White Papers: Still in Vogue After All These Years

Kathy-Vass-croppedBy Kathy Vass, Executive Director, PR & Social Media

Over a recent lunch with a communications peer, I mentioned that I had been hemmed in lately writing several white papers for clients. To which she replied, “Are those things still around?”

The answer is yes and I believe they’re here to stay.

In today’s marketing environment where content is king, white papers provide researched, informative content that is relevant and useful to target audiences. And they’re an excellent way to establish thought leadership within an industry.

While white papers often get a bad rap as dull reads more closely associated with governmental policy papers, they have become a common marketing tool used by companies to introduce their latest technology advancements and innovative products. To prove that point, research shows that a Google search in 2001 of the term “white paper” returned one million responses. Just now, my Google search of “white paper” returned 585 million results.

white_paper_icon (1)Many of our B2B clients use white papers to increase social media sharing and generate web traffic. And by gating white papers on their websites, companies are converting potential customers into leads by requiring interested visitors to provide their contact information in exchange for free and valuable content.

White papers help potential customers better understand issues that can’t be communicated with a tweet or even a blog. White papers tackle more technical topics, typically identifying an industry challenge and providing a solution. People who read white papers are looking for details and are fine with a longer read that offers them a more in-depth look at a topic.

Generally, there are two types of white papers. The Problem/Solution paper is the one we’re most often asked to write. These papers typically introduce a company’s unique solution to a common industry challenge. A Background white paper can be written to explain the technical features and benefits of a product or service.

The ingredients of a good white paper

There are no real industry standards for white paper writing. But to help establish some tried-and-true guidelines, WhitePaperSource in 2005 surveyed hundreds of white paper writers, with respondents revealing that white papers should:
• Begin by introducing an industry problem, challenge or need, THEN offer the solution
• Educate and inform
• Avoid overt selling
• Focus more on benefits than features
• Include information that is relevant and useful to the reader
• Avoid the use of humor
• Be an average 5 to 12 pages in length

Not your grandfather’s white paper

To avoid the dull and boring knock, it’s acceptable to include ingredients in your white paper that help hook readers and keep them engaged. For example, a catchy title can pique interest and still be informative and honest. Graphic elements like photos, illustrations and charts should be used throughout the white paper to support copy, break up text and hold the reader’s interest.

Lastly, using a professional writer is a good idea, especially one that is comfortable with and accustomed to interviewing. Asking good questions of a subject matter expert enhances the white paper research process and offers access to information that likely won’t be found with an internet search.