Published by Elizabeth Godfrey, March 7th, 2017
Even if you regularly download and read white papers, chances are you have not considered what makes a document a ‘white paper’ and not an article, technical bulletin or something else. As content marketing pieces, white papers can represent very different styles with some that are much more effective than others.
A good white paper is essentially a hybrid technical (or academic) marketing piece that is intended to educate the target audience. As a marketing piece, it should contain captivating subheadings that make the information simple to skim and lead the audience through the paper to the conclusion. The subheadings should lend to the overall structure of the paper by providing clear signposting that makes the paper easy to navigate and helps establish it as a valuable educational resource.
An Argument for Better Papers
All white papers are persuasive pieces, whether they aim to convince readers of a particular solution to a common industry problem or convey that the newest technology or research innovation offers the answers to their problems. The resolution represents the paper’s conclusion, and ‘soft sell.’ An effective white paper must be written with this intended argument in mind.
The Marketing Component
Unlike brochures and other marketing pieces, white papers should not contain overt selling as the primary goal is to educate readers. The soft sell in the conclusion allows the business or company to provide readers with a chance to learn more about the specific solution. It also typically contains a call to action for next steps. Any marketing in an effective white paper is considered ‘soft’ because it should not alienate readers or detract from the educational aspects of the paper.
Determining Your Audience
Who do you want to reach with your white paper? With the broad goal of a white paper established, one of the first steps for success is to consider who you hope to inform. In selecting your target audience, it is helpful to identify problems or needs your ideal reader may face so you can better map your solution. Targeting a broader audience, such as a specific industry, means a larger reach for your paper. This gives you a bigger impact on brand recognition and helps position your company as an authority on the subject. However, if your solution or goal for the paper is to close sales, you may want a more focused audience. Writing to the executive suite or to those with buying power is more effective in this case as you can specifically address the technical aspects that are most important to the specific group.
Word count ideally stems from the topic itself. In general, the goal is to find something that is Goldilocks approved – not too long, not too short but just right. The most beneficial white papers for readers are those that examine something new and support findings and claims with evidence. While the white paper is more of a hybrid document when executed effectively, it is still a marketing piece. It is therefore essential to remember the overarching goal, whether that is lead generation, closing the sale or establishing thought leadership. Your white paper should move readers through the content toward the bigger picture. To ensure they make it to the paper’s conclusion, however, you need to keep your readers’ interest. Holding an audience is much more difficult when the paper is very long.
Setting the Tone
Unlike a blog, white papers need to maintain a tone that conveys thought leadership and credibility. This does not mean the writing needs to be stuffy. In general, white papers should avoid first and second person language (I, we and you respectively) in order to maintain an appropriate tone. As with all technical writing, the content should strive for accessibility. Even papers that explore more in-depth, technical topics should written clearly and concisely.
To Byline or Not to Byline
Should my white paper list an author? The simple answer to this question is, it depends. Including a byline for a well-known industry expert can absolutely strengthen both the creditability and desirability of a white paper. If your business publishes white papers frequently, this can also help establish your team’s subject matter experts and generate a regular audience, making your paper more likely to be disbursed organically.
On the other side of this, attribution to a person, rather than the company in general, may strengthen the brand of the specific author as much as, or more than, the brand of your company. While not inherently negative, the risk of losing established thought leadership due to turnover is something every company should consider before deciding on attribution.
White papers are not new, but they also aren’t going anywhere. An effective white paper can make all the difference in the continued push to gain new leads and set your brand apart from the competition. They also benefit your company as much as they benefit your audience. White papers are a long-term investment that helps persuade potential customers to choose your company. They also educate your sales reps and give them a valuable tool to close the sale.
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