How to write a white paper in 7 steps

In some industries (such as enterprise technology), white papers are the de facto standard for communicating a company’s perspective on a particular issue.They are usually not as long as ebooks, and might run anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 words, depending on the type of white paper you choose and how complicated the topic is.

White papers are written and published for several reasons, including:

  • Thought leadership
  • Lead generation
  • Promoting a product or service

If this kind of content is common in your industry, you’ll need to know how to write a white paper.

(Note: Should it be “how to write a whitepaper” instead “white paper”? Most authorities seem to go with two words, so that’s what I’m doing.)

Let’s go.

Keep calm and write a white paper

Step 1: Decide on what type of white paper you need to write

There are no hard-and-fast rules about what is or isn’t a white paper (at least for marketing purposes), and no truly universal taxonomy of white paper types. But many content marketing experts break white papers into three broad categories:

  1. Backgrounder. A backgrounder white paper typically goes into details about the specifications, features and benefits of a particular product or service. This type of white paper may be used as a download on a product purchase webpage or by sales reps as a collateral piece. It is usually most valuable when a potential buyer is choosing from alternatives — your offering vs. competitors — and needs a summary of the most important information about your product or service.
  2. Numbered list. As the name suggests, this type of white paper usually consists of a list of key points, tips or ideas about some issue or problem. For example, an employment benefits firm might publish a white paper titled “7 major changes health care reform will bring to small businesses.” In the body of the white paper, each item on the list might get several hundred words. These types of white papers are useful to buyers who are still doing research about a particular problem or issue (which, of course, your product or service will solve).
  3. Problem/solution. Finally, problem/solution white papers are those that present a particular problem and then lay out a proposed solution. Like numbered list white papers, these are usually written to answer questions from prospective buyers, rather than to sell them on your product or service. So ordinarily these are not too product specific, but they do tend to advocate a particular approach.

For example, a software company might product a problem/solution white paper that advocates for a hosted software solution to an issue, rather than software installed on a company server. Usually these white papers are written to take a prospective buyer through the various alternative solutions, sometimes in a pros-and-cons format. Sometimes this type of white paper may advocate for a new or more innovative approach to a particular issue.

So which should you choose? Partly that will be based, of course, on the subject matter at hand and which approach you think might be most compelling to your readers. But partly it will be based on what stage of the buying process you’re targeting. Are you trying to generate a list of leads from potential buyers still researching potential solutions? Or are you focused on helping to close the sales by presenting your products and services in the best possible light?
The closer the target reader is to the buying decision, the more product specific the white paper should be. Buyers still in research mode will often be more interested in a white paper that doesn’t explicitly advocate for a particular product or service.

Step 2: Do research

It may be that you, the white paper writer, already knows everything you need to write the white paper. In that case, it’s just a matter of outlining and writing (see more details on that below). But chances are you don’t know everything, and you’re going to need to do some research. The goal of your research is to gather the information you need to write a white paper and understand the issue it addresses.

Fortunately, this does not mean spending hours browsing dusty stacks in a big university library. To quickly and efficiently conduct research, go to those who already specialize in this area. Effective research tactics include:

  • Review. Read what competitors and industry thought leaders are publishing, including other white papers.
  • Interview specialists (“subject matter experts”) in your own company. This could include engineers, product development specialists, market researchers and others.
  • Talk to customers and prospective customers. Finally, to ensure your white paper will resonate with your target audience, talk to current and prospective customers. Find out what issues were most difficult for them to understand as they were conducting research. Figure out their pain points, and listen to what they had to say about what bothered them the most.

Don’t forget to take lots of notes during this research phase, and if necessary double-check facts against different sources. If two sources disagree on something, figure out if it’s a factual matter you can determine the truth about, or if it’s a matter of opinion.

Have you already done buyer persona research as part of your content marketing plan? If so, consult that as well. If not and you want to learn more about buyer personas and other elements of effective content marketing, download our free ebook, From Content to Ka-ching!

Step 3: Develop the white paper outline

Once you’ve got your main white paper topic and type nailed down, and you’ve done your research, it’s time to outline your white paper. Take your main topic and break it down into subtopics. Some of those may be broken down even further, depending on the format of the white paper.
Sometimes the order that these subtopics go in will be fairly clear, because they’ll follow a logical sequence. In other cases, it may not matter as much. In those cases, you can usually reorder your points so that the strongest one come either at the beginning of the white paper or the end of it. When in doubt, assume that’s what in the middle will be forgotten, so put weaker arguments and less important information there.

Step 4: Write the white paper

Just as in writing an ebook, a white paper is NOT something to treat as a sprint.

Rather, take it step-by-step, writing a little each day.

Though your outline may change as you write, you should make an effort to follow it. The outline keeps you focused on the content, the appropriate voice and on making progress. A well-written white paper can be used for years in some industries, so don’t be afraid to spend the time to do it right.

Step 5: Edit and revise

Editing and revising is what turns good copy into great copy. Even a good first draft will be improved by editing.
Given the sometimes technical nature of white papers, it may be good to ask subject matter experts (such as engineers) to review your draft. If you are a subject matter expert, it might be helpful to have someone who’s not an expert review the piece, as they will point out assumptions you may have made that might make the white paper harder to understand.
In some industries, your white paper may need to be reviewed by a compliance expert or lawyer. And chances are your boss will also want to see it before it’s published.

Step 6: Craft a compelling title

Writing a title for your white paper is probably one of the most important things you can do. Those few words can make the difference between a highly read, very popular white paper and one that gets no response.

The title is like a billboard for your white paper, and it must grab the attention of potential readers and get them to slow down, think about your white paper and download it. A great title will:

  • Remind readers of a problem or pain point they’re experiencing
  • Define the benefit your white paper delivers
  • Use distinctive, memorable language

A good title will also be something you could easily fit into promotions pieces — an email subject line, social media updates and the like.

Your white paper title is the all-important bit of copy that draws readers into the subject of the white paper and spurs them to download it.

Step 7: Publish and post

Once your white paper is published, it’s time to promote it. It’s not enough to just “write it and hope they’ll come.” Promoting your content should take place over a number of days or weeks (think of it is a mini-campaign), and can be done by publishing calls to action (CTAs) in a variety of places.
A call to action can be an attractive specialize web graphic, or a single line of text with a hyperlink. Ideally you would measure the response you get from each CTA to understand what works best for various mediums. Here are just a few ways you can publish CTAs:

  • Through social media updates (LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter and other sites)
  • Via an email blast or email newsletter
  • In your email signature
  • On some or all of your website’s pages

While you don’t want all of your social media updates to promote your white paper, you can promote it more than once. Just give yourself a few days between updates so your followers don’t feel like they’re being spammed.

What next?

Of course, publishing a white paper, ebook or other lead-generation offer is just part of the inbound marketing process. But it’s a part of the process that can seem overwhelming. Take it step by step, though, and you’ll be pulling in leads before you know it.

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