What Is a White Paper?

It is common to think of white papers as a very long article (long-form content). After all, they do discuss a specific topic in length and are published on your business' website, as a page or as a blog post. There doesn’t seem to be any difference and often white papers are thought of being “just articles”.

But they are not. There are some important aspects of a white paper that make it different and valuable for your business, above what a simple article can do. It is a much more powerful way to generate leads and thus a good ROI. Big companies aren’t shy of spending anywhere from $2000 to $10000 for a good, well researched white paper. That is way above what a normal article would cost, so it’s easy to ask why are white papers so much more expensive?

What are exactly white papers?

First of all, a definition.

A white paper is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a certain product, service or viewpoint

Credit to Gordon Graham.

As we can see from this definition, we are talking about an “essay” and we deal with “facts and logic”. That alone will make you guess that when thinking of a white paper, fact-checking and a more formal tone are involved. And that’s true. But beside that, ask 10 copywriters their definition of a white paper and you’ll get 11 different answers :)

White papers can be highly technical
White papers can be highly technical

We’d need a more precise definition. A few characteristics of a white paper can be agreed by all upon though, they can help us pinpoint exactly what a white paper is:

  • The content is authoritative. A white paper is not a casual article about an issue, but it is a thorough analysis of a topic, product or service connected with the business it was commissioned by.
  • Impartiality. Whereas a white paper is written by a copywriter for a business, it shouldn’t be partial to the views and needs of that specific company. It is not an advertisement. It wouldn’t be an authoritative source if it wasn’t also impartial.
  • The tone is definitely more formal in a white paper than in your general blog article. Somewhat close to a technical manual or a brochure rather than an engaging post for casual consumption.
  • Length. A white paper has no precise standard in length but it’s generally agreed upon that to be authoritative, thorough and fact-checked, it is impossible for one to be shorter than 6-8 pages. It can go up to 100 pages, making it basically a short ebook. It is normal to have a white paper at around the 3000-5000 words mark and going up to 10000 if needed.
  • The format is dry but can be also colorful. Like a brochure, a white paper can be commissioned to be distributed at trade fairs or as press kits, and those tend to be a bit more vivacious in terms of aesthetics. More commonly though, a white paper is available as a PDF on the business' website and is rarely as full of photos and colours as a brochure.

This gives us a much clearer idea of what is a white paper.

What is the purpose of a white paper?

A white paper is a lead generation tactic to help businesses gain leads.

That means that a white paper helps businesses to increase their conversion, closing and qualification rates. They are what technically is called a lead magnet and offered as a free incentive on the business' landing page.

White paper researcher
White paper researcher

White papers are the leading way to prove authority in the industry. They show that a company is reputable, trustable, and takes good care of the processes behind their business. In poorer words, the people behind the company know what they’re doing.

This in turn increases the trust of potential customers in the company and its products and services. More trust = more conversions. The ROI for white papers is huge. Think of how a white paper can increase your visibility:

  • Bloggers citing it, usually for free
  • Social media sharing and liking the document
  • Media covering it
  • Influencers promoting it

Even if only one of these channels gives traction to the white paper, the return of investment would be large.

White papers are commonly used in email marketing, to collect more potential leads by offering a free download of the paper after having filled a form. An example from Parker.

Google publishes white papers. Why shouldn’t you?

Who reads white papers?

Plenty of different people. The most common are those who are contemplating the purchase of a new or complex product or service that can help their business. These people can include but are not limited to:

  • Corporate executives
  • IT managers and staff (those making technical decisions and recommendations)
  • Managers, in general
  • Users
  • Finance executives

Between large and small companies, these roles may be separated or held by the same person. Some overlapping commonly happens.

You know, those kind of people
You know, those kind of people

These different people read white papers for a multitude of reasons, most importantly to stay on top of new trends in the industry, get information about products and companies, compare them, and help justify buying decisions.

If the idea of making a new trend in your industry entices you, a white paper is how you’d do it.

Why a white paper instead of a simpler article?

Mostly because of authoritativeness. An article takes little time. Even the most well-researched don’t take more than 10-20 hours in total and they’re fleeting content, content that is meant to be read once, rarely twice. Blog articles are an awesome way to build an audience and capture leads, but a single article won’t be able to do what a single white paper can. Articles need to be refreshed after a few months and a blog need to be constantly updated to be worth it.

Nobody reads a blog that was last touched in 2015. A white paper can still be valuable information even a decade after it was published.

In contrast with normal blogging, a white paper requires weeks of work, done by more than a single writer sometimes, with interviews, researching, outlining and drafts being discussed and improved. It’s a long process which justifies the higher rates asked by freelance writers to write a white paper.

Writing a white paper may not involve using a microscope. May
Writing a white paper may not involve using a microscope. May

A white paper comes as a way to create an influence on your industry, inform the managers, technicians and executives of a new trend or product and generates an amount of trust in your company that a blog, no matter how well written and researched, cannot. White papers are read by higher-level people, not just users. A manager of a big company isn’t going to read a 500 words short article in your newly published blog, but they will read any white paper in the industry they can get their hands on.

A white paper shows that your company is a reputable one in the industry, knows the products and services it offers very well and is not afraid to lead other companies.

That is, to sum it up, the primary reason why white papers exist. If you think that’s something you may want for your business, contact me for a free consultation.