White papers have long been a staple of lead generation, thought leadership and branding campaigns in the industrial sector. Effective white papers that provide relevant, educational content to help their target audience solve problems and make more informed business decisions tend to deliver strong results in terms of leads, impact on market, thought leadership, and overall brand recognition for your company.
Yet the market remains flooded with poorly conceived white papers. Some are little more than sales brochures passing themselves off as white papers. Others lack credible evidence or persuasive arguments — and persuasion is the key objective of a white paper.
To help you create effective white papers that achieve their objectives, we’ve compiled this list of tips.
• Identify your audience. Is your audience executive, analytical, or technical — or a combination of all three? The answer to this question will help determine topics and your approach. An executive audience is concerned with top line benefits and return on investment. The analytical audience is trying to solve a specific business or technical problem. A technical audience is concerned with the nuts and bolts details such as how a proposed problem-solving approach technically fits into the company’s environment.
• Choose topics that are important to your audience. One good way to find out what your customers are thinking is to ask them through surveys. A simple survey with questions such as: “What is one problem plaguing you in your industry [or job, or role]? Or: “What is one thing you’d like to see in new products [or technical standards or advancements] for our industry?” Your sales and support teams might also be a good source for ideas, since they are close to the customer.
• Use an accepted approach to white paper development. Here are some of the most common approaches:
o Executive briefing — a short, high-level summary of a specific market, problem or offering
o Business benefits — how a non-technical audience might benefit
o Technical overview — to explain an approach or offering to a technical audience
o Competitive review — discussion of strengths and weaknesses of competing offerings, with the intent to show one as the best choice (a good choice for a third-party written white paper)
o Evaluator’s guide — an explanation of important functionality and features to a buyer who is well along in the buying process
o Position paper — makes the case for a certain approach to solving an industry problem, based on opinion and facts
o Special report — generally tackles a hot or controversial topic for a specific audience
• Create a process and compile a review team. Start with an outline or one-page brief that defines the audience, objective, and content for the white paper. Also, assemble a team of reviewers and approvers who can add expertise and sign off on the final paper. Build a schedule for the writing, editing, and approval stages. Plan ahead. White papers typically take four-eight weeks from start to finish.
• Make it look like a white paper. White papers tend to be designed and formatted to land somewhere between a technical manual and a glossy brochure in the style department. Think serious but not dull. If you don’t already have one, create a white paper style sheet with consistent headlines, sub-headlines, callouts, sidebars, cover sheet, etc., so all of your company’s white papers share a consistent design. Use white space and separation between sections of information. Remember that readers tend to skim and scan white papers just as they do Web pages. Give them visual cues to gain their attention. Use an outside designer if you don’t have the graphic and layout skills internally.
• Consider hiring an outside writer. White papers can consume resources and time, particularly if you don’t have a professional writer on the project. You might want to consider hiring a professional to develop the entire white paper.
• Include your white papers in marketing efforts. Don’t just post your white papers on your Web site and hope that customers and prospects will find them. Instead, make them the centerpiece in marketing campaigns. Promote them through industry e-newsletter advertisements, online banner ads, at online and location-based events, in online supplier directories, and more.
• Extend the life of white papers. Consider re-purposing the content of white papers for Webinars, a series of blog posts, or technical or by-lined articles. If you chose a relevant and timely topic, your audience will always be hungry for the information.