There are many ways for content marketers to reach their audiences. While certain marketing methods come and go, others stand the test of time. One of these time-tested ways to reach someone is with a white paper. In this post, you’ll learn how to write a white paper like the pros do.
Table of Contents
What is a white paper?
People primarily use white papers to condense topics into easily readable documents.
From a marketing standpoint, a writer can write a white paper describing the features and benefits of a product or service. Many government branches also use white papers to explain complex topics in a simple manner.
Personally, I think a white paper is a horrible name for this type of document. This name makes it sound like a white paper is one piece of paper that’s blank, which isn’t true.
It’s also understandable to assume that a white paper is only one-page long. While that can be the case, most white papers use at least a few pages to explain something.
What makes white papers beneficial?
Before you start putting in the work needed for how to write a white paper, it’s understandable to make sure they’re worth your time. As you’ll find out, there are a few reasons that white papers are so beneficial.
With advertisements, notifications, and messages popping up all the time, it’s no wonder why many people struggle to focus on something for long periods.
While you might be passionate and able to talk about a certain subject for hours, that doesn’t mean this topic will hold your audience’s attention for that long.
Fortunately, writing an engaging white paper lets you get all of your important information across to your target audience.
Instead of an hour-long meeting where everyone tunes out in the first five minutes, your employees or coworkers can read an entire white paper in about 15 minutes. And that’s great, especially when considering the average human attention span is about eight seconds!
Understandably, there’s no point in wasting a lot of time on marketing strategies that aren’t effective. Fortunately, you won’t have that problem after learning how to write white papers.
One study found that 91% of buyers in the Information Technology (IT) industry found white papers to be the second most effective content type.
A white paper lets you condense your research findings into an easy-to-read document with graphs and other visuals.
Easy to share
It’s rare for someone in the marketing industry to only have one person in their target audience. Typically, marketers are speaking to groups, departments, companies, and even entire occupations.
Considering that white papers are already short documents, they’re incredibly easy to print out and share. When something’s shareable, it’s likely that more people will read it.
Shows off your knowledge
Another great benefit of understanding how to write white papers is that this document lets you show off what you know. Whether you care about credit and praise or not, it’s good to look like an expert.
As a business, a well-written and designed white paper works well for helping a business look authoritative to potential customers.
When to create a white paper
Traditionally, the main reason to create a white paper is to convince an audience to take a certain side of a topic. It’s important to note that white papers aren’t sales pitches. But they can and should be somewhat convincing.
Here are some topics that could be beneficially covered in a white paper:
- Comparing multiple products or services
- Condensing original or external research
- Explaining a cutting-edge topic or concept
- Breaking down big or complex topics into list-type documents
How to write a white paper
You now understand the basics of white papers. It’s now time to learn about white paper writing.
Pin down the topic of your white paper
No white paper is complete without a topic. Whether you’re writing a white paper for academic or business writing purposes, coming up with a topic first is a great way to get started.
I recommend starting this step by coming up with a list of potential topics. There’s no need to commit to the first subject idea you have. Plus, this method lets you skim over the research for each topic to make sure there’s enough content worth writing about.
Create your outline
Before you begin writing out your standard document format, it’s smart to first create an outline. I know – it sounds like extra work. But creating an outline is a major help and will save you so much time in the long run.
There’s no need to overthink the outlining process. No one except you will ever see this outline. So, it’s perfectly fine if the exact outline of your white paper changes as you begin fleshing out your white paper topic.
Research sounds a lot more intimidating than it has to be. In your case, a well-researched white paper contains data that backs up whatever point you want to make.
However, it’s a must to ensure you use credible sources. These sources can be news websites, academic papers, and similar sources.
Bonus tip: If you’re having trouble finding sources to add to your written content, check out other white papers online that cover the subject you’re writing about. Chances are, these published white papers will link out to reliable sources or provide you with more inspiration.
Nailing the white paper layout
This area is where you begin putting together the bulk of your content and a crucial step in learning how to write a white paper. To make things easy, I included this sort of white paper template you can follow.
Overview or abstract
When you have the topic of your white paper, the logical next step is to provide your overview. You might also hear this called an abstract.
This part of your white paper is when you write about two or three sentences that overview your particular topic.
Any required background information
Another important thing to include in your white paper as you start creating it is a section for background information. This section isn’t something you must include.
But you can use it to educate readers if there’s anything they must know before they start reading.
Every well-written white paper needs a great intro. Your intro is where you plant that hook that keeps your reader reading. If you’ve ever written a blog post, the same concept of having a hook is a crucial factor in learning how to write white papers.
My best advice with the intro for your white paper is to keep it as short as possible. While there’s no magic word count to follow, I’d aim to keep your intro around 100 to 150 words.
Your main points in the body
As you come across this important aspect of a content marketing strategy, you’re probably going to get lots of answers for this part of a white paper.
I’m definitely not saying that my method is the best. But it’s what has helped me learn how to write white papers and thousands of other marketing-related documents in the past decade.
If you followed my earlier step and created an outline, you’ll now just need to flesh out or write about your main points.
Including visual elements
While the name of the document we’re talking about is a white paper, that doesn’t mean it needs to be all text. It’s also important to focus on white paper design.
As readers navigate through your white paper, the conclusion is the last step in the reader’s journey. Fortunately, this step is probably also the easiest of the whole writing process.
This part of writing a white paper is where you spend a few sentences wrapping up your main points at the very end of your document.
What NOT to do with white papers
Now that you’re a white paper writing expert, I want to help you even more. As someone who’s experienced some of the following mistakes, I can help you avoid them. Here’s what not to do when creating white papers.
Not trying to sell your audience
One of the main things to remember when writing white papers is to be objective. That means you have no bias, and you’re not trying to push any idea on anyone.
If you are using a white paper to sell someone on something, don’t make it look obvious.
As marketers, pushing ideas on people is basically our lives. And as a copywriter, I know how hard the “sales pitch switch” is to turn off. But doing so will make your white paper a lot more effective. Save the sales pitch for a landing page.
Avoiding an outline
I’m not trying to sound like a writing professor or anything, but outlines are great! As you get ready to start writing a white paper, make a list of your main topic. Then, think about a few of your main points.
As you continue working on this document, write down or type any interesting information you find.
Creating outlines only takes about 15 minutes. Trust me – your life will be much easier after you create an outline.
Not including research
Another essential part of any well-written white paper is research. Without research, a white paper basically turns into an opinion piece. Original research backs up the points you’re trying to make.
I’m not telling you that you must cite every sentence. A good rule of thumb is to cite facts that aren’t common knowledge – but even that can end up leading you to go overboard.
I recommend citing anything that’s a cold, hard fact. These are things like percentages, results from surveys, and similar statistics.
Bonus tip: As you conduct original research, do your best to cite reliable sources. Typically, these sources are reliable online news publications, research findings, and similar websites.
Over Explaining the basics
This last tip is less of a strategy you must follow and more of something to keep in mind. In most cases with business writing and white papers, your audience will have a general understanding of basic topics.
For instance, imagine that you’re writing a white paper about ways to increase a company’s sales in 2023. You’d want to explain your tips. However, you wouldn’t need to answer a question like what is sales?
Think of white paper writing as taking a helpful but formal tone. You can feel free to explain intermediate or advanced topics. But you’re probably safe to avoid explaining basic-level topics. Doing this could cause your readers to tune out early.
Check out these white paper examples
Whenever I learn about something, it’s always helpful for me to have examples. With that in mind, here are a few examples of companies doing great at writing white papers.
The first example of how to write a white paper on this list is from Google. To be more specific, this white paper is from Google Cloud, which is this company’s cloud computing service.
Considering the topic of cloud storage or computing, and things can get complicated fast. Fortunately, Google Cloud prepared a white paper to help potential customers understand the topic of cloud cost optimization.
Instead of an hour-long webinar or another proposed solution, Google Cloud made a smart choice and turned this topic into a white paper.
Google’s valuable content in white paper form shows a reader how to reduce cloud costs. It also lists tips to help reduce costs associated with cloud networks and storage.
Chances are, this white paper worked as a powerful lead-generation tool for Google Cloud. Check out this document to see how Google flexes its writing and design skills to create something great.
Another example of how to write a white paper that’s a lead magnet comes from HubSpot. This all-star marketing company recently created a white paper about how it can help companies and their customers succeed in a digital-first world.
In this example, the particular problem HubSpot targets is understanding digital-first worlds. By creating this white paper, HubSpot is able to establish thought leadership about this topic.
When potential customers search for advice about how to generate leads and do well in a digital-first ecosystem, it’s likely that HubSpot’s in-depth white paper shows up in search results.
Look at this example of how to write a white paper from HubSpot to see how it nails data visualizations and showcases a company’s product in a non-promotional way.
Another cloud-related company that knows how to use white papers in the buyer’s journey is from Microsoft. To be more specific, this white paper comes from Microsoft Azure.
Azure’s white paper teaches an audience how to move their projects to a cloud-based solution. From the first page of this document, you can see that it takes a list-type format to present information.
In this case, this white paper’s problem statement is that moving projects to a cloud can feel challenging or overwhelming.
If you’d like more examples, check out Microsoft Azure’s white paper section to see how this company uses these documents as great tools for presenting information without excessive self-promotion.
To summarize the topic of how to write a white paper, this format remains an effective way to reach an audience. White papers help an audience understand complex topics and visualize data in a convenient format. The next time you need something to help a reader understand a topic, consider writing a white paper.
Alex Eagleton is a copywriter and digital marketer passionate about helping companies connect with customers. Throughout the past decade, he’s worked with companies including Referral Rock, Connecteam, and Ramsey Solutions. He’s a versatile writer who understands how to align with companies, truly matching their voices and tones.
When he’s not writing, he enjoys spending time with his dogs, reading, and playing guitar.
You can reach him by emailing email@example.com.