How to Write a Great White Paper that Generates Quality Leads
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How to Write a Great White Paper that Generates Quality Leads

Main image for blog post on how to write great white papers

You’re a B2B marketer and you have an expensive service or product. If you’ve been using social media but you’re not getting the quality leads you want, it might be time to write a great white paper.

A white paper is a long, persuasive article (about four to ten pages) that examines a problem of substantial interest to your target audience, and positions your company as the solution. It doesn’t have to be technical, but at the very least, it requires research, citations and interviews.

First, let’s get a few things straight:

1. White papers are not the same as ebooks.

eBooks tend to have a lighter tone, while white papers usually have a higher degree of research behind them, according to HubSpot and therefore a more serious, business-like approach. In fact, HubSpot dubs white papers as the “academic papers of marketing content.”

2. White papers are not dead.

Au contraire! Gordon Graham, also known as “That White Paper Guy,”  gave an in-depth interview on HuffPo to dispel the myth that the white paper is gasping its final breath. And there’s plenty of research (keep reading) to back him up.

3. White papers don’t have to be dull and boring.

If you think engaging content refers only to blogs, videos and infographics, think again. Sure, white papers may take more effort than composing a tweet, but they can be a compelling read and a fantastic addition to your arsenal of marketing collateral, both online and in print.

Now, before you commit to the time and resources of producing a white paper, you probably want to know one more thing…

How Effective Are White Papers?

White papers can be extremely effective when it comes to lead generation.

The 2018 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends—North America report by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI)  shows that  ebooks and white papers — along with email and LinkedIn — are considered the most effective at helping B2B marketers achieve their specific objectives.

The report also reveals that white papers are one of the top six most preferred tactics for B2B marketers:

CMI data supports the importance of knowing how to write a great white paper

Graphic courtesy of the report of the Content Marketing Institute’s 2018 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends—North America report.

In the 2015 Lead Flow That Helps You Grow report by the Chief Marketing Officer Council, white papers rank third (78 percent) in the amount of content created by the marketers surveyed (after product brochures and slide presentations), yet they rise to first place (24 percent) when it comes to delivering great leads:

Data from CMO Council for blog post on how to write a great white paper

Graphic courtesy of Lead Flow That Helps You Flow white paper from the CMO Council.

And the 2018 TechTarget Media Consumption Report, which analyzes thr types of content IT purchasing teams use to decide on vendors, finds that white papers are the most effective media type, after product literature, in the early stage of the buying process:

Tech Target image for blog posto on how to write great white papers

Graphic courtesy of the 2018 Tech Target Media Consumption Report.

Of course, it’s not just reports that state that white papers work. Luth Research, a leading marketing research company, has enjoyed success in generating qualified leads by promoting white papers, according to Janeen Hazel, the firm’s director of marketing.

“That success comes from offering the right content and finding the right digital avenues to promote the white paper,” she says.

For example, Luth Research promoted a white paper through Adweek magazine. The firm knew that its topic—millennials and social media—would interest a large portion of its target audience. And the data proved her right. Adweek informed her that the white paper had received the most clicks of any email campaign that year.

“Since we focused on a topic that would appeal to many, we were successful in promoting a white paper and therefore generating qualified leads for our sales team,” Hazel says.

Tips on How to Write a Great White Paper

There are a number of ways to ensure your white paper is an effective tactic in your marketing plan. Like any other piece of content, it has to focus on the primary needs of your targeted audience. But there’s much more to it than that.

1. Solve your client’s biggest problem

If you’ve read white papers, you’ve probably seen that they vary in terms of content and style.

However, the intent of a white paper is to pinpoint a problem that’s particularly vexing to your target audience and demonstrate not only that you understand their problem, but that your company has the solution.

Those two aspects — an issue of high interest to your audience that can be best solved by you — are the two pillars of great white paper topics, according to Steve Slaunwhite, best-selling author and “Copywriting Smarts” blogger.

For Janeen Hazel, it’s a similar story. Luth Research uses white papers as a call to action in its advertising campaigns, as press opportunities and as added value for existing clients. The content must be relevant to the specific audience the firm is targeting.

“It is very important that our white papers focus on how the data we are reporting can apply to a handful of industries,” she says. “We are careful to point out in every white paper the ‘how’ and ‘why’ this data is important to the reader.”

If you’re considering a white paper, keep in mind who you’re writing it for and why it matters to them.

You may have what you think is the greatest white paper topic ever, or your CEO may want to expand on his or her favorite subject, but if it doesn’t speak to the needs of your potential client, then it’s time to have another brainstorming session.

2. Present unbiased information

Good white papers will give your potential clients more detailed information about an issue without overtly selling your product.

Even if the white paper uses someone from your company as the primary source to show them as a thought leader, you should avoid talking only about your product. Instead, do your research and back it up by doing the following:

  • Cite reports or studies from other organizations or institutions.
  • Offer data that supports your claim.
  • Quote different sources.
  • Include a case study or two if you have them.

While the white paper is definitely a marketing tool, it is presented as offering unbiased and objective information, so your product or service is only mentioned generically, if at all.

Good white papers will introduce the solution in one of several ways:

  • Towards the end: Introduces the solution within the white paper, but several pages in, after the topic has been thoroughly dissected and fortified with data and sourced material.
  • The “About Us” paragraph: Provides a paragraph at the end of the white paper describing the company that produced the white paper and what solution it provides. This is often the company boilerplate.
  • The inside back cover or back page of the white paper: Uses the last page to display the logo of the company that provided the white paper and indicates how to contact the company for more information.

It’s a fine line. You want to make it clear that you have the solution your customers are looking for, but you don’t want to beat them over the head with it.

In a 2014 Q&A, The Role of White Papers in a Paperless World, Michele Lin of the Content Marketing Institute offers sound advice to the American Marketing Association:

“Good enough is often not good enough in this world of too much content, so white papers that are thinly veiled product pitches or those that could be published just as easily by your competitors aren’t effective, and I’d like to think that they never have been.”

An Eccolo Media white paper from 2009, A White Paper on White Papers, advises something similar:

“Purchasers expect to get product information from a brochure or datasheet, not from a white paper. Marketers risk annoying their targets if white papers bug them with that same information.”

In the Lead Flow That Helps You Grow report mentioned earlier, the CMO Council studied the effectiveness of different types of content, from product brochures and slide presentations to white papers and videos.

What remained true for all of them was this: “Buyers also have a very clear message for content marketing professionals: objectivity, thought leadership and neutrality trump all else.”

3. Use a graphic designer

Since you’ve invested the time and money in creating a white paper, you’ll need to make it shine in the design phase.

This is not the time to go “casual Friday.” You want to dress up this content and present it as professionally as possible.

Even if the content is terrific, your audience may not give it a second glance if the design is amateurish.

It’s also a long document, so break up the text as you would a web page and make it more readable by using some of the following:

  • Strong images
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Bulleted lists
  • Short paragraphs
  • Graphs for data
  • Pull quotes
  • White space

As an example, here’s a page from a white paper on energy efficiency in the private sector in the U.K. that uses strong images, white space and graphics:

White paper example for blog post on how to write a great white paper

You can  download the entire white paper here, but you’ll have to provide your email address to do so.

Here’s another example from LifeMed ID that shows data presented in a graph, a research citatation, short paragraphs and headings:

Another white paper example for blog post on how to write a great white paper

You can access the entire white paper without providing your email address on the Orange Hook website.

4. Deliver quality content

This may seem obvious. Why would anyone produce a piece of content that wasn’t good? But in the rush to feed the insatiable content beast, some folks pull stuff out of the oven before it’s ready to serve.

Michele Lin of the Content Marketing Institute puts it simply: “I would like to see marketers focus more on creating fewer but exceptional white papers and then truly putting a strong promotional plan behind them.”

Maybe you can live with a less-than-amazing blog post or tweet, but your audience has higher expectations for a white paper.

Why?

  1. It’s long…ish: A white paper is anywhere from four to ten pages. Readers are taking time out of their day to consume this content. It better be high quality.
  2. It’s taken seriously: A white paper includes research, citations, and often interviews. Remember, it’s the “academic paper of marketing content.” It can’t be a hack job. It better be professionally written.
  3. It promises a solution: A white paper is expected to examine a problem your audience faces and then offer a solution. It better deliver.
  4. It’s usually gated content. Your potential clients know that providing an email address to download a white paper will place them on a distribution list, yet they’re willing to tolerate that in order to read your white paper. They’ve given you valuable information. You better do the same.

What If Your White Paper Topic Isn’t Technical?

There was a time when white papers were used only to explain highly technical data to a technical audience.

They are still the second most-consumed content by customers who are considering a technology purchase, according to Eccolo Media’s 2015 B2B Technology Content Survey Report, Vol. 2.

But now white papers are written primarily for business decision makers in all sorts of industries.

A quick search for white papers shows results from finance and healthcare staffing, education, recruiting and leadership training. So the answer is no. A white paper doesn’t have to be about software.

How to Repurpose Your White Paper

White papers aren’t cheap — you’ll most likely spend $2,000-$5,000 for a white paper. They require more time to produce because you’ll need to do research, find sources and conduct interviews. They’re also longer, often starting at a minimum of 2,000 words.

And, unlike blog posts, most white papers are available for download as PDFs, which means you need a designer to make the copy look good and incorporate your branding.

So if you’re going to spend that much money producing a white paper, you might as well find a way to repurpose it.

Eccolo Media’s White Paper on White Papers offers this advice:

“Stop thinking of the white paper as an airtight entity that must be consumed in a particular way. Think of it instead as a succession of value-added copy blocks — thought-leadership nuggets that can be lifted wholesale from the white paper and repurposed for maximum sales enablement.”

1. Break down the copy

Here’s how you can slice and dice your white paper into other types of collateral:

  • Blog posts: Break the white paper down into smaller chunks for several blog posts and link those back to the white paper.
  • Webinars: Turn it into a webinar for potential clients.
  • Infographics: Take the statistics cited in your white paper and present them in a new way.
  • Tweets: Pull out good quotes or intriguing numbers from your white paper and craft a ton of tweets.

Another interesting idea from Eccolo Media shows how a white paper can help support your sales team: “If a paragraph in your white paper speaks to a particularly potent business challenge, distribute that paragraph to your salespeople so that it can be included in sales decks, demo scripts, or emails.”

2. Keep it whole, but distribute it differently

Your white paper can also be distributed in other ways besides the classic “email for white paper” lead-generation exchange.

  • Tradeshow takeaway: White papers are designed to be presentable in print. Put a nice cover on them and provide them as takeaways at tradeshows or conferences.
  • Sales call leave-behinds: After a sales call, your salespeople could leave your white paper with your potential client.
  • SlideShare: Turn the white paper into a slide presentation and put it on SlideShare, as Jason Miller, senior content marketing manager at LinkedIn, suggests in his Social Media Examiner blog post, How to Use SlideShare to Generate Leads. Slideshare has 80 million visitors, and 80% of the come through targeted search, according to LinkedIn.

Find a Writer for Your White Paper

If you’ve decided to move ahead with a white paper, you need a writer. You can always try tasking a writer in your own marketing department to write the white paper, if he or she has the time.

Or you can hire a freelance writer to do it for you. You can certainly contact me (shameless plug) or you can follow this advice: Practical Tips to Finding Freelance Content Writers

Once you find a writer you think has potential, ask for writing samples.

Even if the writer has never written a white paper before, if he or she is familiar with your industry, or has written long articles or case studies that are engaging and required research and interviews, then you may have a match.

Now go produce that exceptional white paper!

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Bonnie Nicholls
Bonnie Nicholls is a freelance writer, content creator and consultant specializing in white papers, case studies, and articles. She supports industries such as health, energy and Agile/Scrum.