The Well-Crafted White Paper

Learn how to put together a compelling and effective White paper for any product or business with this quick guide.

White papers are a great way to educate your clients and sell your product at the same time. More detailed and technical than the typical brochure, a white paper lets you do a "deep dive" into your product and explore the problems it was built to solve.

Think of the white paper as your chance to stretch your legs, teach your clients something useful and build a persuasive case point by point.

Identify Your Goals

Step one for any white paper is to think about your goals: What do you want the document to do? Most white papers are written to generate sales, but some are published simply as free "research" designed to demonstrate leadership in the field.

For the purposes of this guide, let's assume you want to generate sales. The next question is: Who's your audience?                                   

Target the Right Audience

Consider how different audiences receive information. Executives who are in a hurry might just want a quick overview and a few salient points about the product — no jargon, no nonsense. Sales associates who are more accustomed to the language of marketing might respond better to statistics about efficiency, ROI and the like. Technical audiences tend to prefer very specific and detailed information about functions, algorithms and the engineering firepower behind what you've created.

In other words, every audience speaks its own language. The more skillfully you can tap into the lexicon of your client's concerns and needs, the more effective your white paper will be.

Identify the Issue

White papers are most persuasive when they can "set the table" by correctly identifying a problem that needs solving. This problem could be almost anything: a production shortfall, a pain point in your customer service, a speed bump in your sales funnel.

Whatever the case, a good white paper opens with a lucid description of the issue, supported by concrete facts and figures. Solid research can go a long way toward establishing credibility in the eyes of your audience, and keeping those eyes glued to the page.

Describe the Ideal Solution

The next section is a chance to lay the groundwork for your upcoming product description. Because white papers aren't typically "salesy" in tone, one of the smartest ways to avoid the appearance of naked marketing is to include this section describing what an ideal solution might look like.

Think of it as a thought experiment that derives the best possible answer — what might a perfect solution do, and what features should it have? This process demonstrates your intelligence and gives your readers a sense of ownership over the solution to come.

Describe Your Solution

Now, if you've designed your argument right, it's time for the big unveiling: how your product will solve the customer's problems. This is your chance to explore the many features and benefits of your product in depth; a typical white paper may include anywhere from three to several dozen pages of product information.

Once again, remember to consider your audience here: Executives want details, sales associates need numbers, technical contacts like data. Be sure to focus on benefits over features. Stay inside the mind of your reader and track the accumulation of information from his or her perspective. That is, address questions as they arise, develop a cogent throughline and don't assume knowledge unless the answer is universally known.

Enhancements Count

Although these documents are called white papers, some color is often allowed, and even encouraged. Charts and graphs can be a great supplement to your white paper as long as they're clear and to the point.

A good white paper can double as a valuable research tool, giving your clients a dose of highly relevant information in an easily consumable format. Sales figures, customer habits, financial trends — these are just a few of the concepts that might benefit from a clean visual aid. One word of warning, however: Stick with professional designers on these. Primitive pie charts and bitmapped bar graphs will only diminish your standing as an authority.

A Final Word on Abstracts

One final question you may have is whether to include an abstract, or brief summary, at the start of your white paper. There's some disagreement about whether it's desirable or even necessary to include one, especially for shorter documents.

Our feeling is that the abstract exists for one purpose: to make people read what's inside. If it doesn't help your cause in this way, or you think your audience will read the entire paper without any prodding, go ahead and scrap it. But for most audiences, an abstract is a good way to slip in a quick "elevator pitch" and cultivate some interest in the topic.

Write and Rewrite

In the right hands, a white paper should be an evergreen document that may be used and referenced for a long time. It demands the same high standard of fluency and skill as a doctoral thesis or a grant proposal. Every word counts, and each point should follow logically from the one before.

It may even help to think of your paper in narrative terms: You're telling a story. Not a literal story, of course, but an argument that generates questions and builds an organic flow from problem to solution. By working with a professional on your white paper and choosing substance over marketing bombast, you should end up with a truly compelling marketing tool.

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