Lengthy, rigorous and sometimes daunting, it’s fair to say that white papers may not be as captivating as your Instagram account, or as accessible as your blog output. What they can do, however, is provide a level of detail and expertise that really enable businesses to command their niche.
But seeing as most startup teams don’t usually consist of an in house white paper expert, they often require a bit of direction when writing one. That’s why we’ve written this article to help you refine your process when writing a white paper. And the more refined your process, the quicker you can unleash the finished product, build your authority and capture more leads!
1. Decide what type of white paper you’re writing
Not all white papers are the same, far from it in fact! However it’s useful to categorize them so you can understand the main types that companies produce. There are varying definitions out there, but we think this is the most useful categorization:
- Backgrounders - these provide lots of technical details on the benefits of a company’s product, service, or overall approach to something
- Summaries - these provide a data rich summary on an industry, sector or niche
- Problem-Solution - these unpack a problem within an industry then provide a new solution to it (which is usually related to the company’s product or service)
The type of white paper you produce will depend on the stage your startup is at, as well as what you’re trying to achieve with it. For example, you may want to showcase the benefits of your product to potential investors. In which case, a backgrounder would work well. Or if you’re trying to build your thought leadership, then a summary of your industry may be more effective.
2. Write for your target audience
The language you use and the level of explanation you provide will determine whether or not the average reader makes it to the end of your white paper. Ultimately it has to align with your target audience’s knowledge of the subject and the type of language they respond to the best.
If you’re writing a backgrounder to build your credibility and legitimacy within the eyes of investors, a formal tone may be appropriate. And they’ll expect a thoroughly researched document with plenty of data points to support your arguments.
Or if on the other hand you’re writing a problem-solution white paper aimed at SMEs, then they’ll know their industry better than you do. Therefore, don’t lecture them on what they already know with pages of industry context and background. A less formal tone could also be appropriate in this context.
3. Give it a clear structure
As well as making sure you’ve pitch the tone right, you have to give it a clear structure. Any extended piece of writing can begin to sag if you’re not careful. In film and literature this is known as the second act problem. This is where you’ve got a great idea and you know where it’s going to lead to, but you lose your way with the bit in the middle.
Well this can (and does) happen when writing a white paper. So draft a robust outline before you start writing it, so you don’t lose sight of where you’re headed. For example, if you’re writing a problem-solution white paper on how to reduce empty container shipping, the structure could look like this:
- The scale of the problem
- The global context
- Economic costs to businesses and consumers
- Environmental costs
- An analysis of the causes
- Supply side causes
- Demand side causes
- Existing technological limitations
- Future outlook based on current trends
- Forecasts and trends
- How to reduce the problem
- Fixing supply side causes
- Fixing demand side cases
- Technological innovation
- The opportunity for businesses
- Cost saving projections for logistics firms
- Cost saving projections for suppliers
No matter what the subject of your white paper is, make sure you map out all the steps required to fully unpack and discuss it. Sticking to this structure will ensure your white paper maintains momentum and follows a coherent narrative.
4. Do your research
The credibility of a white paper rests on the robustness of your research. It is, after all, an objective and persuasive document about a subject that you’re an expert on. Therefore, the research phase needs to be far more involved compared to your average piece of content marketing.
Look to conduct both primary and secondary research. Secondary research, such as academic papers, industry reports and official statistics, are great for understanding where the conversation is at with the topic at hand. This will give you a solid grounding in the current issues and concerns within the industry.
However, to take your white paper to the next level and to really add something new to the conversation, you should look to invest in primary research. This could take the form of client surveys, questionnaires, focus groups and interviews. Just make sure the research furthers your understanding of the subject and adds values to the white paper.
5. Don’t write it as a sales brochure
White papers can be great lead magnets and bag you plenty of sales. But that doesn’t mean they should be written as a sales brochure. Instead, a white paper should remain objective and factual throughout.
So while the conclusion to a problem-solution white paper should involve your product to some degree, you have to build this argument with robust data and evidence. And nor should your product be presented as the only solution to the entire problem. In reality this most likely isn’t the case, so shouldn’t be presented as such in your white paper.
Some people can find this to be a difficult concept when writing a white paper, as they automatically think it should overtly promote their product. But think of it in these terms: if you tell someone your product is the answer to their problems, they probably won’t believe you. However if you prove to them that it’s the answer, then they probably will.
Writing a white paper requires a significant investment of time and energy in order to get right. It can be tempting to cut corners, but this will invariably result in a document that lacks structure and credibility. And at the end of the day, a white paper is all about convincing the reader of your argument, therefore producing a document that stands up to scrutiny is vital.
This article was written by Rudi Davis, Senior SEO & Content Manager at Publicize. Conrad Egusa is the Co-Founder & CEO of Publicize, and is a Mentor for the New York Founder Institute.
Publicize is a startup aiming to disrupt the PR industry. The company was founded by Eddie Arrieta and Conrad Egusa, a former VentureBeat writer, when they realized that the PR industry’s business model was broken for startups. Publicize offers cost-effective PR solutions to entrepreneurs priced out of a broken PR industry.
Graduates of the Founder Institute are creating some of the world's fastest growing startups, having raised over $950M in funding, and building products people love across over 185 cities worldwide.
See the most recent news from our Grads at FI.co/news, or learn more about their stories at FI.co/journey.