six types white paper

You know you need a white paper – but what kind of paper should it be? In this blog, Kristel Brown, Editorial Account Director at Writing Machine, describes six different types of white paper  who might read them and what they will get out of each one.

Writing a white paper means engaging with a subject in real depth; it needs to be accurate, credible and extremely well-structured. But not all white papers are the same. As with all documents, the difference is often expressed in the structure and that, in turn, reflects what you’re trying to achieve. Understanding who you’re writing for, what you want them to know, and what you want them to do with that knowledge will ensure you choose the right approach.

Here are six different kinds of white paper we often produce at Writing Machine.

1. The thought leadership white paper

What’s it for?
It makes you look authoritative, credible and visionary; you are leading the debates of the day. These papers are the most versatile type as they can be used as the cornerstone of a variety of campaigns – from above-the-line social media activities, to below-the-line fulfilment.

What’s in it?
Often, it involves picking an issue currently being debated in your industry that will resonate with your audience, and put your company’s fresh, innovative or unexpected spin on it. Sometimes you can start an entirely new debate. However, if your audience isn’t currently thinking along these lines you have to assume it won’t immediately resonate with them; in such cases you need to be particularly evangelical in order to make them listen.

How do you write one?
Often the most compelling thought leadership white papers come from a real person – a real thought leader. If you can, try to by-line the paper (or at least your executive introduction and your conclusion) to someone senior and credible in your organisation. They can also be the figurehead for other related marketing activities. It should excite people to look at an issue in a different way, and encourage them to believe in your way of doing things. That means the tone should be authoritative, but also visionary.

2. The educational white paper

What’s it for?
As the name suggests, this teaches your readers something they didn’t know before. Often, you may want them to keep the white paper and refer to it later on as a guide. This kind of paper is ideal as the hub of a campaign: the fulfilment piece from a series of emails, for instance. It also works in inbound marketing, as people searching online for an answer to their question may well find it and download it to help them.

What’s in it?
You’ve got to make sure you share something useful, or else the whole thing will fall flat. For example, it can be about:

  • How to do something
    A process or a best practice.
  • The right way to do something
    Changing opinions about an accepted process or best practice.
  • An in-depth analysis of something
    A topical issue, a new technology or an industry, for instance.

How do you write one?
You’re effectively teaching, so you need to make it very clear and easy to follow. Consider using:

  • Descriptive headings, boxes and bullet points
    Draw readers to key points.
  • Diagrams or graphs where appropriate
    Explain things for visual learners.
  • Credible references
    Did your knowledge come from your own research, or elsewhere? Citing reliable sources will give weight to what you’re teaching.

3. The market research white paper

What’s it for?
Educating your readers. If it’s your own research that you’re using, it both educates and demonstrates your thought leadership. It’s also great for PR, as the release of a research report can be announced as news.

What’s in it?
Lots of data, obviously. Far more important, however, is the analysis of this data which typically happens in the long executive summary at the start. Data on it’s own is not particularly interesting; what the data means, however, can be significant, fascinating and newsworthy. Market research white papers are often quite lengthy but most of this tends to be the data, often expressed in terms of graphs of one kind or another.

How do you write one?
There are two ways you can choose to approach this kind of paper one of which is more opinionated than the other:

  1. A pure presentation of your findings and highlighting key trends 
    E.g. Annual SolidSeat Report on Workplace Safety 2019.
  2. A way to back up an argument that you wish to make using your data
    E.g. Removing the Swivel Chair, Protecting the Workforce: Annual SolidSeat Report on Workplace Safety 2019.

4. The problem-solving white paper

What’s it for?
Being really helpful to your readers and solving their problems; typically, something that ‘keeps them awake at night’. In certain circumstances if the subject matter is important enough and the insights challenging and original enough this can even work well for a board-level audience.

What’s in it?
Generally speaking these papers are used to present your innovative approach to solving a particular problem. It should be useful, and might have some sort of formula to follow or ‘step-by-step’ that shows your reader how to tackle the problem you’re presenting. Of course, it will also subtly push your company’s products or services; that is the whole point. It can also be a useful way to demonstrate your wider company values and what you believe in, all in the process of showing that you like to do things in a particular way. This might be differently; it will certainly be ‘best-in-class’.

How do you write one?
Persuasion is the key here. This kind of paper often encourages readers to think outside the box, and attempt to tackle a problem in a different way. To that end, you need to be authoritative and believable, using a mature tone and enough credibility to show you know what you’re talking about.

5. The technical white paper

What’s it for?
This is a deep dive into a specific product or solution and how it works. It is often used to get technical buy-in to support the sales process. Such technical white papers tend to focus on the technicalities of a specific product or service and are aimed at someone who would actually use it on a day-to-day basis. It is also possible to create more generic technical white paper that discusses a particular kind of technology and these can be used create and nurture relationships with important technical influencers.

What’s in it?
A lot of technical information. Typically, it will explain what your product or service is for, how it works, and how to implement it. It can include case studies to show what different customers have done (thereby showcasing credibility), and may contain a diagram or two although we would caution against using too many images which themselves might need to be interpreted by your reader.

How do you write one?
The approach will depend on the objective of the technical paper, but the document will usually be structured around a particular process. For instance, it might start with a business case for implementing the technology, before moving on to how to implement it step-by-step.

6. The visionary white paper

What’s it for?
It was Tom Peters who said that ‘the only constant in business is change’ – and that is especially true of technology sectors. It is therefore often vital that you can reassure you customers and prospects that your products and services won’t date or even become obsolete. This is not just about showing what marvellous visionary minds work at your company: this is about proving that you can be trusted as a partner in the long term.

What’s in it?
Credible, highly innovative insights into the future of your industry or a technology. It’s a version of a thought leadership paper but with rather more blue-sky thinking. This, in turn, makes it even more important to concentrate on ensuring that this thinking is grounded in logic and given credibility wherever possible.

How do you write one?
Well first of all, you need a vision. And it’s got to be a good one, or your visionary paper will end up just being a fluffy story that hampers your credibility. Forming your vision and structuring it into a well thought out argument is essential. Unless you’re already well known in the media for being a visionary business, you will also need one or more thought leaders to by-line your vision to. This will make it far more credible.

In terms of the writing itself, this is a story… so you need to be in storytelling mode. The tone is animated, curious and passionate. It probably includes sentences that start with “Imagine…”, “Picture the scene…” or “Wouldn’t it be great if…”. However, to be taken seriously, you will need facts to back up your vision and to demonstrate that this vision is grounded in reality. Techniques such as referring to academic papers both within the text and in boxes will help to give the credible backbone that visionary white papers desperately need.

Writing Machine Agency has written hundreds of white papers – of all types – for many of the world’s largest companies for nearly 30 years, using our unique Structured Writing Method™. If you want to chat about how we can create exceptional white papers to sit at the heart of your campaigns and content programmes, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Meanwhile, if you or your marketing team are writing white papers, you might be interested in the marketing edition of our Structured Writing Method course, which can be customised for each team to focus on the particular types of content you create.