The “No-Brainer” Guide to Choosing Your White Paper Style

Written by Katie Daggett
Planning your white paper is a no-brainer

Writing a white paper can be daunting. Depending on your subject matter and industry, it can require a great deal of planning and research and an in-depth knowledge of the topic (or access to experts who possess this knowledge). Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start, especially when the format and topic of your next white paper is unclear. Fortunately, this part of the process doesn’t have to be complicated.  Just follow the steps below to help narrow things down.

  1. First of all, decide what you want your white paper to accomplish. Do you want to:
    • Generate leads?
    • Get noticed or stand out from competitors?
    • Explain the benefits of a product or service?
  2. Once you’ve determined the goal of your white paper, your next step is to consider the preferences of your target audience. Are they conservative members of the C-Suite? Or, are you trying to reach twenty-something entrepreneurs? Will your audience expect a list of points they can easily skim, or more in-depth data and research? All of these questions will help you determine the appropriate content, length and tone for your white paper
  3. And finally, conduct a thorough investigation of your target sector, industry, or vertical market. Research your competitors and industry trade journals to see what is common in the industry. Then, decide whether you want to fit in, by choosing a style your audience is used to seeing, or stand out by taking a new approach.

After you’ve completed these three steps, it will be much easier to determine the type of white paper that will work best. The following is a brief description of the three most common white paper styles and the most appropriate uses for each.

1)  The Backgrounder

What it is: A factual description of the technical or business benefits of a product or service.

Best uses for this white paper:

    • Supporting the launch of a new product by explaining it to the vendor’s sales force and channel partners, plus any journalists, analysts, or bloggers who cover that space.
    • Near the bottom of the sales funnel, to help a technical evaluator size up your company’s offering against the competition.
2)  The List

What it is: Quick and easy to scan, this white paper is a gathered list of points about an issue important to your target audience (and one your product or service addresses). It is often written with a fun, witty tone.

Best uses for this white paper:

    • Getting attention with a provocative approach to some issue
    • To cast fear, uncertainty and doubt on competitors
    • To nurture prospects through the middle of the sales funnel by keeping them engaged and entertained
3)  The Problem/Solution

What it is: Useful information that educates your target audience about a problem facing the industry and positions your company as a trusted adviser. It usually begins by introducing the problem, pointing out the draw backs of existing solutions, and then offering a new, improved solution to the problem.

Best uses for this white paper:

    • Generating leads at the top of the sales funnel
    • Educating your target audience
    • Increasing your company’s visibility

If your topic doesn’t fit…

Once you’ve picked a white paper style, you’re ready to pick a topic. The first step is to test potential topics to see if it is too broad or too narrow to be a good white paper subject.

White papers are typically five to twelve pages in length, with backgrounders falling on the shorter side of the spectrum, and problem/solutions going longer.

For example, the question: “How to solve the current economic crisis” is obviously too broad of a subject for a white paper, and possibly even a book may not be long enough to do it justice. On the flip side, “5 tips for writing a better email subject line” is probably more suited to a 500 word blog article than a white paper.

Has your topic been “done to death”?

You’ll also want to eliminate any topic that has already been covered extensively by your competitors, trade journals and the like. You want your information to be fresh and relevant to your target audience and not something that has already been thoroughly covered by everyone else. Do a quick Internet search on any topic you are considering to find out what has already been written on the subject. But don’t give up if the subject you had your heart set on has been heavily covered. If you can find a new angle or approach on a subject, or offer a unique solution to the problem, then it may still be valid subject for your white paper.

When in doubt…ask your customer

The best way I’ve found to choose a white paper topic is to go directly to your customers or talk to your sales people to find out what their prospects biggest problems or concerns are.  You can also conduct your own research by listening to what your customers and prospects are saying on social media. What questions do they have? What information are they looking for? What solutions have they already tried and are they happy with the results? Listen to your customers, and you will have your topic.

Keep it simple

Of course, choosing a style and topic for your white paper is only the beginning. There’s a lot of research and planning, not to mention writing, to do from here. If you are new to writing white papers, or could use a hand in expanding your company’s content library, I’d be happy to help. Give me a call to discuss your project at 970.556.1294 or email katie@kdcopyandcontent.com.

 P.S.  A lot of what I know about writing white papers (including the information in this article) I learned from white paper expert, Gordon Graham. If you produce (or plan to produce) a lot of white papers, I highly recommend you check out his book, White Papers for Dummies. Not only does it have a lot of great tips for writing white papers, but also explains how to manage the entire process – from planning to distribution (including working with outside writers and graphic designers).

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