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How to write a white paper that won’t send your readers to sleep

How to write a white paper

White papers have a dreary demeanour, but don’t let this put you off. I actually think they’re an underused and misunderstood form of marketing content. They’re tricky to write and a commitment to read that’s for sure. But they can also be helpful lead generators and a compelling way to command the respect of your audience. So, here’s why you should add ‘write a white paper’ to your content plans and a few tips on how to do it.

Look beyond the bad reputation

Writing a white paper is a great way to show off your knowledge on a subject and generate extra credibility for your business. But there’s something about the term ‘white paper’ that just makes us think grey suits and pie charts. It all sounds a bit governmental. No offence Boris and co. but… yawn.

This week, I’ve started work on a white paper for a client. And I love writing this type of content. So, I thought I’d try to explain why white papers don’t have to be as dull as they sound.

What is a white paper?

Officially, there are no minimum requirements to make a piece of content class as a whitepaper. You’ll probably see brief one pager’s and blatant sales documents presented as ‘white papers’– this is usually an weak attempt to elevate the credibility of a nondescript piece of content.

Tip: Don’t do this, it doesn’t fool anyone.

So, what makes a white paper a white paper?

The roots of the white paper are (as you’d probably guess) in the world of Westminster and politics. If you want to get old-school, strictly speaking it’s a legislative document to explain a policy.

However, the business world has enthusiastically adopted (and adapted) the concept of the white paper, giving what was a plain old policy document a shiny marketing spin. Basically, they’re an in-depth piece of marketing content on a tightly defined topic. They are not intended to be light or fun. They are unapologetically educational. The mission of a white paper is to inform, not to sell or entertain. In short, you’re not going to win any popularity contest with a white paper, but you may get a whole lot of respect points.

And practically speaking, they fill a content gap between blog and ebook. They are longer and less casual than a blog. But they’re less sales-y ebook. And they often incorporate a topical spin, which gives the content timely relevance. 

Tips on how to write a white paper

1. Think like a journalist

White papers are factual, but you’re not writing a report. I approach writing white papers in a very similar way to writing a journalistic feature. You need an interesting angle, a story and lots of colour and expert opinion. 

2. What’s your hook? 

Focus on a specific problem. Make your topic niche and relevant to your audience. Then provide information, discussion and methodologies that frame a solution. 

3. Resist the temptation to sell

White papers are informative pieces of content. Not ads or sales pages. They are an opportunity to talk about a topic you’re passionate about. Share your expertise and explain theories. Lay out the evidence and invite people to tap into your way of thinking.

4. Think about format 

6-10 pages is a good start and portrait PDF is the most popular format. And think about design too. It needs to be visually appealing (not just a boring Word doc.) Take a look at Canva templates if you can’t run to hiring a graphic designer.

5. Make your title and synopsis intriguing

The title of your white paper should be short, snappy and appealing. And support this with a few sentences that offer a tantalising hint of what’s to come. Share your hook and set out the amazing benefit your reader will get from reading it. Make the value of your white paper clear.

6. Do your research

You’ll need facts, figures and evidence. This is not just a brain splurge.

7. Don’t dumb things down too much

It’s not a blog. A white paper isn’t a light-hearted, fun read. It’s might be something that your reader needs to read a couple of times to get to fully grips with. You want them to read it with a highlighter pen in hand, enthusiastically marking up the parts they want to go back to again and again. You don’t have to oversimplify your concepts, you just have to make them easy to read.

8. Clear structure and creative headlines

Before your reader commits to devouring every word, they will skim through to see if it’s worth investing their reading time. To pass the skim test, use bold headlines that frame your story and break up content in to manageable chunks. Making your white paper too text dense can make your document appear intimidating to read.

9. Edit, edit, edit

And then proof read thoroughly. This is a professional document. It’s not slapdash. With a blog your audience will forgive a typo here or there and sloppy grammar, but with a white paper professional polish is expected.

A typical structure for a white paper

Create a structure that works for you and supports what you have to say (there’s no white paper police that I’m aware of.) But as a basic starting point, here’s a generic structure:

  • Cover page: Headline plus subheading with hook/value. Logo and any other branding.
  • Contents page: Great for skim factor and also help people skip to what they need.
  • Executive summary: A personal paragraph from you as the expert.
  • Introduction: A short introduction to the topic you’re covering and a summary of the key points. Tell people what you’re going to show them.
  • The problem: Explain the issue you’re grappling with in the document. Use facts and statistics as evidence. Make it relatable.
  • The solution: Outline the theory behind your approach. This is the insight into your thinking.
  • The real-world example: Bring it to life with a case study or client story.
  • Concluding comments: Outline the key takeaways. This can be a bullet list.
  • Back cover. Contact details, social links and branding.

And finally, give your white paper a business purpose

Whitepapers are hard work, so why create them?

Firstly, they’re useful resources that can be very valuable to your audience. Writing a white paper is a powerful way to build your credibility and generate trust. This is great if you want to make a name for yourself in your industry.

But the more tangible value of a white paper is what your audience give you in return. To download a white paper, you’ll usually ask for at least an email address. This makes them a great way of capturing new leads.

Do you dodge detail with you content? Maybe this type of long-form, educational marketing could have a place in your content strategy.