12 rules for white paper success
White papers are a content marketing essential. They’ve been around for a long time and are still a hugely important tool in convincing prospective customers to buy from you.
White papers are still effective because they bring authority and thought leadership to marketing communications. More in-depth than an article, but not product focused like a brochure, white papers give you an opportunity to provide expert advice on how tech can solve the business issues of the day.
But remember that, in the world of enterprise IT, your readership is bombarded with information and data hourly. If you want to get your message across about state-of-the-art technologies like cloud, telecoms, artificial intelligence or 5G, you will need to stand apart from the crowd.
A white paper can help do this by directly addressing the needs of your target readership, whether they are highly-techie product specialists, strategy-focused CIOs or less technical decision-makers like CFOs. In this white paper, you’ll discover:
- how to pitch your message for these various readers
- how to convey complex technical messaging in a clear and comprehensible manner
- how to get all this information across in a punchy, engaging manner
We have distilled over 20 years of tech industry writing experience into these 12 rules for white paper success. Read on to find out how to use white papers to position you as the tech expert and trusted advisor that your customers want.
Give & take
White papers are highly shareable and are valued information-gathering tools for prospective buyers
According to research by Curata, 79% of B2B buyers said white papers are the content they are most likely to share with colleagues and 75% of B2B buyers say they would share information about themselves and their company in exchange for a white paper. Research also shows that buyers prefer white papers to other shareable content formats such as infographics, case studies, video or third-party analyst reports.
White papers are not product-centric documents, such as brochures or fact sheets. They focus on the issues without being a hard sell for your products or services. Beware of being tempted to include product information in your white paper as it will damage trust in the whole document. Instead provide links to a brochure or other documents
of B2B buyers said white papers are the content they are most likely to share
would share information about themselves and their company in exchange for a white paper
1. Set realistic objectives for your white paper
You must set clear marketing objectives for your white paper – and stick to them. They are the backbone of success and will help you keep your paper on track.
Start with your audience: you’ll be targeting various levels of reader with differing job roles, who will have different degrees of influence on the purchasing decision. CFOs and CEOs may prefer visual white papers for an overall picture, whereas a techie reader will probably want more detail. Also consider who they work for: enterprise buyers, the channel, independent consultants, or vertical industries – who would be interested in how a generic solution like SD-WAN is relevant to their sector.
Ask yourself what you want to achieve with the paper, then tailor it to your audience and deliver information that is useful for them. That means understanding your audience’s challenges and demands, and then setting your paper out to solve one or more of their problems.
Once you’ve established your audience and their pain points, then you can start to think about what you want to achieve. For example, this might be actionable advice that your reader can take after reading the paper. This should include a call to action to read more content assets you have developed.
1. Identify the target audience and goal of the paper
2. Agree on the content and approach
3. Consider actionable advice for your readers
2. Map your paper to the buying journey
The primary purpose of marketing content is to facilitate sales, which means that content assets should be mapped to the buyer journey. This is traditionally thought of as a sales funnel, which leads the buyer from research and nurtures them through to buying your product or service.
At the top of the funnel is awareness, which is where you highlight a business challenge and the prospect of a technological solution. In the middle of the funnel is consideration where buyers assess whether you are a credible provider of these solutions. At the bottom of the funnel is decision, where they have established your credibility, engaged with your account teams and need final proof that you are the best fit for them.
In general, white papers are top of funnel content. They can educate your readers on how a certain type of technology can meet a business challenge, for example. Of course, not all readers of awareness assets are potential customers: they could also be competitors, journalists, prospective employees or even students. White papers can also work in the consideration phase in the shape of buying guides, which can outline different technology options, for example.
If your paper is part of a continuing campaign, how does it fit in with other collaterals? Your white paper should work in combination with other assets such as case studies and brochures. And what is your desired outcome: awareness-raising, link to another piece of content, or email capture?
1. Decide what stage of the buyer journey your white paper targets
2. White papers are most commonly awareness-focused content
3. It should complement assets across the buyer journey
3. White papers for ABM: a different buyer journey
Account-based marketing requires a slightly different approach to the traditional sales funnel because you are starting off with small number of targeted readers.
Account-based marketing (ABM) doesn’t use the traditional sales funnel approach, because only specifically identified companies go into the funnel. White paper content is still valuable, but instead of being focused on attracting and qualifying leads, marketing needs to align closely with sales and identify specific content to nurture these targets until they convert into clients.
This means that white papers for ABM can be hyper-targeted for a specific readership. For example, an ABM campaign targeting financial services companies shouldn’t just address the business challenges of that industry. It can actually directly address the challenges faced by your specific targets. These can be identified through desk research and interviews with account managers. The end goal is a white paper customised for each individual target, even if the core content remains largely the same.
1. In ABM, work with sales to develop white papers to nurture content throughout the sales cycle
2. Consider developing hyper-targeted white papers for specific customers
4. Choose your tone of voice
Tone of voice is a key part of your brand and steers how you interact with customers. It needs to be consistent across all the assets that you produce, including white papers.
If you don’t have documented tone of voice and brand guidelines, then you should put these in place before writing your white paper. Tone of voice is an important part of how you communicate as an organization and this needs to be reflected in all the content assets that you develop. Do you want it to be contemporary or traditional? Fun and informative? Or practical and educational?
Your tone of voice should include guidelines on vocabulary, grammar and writing practices. The latter should cover length of sentences, what form or address you use with the reader and content structure. And you will need to decide on a style guide that covers questions such as capitalization, preferred words and punctuation.
While the idea is to keep your tone of voice consistent across all content formats, there should be scope to vary it across different types. For example, blogs might be direct address – as it’s the writer speaking directly to you, whereas you might want to adopt a more formal tone in a white paper. In all cases, however, it vital to focus on clarity and ensure that your content is concise. No one wants to read jargon or waffle.
1. Ensure that you have a tone of voice in place
2. Decide on any variations required between content types
3. Provide a style guide for writers
5. Finalise your messaging before starting
Your white paper is an opportunity to get your marketing messages across in an authoritative document. Ensure they are in place for the topic before starting.
White papers provide an opportunity to shape the story around a technology or business challenge to suit your company’s strategy and position. Therefore, it is important that you settle on your marketing messages before starting any white paper project. This is particularly important if many different stakeholders are involved in the white paper process, so that all of them are aligned with the required messaging in advance.
Take time to create a message house before you start the white paper writing process proper. It will give your copywriter the tools they need to get your message across accurately and compellingly in the paper. Without one, the white paper process will take longer as different stakeholders might disagree with each other’s position in the review editing process. This could lead to unplanned rewrites to reflect a new position.
1. Set out clearly what it is you want your white paper to say
2. Work with your all stakeholders to create a message house
3. Get sign-off on the messaging from all stakeholders before writing the paper
6. Write a detailed brief
White papers are extensive documents written over a fairly long period. A detailed brief will ensure that the final document meets your requirements.
White papers are long reads and can be complex to write, with many different concepts to cover. Writing a brief ensures that the key messages, structure and concepts you want to get across are documented in advance. This way you can check that the delivered draft is what was agreed.
The brief should include the target length, audience, guidelines on tone of voice, level of technical detail, key messages to highlight and the objective of the paper. It should also include references to relevant third-party research along with any internal messaging, presentations and existing content that would be useful in the writing process. This brief should be agreed in advance of the project.
1. A detailed brief will ensure you get the paper you want
2. Include target length, audience, tone of voice, objective and messaging
3. Provide relevant internal and external content for reference
7. Stay on target with a project timeline
White papers involve many different stakeholders. An agreed project timeline will ensure that the white paper stays on track for delivery.
After the project kick-off, one of the most important elements to agree on is the project timeline. White papers typically take a minimum of 6-8 weeks from kick-off to final PDF delivery and involve many different stakeholders in the interview, writing, design and review processes. The final delivery date will also need to fit in with any overall campaign planning, so sometimes it is better to work backwards from that date – and include some contingency.
You’ll need to get your stakeholders to commit to interview slots. These are often subject to change as your spokespeople are busy people with customer responsibilities and other work projects. They will also need to be involved in the review process along with any senior staff responsible for final sign off.
Meeting the milestones in the agreed project timeline will ensure the white paper is delivered on time. It also gives stakeholders an indication of when they will be required to review documents or speak to writers, so they can plan for it in advance. Check out our timeline graphic here.
1. Build a project timeline which takes all dependencies into account
2. Includes agreed milestones for each project phase
3. Align project plan with other marketing campaign activities
8. Capture information with interviews
Expert interviews are at the heart of a successful white paper. Both writer and interviewee need to be prepared to get the most out of the time.
At their heart, white papers are a way to capture your organization’s expertise and harness it for marketing purposes. Therefore, choosing the right interviewees is fundamental to the success of the paper. In our experience, some of the best interviewees for white papers are pre-sales consultants, who are experienced in addressing customer challenges. But they can come from across the organization depending on the topic.
Brief both your spokespeople and your writer about the interview process. The writer will need to do their research on the topic and prepare an initial list of questions. These should be validated and shared in advance with the interviewee. This will allow the expert to be prepared and will help the interview flow.
Typically, interviews are best done on the phone to accommodate international interviewees. They will usually take an hour and its best to keep them as a single spokesperson at a time. Please ensure you record the call. The total number of interviews will depend on the topic, but three is usually enough. Too many will add complexity, increase the time needed for the interviews and extend the review process.
1. Choose up to three experts for interviews
2. Brief interviewees and provide questions to them in advance
3. Interviews best done over the phone for an hour with individual interviewees
9. The importance of an outline
An outline summarizes the structure and key elements of the paper. It captures the information provided by the interviewees and is an opportunity to review progress.
The first step after the interviews is to produce an outline of the paper, which will list the key points and structure of the paper. The outline is an important step that will allows the writer to structure the content captured in the interviews into a coherent white paper. The outline contains bullet points, which identifies what content goes into which section. It is not an early draft, rather a list of headings and subheadings.
The outline creation stage is a good time to identify any missing content and schedule any further interviews if required to capture it. This could involve getting a new interviewee involved. Reviewing the outline will also allow you to approve any changes from the original brief, which have been asked for by the interviewees. Making these changes at this point will prevent longer delays further along the writing process.
1. Outline should include the main content points and structure of the white paper
2. Identifies any content gaps for further interviews
3. Allows any changes to the structure and content to be made before the writing process starts
10. Draft and review the text
Allow up to three drafting and revision cycles to sign off the text of the white paper before starting the design.
The drafting and reviewing process is iterative. After you have agreed the outline, the writer will write the first draft of the white paper. This will follow the agreed structure, contain all the key points, and include an indication of page numbering and additional elements such as sidebars, pull quotes and box outs.
Versioning is always a potential issue in white papers that have a large number of stakeholders. To prevent problems, the reviewing process should be consolidated on the client side, ideally using the Word revision functionality to mark up the document directly. This is the best way to ensure that no revisions are overlooked. Ideally a single point of contact will manage the review process and liaise with the writer. If different documents are marked up by different stakeholders, there is a possibility that some comments are contradictory or refer to text that has been changed in another version.
Based on the comments and amends provided in the marked-up draft, the writer will produce a second draft that will go through the same review process. This process will continue until the text draft has been signed off and it can be submitted to the design process. We plan for around two to three drafting cycles.
1. Writer will produce the draft based on the agreed outline
2. Client provides consolidated comments within document using review functionality
3. Final document will follow two or three drafts
4. Always be aware of versioning issues
11. Design the final document
The final step is designing the document, incorporating approved imagery and using your brand style.
Design is a key part of white paper creation. A boring design can be a real turnoff for your readership and lead to your paper not being read. Use good signposting throughout and break the text up with box outs, side bars and other elements. You will also need to decide which format to use. For example, if the paper is primarily for online viewing then a landscape ebook style is best.
In addition, the white paper design needs to follow brand guidelines on font use, imagery and colours. Having clear guidelines on photographic use makes it possible to use stock photography, while still keeping a consistent look and feel. If you don’t have brand guidelines already in place for white papers, we can help you put one together.
Again, the review process is iterative. Our design team will create an initial PDF draft for review. The client team should circulate the PDF to gather consolidated comments, marked up directly on the PDF using the commenting functionality. We expect to have two to three rounds of these changes before producing the final versions – either online only, or online and print.
1. Decide on final format: online only or print and online
2. Follow brand guidelines on fonts use, imagery and colours
3. Expect two or three cycles of reviewing before the final version
12. Distribute and promote your paper
Once you have your finished white paper, the journey continues with distribution and promotion. This ensures your paper will be seen by your target audience.
White papers are often produced as part of a campaign along with other assets such as brochures, case studies and fact sheets. Typically, this will be done via email marketing using prospect and customer lists and could include additional activities such as webinars or other events. For the latter, the white paper can be used as a post-event takeaway. Most organizations will use lead scoring to validate these leads, which is based around a buyer journey of downloads.
Attracting new readers will require a distribution strategy that includes digital advertising, such as via Google AdWords, Facebook and LinkedIn. Your target audience will dictate what approach works best. For example, with AdWords you can target and refine specific searches so that you capture readers actively looking to solve the business challenges you cover in your white paper.
1. Match your campaign distribution and lead scoring on the buyer journey
2. Use the white paper as takeaways for events and webinars
3. Supplement your campaign distribution with digital advertising
Why Futurity Media
At Futurity Media we have been writing white papers for enterprise IT and telecoms for 20 years. Our experienced team of writers and designers can deliver the white papers that can help make a difference to your marketing efforts.
- Wide range of technology knowledge, including cloud, 5G, IoT, unified communications, blockchain, satellite, MPLS and SD-WAN
- Developing multi-asset campaigns over several months with multiple stakeholders
- Writing hyper-targeted white papers and other content to support account based marketing campaigns
- Vertical experience of technological transformation in multiple industries, including retail, manufacturing and natural resources
- Multidisciplinary team of designers can produce white papers and other assets to set you apart from the competition