The Complete Beginner's Guide to Writing a White Paper

White papers help businesses communicate to their clients how they’ll solve their problem. This guide will help you understand how to put together an effective document.

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A white paper is one of the most important documents you can create when it comes to landing future clients. Done well, they demonstrate trustworthiness, expertise, and an understanding of the customer’s problem. A white paper is sometimes your only shot at getting the interest of a client who may do business with you for years to come.

In the history of white papers, no one has ever expressed excitement at reading one. They have a reputation for being dense and boring. But they don’t have to be — and, in fact, you should avoid that like the plague.

If you’ve been assigned to create a white paper and are staring at that blinking cursor wondering where to start, this guide is for you. We’ll discuss what a white paper is, what elements it should include, and how to put together a document that demonstrates your company’s knowledge and capabilities.

In the business world, what is a white paper?

A white paper or white paper report is a document most commonly used in business-to-business (B2B) relationships to break down a complex subject for the reader. This report not only describes the ins and outs of the issue but also describes the issuing organization's opinion or recommendation on the matter.

Unlike typical content marketing, which seeks to draw in an audience with informational content distributed online, a white paper is typically shared directly between the organization and the client.

What to consider before writing your white paper

A white paper is a big undertaking — you’ll take a lot of information and present it in a way that will demonstrate your company’s expertise in this particular topic. Here are a few things you should consider as you prepare to write.

Grab their attention

White papers aren’t expected to be particularly exciting, at least compared to a typical marketing campaign, but you still need to make it interesting. Identify what kind of information your audience is looking for and present it right at the beginning to draw them in. Understand their needs and capture their attention with a compelling intro that indicates you intend to solve a pressing problem they have.

Be detailed

White papers don’t have to be massive, but they should adequately address the issue. Be descriptive with your white paper and take a tone appropriate for the business you’re in. Aim for around 3,000 words or more, but don’t just put a lot of fluff in it.

If the white paper calls for less verbiage than that, don’t be afraid to go under, but generally, you will find you must hit that limit to adequately lay out the issue so your client isn’t wondering, "but what about X?"

Demonstrate expertise

The reader must trust you know what you’re talking about in order to be convinced by the white paper, so convey authority through the document. Demonstrate that you have the expertise to handle this issue, and avoid advertising or promotional copy. White papers are all about "just the facts, ma’am" and not about emotion and attention-grabbing.

The 4 parts of a white paper

While white paper research can take multiple forms, but generally the paper has four main parts.

1. Introduction

A white paper begins with an intro. What is it going to discuss? What problem will it solve? Why should the reader be interested? This is your chance to hook your audience with an engaging headline that focuses on how you’re going to solve their problem. Focus on getting your client’s attention here and demonstrate the value you’re about to provide.

2. Problem

The next step is to show the reader you understand their problem. Describe in detail what issue the customer must endure and what practical impact it has. The paper should lay out what will happen if the customer does not address these risks, and it will illustrate the benefits of dealing with the problem. Use statistics and data to bolster your argument here.

3. Solution

With a problem defined, you leave the reader craving a solution. Tell a compelling story about how your solution will address the problem, and be as detailed as you can while using real-world examples if possible. Take the reader on a journey from their current dilemma to an ideal future after using your solution. Stay focused on the product or service you are proposing.

4. Conclusion

The final portion of the white paper is the conclusion, which provides a neat, tidy summary of both the problem and the solution. It reasserts the value of the solution and appeals to a win-win dynamic for both sides. The paper must end with a call to action, or you will waste a big opportunity with your client. Make it specific, but don’t ask for the order yet — that’s not the purpose of the white paper.

This paper is building your relationship with your client. Consult with your sales team about what specific action you should request at the end of the document. This consideration may be the most important of all, so think it through carefully.

5 best practices when writing white papers

White papers are unique in the marketing world, but the following best practices work both as white paper tips and as digital marketing tips.

1. Brainstorm

It’s always good to start off a complex document with a brainstorming session with the key players. Talk over the needs of your audience and what points the paper must hit to be effective. Get input from all teams, and analyze the market. Consult with previous clients as well to work out what is effective and what isn’t. Bring all of that information to the table when you brainstorm with the team.

2. Do your homework

Once you’ve settled on a framework and general gist for your white paper, research the topic extensively and use as many sources as you can. Consult with industry publications and delve deeply into the marketplace for unique insights your client won’t get anywhere else. This kind of detailed knowledge will build trust with your customer.

3. Start with the summary

Most people start at the beginning when they write, but in this case, you should start with the summary. This will help you organize your thoughts and guide the bulk of the paper as you write it. With a summary, you establish a broader structure to build from, and you can get feedback from stakeholders early on in the writing process.

4. Use subheaders

White papers should be readable, so use subheaders to break up large blocks of text and organize the paper better so it’s easier to follow. This guides the reader and makes your paper more digestible. Readers are also able to refer back to the paper if they have a question about something, and they are able to glean more meaning and value from skimming the paper.

5. Make it punchy

White papers don’t have to be drab and wordy. Use bullet points, highlight critical data, keep paragraphs short, and use simple language instead of jargon. By making a paper user-friendly, you increase the chances not only that the reader actually absorbs the information, but retains it.

To master white papers, learn from past successes and failures

Every B2B marketing campaign needs a good white paper to build relationships with clients, so you must get good at creating them. To master this process, you must research and practice. Look at examples of white papers from other businesses that were successful.

Examine past white papers your company has created that got the contract — what did they do right? Take a look at the failures too — how could the white paper have been improved? And before you start writing, talk to your client to understand their problem first, or you risk falling on your face before you even get out of the starting gate.

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