What (else) do we know about writing white papers?

A couple of months ago, I summarized the available evidence on writing white papers. I’ve done more digging and want to provide a follow-up with a few more details on developing content, organizing it, and using an appropriate style. (See the earlier post for a description of the white paper as a genre.)  The bottom line is that we still don’t have definitive guidance based on quality evidence. I’m planning to fill in the blanks with some of my own research. In fact, I’m completing a proposal to present a paper on this topic with a colleague at the IEEE’s International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) at Carnegie Mellon next October.

Photo Credit: paurian via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: paurian via Compfight cc

[begin sidebar] Just a word about the sources I consulted (listed at the end of this post). I mentioned only three experts in my earlier post. I still refer to Russell Willerton’s research, including a couple of articles I hadn’t read earlier, and Cynthia McPherson’s dissertation as the best evidence available. Both authors have investigated white papers systematically, and somewhat objectively, based on data. And I purchased a data-based report from Michael Stelzner, who was also mentioned in my original post. Stelzner’s report is based on a survey of hundreds of white paper writers in 2006. Willerton has generously guided my digging, and I uncovered a couple of experts I did not mention earlier: Gordon Graham (author of White Papers for Dummies) and Bob Bly (author of The White Paper Marketing Handbook). I investigated Graham’s website, but like Stelzner’s website and book, the information is highly subjective so I find it less persuasive. I read an article by Bly, which is also based on personal experience. (I’ve written before about the limitations of personal experience as evidence.) [end sidebar]

Developing the Content of a White Paper

Developing content is the area sources talk most about when discussing white papers. I created a table to show the most common areas mentioned about content. I should remind you that McPherson was considering a much broader range of white papers than any of the other authors. The others are all basically interested in marketing by tech companies — arguably the most common source of white papers.  See a syndicator of white papers for evidence: Bitpipe or KnowledgeStorm or TechRepublic.






Determine specific goal

Persuade through informing

Do secondary research

Cite secondary sources

Interview SMEs

Be current

Create informative graphics

My sources provide near universal recommendations to determine a specific marketing goal for a white paper. As Willerton said,

“Increasing sales” is a good goal, but it is too broad; you must know how your white paper will fit into the sales cycle with your prospective customers.

Stelzner’s survey of writers found that generating sales leads was the most popular marketing use for white papers.

All of the sources discussing high tech marketing white papers agree that effective ones adopt a “softsell” approach where persuasion is secondary to informing or educating readers.  Graham writes,

If you can’t avoid giving a sales pitch, don’t call what you’re writing a white paper. Just write a brochure, a sales letter or a product brief; then call it what it is.

The one universal recommendation is to do good secondary research as the basis for the content of a white paper. Almost all sources also note the importance of explicitly citing those sources in a white paper. And the three practitioner sources agree that interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) is essential to writing a quality white paper.

Most sources agree on the need for informative (not superfluous) graphics to support the verbal content of a white paper. Finally, a couple of sources mention the time-sensitive nature of white paper content. Willerton found that readers believe white papers have a limited shelf life.

Organizing the Content of a White Paper

My sources provide near universal mention of two aspects of organizing content for a white paper once its been developed:

  • Begin with the reader’s problem or challenge before describing your solution or product.
  • Use effective and efficient document design to help readers scan and navigate the white paper’s content.

It looks like both Stelzner’s and Graham’s books provide more guidance on the sections of content and their optimal arrangement.  But I didn’t buy their books because they are both based on personal experience. Not worth it for my purposes here.

Crafting the Style & Tone of a White Paper

The sources I consulted say relatively little about this aspect of writing white papers. Perhaps with the exception of crafting the title. Both Stelzner and Graham emphasize the importance of the title for enticing readers: Graham’s list includes

  • state business benefits (make or save money, save labor, streamline processes, increase productivity, etc.)
  • name target readers (for CFOs, IT Executives, etc.)
  • use active verbs or “how to”
  • state as a question
  • use a numbered list
  • omit jargon
  • omit product names

Beyond the title, Graham mentions the importance of following any existing style guides used by the company sponsoring the white paper. In general, sources mention choosing vocabulary appropriate to the target audience. So avoiding jargon, including acronyms, is discussed. Stelzner warns against the use of humor as it doesn’t fit the educational tone expected by white paper readers.  Graham mentions the importance of a tone with you-perspective.

Final Thoughts

The sources I located provide some decent information about developing content for white papers. I should note that several agree the right length for a white paper is between 5 and 12 pages. The quality and quantity of help offered for organizing that information is lacking. And we don’t have data-based evidence for making style and tone recommendations either. To develop that guidance, I’ll repeat what I said a couple of months back: we need at least one study of rhetorical move structure for a sample of successful white papers. My colleague and I are on it. Stay tuned . . .

Further Reading

R.W. Bly (2010). Writing White Papers for Fun and Profit: How to Get these “Plum Assignments” that Blend Elements of Articles and Brochures. The Writer, Mar., p. 38.

G. Graham (2014). The White Paper FAQ. That White Paper Guy website.

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

M.A. Stelzner (2007). White Paper Writer Industry Report: Trends, Pricing and Standards for White Paper Writers (2nd edition). WhitePaperSource Publishing.

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

R. Willerton (2008). Proceeding with Caution: A Case Study of Engineering Professionals Reading White Papers. Technical Communication, 55(4), pp. 370-382.

R. Willerton (2012). Teaching White Papers Through Client Projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1) 105–113.

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