Writing a white paper seems daunting, so you might wonder if it’s worth it. This common B2B content marketing asset is certainly among the most impressive. But, as a B2B marketer, you might ask if an easier-to-create ebook or infographic will help you reach your objectives just as well. This blog article should help you answer this question.
Is it time for you to write a white paper?
The most common sectors for white papers are finance, government, consulting, and technology sectors. If you’re a marketer in these areas, you’re probably familiar with white papers, but may not have created one yourself. If you’re in a field where white papers aren’t typical, but there is little information about complicated industry topics, it’s worth knowing more about them. The question remains, is writing a white paper a good marketing investment?
If you’re familiar with the term white paper, but don’t really know what one is, we can start there.
What is a White Paper?
White papers are “deep dive” reports or guides that educate readers on a very specific topic, related challenges, and potential solutions. This type of long-form content often takes a particular position that guides the reader to a desired conclusion—for example, that a product like yours (but not necessarily yours) will be the most beneficial for them. White papers are similar to a comprehensive ebook, but are often more technical, have greater depth, and are backed by credible research and visualized data from reliable sources.
Many B2B marketers use white papers as a pre-sales tool to prospect, identify, and nurture quality leads. According to a survey by DemandGen, 71% of B2B buyers had used white papers in the previous 12 months to research purchasing decisions. But—and this is critical–while a white paper can influence sales, they should not be written as promotional pieces focused on your own brand or product.
Building Authority and Trust Converts Leads—and Moves Them Closer to Purchase.
Building Trust is a Top Priority.
While it’s true that white papers aren’t promotional in the typical sense, that doesn’t mean they don’t support the goals of both marketing and sales. Among all the reasons to create a white paper, the most common is to build a perception of thought leadership and expertise on a topic of interest. The more you position yourself as a trusted advisor and expert, the sooner your prospects will build familiarity and positive rapport with your brand.
According to LinkedIn’s State of Sales 2017 report, respondents reported trust as the number-one factor when closing a deal. While pricing and ROI are important, many B2B companies place more value on stable, reliable relationships with companies that will conduct their business fairly. When you publish an authoritative, problem-solving white paper, it helps reinforce the association of those qualities with your brand.
Further,white papers don’t just educate and build trust; they also persuade—without the perception of selling. 83 percent of respondents in Eccolo Media’s B2B Technology Content Survey reported they found white papers to be moderate to extremely influential in their purchasing decisions. The number one most persuasive and unique form of white paper is one that publishes the results of original research. These white papers can cut through the noise, increase your perceived authority, and give you an edge over your competitors—as long as they are high-quality and relevant to your audience.
Get More Leads and More Data for Sales Support.
In DemandGen’s survey, 75% of B2B buyers stated that they would share information about themselves and their organization in exchange for a white paper—more than ebooks, case studies, analyst reports, podcasts, and infographics. That means more leads. Further, the leads generated by white papers deliver higher quality leads, according to 35% of respondents in The Lenskold Group’s Lead Generation Marketing ROI Study.
White papers are truly the stars of content marketing in another sense. Even beyond more leads and better leads, you can get more data about these high-quality leads. A lead might give you their email address to download an infographic or ebook—but typically not much more. However, you can potentially collect much more data—such as name, title, company, and phone number—from a white paper that promises greater value. This is especially true if you are already a known and respected brand. This data is a bonanza for your sales force.
White Papers Provide Support Throughout the Purchasing-Decision Cycle.
Studies show that marketers think that white papers are very effective at moving prospects through the marketing funnel. The graphic below shows the perceived performance of white papers as compared to other types of content assets.
Top of the Funnel: Readers will often read a white paper at the “top of the marketing funnel,” or the awareness stage, when they are beginning their research into a solution to their business problem. When a potential customer reads your white paper early on, they will be more receptive to your content and messages throughout the purchase cycle—through the sales decision (as long as your white paper is high-quality).
Middle of the Funnel: White papers aren’t only valuable at the top of the funnel, though. The Eccolo Media study revealed that 76% of respondents had read a white paper to help them evaluate a technology purchase in the six months prior to the survey—more than case studies, videos, and audio. When reading at this stage in decision making, white papers can influence readers as they choose a product category, compare the value of products within a category, and evaluate product options. Salespeople can also use white papers to further engage potential customers.
Preparation is Essential to Getting Results.
Writing a white paper is a big undertaking. If you’ve never written one before, there are a lot of details to nail down, even before you start with the real copywriting. This preparation is not only vital to developing an effective paper, but it will also make your job a lot easier in the long run. The potential power of a white paper only becomes reality when it delivers on the promise of being a valuable resource to the reader. The key element of providing value is to know your audience and then to answer a pressing question that they have.
Know Who You Are Writing For.
White papers should be addressed to narrow audiences who are highly motivated to read about your topic. You will need to focus on discussion points and data they find interesting, relevant, and persuasive. If you don’t understand what makes your audience tick, you won’t be able to determine how to what elements are important—and your white paper is likely going to sink.
Knowing your audience, beyond basic demographics, will impact every aspect of how a writer develops a white paper. For example, you would:
- Provide more background information for people with less knowledge of your topic.
- Focus on bottom-line results for a decision-making executive who may not be a technical expert.
- Concentrate on proof of technical excellence and innovation for a subject matter expert.
- Discuss resolutions to different pain points, depending on what information will help make your desired reader successful.
If your understanding of the audience is vague, it might be helpful to create a buyer persona, which represents your ideal customer and the target audience you want to reach.
In addition to establishing your “voice,” defining your audience will narrow the scope of your research, guide you toward relevant proof points, and determine the angle you want to take. For digital consumption, it will help your strategy on how to optimize, distribute, and promote your white paper.
Find Out What They Want to Know.
Once you have a good understanding of your potential customer, you’ll be in a better position to choose a topic that matters to them. To choose your topic, look at the intersection between their business problems, your areas of expertise, and solutions your brand can offer. You will get the most readership if you can fill a gap in available content and provide unique information, such as a report on original research. In addition to writing about an area of expertise and filling a knowledge gap, you will align the topic with your brand, products, and services. In this way, you’ll create a white paper that serves both your audience and your marketing objectives.
In choosing your topic, some areas to consider include:
- What are their top and most pressing business challenges?
- What solutions does my company offer to help them address their key business issues?
- What areas of perceived expertise do we want to build or reinforce?
The Steps to Writing Your White Paper
You’ve done some good preparation for developing the essence of your white paper. You’ve drilled down on who your audience is and you’ve selected a topic in which your brand has expertise and solutions. Now it’s time to start the writing process.
Your First Steps Will Help You Focus Your Topic.
Write Your Executive Summary:
An executive summary is similar to a movie trailer. It provides a taste of the paper, is easy to digest, and entices the reader to continue reading. It should clearly state the paper’s purpose, what the reader should expect to learn, and why they should care. Executive summaries can be as short several hundred words but, depending on the length, nature of the paper, and the audience, it can run anywhere from one to four pages. While most marketers do the executive summary after the paper is written, I like to draft it at the start—then edit it later. This helps me clarify the topic, the proper angle to take, and the supporting data I’ll need.
Conduct Initial Research:
A strong white paper is based on facts and research—not opinions that lack proof. At the least, do a Google search and get data from highly reputable sources, such as a government agency, an industry association, or a consulting group like Forrester or Gartner. You can also use insights from your own company data. You can gather basic data at this pre-writing stage, and then conduct more research later if you need more data to make your point.
The most authoritative research of all, the type that can take your white paper over the top, is original research—in partnership with a credible research group. Original research, often in the form of a survey, is time-consuming and often costly. However, it is the best way to establish your thought-leadership, authority, and credible resource for information they may need in the future. It’s also one of the top ways to get social shares.
Keep Focused with a Well-Developed Outline.
As with any type of long-form content, you want to stay tightly focused on your topic.Creating a well-developed outline will help you in all stages of developing your paper—research, preparation, writing, and editing. This multi-step process front-loads your effort, helps you stay on track, and saves you time in the long run.
1. Draft Your Headline: As with any type of long-form content, you want to stay tightly focused on your topic.Creating a well-developed outline will help you in all stages of developing your paper—research, preparation, writing, and editing. This multi-step process front-loads your effort, helps you stay on track, and saves you time in the long run.
- Establish a clear benefit that indicates why they should care.
- Include a number or statistic.
- Use a strong action verb.
- Take a professional tone.
- Set realistic expectations about what the paper includes.
2. Subheads: Your subheads are all about flow; they should make your paper easier to read, scan, and guide the reader toward the information that is most important to them. Like your headline, your subheads don’t need to be final in the outline stage, but they should provide a clear idea of what your paper will include. Under each subhead, include bullet points about what you’ll discuss within each section—making sure that each bullet point is highly focused and relates to what that section covers.
3. Intro: Like the executive summary, the intro should entice your reader to dive deeper into your paper. Specifically, it should summarize the main points the paper covers, what they can expect to learn, why it matters, and how they will benefit from the information presented.
3. Conclusion: Summarize the key takeaways in an objective but persuasive manner.
4. Outro: Here’s where you connect the paper’s content with your “ask.” Determine your call-to-action— what you want your audience to feel, think, or do as a result of reading your paper. Your paper’s goal may be to create brand awareness and the perception of your brand’s authority. Or, you may want them to call you, click on a link for more resources, or go to a product page. Your paper should avoid self-promotion, but your outro can mention relevant product offerings and how to obtain them—without the hard-sell.
5. Images: Will you have data or ideas that would be best presented visually? It’s often helpful to determine this early on, especially if you’ll need a designer’s help creating them.
Write Your Story.
You’ve already done a lot of the heavy lifting. You have gotten to know your audience, chosen a topic, completed your initial research, and fleshed out a focused outline. Finally, it’s time to present your information.
Make it Interesting. Yes, white papers should be unbiased and based on factual information. But that doesn’t mean they have to be boring. Like all good writing, it should tell a story in a way that is relevant and meaningful. Here are some helpful tips for writing a top-notch story:
- Provide a narrative that keeps readers engaged and compels them to keep moving onto the next section.
- Set up your problem, then elaborate on the pros and cons of various solutions.
- Be descriptive. Show how they can apply factual data to the real world.
- Provide mini-case studies and success stories. You can also pepper in some brief horror stories describing why certain actions can lead them down the wrong path.
- Use design elements to create visual interest and highlight key points.
- Point your readers to additional resources that will help them in their decision-making process, especially resources that you can provide to them.
Establish a Clear Process for Creating Your White Paper.
White papers can be a nightmare without a clear process, especially in larger organizations. If your process is fuzzy, I can virtually guarantee that you will be spending a huge chunk of time rewriting and editing—and getting more and more frustrated. Writing a white paper is already challenging, but a definitive process will help it go as smoothly as possible, and may even help you achieve better results.
Most likely, your white paper is some type of group effort with at least several stakeholders. You may need the involvement of sales, researchers, key decision-makers, and people from various other functions and layers of management. This will make the editing process for a white paper different than the process you use for promotional materials, blog articles, web pages, and other content assets. This means you might experience difficulties getting everyone’s buy-in, making process decisions, sticking to schedules, and getting approvals at various points in the process—especially getting final approval.
These sorts of complexities are why it’s important to define how to proceed organizationally at every stage. Below are some key process issues, and there may be others depending on your organization:
- Do all stakeholders agree on the marketing objective?
- Are tasks clearly assigned to specific people?
- Does your schedule include clear deadlines?
- Who needs to have input on the content?
- What is the review and approval process?
- Who is the final decision maker?
Edit, Edit, Then Edit Some More.
Having a clear process for your white paper will cut down on potential confusion and obstacles. Still, you can expect a beefy white paper to go through at least several rounds of editing. Make sure to build this into your schedule.
Editing goes well beyond making sure your spelling and punctuation are correct. When reviewing your first draft, you’ll undoubtedly find holes and inconsistencies, and there will be areas that need to be added, cut, shortened, re-organized, or fact-checked. However, if you faithfully followed the previous steps, you will spend less time editing than if you hadn’t prepared.
As you review the paper, ask yourself the following questions:
- Have you provided a comprehensive answer to the anticipated questions a reader might have?
- Are you missing any vital information?
- Have you double-checked facts, statistics, and sources for accuracy?
- Is your paper easy for your target audience to read and understand?
- Is your paper free from bias and hype, with the proper professional tone and language?
- Is your paper a high-quality asset that will drive traffic, conversion, and high-quality leads?
Beyond the Copy: Other White Paper Performance Factors
While high-quality copy is necessary to achieve the marketing goals you have set for your white paper, other factors will go a long way toward its success. Three of these factors include design, gating, and promotion.
People are highly visual beings, so design counts:
The quality of your writing is paramount, but it’s not the only thing that drives the success of a white paper. If you have overall responsibility for your white paper, you also need to be concerned about the design element—which is significant to the readability and performance of your white paper. Here are just a few design points to consider, whether you are designing the paper yourself or will be handing it off to a designer:
- Does the design elevate the reader’s experience?
- Is the information formatted in a way that is easy to read, scan, digest, and remember?
- Will the typography, color choices, and other visual elements enhance readability and visual appeal?
- Is the white paper appropriately branded?
- Does the visual information emphasize key points?
- Is factual data back up by graphs, charts, or other visual elements?
- Is the design appropriate for all devices—desktop computers, laptops, and mobile?
- Is the design available on in PDF format, or is it presented using responsive design that adapts to the mobile devices that now represent 50% of all internet traffic?
To Gate or Not to Gate:
Gating refers to how accessible you make your content to the public. You can fully gate your content, semi-gate your content, or leave it open (ungated). As shown in the diagram above, and described below, Your choice depends on your marketing objectives:
- Fully Gated Content: Fully gated content requires that the lead provides information in exchange for access to the white paper. This content won’t contribute to SEO, but it will provide you with the most highly qualified leads. Gating your content can also help you understand what’s important to different segments of your audience and to better segment your audience based on their interests and levels of engagement. If your content is perceived as highly valuable, especially if you have high engagement on ungated material or are a well-respected brand, fully gating your content may be a good choice.
- Ungated Content: This model provides open access to anyone who wants the content—without asking for any contact information or personal details. This is a good idea if your audience is skeptical about your marketing tactics (how you will use their information) if you want to build general brand awareness, and to build up SEO, organic traffic, and social shares.
- Semi-Gated Content: This technique starts by repurposing your white paper into multiple types of ungated content—perhaps blog articles, infographics, or a short ebook. These materials serve to build up your audience’s awareness and trust in your brand. You can promote your gated white paper on your ungated content with a “download your white paper” CTA. After all, you know these people are already familiar with your brand and interested in your area of expertise. With this combined approach, you can get the benefits of both SEO and lead generation.
Promote Your White Paper For Success.
Now you have completed your white paper, with quality writing and design elements. Plus, you’ve decided what type of access will best meet your marketing objectives. Now you need to let people know about your awesome new content!
Promoting content is an enormous subject, so I will briefly say that if you don’t properly promote your white paper, you squander the opportunity to leverage it for brand awareness, thought-leadership, and leads. Some basic ways to promote your white paper include:
- “Earned Media,” such as producing press releases
- Getting visibility, in media/publications that your audience follows
- Generating interest among influencers who can amplify content
- Introducing it to forums and groups on LinkedIn and other social platforms
- Announcing its availability to existing contacts through an email or newsletter
- Generating buzz through social media
White Papers Are a Powerful Content Marketing Tool
If content is king, a high-quality white paper is the king of content. All businesses need a variety of content for multiple audiences at all stages of the purchase journey. Your white paper can be a powerful tool in generating awareness, authority, and leads—but only if it’s a high-quality asset that delivers value.
If you need help writing a clearly written, well-researched, and high-quality white paper, Boston-based Westebbe Marketing can help you get the results you need to meet your marketing objectives. Contact us today!