Is a White Paper the Best Solution?

Part 3: Ideas for building ones that work.

Once you’ve determined that a White Paper is the right solution (see Part Two of this series), you’ll want to make it as compelling as possible.  Fortunately, there are excellent online resources to help you achieve this yourself or find a skilled wordsmith to do it for you.

 All of these resources follow the same basic rules of white paper construction: 

Know your reader well.

Before you set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) you’ll need to be very clear about who your target audience is and what problems they’re facing. Of course this is the first rule for any good communication, but it bears repeating here because a White Paper is a factual document that relies primarily on the written word (and logical arguments) to engage readers rather than on the emotional language, photos, or graphics that are more typical of a marketing brochure.

In her 5 Steps to a White Paper that Pulls in the Perfect Prospect, Stephanie Tilton suggests that the best way to make a meaningful connection with your readers is to first create buyer “personas” that capture details about them:  their backgrounds, habits, activities, challenges, and concerns, as well as where and how they typically seek information to help with decisions.  With a persona in mind, it becomes much easier to choose the right language, case studies, and supporting charts, graphs, and facts that will capture and keep the reader’s interest. 

Grab attention with a persuasive title and a pithy abstract.

Knowing the reader well also helps you create a title that grabs his or her attention – and gets you noticed by Internet search engines.  Tilton suggests doing an online search using titles or topics you’re considering to see which ones show stronger results.  She also follows the 3-30-3 rule: “You have 3 seconds to grab attention, 30 seconds to engage readers, and 3 minutes to give them a strong sense of the paper’s content.” 

Supporting Tilton’s reminder that the most viewed white papers have titles that promise practical information, MarketingSherpa’s research on white paper titles found that the most popular titles were those that readers found most useful for their jobs. “They had a particular education need or vendor-shopping problem and those white paper titles promised to solve it.” 

Because “Instant affinity is key” to the success of a white paper, including a concise, compelling abstract or summary at the outset is also critical to creating an immediate bond with readers, says Michael Stelzner in his White Paper on White Papers. There’s another benefit too, he says: “By focusing on the pain points experienced by the reader and talking about the problems caused by those pains, you are establishing credibility with the reader and simultaneously filtering out unqualified customers.” 

Make the content relevant, credible, and solutions-oriented.

Once you understand what motivates the people you’re targeting, it’s easier to sort through any supporting data to identify only the information most relevant to them.  This also helps you describe the problem you’re solving and its possible solutions in their terms. Quote credible sources, including 3rd party experts, and use case studies to logically present both the problem and the solutions to keep readers highly engaged.  Use strong, active verbs (and verb tenses) and clever, but not cute, turns of phrase to create enough energy to sustain audience interest. 

Format for readability.

How long should your white paper be?  Long enough to adequately analyze the problem and suggest ways to solve it, but not so long that reader attention wavers. In The White Paper Solution, Jim Lodico suggests that between 6 and 11 pages is about right. “Longer than 11 pages and you decrease the chances the white paper will be read. Too short and the white paper will fail to provide the information needed to build rapport and connection with readers.” 

As in all good communications, the design should be clean, simple, and in sync with the content.  It also should encourage power browsing by being highly scannable – with strong, actively worded subheads, chart captions, and callout boxes, plus graphics, tables, charts, and illustrations as “entry points” for skimmers. 

End with a list of action steps.

As your high school English teacher advised, “Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” When you wrap up your white paper, always include: 1) a quick summary of the problem being solved, 2) a short list of the solutions that you covered in the body of the paper, and 3) generic next steps that will help the reader choose an appropriate course of action.  While a white paper typically doesn’t include a sales pitch, it can mention your company as a provider for one or more of the solutions. You’ll also want to provide URLs or online links to information and contacts to help readers apply what they’ve just learned. 

With all of the above to consider, it may make more sense to farm out your white paper work to a freelancer who specializes in the genre.  Not only can this give you a better, more focused product, but it can assure its speedy completion. Michael Stelzner reports that he and other professional writers take an average of 24 hours to produce a white paper vs. 46-50 hours when white papers are done in-house.  

If you do go the “hired gun” route, Jim Lodico suggests maximizing your ROI by finding a writer who:

  • is experienced in the production of white papers,
  • has a proven process in place for researching and writing them,
  • will work with you on marketing strategies,
  • offers related services such as web copy creation and PowerPoint scripts, and
  • can help you develop a plan for syndication, distribution, and lead capture.

 However you decide to build your next white paper, keeping these tips from the experts in mind will help you deliver a successful, well-read product that will provoke action AND get passed along to others.

 [This concludes my 3-part series on white papers.  View Part One and Part Two for more on the history and effectiveness of white papers in your marketing efforts.]

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