What is a White Paper?
A white paper (whitepaper) is an informational document, usually issued by a company or not-for-profit organization, to promote or highlight the features of a solution, product, or service. White papers are often written as sales and marketing documents used to entice or persuade potential customers to learn more about or purchase a particular product, service, technology or methodology.
A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.
The initial British term, concerning a type of government-issued document, has proliferated, taking a somewhat new meaning in business. In business, a white paper is closer to a form of marketing presentation, a tool meant to persuade customers and partners and promote a product or viewpoint. White papers may be considered grey literature.
White papers are designed to be used as a marketing tool before a sale, and not as a user manual or other technical document developed to provide support to the user after making a purchase.
The term white paper originated with the British government, and many point to the Churchill White Paper of 1922 as the earliest well-known example under this name. Gertrude Bell, the British explorer and diplomat, was the first woman to author a White Paper. Her 149-page report was entitled “Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia” and was presented to Parliament in 1920. In British government it is usually the less extensive version of the so-called blue book, both terms being derived from the colour of the document’s cover.
In Canada, a white paper is a policy document, approved by Cabinet, tabled in the House of Commons and made available to the general public. The provision of policy information through the use of white and green papers can help to create an awareness of policy issues among parliamentarians and the public and to encourage an exchange of information and analysis. They can also serve as educational techniques.
White papers are a way the government can present policy preferences before it introduces legislation. Publishing a white paper tests public opinion on controversial policy issues and helps the government gauge its probable impact.
By contrast, green papers, which are issued much more frequently, are more open-ended. Also known as consultation documents, green papers may merely propose a strategy to implement in the details of other legislation, or they may set out proposals on which the government wishes to obtain public views and opinion.
Examples of governmental white papers include, in Australia, the White Paper on Full Employment and, in the United Kingdom, the White Paper of 1939 and the 1966 Defence White Paper.
In Israeli history, the White Paper of 1939 – marking a sharp turn against Zionism in British policy and at the time greeted with great anger by the Jewish Yishuv community in Mandatory Palestine – is remembered as “The White Paper” (in Hebrew Ha’Sefer Ha’Lavan הספר הלבן – literally “The White Book”).
In Business-to-business Marketing
Since the early 1990s, the terms “white paper” or “whitepaper” have been applied to documents used as marketing or sales tools in business. These white papers are long-form content designed to promote the products or services from a specific company. As a marketing tool, these papers use selected facts and logical arguments to build a case favorable to the company sponsoring the document.
B2B (business-to-business) white papers are often used to generate sales leads, establish thought leadership, make a business case, grow email lists, grow audiences, increase sales, or inform and persuade readers. The audiences for a B2B white paper can include prospective customers, channel partners, journalists, analysts, investors, or any other stakeholders.
White papers are considered to be a form of content marketing or inbound marketing; in other words, sponsored content available on the web with or without registration, intended to raise the visibility of the sponsor in search engine results and build web traffic.
Many B2B white papers argue that one particular technology, product or methodology is superior to all others for solving a specific business problem. They may also present research findings, list a set of questions or tips about a certain business issue, or highlight a particular product or service from a vendor.
Types of Commercial White Papers
There are, essentially, three main types of commercial white papers:
- Backgrounder: Describes the technical or business benefits of a certain vendor’s offering; either a product, service, or methodology. This type of white paper is best used to supplement a product launch, argue a business case, or support a technical evaluation at the bottom of the sales funnel or the end of the customer journey. This is the least challenging type to produce, since much of the content is readily available in-house at the sponsor.
- Numbered list: Presents a set of tips, questions, or points about a certain business issue. This type is best used to get attention with new or provocative views, or cast aspersions on competitors. Also called a listicle this is the fastest type to create; a numbered list can often be devised from a single brainstorming session, and each item can be presented as an isolated point, not part of any step-by-step logical argument.
- Problem/solution: Recommends a new, improved solution to a nagging business problem. This type is best used to generate leads at the top of the sales funnel or the start of the customer journey, build mind share, or inform and persuade stakeholders, building trust and credibility in the subject. This is the most challenging type to produce, since it requires research gathered from third-party sources and used as proof points in building a logical argument.
While a numbered list may be combined with either other type, it is not workable to combine a backgrounder with a problem/solution white paper. While a backgrounder looks inward at the details of one particular product or service, a problem/solution looks outward at an industry-wide problem. This is rather like the difference between looking through a microscope and looking through a telescope.
The Purpose of a White Paper
Typically, the purpose of a white paper is to advocate that a certain position is the best way to go or that a certain solution is best for a particular problem. When it is used for commercial purposes, it could influence the decision-making processes of current and prospective customers.
What Kind of Problems Do Readers Want to Solve?
The audience for a white paper can be the general public or multiple companies that seek solutions to their problems or needs. Typically, you will not know your audience personally, unlike when you write a recommendation report for your client. And yet, in order to persuade your audience, you need to focus on their needs. If you can address the problems that your readers want to solve, they will read your white paper for a solution.
Choosing a Topic for a White Paper
Keep the following points in mind when selecting a topic for a white paper:
Similar to writing an article or an essay, the audience is the first factor that is considered when writing a white paper. For a business, they can be longstanding customers of the company or new customers who will learn more about the business and its products and services through the document.
The white papers published by the government will discuss urgent issues and current events in the economy that the general public will want to learn more about.
2. Expert Analysis
The white paper must be written by someone with extensive industry knowledge of the product or service and a thorough understanding of the subject at hand. For companies, the document should provide in-depth research on the product and highlight how it can help benefit customers.
While the white paper provides detailed information about the company’s product/service, it should also address problems faced by customers and how the product can solve the problem. The problem must be relevant to the industry and the customer. Very often, white papers are written to address how a product can help the customer evolve with the new trends and techniques in the field.
Format of White Paper
A white paper should be structured in the following way:
The introduction is an overview of the white paper. It discusses the main points that comprise the document. It also helps the customer identify if the content in the report is relevant to them.
2. Problem Statement
The problem statement is the specific problem issue faced by customers that the white paper will discuss. The statement must be in line with the product/service. It also needs to be stated clearly so that it is understood by the reader.
The information section is the most important part of the paper, where the introduction and problem statement are tied in together to discuss the product and all its features. The information will lead to a solution.
The solution section will help generate leads for the company, as it discusses how the product/service will help the reader. The solutions need to be relevant and backed by evidence to support the claims in the paper. This section must contain both quantitative and qualitative information.
The conclusion is a summary of the entire paper and can include a list of its key takeaways.
Uses of White Papers
White papers help increase the authority of a business and improve their credibility with customers. They can be utilized in a number of different ways, including the following:
1. Case Study
Very often, many companies market lengthy case studies as white papers. A case study is a story about a business, the challenges it faced, and how the company’s product helped them overcome a problem.
A case study contains detailed and technical information and enables customers to see themselves using the product. Case studies help provide a real-world example of how the company helped its customer achieve success.
White papers are lengthy and detailed and may provide a lot of extra information that the customer doesn’t really need. However, they can often serve as a reference guide for other companies in the industry to help them improve their business.