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White Papers: How to Write a Good One

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re scouring the internet to help you solve a problem at work. Or maybe at home. Either way you find a white paper that addresses your exact problem. Wonderful. So you dutifully enter your name and email in the little boxes and wait for it to arrive in your inbox

You open the pdf and – dismay – the first line is something like:

“Let Acme Widget Company solve your problem!” The rest of the text is promotional material that just highlights the ‘benefits’ of Acme Widget company.

This is not a white paper, it’s a way of getting your email address while giving nothing of value in return.

What a white paper should be

We should say upfront that all white papers have an agenda. Like those advertorials you see in magazines, the white paper is going to have a slant that puts the company behind it in a good light. However, fundamentally, the content should still be objective and useful to the reader.

Classically, the white paper should solve a problem for the reader and propose a fairly novel solution. The bulk of the document should be written objectively (although personality and humour is allowed, if that fits your company persona). And, at the very end, you are allowed to have a bit about you and half a page or so about your product that  solves the problem in the way you have described.

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Essential components of a good white paper

  • A theme. This is the problem you are trying to solve. Not wishing to state the obvious, the problem should be something experienced by your target market (and one that your product or service helps to alleviate). It can be very specific or a more general industry-wide issue. It’s normal to outline the theme in the introduction.
  • A thesis. This is your novel answer, solution or way round the problem. You have to have a strong argument that is either original or put in a new way for the audience. This is the difficult part.
  • A building argument that makes sense. It can be tempting to say things that are slightly off-topic, just because you’ve got an audience. Try to keep your argument focused and heading clearly towards the conclusion.
  • A summary. Unfortunately, not everyone will read every word of your beautifully crafted white paper. So you’re going to have to summarise your findings very clearly towards the end.
  • Company bio. Although we’ve said that you shouldn’t mention your company at all until the end, it’s important you do include the information. And of course, the piece should be in your company branding colours etc.
  • Call to action. As mentioned in the previous post, the white paper is a trigger and you should be attempting to make contact with the reader. But if the reader is ready to buy now, wants the solution you’re proposing, then frankly, it’s irritating if you don’t tell them how to get in touch. Remember, most people who have the time to download and read a white paper at work usually have a problem, and may have been given a budget to solve it. You’ll be wanting to make the most of that.

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