Writing White Papers: Here Are the Basics

Photo credit: futureatlas

Photo credit: futureatlas

In a previous blog post, I discussed how American businesses besieged NBC News with requests when it offered insights into what made Japanese companies successful. This was the result of its in-depth news show, “NBC White Paper,” and the businesses wanted the information contained in the report.

Of course, NBC created the report as a news organization, not a business. It didn’t have a product to sell directly related to that report — at least nothing tangible, such as a book or training series.

As a for-profit organization, NBC had a legitimate business driver for creating the show. Like all news outlets, NBC depends on advertising for revenue. Advertisers want access to a large, regular audience. Convincing the public that NBC was a credible source of information would encourage viewers to tune in to its broadcasts — which, in turn, would encourage advertisers to buy air time with the network.

As boundaries blur between news and business, between old-school selling and new-era marketing, the “NBC White Paper” on Japanese business secrets is worth keeping in mind. That is, you want to create something that your prospects find so valuable that, if nothing else, they look at you as a source of useful information.

What a White Paper Should Accomplish

As we wrote previously, a white paper:

  1. Explores a business issue of concern to your clients
  2. Provides valuable content on how they might solve that issue
  3. Makes a case for your product or service as a way to solve the issue

Others may disagree. In my view, though, if you only have a and c, you’ve got a sales piece — not a white paper.

How Long Should a White Paper Be?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about white paper length. But if you’re going to include all three elements mentioned above, you can’t get the job done in two to three pages. You probably need at least five or six pages, and perhaps more like eight to 12.

Over the past 20+ years, a basic outline for white papers has emerged:

  • Executive summary
  • Definition of problem
  • Limitations of other approaches
  • Suggested measures and approaches to solve problem
  • Your company’s solution
  • Conclusions and call to action
  • About your company

Balancing Length and Attention Spans

Others in your company may push for short, quick white papers. After all, everyone’s busy these days. No one can invest more than a minute or two on any marketing material they come across.

Fair enough. But keep in mind that you don’t create a white paper to sell a simple product or service. These are typically complex problems you’re trying to solve for your customers. If you’ve got something that could potentially help them earn or save a significant amount of money, they should be willing to spend 10 minutes or more reading it. And if it’s really good, they’ll be eager to pass it along to colleagues.

A White Paper Without a Product Push?

Your sales director might not like it, but if you think your prospects’ attention span is too short for anything beyond a few pages, consider including only elements a and b in the piece. That is, define the problem and offer suggestions on addressing it, but don’t mention your product in any detail.

Here’s why: Sometimes prospects have to complete several steps before their organization is ready for your sophisticated product or service. If they’re at Step 1 and they’re not ready to buy from you until Step 5, they could benefit from a white paper that lays out, say, the first four steps. While you haven’t sold them anything yet, they’ll likely notice some payoffs in the meantime.

By the time they’ve reached Step 5, they’ll view you as a reputable source of helpful information. (Which is what content marketing is all about, after all.) Eventually, they’ll want to know about your products and services so they can keep making progress.

At that point, you can call your white paper a success.

Michael Blumfield has been a Hired Pen since 2011.

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