White papers are ideal for providing your audience with an abundance of straightforward information without overhyped marketing language and sales pitches. And because there’s no predetermined format — white papers come in all shapes and sizes — you can tailor the document to meet your needs.
The challenges of writing a white paper, of course, are the same as the benefits: White papers are large, in-depth and undefined. But don’t worry. Follow these seven steps, and you’ll be done in no time. (For a more detailed guide complete with prompts, download our white paper workbook.)
1. Define your target audience.
As a marketer, you’re used to writing for a specific audience. But don’t just assume the status quo here. Your target audience for a white paper may be slightly different from or more specific than the audience(s) you typically write for.
For example, if you’re a university, you likely typically produce content for numerous audiences, including high schoolers and their parents. But who’s more likely to read an eight-page missive on the state of in-state education? Certainly not the students. (Of course, a well-designed infographic might be perfect for them!)
Then again, maybe a white paper would serve each of your audiences, but they have different needs and perspectives. You may need more than one version.
Let’s say you’re selling a piece of software that’s specific to doctors’ offices, and you have identified two key decision-making audiences you want to market to: physician stakeholders/owners and office managers. Your content needs to speak to these individuals and their pain points. Sometimes that can be done in a single piece of content. Sometimes it can’t. Better to explore these thoughts now than later.
2. Analyze your sales cycle and funnel.
While white papers are comprehensive, they shouldn’t cover too much or no one will read them. So you’ll need to narrow your focus a bit, and you’ll want to do so in line with your sales funnel. First, you’ll want to determine where in the sales cycle your target audience is.
Let’s say you’re trying to get middle-school educators to use your virtual grade book. If you know they’ve already adopted the concept of the online grade book, you can focus on educating them on how your product is different from others. But if they’ve never heard of an online grade book, you have to start by convincing them to give up their pen and paper grade books. And you’ll need to target those individuals higher up in the sales funnel.
Does this mean you might need more than one white paper per product/solution you sell?
Yes. Depending on where they are in the sales funnel, prospects will seek out different kinds of information. And if you aren’t providing the information they need at that moment, they will most certainly find someone who is — and that might be a competitor.
3. Establish an educational goal.
The first goal of your white paper is NOT to sell. In fact, at the end of your white paper, you likely won’t even have a “Buy Now” link. The goal is to educate.
So consider what it is you want to teach your audience. A few examples include:
- How Widget X works
- How Widget X is different from similar widgets on the market
- How Widget X can solve a particular problem
- What should be considered when calculating the lifetime cost of Widget X
4. Determine your approach and content.
Now it’s time to determine what you want to say. Begin by determining an approach, also called an angle. Some examples of angles for white papers on content marketing include:
- Backgrounder/overview (Ex: How Content Marketing Is Changing the Way We Sell)
- Describe a solution to a problem (Ex: Using White Papers to Help Sell Complex Products)
- Provide additional details/how-to (Ex: 7 Steps to a Winning White Paper)
Then, break down the points you plan to make and map out your content in an outline. Trust us, this step will save you soooo much time later.
5. Gather your sources.
A white paper is only as good as the data and analysis you include. And for most companies, the person writing the white paper is NOT an authority on the product/solution. If you’re hiring a writer, you’ll need to work together to identify key sources. Scan your organization’s content archive or blog for anything that’s already been written on your subject and conduct online research. Then, fill in the gaps and get insight by interviewing internal subject matter experts, third-party industry experts and perhaps clients.
6. Consider visuals.
Even readers who are hungry for a lot of information don’t want all of it to be in word form. Once you’ve done your research and spoken with your experts, you now have a better idea of the information you want to communicate to your prospects. Which tidbits might be best communicated visually? Can you use charts, illustrations or infographics to convey difficult-to-understand concepts? Can you highlight stats and numbers in an interesting way or assemble a timeline? Start working with your designer now to get these elements in the works so they can be ready in time for layout.
That’s right. The actual writing process is one of your last steps. Using everything you’ve done to this point, it’s time to crank out a first draft. And if you are smart about your upfront planning, it will be easier than you think.
Target about eight pages (roughly 350 to 400 words per page) to start. Don’t forget to edit (better yet, hire a copyeditor), and be sure to allow your sources (and any key internal stakeholders) the opportunity to review. Once you’re happy with the copy, it’s time to let your graphic designer do his or her job. A final proofread (we recommend a professional here, too) and it’s time to post and let your marketing team do their work.
Now, you get to sit back and await your kudos. Just kidding … It’s time to start the next one.
White paper checklist
What does it take to write a white paper that performs? Be sure to do these things:
- Narrow down your audience.
- Align your topic with where your readers are in the sales cycle.
- Establish a goal for your white paper. (Hint: Start with, “to educate our audience on…”)
- Create an outline. The more detailed, the better.
- Pull source content from internal archives and conduct online research.
- Identify and interview subject matter experts.
- Brainstorm ways to communicate difficult-to-understand concepts visually.
- Write, write, write, aiming for about eight pages or 3,000 words.