What have we learned about content (and its purpose) in white papers?

If you’re in Pittsburgh today, come hear Jef Naidoo and me try to answer this question at IPCC 2014.  Here’s more detail than we’ll be able to cover in 20 minutes. (We have a couple of related details about white papers to share as well.)

Why are we studying white papers?

They’re important to organizations. Here’s some evidence from sources about white papers across all industries: used and trusted as a key buying decision tool by over 64% of early stage buyers and 61% of middle stage buyers (SiriusDecisions, 2010).

And here’s some evidence (Ziff Davis Enterprise, 2010) from the high-tech world:

  • 35% of IT Professionals use them for awareness and finding ideas
  • 33% of IT Professionals use them for finding vendors or comparing them
  • 23% of IT Professionals use them for creating a short list and for vendor evaluation
  • 10% of IT Professionals use them for making a final decision

I wrote earlier that little scholarly research has been done. I also posted what Jef and I have learned so far about information design in white papers. But my aim in this post is to talk about patterns of content/purpose in white papers.

How did we study content/purpose in white papers?

We collected a corpus of 20 recent, high-tech marketing white papers from TechRepublic with the “top rated” label in two topic areas: business intelligence (BI) and security (S). My post on information design gives more detail about the corpus.

The figure summarizes the process we used to identify the rhetorical move structure (focus on definition #2) for high-tech marketing white papers. (You can also read about this approach in a book by Biber available from Google books.) The results are shown in the document below.  To understand how we created that document, I’ve included a diagram of the process.

We began to develop it by looking at other studies of rhetorical move structure in related genres (e.g., proposals and research articles); we reviewed the few research studies available, as well as guidance from recognized experts on white papers (see this post for a summary); we compared what we learned from those first two sources to two sample white papers to create the first version of what you see below.

Rhetorical Move Structure ProcessJef and I refined our guesses by independently applying them to three sample white papers. We met, discussed, and revised to create the second version of what you see below.

We trained research assistants to apply the rhetorical move structure in the three sample white papers. Those discussions resulted in a few more revisions.

At this stage, those two raters are coding the corpus of 20 white papers, using the document shown below as a key.

The examples in the key refer to the three white papers we used in training. Follow the links to retrieve them.

If you don’t want all of the details about the rhetorical move structure we are testing, this figure from our slides provides the big picture. Slide07

When our raters are done, we will compute the reliability of their codes to determine whether our rhetorical move structure can be applied consistently or will need further revision. Although we’re not there yet, we are close to having some findings we can share!

The slide you see hints that there is one area (linguistic qualities) that I haven’t written anything about yet. Stay tuned . . .

Related Research

U. Connor (2000). Variation in rhetorical moves in grant proposals of US humanists and scientists. Text, 20(1), pp. 1–28.

J. Naidoo & K.S. Campbell (2014). A Genre Analysis of High-Tech Marketing White Papers: A Report of Research-in-progress.IPCC Proceedings. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE.

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.

L. Yeung (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26(2), pp. 156–179.

S. Zhou (2012) ‘Advertorials’: A genre-based analysis of an emerging hybridized genre. Discourse Communication, 6(3), pp. 323–346.

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