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How to Write a White Paper

Most of the firms we work with know that they should be writing white papers, but the thought of actually producing one tends to provoke more than a little anxiety — if not outright paralysis. This seems to be true even for those expert firms who are already very comfortable writing blog articles.

It makes sense. While blog posts invite a little more “of the moment” thinking, white papers are meant to stake an authoritative claim on a particular topic. Not only that, but the value proposition needs to be higher than a blog post because the white paper will be gated behind a form (meaning readers will need to consider the topic valuable enough to “pay” for it with some of their personal details). Add to all this the perception that white papers need to be extra long and scholarly, and suddenly they seem like the content marketing equivalent of a college term paper. In other words, a little intimidating and a lot difficult.

But white papers are a crucial piece of your content marketing arsenal and, with the right topic selection and a little planning, they really aren’t such a big deal to produce. To be sure, the benefits of doing so are definitely worth the effort. White papers advance your firm’s topical authority, act as powerful fuel for your outbound marketing activities, and provide an important opportunity to drive meaningful conversions on your website.

If your team is already in the practice of blogging, you’re fully capable of writing white papers. So relax. You already have the expertise. And in this article, we’ll tell you how to package that expertise in a white paper.

1. Why Should My Firm Write White Papers

2. The Structure of a White Paper

3. Selecting a White Paper Topic

4. Writing a White Paper

5. Promoting Your White Paper

6. Styling Your White Paper [DOWNLOADABLE WIREFRAME]

Why Should My Firm Write White Papers?

While any expertise-based firm can benefit from publishing white papers, they are an especially good fit for those firms that have already built up a following with their marketing and for whom readers will invest some time when consuming content. If that describes your firm, white papers can help you:

  • Diversify your content portfolio. Different types of content speak more effectively to different prospects depending on their persona, stage in the buying cycle, and preferred learning style. Having a robust mix of content types on your site ensures that you are meeting your prospects where they are and engaging them effectively over the course of their journey through the buying cycle.
  • Drive conversions that give you new insight into your prospects. Because white papers are a form of gated content — meaning that site visitors must complete a form in order to access the full piece — each form submission represents a meaningful conversion that gives you real insight into the people who choose to access this content. And because white papers tend to require a time commitment from the reader (no one’s going to get through it in two minutes), the quality of the conversion is often pretty high. A person reading your white paper is demonstrating a deep interest in the topic, so much so that they’re willing to exchange not only their information but also their time for the insight.
  • Demonstrate authority on the subjects that are most important to your business–as well as to your prospects. Because they tend to be more in-depth, white papers make a strong statement regarding your expertise and can be used to position your firm as a thought leader in areas of strategic importance.
  • Promote your thought leadership across a variety of marketing channels. White papers are high-value content, so they deserve to be well-promoted, both on your website and in your outbound marketing strategy.

The Structure of a White Paper

Unlike blog posts, white papers shouldn’t be published as freely accessible, indexable content on your website. Instead, white papers reside behind a gate (most commonly, a form) with a brief indexable abstract that is used to entice readers to access the full piece of content.

The main objective of a white paper, in addition to demonstrating topical expertise and engaging readers, is to drive conversions on your website via form submissions. These conversions are particularly valuable because they give you more information about exactly those individual prospects with a demonstrated interest in the topic covered by your white paper. Not only that, but it gives prospects a way to engage with your brand that’s a little “softer” than more direct, sales-oriented CTAs.

Note that we strongly recommend against a downloadable PDF as the primary format for your white paper. We want to do everything in our power to keep your prospects on your conversion-focused website and to preserve the insight we get through tracking the behaviors of everyone who accesses your gated content. Downloadable PDFs are in conflict with those goals, as they send the user away from the container of the website that’s been designed to foster their journey through the buying cycle. They also empower readers to forward along the PDF to others without requiring this secondary audience to visit your website and submit a form.

Instead, we recommend publishing a short (100-200 word) indexable abstract followed by the form to access the full content. When the user submits the form, the rest of the content is released inside of the existing web page on the site. From this page, the reader can not only consume the full content, but they can also engage with the site in other ways through your main navigation and sidebar CTA’s. ​​

Selecting a White Paper Topic

Because white papers are so focused on form submissions, topic ideation is especially important for this content type. You want your white paper topics to grab the attention of your readers and compel them to submit the form to access the full asset. The more your white paper topic can speak to the interests and perceived needs of your prospects, the better it’s likely to perform. Broadly speaking, successful white paper topics:

  • Demonstrate your firm’s authority on a key area of your expertise
  • Speak directly to the needs or interests of your firm’s prospects
  • Are broad enough to engage a wide swath of your prospects (and to merit in-depth coverage)
  • Are solution-oriented, offering specific guidelines or recommendations that are practically applicable by readers in your target audience
  • Are truly educational, not a sales pitch in disguise

If you’re feeling stumped, it may help to start with a list of your firm’s core offerings or competencies. Next, make a list of your prospects’ major pain points as they relate to your firm. Don’t forget to consider prospects’ pain points from their own perspective. How would your prospects describe their problem? How would they pose the question in a Google search? The answers to these questions should help you arrive at some valuable possibilities for white paper topics.

Don’t forget to spend some time crafting an attention-grabbing headline for your white paper. Remember, the headline and the abstract are your chance to sell readers on the white paper itself, so make it count.

Writing Your White Paper

In terms of the writing itself, it may help ease your jitters to think of a white paper as an in-depth blog post with some added bells and whistles. When it comes down to it, the differences between a white paper and a blog post have more to do with topic selection and packaging than the writing process itself — or even your writing style. (So don’t make the mistake that white papers have to be dry and scholarly where blog posts are lively and conversational.)

There’s a stigma with this type of content that it requires much more time to produce than a standard blog post. This doesn’t always have to be true. In many cases, a white paper’s topic is more expansive than a typical blog post. Often that means that a white paper’s word count will be higher than that of a blog, but the length of a white paper should ultimately be determined by the needs of the chosen topic.

Bottom line? There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the length of white papers. Remember, the meat of a white paper is hidden by a form and therefore won’t be indexable by Google. So, while we recommend that blog posts come in at no fewer than 700-1000 words, white papers are free from length requirements. There are plenty of white papers that are clear and concise and don’t look particularly longer than a blog. ​

Other than that, all the usual rules for writing strong content apply. Make sure your writing is focused and clear. Avoid long paragraphs. Optimize the text for scannability by breaking it up with subheads and bulleted lists wherever appropriate.

Feel free to give extra attention to the layout design and graphics of your white paper–but don’t labor under the misconception that white papers need to have extra-slick design in order to be successful. And definitely don’t let unnecessary design considerations get in the way of getting the job done.

Finally, you’ll need to write an indexable abstract that quickly describes what the white paper will be about and why it’s valuable to your reader. Don’t let this important piece of your white paper be an afterthought. Remember: this is your big chance to convince the reader that your white paper is worth the price of admission. The copy should be intriguing and engaging–and it should also explain exactly what readers will learn from the full white paper.

A few considerations regarding your white paper abstract:

  • ​Brevity is key. Keep it to 150-200 words max. Much longer than that and it starts to look like a typical blog post. Not only does that mean you’re probably giving away too much information for “free,” but the reader might miss the fact that there’s a form on the page.
  • ​​Bulleted lists are helpful. Readers like to scan. Summarize what they’ll learn in the white paper in a few bullets to help them quickly discern whether the content will be valuable and relevant to their interests.

Promoting Your White Paper

Now comes the fun part: promotion. We could write a separate article about how to promote your white paper. In lieu of that, here are four quick tips to consider when preparing to promote your white paper:

  • Tell people what they’ll learn. Whether you’re promoting via email, a social channel, a paid advertisement, or through your website, always lead with what’s valuable about this asset for the reader.
  • Consider personalized outreach. Of course you’ll want to share your white paper on all of your typical platforms (email, social, website, etc…). But can you think of a small list of prospects who might find particular value in this asset? Consider a more personalized campaign in which you send this white paper to them outside of the mass promotion and call their attention to the area of the asset where they’ll derive the most value.
  • Don’t abandon a conversation you started. If you’re planning on sharing your white paper on social platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook, do so in a way that encourages conversation on those platforms about this piece of insight. That’s what social channels are for: connection and conversation. And if you do successfully spark a dialogue about your white paper, don’t forget to participate in it! Avoid publishing to your social channel and never checking back in on what may have become a pretty interesting conversation you should be a part of.
  • Remember, your white paper has a long shelf life. The beautiful thing about producing white papers is that they can be promoted many times beyond the initial campaign. Don’t forget to revisit your white papers after a few months and re-promote them to your audience and share again on your social channels.

There’s a lot to consider when putting together a white paper. But if you follow the steps we’ve outlined, you’ll find that producing a white paper isn’t such a big deal, after all. And once you start investing in this important content type, you’ll see that the benefits of doing so are well worth the effort.

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