The genre of white papers: What we do (and don’t) know

One of my colleagues recently asked me for resources on writing white papers for a corporate friend who is confident in his ability to write short recommendation reports, but believes longer ones — white papers — are increasingly important for corporate success although he hasn’t had experience writing them. I was most familiar with white papers written in a non-profit context. So before I could offer any guidance, I had to do a little digging into their corporate use. I thought I’d share what I learned for others with little knowledge of this genre.

[December 2014 Update: See new posts on what else we know about white papers, and information design in white papers, content and structure in white papers.]

What is a White Paper?

Michael Stelzner, author of Writing White Papers,  says

a white paper is a persuasive document that usually describes problems and how to solve them. The white paper is a crossbreed of a magazine article and a brochure. It takes the objective and educational approach of an article and weaves in persuasive corporate messages typically found in brochures.

Russell Willerton did research into how high-tech companies use white papers. He says the term describes

a document that serves to inform readers while promoting a company, product, or service. . . [however,] the term white paper is used in many different realms of work.

Cynthia McPherson, whose doctoral dissertation focused on an analysis of hundreds white papers, explains that

in addition to white papers used in marketing . . . it is clear that white papers are used in the proposal process; to discuss policy, standards and requirements; and to explain technology.

SalesForce White Paper TOC_Page_03

Above I’m showing you the outline of content for a somewhat randomly selected white paper from salesforce: “6 Secrets to Offering Exceptional Customer Service.”  This one was produced as a deck of 12 slides.

  • Intro establishes the problem readers face.
  • Topics provides an overview of the solutions (Secrets 1 thru 6) offered in the rest of the white paper.
  • Conclusion gives the call to action thru links to see a demo product, receive a free trial of that product, or contact the company.

Below I’m showing another white paper example related to customer relationship management technology: “Improving customer interactions with this powerful technology” from CDW. This one was produced as an 8-page document.

  • Defining CRM in Today’s World establishes the problem readers face.
  • Increase Revenue, Improve Collaboration, & Real-Time Visibility describe aspects of the solution to the readers’ problem.
  • Best Practices in CRM summarizes the solution without any direct call to action.

CDW White Paper TOC_Page_1

Finally I’m sharing a final white paper example: “Symantec pcAnywhere™ Security Recommendations.” It is a 15-page document.

symantec whitepaper

  • Introduction explains the purpose of the document and how readers can use it.
  • pcAnywhere Configuration Recommendations offers advice for configuring their product.
  • General Security Best Practices offers general security advice.
  • Implementation Best Practices describes three cases to demonstrate the principles discussed in the two previous sections.
  • Resources provides a list of links to additional technical help for users.

Now that we’ve skimmed the content and arrangement of three white papers, let consider why companies create them.

Why Create White Papers?

When Willerton asked high-tech employees who regularly write white papers why  their companies wanted to create them, one of them said:

When we receive requests for information, we could provide it in a number of formats: brochure, PowerPoint presentation, etc., but white papers have an air of authority and importance to them that those other formats don’t have.

White papers were often a response to sales representatives who had been hearing the same questions repeated during sales calls or trade shows.

White papers appear to be increasingly used within the corporate context of content marketing. Recently, the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs collected information from more than 1200 individual marketers in a range of company sizes and industries within North America to produce the 2014 Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends. That report shows that 64% of the marketers who responded to the survey use white papers as a marketing tactic.

OK. So corporate marketers use white papers. Why? Well . . . white papers are one tactic for content marketing, whose goals are shown in the graphic below.

Content Marketing Goals 2014

Stelzner  says the primary goals for publishing white papers in the world of commerce are to generate leads and also to demonstrate thought leadership and help close sales.  A 2013 Business.com report (citing a report by ContentWise/Custom Content Council called 13th Annual Industry Characteristics Study: A Look at the Volume and Type of Content Marketing in America for 2013) found 50% of companies are interested in using white papers to generate leads. Usually, those leads are collected by requiring readers to register before obtaining permission to download those freely  white papers.

It’s clear that many companies are creating white papers as a content marketing tool. But McPherson’s study found the 317 white papers she collected  perform functions in addition to marketing products and services and objectively informing the reader about a topic. She writes that what all white papers did was to

sustain and support by providing and explaining information that members of the particular community need in order to participate or function in the community or in order to do the work they must do.

Sometimes the support offered is content about a product or service the readers can buy (like the salesforce and CDW examples I showed above). Other times, the support for a product or service already purchased is actually delivered within the content of the white paper (like the Symantec example above). And the support could be delivered within the content of the white paper with no relation to any product or service at all (like a policy white paper from a non-profit organization).

The variety in goals is no doubt due to the variety of organizations creating white papers and their varied interests. McPherson’s sample was distributed as shown in the table.

Category of the white paper   Number Topics in this category
business and finance 30 customer service, performance measurement, quality control, business intelligence
education and training 21 adult literacy, teaching methods, specialized training, higher education
government and policy 76 NAFTA, energy policy, zoning communities, homeland security, economy, parks management, foreign affairs, artillery units
health and medicine 35 informatics, therapeutics, patient records, drug testing, clinical research
industry 71 aerospace, flight safety, plant safety, instrumentation, power production, industry standards, building materials, movie production
information technology 45 web management, operating systems, file security, system compatibility
law 14 real estate, labor, antitrust crime
science 25 genome research (biology), space exploration (astronomy), chemistry, physics, environment

How Do You Create a Successful White Paper?

What do we know about those white papers that are successful? Not much. At least not based on quality evidence. McPherson and Willerton are the only sources I could find who have investigated white papers systematically, and somewhat objectively, based on data. McPherson concludes her analysis of hundreds of examples:

The white paper is a non-routine workplace document with a primary purpose of informing readers about a topic, initiative, or conditions in order for those readers to better perform their jobs, to understand an organization’s position on a topic, and to understand potential avenues of work or research. Secondary purposes include proposing research or work and arguing for a specific action (including purchase of the writer’s product), thus white papers also have an inherent persuasive component. A typical white paper is fewer than 20 pages long (based on 78% of the study corpus at 20 pages or fewer), has references or bibliography (based on 63% of the study corpus with references), is divided into sections with section headings (based on 94% of the study corpus), and employs bulleted and numbered lists (based on 72% of the study corpus).

Here’s all I can offer. The majority of white papers appear to follow a general pattern of problem –> solution, include informative graphics to support the text, and use a fairly formal business style. Like corporate reports, white papers demonstrate a research-based approach to gathering evidence and supporting arguments (to include listing sources of information). Like brochures or personal essays, white papers demonstrate one point of view in a style considered readable by the target audience.

White papers vary. A lot. The variability is obvious even among the subset of corporate white papers with a marketing goal. Compare the relative directness of the sales pitches in the salesforce and CDW examples above. To provide more useful guidance, we need at least one study of rhetorical move structure for a sample of successful white papers.

Got some time on your hands?

Further Reading

C. McPherson (2010). Examining the Gap Between Workplace White Papers and Their Representation in Technical Communication Textbooks. Doctoral Dissertation. Texas Tech University.

R. Willerton (2007). Writing White Papers in High-Tech Industries: Perspectives from the Field. Technical Communication, 54(2), pp. 187-200.

6 thoughts on “The genre of white papers: What we do (and don’t) know

  1. I agree that a rhetorical-move study of white papers would be valuable. Any grad students out there need a thesis or dissertation topic?

    There are two good books on white papers: Michael Stelzner’s ‘Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged’ and Gordon Graham’s ‘White Papers For Dummies.’ (Disclosure: I am acquainted with both authors; I have used Stelzner’s text in a class; I was hired as technical editor for Graham’s book.) Stelzner’s book is good for people who already know what white papers are and how they fit into contemporary marketing. Graham’s book is good for people who are just getting familiar with white papers.

    Thank you for mentioning my 2007 article. I have a 2008 article, also in ‘Technical Communication,’ that is a case study of white-paper readers.

    • Thanks for your suggestions, Russell. And thanks even more for your good work!

      I actually suggested a Stelzner audioclass to my colleague’s friend as a way to get started quickly and cheaply. And I’ll take a look at your 2008 article in case I should update any of what I’ve posted here.

  2. I teach in the Hough Graduate School at University of Florida, and in a professional writing class, I assign an abraidged White Paper. First, I want the students to know what a White Paper is as a genre: and second, I want them to at least know the parts and how they function. I often use Stelzner’s book and point out that it, in itself, is a White Paper. I will take a look at your article and at the Graham book. You have shared helpful information. Thank you.
    Priscilla

    • Thanks for the encouraging comments, Priscilla. We are planning to shift focus to white papers in our senior capstone course for management communication students (who occupy time at my day job as a professor in the Culverhouse College of Commerce at the University of Alabama) for the first time this semester. I just got Stelzner’s book. After reading the first couple of chapters and skimming the rest, it seems useful as a textbook. But he doesn’t provide quality evidence for his claims. I bought his Industry Survey Report from 2007, which I hope will provide enough information to validate the info in the book. I also asked Russell Willerton a few questions after this post was published. I’m planning a future post as a follow up.

  3. Thank you! This was so informative. I’m applying for a job where writing white papers is part of the duties, and I haven’t had any experience with it, so this definitely helped explain it a bit more. I’ll look further into it with the resources listed. Thanks again.

    • Thanks, Anokina. I’m glad this was helpful. I have several additional posts with details from a research project designed to answer questions about high-tech marketing white papers. If you enter “white papers” in the search field on ProsWrite.com, you should find them. Good luck!

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