What Should and Shouldn’t Go into Your White Paper

What are you going to put into your white paper?

What are you going to put into that white paper you’re planning? Don’t fill it with garbage or you’ll annoy your readers and lose their trust.

It’s easy to confuse “we need to write a white paper” with “we need to tell more people about us.”

Wise marketing managers are able to discriminate between these needs and keep the chest-pounding out of the white paper. Cooler heads keep in mind that people don’t buy features; they buy benefits.

Eventually, wise marketers can convince those who want to fill white papers with the company’s fabulous technical advances that that kind of material belongs in a brochure or advertisement. That works for a given audience in a given context, but expectations are higher for something you want to call a white paper, so you need to be more subtle.

Still, that only tells you what shouldn’t go into your white paper. What should go into it?

What should and shouldn’t go into a white paper

First, consider a few simple guidelines:

  1. It should be easy for me to learn something useful from your white paper.
  2. I should be able to see my problem, or my customers’ problem, properly described in your white paper.
  3. The structure of your white paper should be obvious to me, so that I can skip any uninteresting part and resume at the next meaty bit.
  4. I should feel that I’m drawing my own conclusions from your white paper, instead of drinking your Kool-Aid.
  5. When I finish the white paper, I should feel that I could probably trust – or at least not distrust – your organization to help me with my problem.

In general, then, here are some should’s and shouldn’ts about what goes into a white paper:

White papers should contain:

  • industry data from reputable sources
  • quantifiable trends
  • a credible explanation of a real-world problem
  • broad strokes about your category of technology or approach to the problem (but don’t describe it as your technology)
  • sensible arguments in favor of this technology, weighted heavily toward solving the real-world problem explained earlier

White papers should not contain:

  • your opinions about where the industry is headed (call that an industry overview instead)
  • details about which competing products have which features across your category (call that a buyer’s guide instead)
  • a list of feature-benefit pairs, even if they are customer-oriented  (call that a brochure instead)
  • details of a customer engagement or use case (call that a case study instead)
  • customer quotations about your company or technology (call that a testimonial instead)

“Am I ready to write now?”

Well, not really. You also need to know what motivates the ideal reader of your white paper. I’ve posted on that in the past and shall surely do so again in the future. The more information about your audience that you can give to your marketing communications writer, the better the resulting white paper.

Keep in mind this post from Jonathan Farrington on negotiating with the four personality types. Marketing managers need to understand these types – drivers, expressives, amiables and analyticals – as much as salespeople do, and publish content that floats everybody’s boat.

It may take more than a single white paper to do that.

photo credit: swanksalot


Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”