What is a White Paper?

Ask 10 different marketing managers the above question and you will probably get 10 different answers.

When I’m asked this question, my response is usually, “A White Paper is a helpful persuasive essay that uses facts to generate leads.” This short definition opens the door to discussion.

This definition also helps people who have never heard of white papers understand that white papers are a document that is:

  1. Helpful – guides prospects from a focusing on a problem to imagining a solution.
  2. Persuasive – appeals to reason and understanding; not salesy.
  3. Essay – not just a paragraph or two, but reminiscent of school where essays were thoughtfully written.
  4. Fact-based – logical progression of information from hypothesis to conclusion.
  5. Generate leads – a document that encourages interest in your product. It isn’t meant to close the sale.

White papers are meaningful documents that help prospects understand issues, solve problems, and make a buying decision.

White Papers Do’s:

  1. Present a solution to a prospect’s industry-wide problem
  2. Include an executive summary
  3. Be an appropriate length (4-12 pages long)
  4. Focus on your customer’s needs
  5. Included documentation for all facts
  6. Use as a lead-generation tool
  7. Professionally design

White Paper Don’ts:

  1. Don’t sell
  2. Don’t write about how wonderful your company is
  3. Don’t write a book. (e-books are wonderful sales tools. They’re just not white papers)
  4. Don’t write a brochure. (Brochures are sales tools)
  5. Don’t be all flash, with no substance

White Papers and Graphics:

Graphics are an important part of white papers. Charts, pictures, and other graphics make messages easier to understand. They also make white papers more memorable.

Typeface, font size, and white space all contribute to making a document reader friendly. You can have the most wonderful information, but if your white paper looks bland and boring, readers may choose to read something else.

In this day and age of snackable content, many managers are pulled hither and thither by the next great thing. A White paper that looks enticing will be read more than one that looks boring. Presentation is as important as content.

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow:

In the Past: White papers started in the 1920’s as government documents which presented policies and invited opinions. In the 1990’s, the term became associated with business to business fact-based lead-generation documents that helped prospects see how a certain product/process/service could solve their problem.

Currently: White papers are usually formatted as pdfs. They also often include graphs, charts, and pictures that supplement the main message.

In the Future: White papers will incorporate video, moving graphics, infographics, and other formats I can’t even envision. They will still use all the above “Do’s” with the length being relative to the format.

White Papers are used for B2B companies:

It’s easy to see why white papers are an important lead generation tool for business to business companies.  These companies have a long sales process. Decisions aren’t made on the spur of the moment. They need factual data. And there are multiple people who have to sign off when large purchases are made.

Consumers, however, tend to purchase things more on impulse.  If your company sells to consumers, white papers may not be an appropriate lead-generating document. B2C companies can benefit, however, from understanding white papers. 

This is because every company should have helpful, persuasive lead-generating documents that sets them apart with facts. (I personally call these B2C documents “Special Reports.”)

White papers and the nutraceutical industry:

Most CMOs, ingredient suppliers, and equipment manufacturers have white papers on their websites. They also hand them out at industry events. White papers for ingredient suppliers tend to be on the short side – 4-6 pages long. However, they are still fact-based and show how their ingredient solves a problem.

Now that you have a better understanding of white papers . . .