How to Write White Papers Customers Want [Templates + Examples]
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White papers are powerful marketing assets. They can build trust with a casual reader, put you on the map for a target customer researching their options, and make every stage of your sales funnel more efficient.
But writing white papers is a challenge, and if you don’t rise to it, you’ll ship boring documents your audience doesn’t care about.
In this guide, we’ll show you everything: white paper types you can choose from, examples, and steps for researching, planning, writing, designing, and promoting your white papers.
Get inspired and equipped to build winning white papers. Let’s go!
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Want a head start with your white paper? Grab our white paper template—it will give you a simple but powerful structure to work with, along with notes for each type of section. You’ll also get actionable tips to brief your designer.
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What Are White Papers, Exactly?
A white paper is a marketing asset that argues a specific position or solves a problem for your audience. It’s a document that helps you establish topical authority and share original insights, data, and expertise.
White papers are more complex and advanced than other marketing formats like articles or emails.
Companies, brands, and nonprofits package white papers into PDF documents and offer them in exchange for an email address (and often more information, like company size, job role, and location). This makes them a great lead magnet.
When is a White Paper the Right Content Format?
White papers can be a great tool in every stage of your sales funnel. At the top of the funnel, you can focus on in-depth education; for prospects later in the funnel, you can share practical, action-driven tips.
Here are examples of both:
- Top of the funnel: State of data privacy by FormAssembly
- Middle or bottom of the funnel: Digital agency selection guide by GRAYBOX
Be sure to consider other downloadable content formats based on your audience and goals. Here’s what to keep in mind about white papers, case studies, and ebooks:
5 Types of White Papers
White papers can take different forms and help you achieve a range of objectives. Here are the types to consider.
Technical White Paper
A technical white paper describes how technology solves a specific problem. This white paper type usually focuses on a specific product or a technical process behind a solution. Oracle’s white paper is a good example of this.
Technical white papers are often part of content hubs like a tech documentation library or a security center. They’re aimed at a tech-savvy audience. These white papers feature elements like diagrams, tables, screenshots, and flowcharts to help convey the most complex points.
Business Benefits White Paper
Business benefits white papers target a non-technical audience. Unlike technical white papers, which show how certain technology works, a business benefits white paper makes a business case for a certain product or technology. Nextiva’s VoIP considerations for small businesses is a great example.
This type of white papers aim to direct and simplify the reader’s process of researching and buying a solution for their problem. This makes them a powerful asset in the middle of the funnel, as this is when your potential buyer is comparing different types of options.
Product Comparison White Paper
A product comparison white paper targets readers who know the type of product they’re buying, but haven’t yet picked a vendor to buy from.
You can use this format to compare your product and its features with those from your competitors. If you’re a service provider, you can do what dotSource, a digital agency, did with their Selecting Marketing Automation Systems white paper: compare products for a problem you solve, which positions you as the ideal partner to hire.
How-To / Problem-Solving White Paper
Is there a problem many people in your industry struggle with? If you know the solution to the problem, and it’s deeper and more complex than what you’d cover in a regular blog post, a problem-solving white paper is a perfect format to use.
This how-to white paper is ideal for lead generation at the top of your funnel, but your sales team can use it in conversations with prospects and customers at all stages as it positions you as the expert with the right experience. A great example of such white paper is FreshBooks’ 6 Smart Ways To Future-Proof Your Business.
Thought Leadership White Paper
A thought leadership white paper allows you to position an original concept within your market. This white paper type typically challenges a commonly accepted belief or way of solving a problem, and it uses unique data and experience to introduce a new approach.
Here’s an example of this you might recognize: Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. While it was a book rather than a white paper, this piece of original work brought us an entirely new way of marketing our businesses and ideas.
You can introduce a new approach—your approach—to tackling your audience’s pain points through thought leadership white papers.
What Does a White Paper Look Like?
Your white paper needs to be easy to navigate. Sections should naturally lead into each other. Use formatting to make your white paper skimmable, and graphics to draw attention to the key points you’re making.
Here are the key components your white paper should have:
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Executive summary
- Sections and subsections
- Graphics, charts, and/or sidebars
- About your company
7 White Paper Examples
Want to get inspired by white paper examples that work? Check out the list below and see how folks like Apple, Amazon, and Vox Media approach their white papers.
- Planning a Power BI Enterprise Deployment (Microsoft)
- A Guide to Financial Governance in the Cloud (Google)
- Apple Mac Pro Technology Overview (Apple)
- Navigating GDPR Compliance on AWS (Amazon)
- Why Better Mac Security Starts with Cloud Identity (Jamf)
- The State of Content (Mis) Management (Vox Media)
- Future State of Business 2021 Outlook (Samsung)
Researching Your White Paper
Every content project starts with research—white papers are no different. Follow these three steps for thorough white paper research.
Step 1: Determine your white paper topic and type
First, decide which stage of the funnel your white paper will match. Which goals are you mapping the white paper to? Are you looking for more brand awareness and authority, or are you more focused on converting researchers into buyers?
This will determine your white paper topic, and the type it fits. Here are hypothetical examples for CoSchedule:
Top of the funnel:
- White paper type: Problem-solving
- White paper topic: Transforming your marketing team with agile methodology
Middle of the funnel:
- White paper type: Business benefits
- White paper topic: Why a central marketing calendar is essential for hitting marketing and business goals
Bottom of the funnel:
- White paper type: Product comparison
- White paper topic: Choosing a marketing calendar software
Use this simple framework to establish what you’ll focus on in this white paper.
Step 2: Conduct thorough internal and external research
White papers are exceptional assets because your competitors can’t replicate them. They’re unique to you, your expertise, and the way you leverage data.
Start with internal research and gather all proprietary information that supports your topic. This includes:
- Results from your clients or customers, like customer success stories
- Unpublished customer interviews
- Anecdotes from your sales and customer service teams
- Audience surveys (for example, our marketing statistics report is based on a survey we ran)
- Quantitative data from your user base (for example, Mailchimp uses their user data to publish email marketing benchmarks)
- If you have the time and resources: your own research study (Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios has a fantastic guide to get you started)
Then, jump into external research. This will depend on your industry, but here are some initial points to start:
- Research-rich companies like Forrester, Gartner, McKinsey
- Google search: “State of [industry]” (include the quotation marks)
- Google search: [topic] original research
- Our World in Data
- Google Trends
Take note of everything that aligns with your topic. Right now, you can’t know which data points or examples you’ll use, so it pays off to keep track of anything interesting.
Step 3: Interview subject matter experts (if necessary)
Reach out to industry experts if you want even more examples, clarification, or an additional point of view of your research so far. This will add authority, a familiar face, and more unique information to your white paper.
To find subject matter experts to interview, you can:
- Run searches on Twitter and LinkedIn
- Ask your network for suggestions
- Use a service like HARO or Help a B2B Writer
- Search for speakers, writers, and authors on the topic
Set up the interview and prepare your questions. Make sure you tailor them to the subject matter expert, use open-ended questions, and focus on questions that will uncover new insights for your white paper.
Reference this subject matter expert interview guide for more tips on how to prepare.
Planning Your White Paper
Next up, focus on mapping out your white paper research in these three steps.
Step 1: Understand your audience
“Write for pay scale, not demographics.” This is what Jimmy Daly, cofounder of Superpath, wrote in an Animalz article. Pay scales define how tactical or strategic the information needs to be to appeal to your target reader:
“The people at the top think differently than the people near the bottom. They don’t need information—that’s been commoditized. In general, the higher in the food chain a person is, the more strategic their thinking is,” the point continues.
This means that your target reader needs different types of information within the same topic depending on whether they’re a leader or an implementer. Leaders need strategy and frameworks to think within, while implementers need hands-on tactics and directions.
Step 2: Create an outline
Then, it’s time to outline your white paper. Writing from a content outline helps you work faster and crush writer’s block.
Here’s how to build your white paper outline with the research you did so far:
- Headline: Start with a working version that describes your topic; you can always polish it up later. CoSchedule’s Headline Studio can help!
- An executive summary: A placeholder for a short description of what your white paper is about. Add key points here so you can build your summary later.
- Introduction: What is the hook that will draw your readers to keep reading the white paper? What are the main pain points and topics you’ll cover?
- Section subheadings: Each section is a point that supports your overall argument or a step in the process you’re presenting. Their subheadings should clearly introduce them.
- Subheading content: List the subpoints you’re making in each section, and any supporting information that you came across in your research.
- Conclusion: Summarize your key takeaways. If it’s appropriate, you might consider adding a call-to-action here, too.
Use our white paper template for the easiest way to build your white paper outline.
Step 3: Plan the format
Use this planning and outlining stage to also map out graphics, charts, sidebars, and one-pagers.
You can do this with text boxes, tables, and page breaks in the Word document. This way, you’ll have placeholders in place of visuals you’ll add in the design stage later on. This will help you shape your writing based on the skeleton of your white paper’s final look.
Additionally, use this step to adjust the appearance of your fonts and headers. In Microsoft Word, right-click the style you’re using, click Modify, and select different headings or paragraphs you want to update.
Writing Your White Paper
With your research and outline done, you’re ready to write your white paper.
Step 1: Craft an engaging headline
Best white paper headlines are those that connect your topic with an outcome your reader craves.
At CoSchedule, the ultimate way to write better headlines is writing more headlines—at least 25. This helps you weed through some obvious ideas and come up with unique, attention-grabbing options.
A strong headline includes:
- Word balance: a mix of common, uncommon, emotional, and power words
- Length: optimized for visibility and click-throughs on search engines and social media
- Type of headline: types of headlines include ‘“why” headlines, how-to, and question headlines
- Clarity and skimmability: simplified for easy reading and understanding at a glance
From there, jump into Headline Analyzer Studio and check your strongest headline options against suggestions. Use the word bank to strengthen these headlines and pick your favorite to use in your white paper.
Step 2: Formulate your introduction
Your introduction bridges the promise from your headline and executive summary with the key points and sections of your white paper.
Best introductions help the reader:
- Feel like they’re in the right place, reading the right white paper based on the problem they want to solve
- Get a high level overview of what you’ll cover
- Prove you do have the answers they’re looking for
To achieve this, use your introduction to tease upcoming sections and touch on the data, resources, experts, and original research you’ll use to make your points.
Step 3: Write each subsection based on outline and research
Each subsection should make a distinct point, like define a step of a process or make a specific argument.
If you’ve researched and outlined your white paper in an organized way, writing your white paper subsections should be relatively easy.
As you write, you might notice a gap in your research or a subsection that could be added based on the narrative you’re developing. If that happens, make a note and come back to it towards the end of your writing to fill those gaps.
Step 4: Determine any images you’ll need
Is there data or an idea that would be best presented visually?
We’ll get to the design process itself in a minute, but in this step, mark any segments that would benefit from a visual asset. You’ve marked some potential spots in your outline, so now that you have your draft, get specific about the exact visuals you need.
- A graph or chart of an important data point
- A one-pager with a key statistic or quote
- Comparison tables
- Custom illustrations
Step 5: Review and edit (both for content and style)
With your first draft done, it’s time to review and edit your work—or hand it over to your editor, if you have one.
Then, dig deeper to check the flow of your white paper and the strength of the points you’re making. This includes:
- Goal: Does the content fulfill its promise? Does it answer all the questions your reader might have?
- Structure: Is the structure optimized for engagement and completion?
- Facts: Is everything factually accurate? Double-check facts, statistics, links, and sources.
- Understanding: How easy is your writing to understand? If there is language or jargon your audience may not understand, note it and consider alternatives. This can be corrected with a simple search on Thesaurus.com.
Take note of any parts you need to reposition, phrase differently, or clarify; once you go through the entire document, jump into those edits. Grab some more editing tips here if you need them.
Designing Your White Paper
Follow these simple steps to turn your written white paper into a well-designed document.
Step 1: Create the cover page
Your white paper’s cover page can be as simple as the one we’ve given you in the white paper template:
But you can also work with your designer to build a version with brand colors or custom illustrations.
Step 2: Design any necessary inline graphics
If you have the option to work with a designer, here’s a simple template you can use to brief them on images you’d like to add to your white paper.
GRAPHIC HEADLINE: [Include a brief header or title for your graphic]
GRAPHIC COPY: [Include descriptive copy]
GRAPHIC DATA: [Include statistics, numbers, percentages, metrics, and so forth]
GRAPHIC NOTES: [Include other thoughts or image direction for your designer]
That should be enough to give your designer an idea of what to create.
Step 3: Structure white paper in correct column layout
Your white paper might work perfectly in a single-column layout, but if it’s particularly long, you might want to consider a two- or three-column layout.
Here’s what a three-column layout looks like in The state of content (mis)management white paper:
If you have a designer in charge of visuals, let them know about your layout decision. And if you’re working from our template, work from the Layout tab to set up your columns:
Promoting Your White Paper
Finally, get your white paper in front of as many target readers as you can. Use these steps to guide you (and remember to build promotion into a marketing calendar like CoSchedule, too).
Step 1: Add it to a resource or white paper hub page
Make your white paper easy to access for your site visitors. This might be on a dedicated content hub, like a resources page or a white paper hub page.
Here’s an example from Mitek:
If you don’t have a dedicated resources page, we recommend building one once you have more than a couple of white papers or ebooks.
If this is your first white paper, though, you can announce it to your blog readers with a blog post that announces and briefly summarizes the white paper, then links to it. It’s exactly what Vox Media did with this blog post.
Step 2: Let sales and support know it exists so they can share it with prospects and customers
White papers can be great tools, not just as a marketing asset, but also in the sales and retention stages of your customer journey.
Reach out to both your sales and customer support teams and share your white paper with them. Give them a brief overview—one or two paragraphs—on what it’s about and the pain points it addresses.
For sales teams, it can become a great bonus resource to use in sales conversations to both answer prospects’ questions and establish authority.
For customer support teams, it gives them lots of context and unique insights about a topic they otherwise wouldn’t have. It helps them in coaching customers to success and building customer loyalty.
Step 3: Promote it strategically with paid advertising
Run paid advertising campaigns on channels like Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook to reach your target readers strategically.
This approach can work, even with smaller investments, because you can target:
- Search terms closely related to your white paper topic
- Specific job titles and career stages
- Employees of specific companies
- Interests and behaviors typical to your target audience
Step 4: Use your email list
Finally, don’t forget your email list! The best way to use your email list for white paper promotion is to segment it by interests and only send to subscribers that match the topic of your white paper.
You can identify these segments in a few ways, including based on:
- The forms and landing pages your subscribers used to join your email list
- Emails they’ve opened
- Links they’ve clicked on in your emails
Check the topics of emails and links your subscribers open and click to tag and sort them into segments. This will help you with any content promotion—not just this white paper.
Repurposing White Paper Content
Your white paper was hard work, so make the most of it by repurposing its contents elsewhere. Here’s a list to get you started:
- Turn individual sections into blog posts. Each subsection is a standalone subtopic with rich research, quotes, and insights. Take advantage of that and expand each of them into a blog post.
- Create social media images from stats and quotes. Use these images on Twitter, LinkedIn, SlideShare, and anywhere else that fits.
- Turn your main arguments into individual newsletter editions. Just like with blog posts, write an email based on a piece of research that stood out in your white paper.
- Pitch a speaking engagement. Use your research as a topic for a panel or a speaking engagement at an industry conference or meetup.
Ready. Set. Write.
You made it—you’re ready to research, plan, write, design, and promote an exceptional white paper.
Follow this process to build a piece of content that will serve your marketing and business goals for many months and years to come. Don’t skip the promotion and repurposing efforts to make your work go a long way.
July 19, 2021