The white paper developed a bit of bad reputation in recent years because, in too many circles, something much closer to a watered-down sales brochure was being passed off by the same name.
Even before then, most industries had started to adapt the whitepaper—admittedly, about as generic a name as you’ll find for anything—to suit their own needs. So, what was once a very clear, meticulous medium is now pretty much a catchall for a lot of things it isn’t.
But a white paper, when done correctly, can still be a powerful tool for a brand.
What is a whitepaper?
I’ve seen white papers described as “the academic papers of marketing content.” That creates a very specific impression for most of us, so let’s start there.
The more formal definition: It’s a persuasive, authoritative report that dissects a problem and provides a specific solution. That solution typically revolves around a certain product or methodology provided by the brand that’s presenting the white paper. But, before you start thinking, Oh, a blog post. No? A product pitch, then? It’s neither of those.
For one, the white paper is more straightforward, even a little dry. It’s grounded in evidence-based research, not catchy language that’s intended to tout a product or service as the latest and the greatest. There’s also the matter of the commitment. Where a well-pointed, creative blog post requires anywhere from a few hours to a few days, a sound white paper could run up to a few months to write.
They’re not short. A white paper should be at least several pages, and it could be as long as 40 to 50 if the topic is especially intricate. And those are dense pages. They’re thoroughly researched and loaded with references and graphics (and not the fun, entertaining kind).
Because of the level of detail and seriousness that’s required, white papers tend to be a specialized kind of writing that’s reserved for industry experts.
Who’s reading whitepapers?
Reading a whitepaper sounds like it’s about as much fun as sitting through a day-long seminar on tax code revisions, right? So, who’s reading them, then? Your peers, for one. A not-so-small function of the white paper is to establish credibility in your industry—which should be all the incentive that’s needed to be diligent in your research and not turn this into a glorified PowerPoint presentation.
If yours is a specialized industry, your white paper’s also likely to be read by your clients, current and potential, who need to better understand an operation to determine whether it’s a fit for their system. (The good news: If they’re willing to read a white paper, they’re probably already most of the way to reaching a decision.) Likewise, it could be a valuable tool for your sales team, who’s going to bear the brunt of the explanation for those clients who don’t pick up your white paper.
As with any piece of marketing, it’s critical to develop a clear idea of who you’re targeting with your white paper. In fact, once you have a topic in mind, defining your audience should be your next step. It’s too large of an investment—and its potential, too powerful—to leave any aspect to chance.