or in searchable white paper libraries.

How to write a white paper

Cartoon owl doing research for his white paper

Ready to write?

Firstly, we’re going to start at the end: your bibliography. Seems unconventional? Let us explain.

Start with the research: quotes, statistics, and other items of hard evidence (hyperlinked to original sources). This is the primary source material. Without this, your white paper is just an opinion. Plenty of white papers out in cyberspace lack evidence, or they link to dubious sources. You’ll lose readers if they think your writing is not truthful.

1. Research potential topics.

How do you find topics that interest your prospects?

Find out what your target audience is and what a customer might look like. Your sales reps are constantly talking to customers, so why not ask them? Have a quick chat with a sales rep and ask which topics come up most often. Or, look at sales data, and find some trends to address.

This research will lead you to topics that are related to the solution your company provides. It can also be useful to look at recent news and trends, but don’t go overboard. There’s an old saying in storytelling “write what you know.” It will sound more authentic if you have first-hand experience.

For an extra boost, find a topic associated with a high volume/low difficulty keyword. While this is a complex strategy, some services can help facilitate the process. By aiming for high volume/low difficulty keywords, your white paper is more likely to appear when somebody types that word into a search engine.

Note that your white paper topic doesn’t have to be in your industry. For example, a video game manufacturer might release a white paper on “Artificial Intelligence,” or a marketing company might release a white paper about “Storytelling.” Feel free to think outside the box.

2. Read existing white papers on your chosen topics.

Digital content is a highly competitive space. Your competitors have probably already released a few good white papers in your subject area. Don’t despair — this is a good thing. You now have something to work off!

After looking at a few other white papers, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can you produce something better? Think about design, expertise, and how you might promote the white paper.
  • Will you be able to add a unique voice? Use your company’s niches or specialties. What do you do that no other business does?
  • Are there few enough white papers so that yours will stand out? Perhaps if there are too many, try a different topic, or go for something slightly different.

After researching and reading some white papers, you should be able to settle on a topic.

Now, look at your company and network to identify Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). These are people who know your topic inside out. They are crucial to an influential white paper. Through getting to know your experts, interviewing them, and asking for feedback, you’ll absorb their knowledge, as well as any technical jargon and industry quirks.

External SMEs can be even better in some respects. If you find a notable leader in the field, ask them for an interview. A brief chat can be a great way to gain credibility. Plus, if they let you link to their content, the backlinks will build your organic reach for your white paper.

Know what important research looks like. Some of the best white papers come from the top consulting firms, industry organizations, governments, and universities. Just don’t get too wonkish — if your writing becomes technical, you’ll drop some readers behind.

3. Choose an angle.

Cartoon owl at a crossroads

You can approach a topic from any angle! For example, journalists write the same story any number of ways:

  • “Amazon Business Dollars Leave New York”
  • “Anti-Amazon Protests A Success”
  • “Are Cities Shunning Big Tech?

Choose your angle based on what others have written, and think about the potential benefits of a new angle. If your white paper is to be a persuasive piece of writing, it’s best to choose only one angle and stick with it. Otherwise, your attempt to persuade might just come off as confusing.

For example, you could focus on “business,” or even “tech businesses.” But a white paper on “Business, tech, software and Houston” is confusing. You might try “Software Businesses In Houston are Facing Staff Shortages” to make it an appealing read instead of a list of keywords. And within this topic, there are multiple potential sub-topics to explore, such as:

  • Return on investment
  • Eliminating inefficiency
  • Adoption of a new process/technology
  • Application of research to a specific business problem

You could even try combining two angles, such as “Getting a return on investment from automation”, or “How to: eliminate inefficiency through intelligent hiring.”

The more unique and novel your angle, the more likely it will create interest and garner readers. Remember, there are a lot of white papers out there already, so finding a new way of looking at the topic could be what sets your organization apart.

Find the angle that your prospects will be most interested in. Consider reaching out to a few existing customers to see which angle interests them the most.

Ensure that your research and your company’s solution can support the angle. Now it’s time to start pounding that keyboard.

4. Write an outline.

You might picture yourself as a JK Rowling or Tom Clancy, sitting at the keyboard with each perfect word flowing out. Well, you’d be wrong. Even fiction writers create an outline before writing.

Like any large project, if you start with a detailed plan, it will allow you to write better, faster, and waste less time making changes.

Creating a detailed outline has two significant effects:

  1. It organizes your research and links into a single cohesive document.
  2. It gives internal SMEs a chance to provide feedback and fix structural issues before you start writing.

Start by writing out the main headings that will be included in the white paper. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • Do the headings flow logically?
  • Are there any critical pieces of information that are missing?
  • Is the amount of headings balanced?
  • Does this story have a beginning, middle, and end?

Next, fill in the points under the headings. Use a standardized format to make it easier to structure your paragraphs and transitions. If you are working on a long-form piece, it’s helpful to have everything listed in either numbered or bulleted lists.

Note that your outline doesn’t have to be linear. You could try a mind map, index cards, or charts. These are great to try if you find your creative juices are drying up.

Read over your outline to ensure nothing is missing and that it includes everything you want it to cover.

Next, share your outline with your internal Subject Matter Experts (SME). Let them leave comments or make changes using your word processor’s track changes or suggest mode. A feedback session will help you understand any logical problems with your white paper before starting. It will also create buy-in that will make SMEs more willing to answer questions and participate in interviews.

Finally, revise and finalize. Read it through fast, slow, and backwards line by line. If you’re working on something long, and your outline is already thousands of words, it can help to take a break, sleep on it, exercise, find some nature — anything to recharge your writing muscles and come back with fresh eyes.

5. Schedule Subject Matter Expert (SME) interviews.

For each section that will include an interview or quotes, consider who you should interview.

Why should you bother interviewing, when there is so much free content available online? Like Amazon or Netflix, you will come to realize, at some point, that you need to create original content. It’s a simple value proposition: your readers are coming to you because they are looking for information they can’t find anywhere else. Interviews are a fast and easy way to get this content.

Also, your interviewees don’t need to be professors, department heads, or a CEO. Average employees will have their own perspective, style, and value.

Try to match the SME to a section that truly reflects their expertise.

  • Send an email requesting 15-30 minutes to interview them. If possible include the questions you plan to cover. Plan at least a few weeks out from your publishing date.
  • Use a recorded conference line like Verba or UberConference for your call. If you find typing up the interview difficult, try a transcribing service or app such as Reportex.
  • Explain to the SME how the recording will be used and give them the option to review any direct quotes before publishing.
  • Optional: transcribe the interview for easy reference. Typing out interviews can be a lengthy chore. Try using some journalist “hacks”: use shorthand, make notes, or a handy app/service.

6. Write the first draft.

Take your research, outline, and SME interviews and start writing.

It might seem like the act of writing appears relatively late in this guide. The more preparation you do for your first draft, the better. You’ll find that ideas come to you more easily. Moreover, you’ll avoid the dreaded “writer’s block.”

If you find yourself making slow progress, then consider using a distraction-free text editor, such as the world’s most dangerous writing app, or use Pomodoro timers.

After completing each section, re-examine it:

  • Are you including third-party research?
  • Are there anecdotes and data to back your assertions?
  • Are you speaking with the correct tone for your audience and topic?
  • Are your transitions between sections strong enough to keep the reader engaged?

Once the entire white paper is done, let it sit for a few days and then edit it yourself. Solve as many errors as possible by yourself before involving your SMEs. That way, there will be less back-and-forth on edits that you’ll need to do later on.

7. Provide white paper to Subject Matter Experts (SME) for review.

Share the white paper with SMEs, and ask that they verify the information is accurate. Get their opinion on the style of writing and whether the topic will be of interest to prospects.

Everybody gets harsh feedback. If you’re a beginner, this can be hard to stomach. Try to remove all your emotions and ego from the process. Assume the perspective of your reader — what do they want? If you have questions, don’t stew over it. Get a clarification from your SME.

Implement SME feedback. Listen to your SME, as they likely know more about the subject than you. That said, you might be a better writer. So some of your SME’s feedback on your writing could be in error. Standing up for what you believe gives the white paper integrity.

8. Editing and proofreading.

Before sending your draft to an editor or proofreader, run it through third-party services like Hemingway App or Grammarly. Online editing programs aren’t perfect, but they can easily sort out basic spelling, grammar, syntax, and structure issues. It’s good to do as much of this as possible before you hand it off to someone else.

Perhaps even leave the draft for a while, then come back with new eyes. Whether it’s 24 hours or 5 minutes, you’ll find a break helps your editing immensely.

Give the white paper to a professional editor. They will approach it with a different mindset than your coworker or friend. You need someone who can tear it apart objectively, with no emotional attachment.

Many people ask, “Do I need an editor?”

Grammar and spelling are a lot like politeness, or manners. Poor manners are a turn-off. Good manners show people you care and are attentive to details.

Good editing converts into a real bottom-line impact. Large companies are spending billions on remedial writing courses, much of it going on college graduates who should have picked up communication skills.

Also, consider hiring a proofreader. Some readers may agree with 99% of your white paper only to discredit it altogether after finding a few grammatical errors.

Designing your white paper.

Once you’ve finished drafting, have a professional designer format your white paper, or use a template.

A professional designer is nearly always worth the cost. They can incorporate your brand, while giving your white paper its own “look” that stands out. If you’re not ready for a professional designer, there are great templates and free design tools available online.

Like most pieces of online content these days, your readers will tend to skim. Your design should spur readers on. You need an eye-catching front cover that quickly tells readers what it’s about and why they should read it. Try to provide value for each of your readers. Assume that most readers will spend 5 seconds with your white paper, some 50 seconds, and a few 5 minutes.

Attention-grabbing doesn’t have to mean a strong color palette. Some of the best white papers are still mostly white. Generous white space, as seen in the examples from Google and Apple above, can actually aid flow, provide credibility, and make your document easier to read.

Consider what design elements will help you to communicate your points more effectively.

  • Images. High quality is always best. Low-quality pictures and photographs can still work if they are relevant to your topic or unique to your business. Try including headshots of relevant contributors and employees for a human touch.
  • Graphics. Make sure your graphics are being used to communicate. For example, charts are often useful for highlighting and explaining. Make the graphics both important and complementary to surrounding text, instead of simply repeating your points.
  • Breakout text. Larger sections of text work well to highlight parts of the report, or notable quotes. But avoid large bulleted lists or slabs of text.

When using these elements, and formulating your overall design, reflect on the topic you’ve chosen. For example, look at Google’s recent white paper How Google Fights Disinformation.Compared to Google’s security white paper (see above), it uses a reduced colour palette, wider columns, and has a more balanced, objective tone. This approach reflects the seriousness of the highly charged topic of fake news.

Use your intuition, and if possible, share the initial white paper design with a customer to get their opinion.

Finalize the design and optimize it for use online. A PDF is standard, but publishing directly to your website is becoming increasingly common. Next, think about how to attract readers.

Promoting your white paper.

Cartoon owl using a megaphone to attract a crowd

You’ve finished your white paper! Well, almost. Now is the hard part — getting people to read it. How do you attract readers to content?

You need to create more content. Thankfully, there are any number of options:

  • Blog posts or guides. A blog post or guide might seem like more writing, but it could come quite naturally from a white paper. You can refashion some of the content in the white paper for a blog. Alternatively, perhaps there is another topic in the white paper’s subject area you didn’t get time to cover and you want to cover in a detailed guide.
  • Webinars. A webinar has potential for deep engagement. If you haven’t hosted a webinar before, you’ll start by scheduling a few hours in the week. Next, send out invites. Then, create some slides and polls. Finally, conduct a practice run and record the webinar. Don’t forget to follow up on people that registered.
  • Guides. Cross-promote to other guides and white papers you might have. With more time and effort, you could even build up a library that has readers coming back again and again.
  • Videos. These days, video is cheaper and easier than ever to produce. Consumers have come to expect it from every brand.
  • Social posts. Not only a great channel to get exposure, traffic, and leads, it’s also where your most loyal “fans” will be, waiting for regular updates. You might already be posting irregularly, without targeting. But a social media audit, strategy, and calendar could optimize your use of the channel.

Next, ask external SMEs to promote the post. Give them templates for social media posts and blog posts.

You could also try some “Ego Bait”. It’s a term that means reaching out to experts for more exposure. For example, perhaps you wrote a “list of industry experts” in your white paper or interviewed someone. Ego bait might be as simple as sending out an extra email to those people, telling them they have been mentioned and published. It’s an opportunity for more shares and links and to build your white paper’s authority. In writing your white paper, you’ve probably already reached out to a number of experts, but this is just one way to get value from them.

Don’t forget to reach out to your SMEs again. Write and schedule social media posts for these internal leaders, sales reps, and others. Your social media campaign for the white paper will look and feel a lot stronger if everyone at your organization participates. If they’re really pressed for time, consider providing templates or writing the posts for them.

Consider a paid ad campaign if the cost per click (CPC) and return make sense.
Unfortunately, many search engines and social media platforms are becoming a pay-to-play environment. Therefore it’s doubly important to make sure your CPC campaign is highly targeted and measurable.

Another great option is to set up a drip campaign to nurture leads and turn them into customers.
A drip campaign is a series of communications (emails, messages, calls) that go out to each new lead. They enable your organization to stay in touch and front of mind in the customer and track their progress through their buyer’s journey.

Finally, teach sales reps to use the white paper as a follow-up tool.

You can rerun the white paper campaign in the following months. There will be many people out there that missed the white paper the first time around.

White papers explain your value.

Cartoon owl achieves success because of white paper

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” —  Aldous Huxley

A white paper’s value might seem diminished in an age of short videos, images, and social media. However, none of these new formats are quite as good as a white paper when it comes to business. Nothing beats hard evidence and persuasive language to sell a solution.

If there’s one thing to take from this “How To” it’s this: pay attention to research. You’re likely to spend days, weeks and months producing a lengthy document, so make sure the result is credible. Your white paper will be something that can be brought out again and again, for years to come. Make it valuable not only for your clients, but for your own team. You could use it in training, recruitment, and many other future business endeavors.

Content Reactor knows the value of a white paper. Our writers work your passionate, expert thoughts into a document that thrives within your content ecosystem. Contact us for a white paper that can do both: meet short term sales goals and create ongoing value.