How to Write White Papers People Actually Want to Read
What’s the first thing that enters your mind when you hear “white paper”? If you’ve never written one before (or work at Dunder Mifflin), you might think plain printer paper. And that’s … well, technically, that’s accurate.
The white papers we’ll be talking about today are different. These research-based reports (typically longer than a blog post but shorter than an ebook) are a staple content format for marketers. When they’re well-written, they’re powerful tools for solving problems, establishing authority, and generating leads.
However, they’ve also developed a poor reputation in some marketing circles. That’s because too many white papers are thoughtlessly churned out with an assembly-line mentality. Ever download something called a “white paper” that was actually a thin and poorly-disguised sales brochure?
A lot of us have.
In this post, we’re going to show you how to write white papers that don’t suck. Instead of cranking out crap to meet ill-conceived content quotas, we’ll walk through how to plan, write, format, and promote quality white papers. Ones that actually get read, smash your business objectives, and make you a star for your organization.
So, What Are White Papers, Exactly?
A white paper is a document that argues a specific position or solves a problem for its audience. They first originated as a type of official government document. According to Purdue Owl:
Typically, the purpose of a white paper is to advocate that a certain position is the best way to go or that a certain solution is best for a particular problem. When it is used for commercial purposes, it could influence the decision-making processes of current and prospective customers.
That explains that much. But, what does a white paper usually look like? Generally, they’re formatted as PDFs and look somewhat similar to an ebook or typical research report. Here are some examples:
- How to Win at Local SEO (Sundog Interactive – you might recognize the author)
- LinkedIn Marketing Resources (a library of white papers)
- Sample White Papers (Cal Poly University)
Straight-forward stuff so far.
This White Paper Template + Blog Post = Your Success
In this post, we’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of writing effective white papers.
But first, be sure to grab your free white paper template.
Then, use it to put all the advice in this post into practice.
So, You’re Going to Write a White Paper. How Do You Get Started?
Before you jump into writing, you have some planning to do. Sure, this takes time off from actually producing the work. It’s necessary though to ensure what you write is purposeful and effective.
First Things First: White Paper Ideation
Let’s figure out what you’re going to write about. This involves several steps.
Figure Out Who You’re Writing For: Who’s going to read your white paper? Ideally, your organization or agency should have an idea who your target audiences and customers are. If not, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide that might help.
Identify Problems You Can Solve For Them: Once you’ve identified your audience, think about what kinds of information they need from you. Secondarily, you might also tie that back into your own products or services. That sets you up at the solution to that problem.
Generate Ideas: When you know what problems to solve, you’ve got a purpose for your white paper. The next challenge, then, is to decide which ones to write about, and from which angle. A simple brainstorming session can help with this.
Or, start by asking a few questions:
- Which problems are top priority? Consider starting with ones that are most pressing or timely.
- Which problems can I tie back into my business? Say your organization wants to be known as an authority on an area you’re new to. Or, maybe you have a new product or service offering coming out, and want to position yourself as the best option. Find ideas that align your goals with your audience’s.
- What are we experts on? If you have deep knowledge or expertise on an area you’re known for, a white paper can help reinforce that perception.
Determine If A White Paper Is Really the Best Content Format: Before you get too far along, you might decide a different format would work better to reach your audience and achieve your goals. Follow this graphic to help decide if writing a white paper is the best approach:
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Next, Write Your Outline
White papers are usually fairly long. The same outlining process you’d use for a shorter piece, like a blog post, will work here. You might need to make it a bit longer or more detailed, though, to avoid getting lost in your thoughts partway through.
An effective white paper outline should include:
- Headline or working title: You don’t have to settle on a headline or title right away, but start with a working version that describes your topic. Our Headline Analyzer can help.
- An executive summary: This is essentially a brief (200 words or so) description of what your white paper will be about. Think of it like a short pitch for why someone should write what you’re about to write.
- Your introduction: Which points will you touch on in your intro? These are what you’ll expand on in the body of your white paper.
- Section sub-headings: Like your headline, these don’t need to be final yet. But, you should have a clear idea of what you’ll discuss in each section. If your headline is the core problem you’ll solve, consider each sub-heading a sub-point or step toward resolving it.
Beneath each sub-heading, include further bullet points clarifying exactly what you’ll write about. This is all about knowing what you want to say before you try to say it.
- Sidebars: White papers often include sidebars or breakout boxes with additional information or data tables, like what you’d find in a magazine. In each section, list any possible sidebar ideas you might have. This could include any research or data you’ll need to find (more on this in a bit).
- Conclusion: Summarize your key takeaways. If it’s appropriate, you might consider adding a call-to-action here, too.
Here’s what a hypothetical outline might look like:
Do Your Research
Good white papers are fact-based and research-driven. You’re not here to throw your opinions out to the world without data to back them up. Depending on what you’re covering, you might get by with nothing more than Google and your company’s own insights. If you want to take things to the next level, though, you’ll need to do deeper research.
Let’s take a dive.
Dig Into Research Reports
Industry research reports can provide an excellent data-backed foundation for your content. Seek out research groups (such as Forrester) or professional organizations that produce original research. Then, cite relevant stats and findings where appropriate.
Check Out Wolfram Alpha
Wolfram Alpha calls itself a “computational knowledge engine.” What does that mean? It’s a search engine for facts and data with calculation functionality built in. It’s an extremely robust and powerful tool for research.
Check out some of these top-level categories for things it can do:
While we can’t go too far in-depth on how to use Wolfram Alpha here, they have plenty of help guides and resources to get you on your way.
Make Use of Government Websites
Depending on your industry, there are several government websites that might be helpful. Here’s a handful to consider:
Do Your Own Original Research
This is the most difficult option, but it can provide the most valuable results. If you have access to publically-available information, so does your competition. Original research you produced yourself, however, is uniquely powerful.
Here are just a few benefits to original research:
- It establishes you and your organization as an authoritative source. Wouldn’t it be awesome if your white paper became a highly-linked source of information for others?
- It gives you something no one else has. And that would make your white paper much more valuable than something anyone could have slapped together spending an afternoon with Google.
- You’ll learn more about your audience and industry. Last year, we did a survey of our blog audience. We were then able to turn our findings into a 5,000+ word blog post. That’s long enough that it could have been a white paper, had we decided to publish it as one. It taught us a lot about our audience, too, including things we wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
If you have the time and resources to do your own research study, Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios has a fantastic guide to get you started.
Now We’re Ready to Format and Write This White Paper
We’ve done a lot of things so far. Some of it even involved a little bit of writing. Mostly, though, we’ve spent our time getting ready to write.
Writing a white paper isn’t easy. You’re now staring down an intense and involved project. If you’re writing in an industry where you’re not a subject matter expert, then your preparation (outlining, researching, and working with internal or client SMEs) is going to be even more important.
You’ve got this, though. Flex those fingers, tap into your inner Hemingway, and let’s knock this thing out.
How Do White Papers Differ From Writing Other Types of Content?
We’ve touched on this a little earlier, but it’s worth repeating here. While there are some similarities, writing a white paper isn’t quite like writing a blog post, case study, research report, grocery list, or … well, you get the point. It’s decidedly it’s own animal and should be treated as such.
White papers should be:
- Professional in tone: This is formal, almost academic-style writing.
- Narrowly-focused: Pick one topic and explore it thoroughly.
- Fact-based: Unverified claims don’t belong here.
- Data-backed: You don’t have to like math, but you have to love what numbers can do to make your writing stronger.
Writing Your Title Or Headline
Your headline is the first thing that will sell your white paper to your audience. You want to write something that conveys clear value up front and gets them to click. However, you also want to avoid anything that could be perceived as click bait, or overly casual.
So, your headline should hit each of the following checkboxes:
- Establish a clear benefit to your reader: Why should they care? What’s in it for them to read past your title page? Including interesting stats or a strong action verb can help.
- Sound professional: Even if your blog or social media content is fun and light-hearted, a white paper should strike a professional tone. It doesn’t need to be sterile and lifeless, per se, but use your best judgment here.
- Set realistic expectations for your reader: If your headline reads, “Ten Ways Shipping Companies Can Deliver Faster Shipments,” you better go into detail on all ten tactics. You’d be surprised how many “white papers” throw a paragraph of text surrounded by images onto a page and call it good.
If you’re going to create crap, just say up front you’re creating crap. Or better yet, don’t write your white paper at all. Commit to quality or stay home.
Let’s take a look at five hypothetical headline examples you can follow:
- How SaaS Companies Can Onboard 53% More Customers In 2017
- Why Are Content Calendars Important For Marketing Teams
- 7 Ways Small Businesses Can Compete With Enterprise Corporations
- Why Companies Should Use Agile Project Management
- How Nonprofits Can Do Better Fundraising
These examples aren’t wildly creative, but they all include at least one of the following:
- A clear benefit
- A stat or action verb
- A professional tone
Writing Your Introduction
Your intro should quickly hook your audience while covering the main points the rest of your document will cover. Here’s everything it should cover:
- State the problem your white paper intends to solve. To create added urgency, it should also touch on the consequences for not taking action.
- Summarize the key areas your white paper will cover. Give a high-level overview of what readers can expect from start to finish.
- Explain the benefits of reading your white paper. What will your reader be equipped to do after reading what you have to say?
Writing Each Subsection
Once you’ve hooked a reader’s attention with your intro, you’ll want to keep it. So, make sure each section delivers on the promises you made in your introduction.
When you’re writing an (extremely) long-form piece, it can be easy to get lost. That’s why sticking to an outline is so important (and we do hope you spent some time putting one together). With thorough research and a strong outline in hand, you can make the actual writing exponentially easier.
Let’s look at a hypothetical outline:
How to Select a Veterinarian
- Find options in your area
- Research each one
- Make a call
If we were to write this section, we’d start with a paragraph about the importance of selecting a good veterinarian. We’d then dedicate a paragraph or two (or more) to each sub-point. Following this order will ensure your writing flows well from one point to the next in a logical order.
When writing each section, consider using bulleted lists to make text easy to skim. For example:
- This is an insightful point about your topic.
- Here’s another interesting piece of data.
- Finally, here is a third important takeaway.
Continue until you’ve worked through each portion of your outline.
Edit. Edit. Edit.
Your first draft of a large document like this won’t be perfect. So, it’s important to have a sound editing process in place. If your organization has another writer or editor on staff, then work together to polish your draft.
Establish a Set Editing Process
Know who your editor will be ahead of time and develop a set process. In our experience, it’s easiest to use tracked changes in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.
Edit for Content (Not Just Grammar)
While editing a white paper (or anything), it’s important to edit for content, and not just spelling and grammar. This entails asking the following questions:
- Does this content answer all the questions a reader might have? If something important is missing, note it for the writer.
- Is everything factually accurate? Double-check facts, statistics, and sources.
- 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.
This isn’t to say correcting grammatical and spelling errors isn’t important. Far from it. However, it’s just as important (if not more so) to ensure the quality of your information is up to par as well.
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How to Format Your White Paper
If you’re fortunate enough to have a designer on your team, they’ll likely handle design and formatting for you. However, if you’re on your own, don’t worry! That’s why we included a free white paper template in this post. Here’s how to edit it and make it work for you.
Start by filling in your title page (it looks like this):
Simple enough. Next, follow the instructions included in the template to fill in each content section:
Now, you might want to adjust the appearance of your fonts and headers. This is easy to do with Microsoft Word. All you have to do is edit your styles.
Find your styles pane and right-click what you’d like to change. Let’s start with Normal:
Next, click Modify:
Now, you can change your standard paragraph text:
If you’d like to change your Heading 1, 2, and 3 styles, follow the same process.
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Handing Off For Design
Unless you happen to be a skilled designer, it will be best to have a designer create graphics for your white paper. Your designer is likely going to need some direction from you, though, so your work isn’t done yet.
How to Provide Designers With Image Direction
While writing, think about what kinds of images you’d like. Make notes in your doc that include the following information:
- 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.
One-Column Vs. Two-Column Layout (Or Something More Creative)
If your white paper is lengthy, you might want to consider a two-column layout. That’s because they’re easier to read and skim, thanks to shorter line length:
If your designer is good, though, you can get even more creative. Check out this example from LinkedIn (email signup required):
If you’re working on your own, your template can easily be converted into a two-column layout.
Simply highlight your text:
Then, click Layout, Columns, and Two:
Promoting Your White Paper
You’ve put a ton of work into your white paper. Now, how do you get people to actually read it? The answer is with a comprehensive promotion plan.
Decide Where to Host Your White Paper
The first thing you’ll need to decide is where your white paper is going to live. Do you host it on your website? Your blog? A landing page? There are pros and cons to each. Let’s cover each one:
- Landing Pages: Landing pages are perfect for hosting your white paper on an attractively-designed page that’s optimized to convert. You can easily build landing pages with tools like Unbounce, Lead Pages, or Instapage.
- Blog Posts: This is a quick and simple option. Blog posts also give you room to provide context for your white paper. Plus, being on your blog’s home page can also give it more visibility.
- Website Pages: Resource libraries are a strong spot to put white papers. Consider creating something similar to MailChimp’s resource library:
It might be possible to combine approaches, too. For example, you could create a landing page for your white paper, link to it in a blog post, and then include the actual document in your resource library. That’s maximizing the exposure for your hard work.
Build a Promotional Social Media Campaign
When you’re planning your social media promo, be intentional about which channels you choose. Since white papers are professional documents, think hard whether or not Facebook (a network focused on family and friends) is a good place to share it.
So, which networks should you consider? We’d recommend planning around:
- LinkedIn: The ultimate professional social network. Create a series of posts to promote it, and if you’re involved in any professional groups, consider sharing it there, too. Be careful not to spam groups, though.
- Twitter: Consider your audience here. If your audience is mostly consumers who wouldn’t be interested in your research, consider avoiding Twitter. If, however, you have a large professional following, this should be your highest-volume network.
- Google+: Sure, it’s a ghost town for most industries and niches. If you’ve had success building a professional social following there, though, don’t neglect it.
If you’re a CoSchedule customer, planning out a Social Campaign is easy. Create a campaign on your calendar and use Social Helpers to set up promotional graphics and post copy. Then, set it and forget it.
Use Your Email List
If your email list is comprised primarily of professionals interested in the kind of research in your white paper, then send it to them. Keep these thoughts in mind:
- Stick to a professional tone. You want to sound authoritative.
- Focus on the value for your email recipient. Everything you write should be keeping this in mind.
- Include a link at the bottom of your other emails. If you send email newsletters, consider adding a section for your white paper there, too.
What’s Next: Repurposing Your White Paper Content
Quality white papers take a lot of work to produce. So, make the most of it by repurposing its contents elsewhere. Here are a few ways to do this.
Spin Your Sub-Sections Into Blog Posts
You can likely write an entire blog post based on each section of your whitepaper. This gives you the opportunity to drill deeper into each specific point. Plus, if you link back to your white paper in each post, you can direct more attention toward it.
Follow this process to help turn one small point into a much deeper and valuable blog post:
- Take a section of your white paper you think you could have expanded upon further.
- Start writing hypothetical headlines that could work for a blog post.
- Then, start building an outline. Which points or information weren’t you able to include in your white paper? Go back to your research and dig deep to add more detail.
- Write your next blog post!
Do this for each piece of your white paper, and you’ll quickly have multiple pieces of content promoting your white paper. That’ll help you get the most mileage possible for your efforts.
Leverage Your Research Elsewhere
You probably dug up tons of interesting stats and pieces of information while doing your research. Use that information in other content you write. For example, you could easily:
- Create new social media content sharing intriguing stats from your research.
- Include research findings in other reports or blog posts (with or without referencing your white paper, as appropriate).
- Pitch a speaking engagement based on your findings. Dig up something your audience would be interested in? Do you belong to any professional groups or do any public speaking? Consider using part of your research as a topic for a speaking engagement or conference session.
Ready. Set. Write.
We’ve now guided you through all the steps to writing an effective white paper. With the information in this post, plus the included template, you should have everything you need to do the job right. Let’s recap quick:
- We discussed what a good white paper should (and shouldn’t) be. Offer your readers unique, valuable, and well-researched insights on one specific topic. Don’t slap together thin content, make it look nice, gate it behind an opt-in form, and then call it day.
- We walked through a complete writing process to produce the final document. From ideation all the way through design, every step of the process has been covered.
- We touched on what comes next once your white paper is published. Seriously, if you’re going to set aside the time to write a white paper (which could take days or weeks to produce), then get the most return on it you possibly can. Spin that sucker into as many content assets as you can think of.
That’s all we’ve got for you. Still have questions? Drop us a line below, and as always, thanks for reading.