Writing a white paper

What's a White Paper, and Why Should You Get One?

Welcome to the world of content marketing

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what a white paper is, we should probably at least talk a little bit about the context here. White papers, along with other types of content like blog posts, e-books and newsletters, belong to a particular blend of strategy: content marketing. 

Content marketing has been around for quite some time; in fact, the Institute of Content Marketing suggests the oldest example of a content marketing strategy in use was back in 1672! It harks back to one of the critical features of our cultural evolution, storytelling. A brand that uses a content marketing strategy is telling us a story with each bit of content they put out. 

In case you’re wondering, there is a crucial difference between content marketing and good ol’ regular marketing – the former is meant to be educational and often creates an experience for the observer, it’s not promotional with slick call-to-actions.  

The main goal of content marketing is to provide information that is useful to people, not sell to them. That’s kind of behaviour that creates brand loyalty. Speaking of helpful information, let’s get into one of the top types of content businesses use as part of their strategies – the white paper.

What is a white paper?

The term ‘white paper’ itself is often associated with politics and government. The government uses them to propose ideas for future legislation, and even Winston Churchill put his stamp on the term by naming his June 1922 ‘The Churchill White Paper’.

But if you want a snappy, business answer, @lkolow said it best:

“A whitepaper is a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution.”

That’s not to say you should be using one to pitch your products and services to the world. Remember, we’re trying to educate and provide useful information, not to sell.

You’ll also find because of their length, density, and structure, white papers often have the feel of an academic study, albeit in the context of business. The similarity to academic work doesn’t stop there either. To truly become an authority, the authors aim behind the white paper should be to contribute new knowledge or practical tools to their industry.

Examples of a white paper

One of my favourite examples of useful white papers come from DocuSign. Being an electronic signature service, you can imagine the vast technical and legal stuff that goes on behind the scenes. DocuSign leverages their position in the market by putting out white papers on problems of privacy and technology and solutions in a wide range of industries.

Image of a Docusign white paper
Accelerating Change in Insurance Distribution Through Technology

Another great example breaking the tradition of using white papers as downloadable PDF’s is HubSpot, with their freely available online paper/blog hybrid on emerging tech for SMB’s. 

The common characteristic of an excellent white paper is that they are serving the reader and their industry, not the brand producing them. Beyond that, it’s also the ability to boil down super complex subjects (like artificial intelligence and privacy laws) to something your readers will be able to walk away from enlightened. 

 

The benefits of having a white paper

White papers have seen pretty consistent interest online throughout this year despite everything going on, judging from the Google Trends report below:

Google trends chart of white paper search queries over 12 months
Google trends chart of white paper search queries over time

Plus, given their usefulness (when done right) it’s safe to say it’s quite unlikely that white papers are going away anytime soon. With that, let’s take a look at some of the more apparent benefits to producing a white paper.

They help to demonstrate thought-leadership

Part of becoming an industry authority is the ability to demonstrate thought-leadership. By pulling up your sleeves and investing in producing original and useful research, your audience will find you much more credible. If the study itself has new findings, you also develop even further expertise.

Beyond online content not being entirely up to par, Moz.com also suggested that up to 29% of the internet is duplicate content. Producing original work then is a surefire way to elevate your brand and stand out in the crowd.

They generate leads

In 2018, the Content Marketing Institute conducted a study that found that 74% of B2B marketers used or developed long-form content (like white papers) in the previous 12 months.

Content Marketing Institute report on long-form content in 2018
Content Marketing Institute report on long-form content in 2018

Naturally, since white papers appear to be the most helpful at the consideration stages, they also help to build mailing lists. While plenty of companies charge for access to white papers, if you give them away for free via email, it’ll count towards genuinely serving your audience. After all, everyone knows list-building is super tricky if you’re not providing any upfront value right away.

They help to build relationships

Of course, building a mailing list is part of customer relationship management, but it would be remiss of me to say that your relationships as a business stop there. In the process of producing a white paper, chances are you’re going to need to talk to some outside industry experts to get a balanced view in your work. After the fact, you’ll also want to share the paper with relevant people in your industry too.

Remember, since your paper shouldn’t be a sales pitch, sharing it with your network of industry professionals can help strengthen your ties. Which, coincidentally, also helps establish your credibility and can again turn into further leads.

When you shouldn’t get one

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something potentially controversial – despite the benefits I’ve just laid out, not everyone should produce a white paper.

Going back to regular ol’ marketing strategy, you need to ask whether or not your industry would care about one. In the B2B markets, it’s fair to say the answer is usually yes, especially if the sector is tech-related. However, producing one in a B2C market is highly dependent on the industry. While it’s fun to imagine someone like a skateboard manufacturer producing a white paper intended for skateboarders about the perils of particular wood types in the building process, it would likely fall a little flat.

The key thing here is to ask yourself the following questions:

– “Who is the intended audience for a white paper?” (the more specific, the better)

– “Is a white paper the best way for us to communicate in-depth information to them?” (here you want to think about accessibility and how/why your audience accesses information the way they do)

– “Do we have the time and resources to produce one?” (think about your budget, your network, and time – white papers can take a few weeks to months to produce)

How much does a white paper cost?

If you take a shop around online for prices for a white paper, chances are you’ll see a huge price range for the service. On Fiverr, you’ll see figures anywhere between $5 and $300 generally. Though the adage “you get what you pay for” is true in this case. 

According to Don’t Do It Yourself, while it’s common for fees to range between $3,000 and $6,000, a professional white paper can at times exceed the $10,000 mark. These fees, of course, are dependent on several factors; experience, institution affiliation, topic specialism and scope of original research as well as length.

Summary

So now you know what a white paper is, and their purpose in the broader content marketing strategy, as well as how producing one can help you:

– Demonstrate industry authority
– Generate leads
– Build relationships with clients and other industry professionals

You should also have an idea about whether or not producing a white paper is the right move to make for your business based on cost, time and other resources. If you’re in the B2B SaaS industry and you’re interested in commissioning a white paper, you can check out my services for white paper writing here.

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