That’s what content marketing is all about – interesting content spread across many different channels, in a variety of forms. From simple social media posts to more complex case studies, it’s all created to expand the awareness of a brand – according to the business goals and target audience, of course.
But what if you’re leading a B2B enterprise and your target audience is actually other business owners? That adds a degree of complexity to it. More specific, more demanding, more focused. And in need of a customized content marketing strategy.
That’s where the white paper comes in. If we build a scale of content marketing pieces based on authority – and depth – the white paper would probably be at the top of it. Why? Because it’s rock solid. It takes a while to produce. It’s backed up by research like no other form of content. And, as a result, it’s informative as can be. Get the picture?
But in order to understand how to write a good white paper, we’ll need more information…
…and we’re guessing you’d like to know what a white paper is.
Let’s get the textbook definition out of the way, shall we? A white paper is basically a detailed report on a particular topic. It usually concerns a specific problem related to said topic, and is meant to help the reader reach a solution to that problem (or problems).
Does this sound a bit like a run-of-the-mill definition of any content marketing piece? Well, it’s not. A white paper is meant to be very in-depth, researched… and technical. Very technical. So much so that everything stated in there has to be checked against research and statistical data – in short, it has to be 100% accurate.
And there’s one more thing: a white paper is long. When we say “in-depth”, we’re not just saying it. No wonder it’s mostly used by B2B organizations. These will employ white papers to explore new findings related to their activities, demonstrate why their product or service is better, or maybe just serve as a mission statement for their own company.
So, by now you should get the picture: we’re talking about something rather important, especially if you own a business. Hence the importance of knowing how to write a good white paper.
But who really uses (and reads) white papers nowadays?
Originally, white papers used to be employed in the world of politics – by government agencies, that is. Also, varied institutions and organizations used them to communicate relevant discoveries to related audiences. Today, white papers can be used by any enterprise as part of a successful content marketing plan, and can be created to establish authority with many different kinds of audiences.
One very crucial thing about white papers? They will definitely help to demonstrate expertise on any given subject. That alone should already tell you a lot.
What we’re going to cover here:
- What’s the context?
- Define the purpose
- Establish your target audience
- Select the appropriate topic
- Work on the right outline
- Make it visual!
- Keep it engaging and interesting
- Use SEO well
- Where to put it?
- Promote it!
- Get some potential leads
- Use it for other content types
- Shall we recap the benefits?
1. How do you write a white paper… that's part of a bigger plan?
As with every other piece of content, your white paper needs to be integrated with a larger ecosystem – to be a piece in a big puzzle of content marketing. One white paper will not be able to meet all your audience’s expectations – precisely because it’s supposed to be very specific and full of details. So, before even starting – and that’s why this is our first tip – think about how this is going to be integrated into your entire content plan. And how it can provide source material for other content pieces as well (more on that later).
Here we should invoke the famed “buyer’s journey” – or conversion funnel – again. There are many different versions, but let’s go with the simpler one here. Even if you don’t expect your white paper’s audience to become actual customers (we doubt that), you should consider each viewer’s journey:
- The user identifies the problem (Awareness)
- The user starts to research and look for a potential solution (Consideration)
- The user (now potential customer) actually decides on a solution/purchases the product or service (Decision)
Why are we mentioning this here? Because it’s critical to actually understand where in this particular journey your white paper is going to be a good fit – and where it’s not. Does it make sense to create it as a part of the “awareness” stage, explaining the problem in detail? Or maybe it’s the decisive step in the “decision” stage, where you’ll definitely convince your users to go for your product or service? Other content pieces will probably do a better job at the stages where your white paper will not. Get the picture? Then let’s move on to the next step.
2. What is your white paper's reason for living?
Kind of philosophical, right? But we have the answer for you: credibility. Just take a second look at the buyer’s funnel that we covered right above. A white paper is meant to build trust with your potential customers like few other content pieces can. How does that work? Simple: by providing them with an adequate solution to their problem. If your white paper is able to deal with it and get it done, they will come back for more when the time comes. Makes sense?
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because by actually solving their problem, you’re drawing their attention to your brand and what your organization does. They’ll start looking for other services and other problems you can take care of.
And last but not least, if your white paper is really, really good, people will be inclined to provide something in return to have access to it. Think of contact information, and… you’ve guessed it… leads. Especially when it comes to more specialized ones. That’s why it’s also a good idea to consider how to write a technical white paper – you know, the detailed ones that the target audience will really go after.
3. Speaking of a target audience…
As with any other piece of content, before wondering how to write a white paper you should really consider who it’s meant for: the target audience. A few important things to ask beforehand:
- What is the background of your intended audience – general or specialized/technical?
- How “new” is your white paper’s subject going to be for them?
- Do they work (or study) in the field that relates to your white paper?
These kinds of questions are important because they will likely dictate the contents of your white paper when it comes to wording, tone, specific terms used, and, of course, the subjects covered. It will also enable you to have a bigger focus when it comes to choosing your topic – more on that later. And, lest we forget, it will also help with the promotion stage – getting it out there by the many means available (more on that later too).
4. Selecting an appropriate topic is just as important
as knowing how to write a good white paper (true story)
Maybe you think we’re exaggerating a bit, but think about it: if your topic doesn’t appeal to the audience itself, what’s the point of the white paper? For that reason, we advise you to carefully consider what you’re going to write about. Not only should it be something that will solve a problem for your users – and that problem should be your main priority, by the way – but it should also be a subject that you know about in depth.
There’s more: if this isn’t a completely new topic – meaning, if other people have already written about this – at the very least try to offer new perspectives on the problem. Especially when wondering how to write a technical white paper: chances are that someone else already took that topic. So do your research and do your best to at least offer a fresh look at it. As you already know by now, the less competition it has, the better its chances of standing out – including with search engines. Sounds like a deal?
We strongly recommend making the second tip a priority: you should know what you’re talking about. If you aren’t an expert, no problem: try to obtain specific information from other people in your organization (such as technical personnel, for instance). Or at least ask them to review what you’ve written, to be on the safe side.
5. Your white paper should be sharp, neat and attractive. Let's talk about formats.
Just like worrying deeply about your content, you should take some time to decide on the format when thinking about how to write a white paper. By now we all know how incredibly hard it is to really grab the attention of your audience – words and the actual content are just part of creating your piece, but so is the form. And it’s a big part, for that matter.
White papers are known to be more formal than other content marketing pieces, such as the Case Study, for example. Still, there is some room to create visually interesting formats that will present your content in an effective way and catch the eye of your audience. Here’s an outline with the main items your white paper should include:
- Title/Headline: catchy and mentioning what the white paper is about.
- Summary: your white paper should be briefly explained. Consider this part the “why” – the purpose of its being written.
- Introduction: a quick breakdown of what will be covered in detail later.
- Sections/Subsections: divide your full content into different sections, presenting each one as a segment contributing to a resolution of the main issue.
- Sidebars: these are a very relevant addition to the sections, as they represent additional information that can be very important to drive the point of the white paper home. Think about tables with data, related information, etc.
- Graphics and images: part of every interesting content piece, and incredibly helpful. Don’t you think?
- Conclusion: here’s where you wrap it all up – and possibly include a hook for further actions, content pieces, website sections, etc.
Again, before starting, think about these items and whether your message would actually be better suited to a different piece of content, like a case study or even an eBook. While white papers and their format are open to some degree of creativity, it should be noted that they are expected to have a bigger degree of formality. Among other things (more on that later).
We also want to emphasize that research is going to be a huge part of your white paper. Data, documents, websites, quotes, references – anything that will corroborate your investigation and offer a fresh perspective that you didn’t have before you started. This is truly important because it’s where your trustworthiness will come from. If you decide to go ahead and invest time (and money) in your very own research, that’s even better: your white paper will have even more authority, you’ll come up with new data that wasn’t available anywhere before, and you’ll acquire valuable information and insights in the process. It’s definitely worth it.
6. How do you write a white paper with dazzling visuals?
OK, maybe not too dazzling – some common sense is always nice. But do spend some time thinking how your white paper is going to look. It’s not just about the images, the fonts, the colors, the graphics – it’s also about the layout, the readability… and, of course, the information that’s being presented.
Let’s go over a few tips, shall we?
- Layout: consider the fact that white papers are long. Maybe yours could be presented in a different orientation (landscape) and using two columns. This could make it more attractive and more compelling to read.
- Images: they should always complement the information and help to make your case. Remember, this is not an art direction brief.
- Infographics: as they’re among the most shared content on social media channels, we can only recommend that you use them – but always when making your points stronger, of course.
- Fonts and color scheme: if you’re employing the services of a designer or a specific tool, they should provide you with some interesting tips for this part (and on the previous ones too, for that matter). But, if not, consider your target audience and think of an outlook that would be interesting for them.
- Don’t clutter: remember to always keep it clean and readable. Don’t overstuff your white paper with too many visual elements, otherwise it’s going to have the opposite effect to what you intended.
- Responsive design: this one’s critical. Depending on where you’ll be publishing your white paper (more on that later), we strongly advise you to make it responsive and adaptable to the reader’s screen. PDF formats, for example, usually create problems when they need to be read on smaller screens. If this is in line with your target audience and goals, fine, but do consider this before creating your white paper.
7. Remember that little thing called "engagement"?
Yeah, we're going to need some of that in here too.
Sure, we know white papers are supposed to be more formal – maybe even a little more serious? – than the rest. But that doesn’t mean they have to be boring, tedious and dull, does it? Use your writing powers to create something fun to read, even if it’s a quasi-academic piece of work (we hope you’re enjoying this article right here, by the way).
So, how to write a white paper that’s engaging and fun to read? Let’s go over some bullet points (yep, them again):
- Create a catchy title/headline: this is important even in white papers. Not only should it be a bit descriptive, but it should also entice the reader to find out more. Try to communicate the benefit – to some degree – that will make the audience care. And by all means, deliver on your promise/what you set out to do with the white paper.
- Work on a cool introduction: what exactly are you trying to solve with this white paper, and why should anyone care? What will the main benefits of this paper be? And what exactly will be covered? Some questions to help with your introduction. We hope it helps.
- Develop interesting sections: the sections/subsections are where you’ll explore the points made in your introduction. Create a good outline for each section, separating them with the points that need to be covered – we realize it’s easy to forget some, since the white paper is really big.
- Use takeaways and calls to action: these are always interesting when working on long content formats. Try to summarize each section briefly with a good takeaway – at the end, of course. And employ calls to action to keep your audience more connected.
- Adapt the tone: this almost goes without saying, but do use a tone and a voice that matches your target audience. Think of how to write a technical white paper for a scientific audience, for instance. Now think of one directed at design students. Would you use the same tone in both? In any case, try to make it as fun to read as possible – within the bounds of common sense, of course.
- Remember the value: of course, you obviously wouldn’t even be considering a white paper if you didn’t want to provide highly valuable content to your users. But we need to reinforce this point: it’s not enough to be engaging and funny and whatever if it’s not going to bring actual value to users. The engagement might very well depend upon how unique and valuable your content is.
8. Your friendly content marketing neighborhood SEO is also needed right here
Let’s say you aim to put your white paper on a landing page (more on that in the next topic), which is something we definitely advise you to do. Have you considered the potential for traffic, visibility, backlinks, leads? Your white paper is a gold mine of useful content just waiting to be linked to by great domains out there – and to provide great brand awareness for your company. Just use the best (and latest) SEO techniques to make it more accessible to your users – and visible to search engines.
“But how do you write a white paper with SEO in mind?” you ask. Well, just like everything else: with powerful keywords, good keyword density, a crawlable website (and page), titles, headers, meta descriptions, links – the whole nine yards. Check our detailed SEO content guide right here.
We do want to stress the fact that if you opt to publish your white paper as a web page or blog post, you should definitely have links pointing to it from within your own website (and from external websites too, but that’s another story). That will make it easier for search engine crawlers to find it, and will send important signals to said search engines that they are dealing with relevant content.
9. Where is your white paper going to be most comfortable?
Apart from a nice PDF document, you should consider putting your awesome white paper on different channels/into other content formats. Why? Well, basically because you want it to reach the maximum number of people, right? We’ve already discussed how SEO can be incredibly helpful in boosting the audience of your white paper (and vice versa, of course). So why not make it a very important page on your website? Let’s consider the options here:
- Web/category pages: how about creating a category page with different types of content and resources, and adding your white paper there? The perceived value of something like this can be great.
- Landing pages: as mentioned before, landing pages are a great opportunity to turn your white paper into an SEO traffic-generating machine – and possibly into a conversion hub too. With a carefully optimized landing page, you can take advantage of all SEO resources while still presenting your white paper as a deeply authoritative piece of content.
- Blogs: if you already have a blog going on your website, why not create a post with your white paper? You’d also have most of the SEO toolkit at your disposal – including the advantages – and the benefit of already having a dedicated audience (if your blog is popular).
- Others: sure, you can use all your content assets to cross-reference your white paper and promote it. Say, for instance, a social media post, a YouTube video, an email newsletter. The list goes on and on.
10. How to write a good white paper, check. Now… how to promote a good white paper?
Don’t forget: creating the content is one part. Promoting your content is another. A big one, by the way. And some would consider it even more important than creating it. First off, you need to identify the best channels – the places where your white paper is going to get most visibility. Then, work the best ways to distribute it in those channels.
Let’s go over some options: you could be dealing with a traditional outreach campaign aimed at key industry stakeholders and influencers. Or an email newsletter initiative, where you leverage the contacts you already have to specifically broadcast your white paper and its findings. A social media plan, with posts on specific platforms and social media groups/forums that are very much aligned with the topic of your white paper – with trendy hashtags, tagging and everything else included.
Finally, you always have the option of hiring a digital marketing agency to do this for you – from creating a custom distribution campaign, with goals and all, to actually taking charge of the strategy you already have in place and handling the channels that you’ve planned as a main source of promotion. If you have the cash to spare, of course!
11. Would you like some juicy leads with that?
We’re guessing that yes, you would. And did you know that your white paper can be an incredible source of leads? Think about it: if you’re wondering how to write a white paper and you’ve come here for information, the chances are you’re already planning on creating something great and authoritative that really stands out. Something so good that particular audiences would be willing to trade it for their own subscription. We believe you can do that. Do you?
Consider the following options when making your white paper available:
- Opt-in forms: if your white paper is really great and innovative, why not “wall” it behind an opt-in form, where the user has to provide their contact information? That’s what marketers commonly call “gated content”. Sure, this is likely going to reduce the number of people who will actually check it out, but it will still provide your organization with leads that could be very important in the not-so-distant future.
- Log in with social media: this is another interesting choice for people who don’t want to go through an opt-in form while accessing gated content. Depending on the social network at hand and the allowed access to their information, you could not only get their contact information but other valuable details for future leads (think of LinkedIn, for example).
Sure, all of this depends on what you want to achieve with your white paper and your overall business goals. And, of course, your capacity to implement these solutions on a technical/developmental level. Not every company is willing to invest the time, the manpower or the money in that, but for those who are, it can be very helpful.
12. How to write a good white paper and use it to write other good content pieces
Your white paper – as a unique example of great content – is a source of many other types of content that will be valuable pieces of your overall content plan. It’s what content-savvy people call “repurposed” content. Don’t believe us? Check this out:
- Social media posts: you can use your findings (especially your research data) to create engaging posts related to your research topic.
- Blog content: use one of your subsections (or all of them) to create specific blog posts where you expand it further.
- Videos: use your white paper to create an engaging, summarized video with the main findings – and publish it in your strategic channels (or else integrated with your blog posts as well).
- Others: how about a presentation – or a keynote speech – using your white paper as source material? Not bad, right?
As you can see, the list of possibilities is long. So, on to our next point!
13. We thought it would be a good idea to recap the benefits of a great white paper here
This is what a carefully researched, benefit-filled white paper can bring to your organization:
- Authority: your company (or you) will acquire authority in the field of expertise that your white paper deals with.
- Knowledge: have you ever heard that writing actually makes you learn? That’s right. By investing time in a great white paper, you’ll acquire valuable insights – both from your references and from your research – and you’ll be able to share it with your organization as well.
- Competitive edge: if you’re providing a solution to a specific problem that no other business does, you’ll stand out in a very special way.
- Audience: as we’ve covered here, white papers are an excellent source of inbound traffic – to acquire and retain users.
Need any more reasons for writing a white paper? Or is that enough?
14. Conclusion: if you want to learn how to write a white paper, it means you already stand out
Congratulations! You’ve made it through our white paper article. This means you’re already one of the few. Not only one of the few who actually set out to read this entire article (thanks a lot, by the way) but also one of the few who believe in the power of informative, useful and valuable content.
Speaking of a few… Few content pieces will have perceived value like a white paper. Sure, not all content marketing strategies will make use of them – it all depends on the strategy itself and the goals aligned with it – but the fact is that white papers can be considered one of the most useful (if not the most useful) content pieces out there. Precisely because they are focused on a problem and how to deal with it. When done well, they will activate the interest of your users, build trust with them and establish your organization as an authority on your subject matter.