In this article, you’ll learn the 5 best practices we recommend when developing a white paper.
Let’s see a show of hands, how many people think the term “white paper” originated from the color of the document cover? If you raised your hand, you’d be … correct. Because of course you would be. That’s just the type of creative thinking that went into the terminology. But that’s government for you. You see white papers began as a formal way to document policy in the UK in the early 1900s. To be fair, it did stem from the fact that the British government used a different color cover for their “blue books,” which were a much more extensive type of report and needed a visual way distinguish one from the other. You can’t have two different types of documents running around with the same color cover. But interestingly “White papers have tried to perform the dual role of presenting firm government policies while at the same time inviting opinions upon them.” (Pemberton, John E. Government Green Papers. Library World 71:49 Aug. 1969.) That last bit is intriguing to me. The idea that they were used to create dialogue connects them more to how we think of white papers today.
The Modern White Paper
While white papers, in terms of marketing, seem like they’ve been around forever, the fact is they weren’t widely used until the early 1990s. And back then, these white papers were long-form, text-heavy documents designed to promote a product or service with the support of data and charts. Now on the surface of course there is a big difference between a government issued white paper and one used for content marketing purposes, but in terms of perception in packaging the difference is probably slim. But that’s the stigma I see attached to white papers of old that still perpetuates today.
White papers are heavy in data, heavy in text and heavy in time to consume. In other words, boring. But it doesn’t have to be that way. So I’ve put together a list of five best practices we use when guiding the design, the content and the output of a white paper:
- Be Compelling
- Solve a Real Problem. Don’t Sell.
- Tell a Story
- Good Design is Critical
- Digital First
#1 – Be Compelling
Contrary to the phrase, people always judge a book by its cover. And in a world of content overload, how can you make your particular piece more enticing than others at first glance? The cover. And what better place to make a statement that this isn’t your grandfather’s white paper than on the cover as well. So first and foremost, make sure the cover is visually appealing and compelling with an intriguing, yet relevant visual. The right image or illustration should set the tone and quickly tell the story that will follow. People are attracted to big, bold visuals so take advantage of the real estate you have in your cover. Think of it as more of a novel or magazine cover. One with a singular purpose and vision to get you to open it.
That said, the visual aspect isn’t the only way to get someone’s attention. The verbal side is just as important. So crafting a compelling, consumer-friendly headline is imperative to tying the whole story together. This should be thought of as more of an editorial style headline you’d see in a magazine, as opposed to a straightforward and flavorless string of words. Of course not everything should be “light,” you’ll definitely want to include a more analytical summary, as well as things like authors, editors, dates and even version/edition numbers. (If it’s going to be updated at some point in time). But again, now is the time to catch your reader’s attention. So do it in the most compelling way possible. Remember the 3-30-3 rule.
#2 – Solve a Real Problem. Don’t Sell.
When it comes to topic, it’s of vital importance that you write about something that meets the interests of your clients, not yourself. A white paper isn’t self-serving or self-gratifying. Some might say the goal of a white paper is to “provide unbiased, objective information to educate and inform a target audience, and to demonstrate thought leadership.” So if you find yourself using marketing speak or changing your overall tone from educating on a topic to selling the value proposition of a service, you’re going to lose readers. Your clients are looking to you for insight and knowledge first and foremost, not to be sold on a litany of services or products you provide. So be sure to craft your white paper with buyer insight in mind and support that insight with data. Now, of course, I’m not saying you can’t speak to a set of solutions you provide at all. Obviously the goal of any business is to get more customers. But if your service set is the focus of your white paper, then it really isn’t a white paper at all. It’s an Info Sheet.
#3 – Tell a Story
Don’t be dull. It’s as easy as that. Nobody wants to read the phone book, so don’t write one. White papers thrive when you weave a connective story through the context of the document. A good narrative, as well as good writing in general, inspires, motivates and gets people thinking. You’ve spent the time finding a topic that meets the needs of your clients, so make sure you speak to them like they are sitting across the table from you. It can be difficult to find the delicate balance between being too conversational and too analytical, but it’s worth the effort and you’ll know it when you find it. If you come across like a robot, readers will wonder if Google would have been a better solution to their search. And if you’re overly loose with your tongue, they’ll wonder if you really know what you’re talking about or if you’re just making it up. It’s one of the reasons why real world examples are just as important as underlying data. People love things they can relate to and pie charts, while useful, are difficult to create an emotional bond with. Again, it’s about balance. Yes we need to include hard data, but we should counter-balance those with real world examples whenever possible.
#4 – Good Design is Critical
I’ll start by saying that, yes I know, “good” is a relative term as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But in simple terms, it just means that while you tell your story verbally, don’t forget to tell it visually as well. No one wants to wade through a sea of text. Part of the stigma of an old, traditional white paper is just that. It’s a long series of white pages with line after line of heavy text and a few small supporting charts throughout. Every piece of content (long or short) should be supported with colorful charts, graphics and photos to move and enhance the story being told. You’re doing a disservice to your customers and your clients if you don’t take the time to visually enhance your content. If you don’t mind the analogy again, the more you can treat your content like an editorial magazine spread or article, the better. Breaking up your text with large call outs, insightful quotes, inviting illustrations or photos and not straight out of the box charts is imperative to creating an immersive content experience. And don’t forget, one of the easiest and best ways to break up long text documents is with interesting and informative headlines and sub-heads. We like to say that content “skimmers” read through the sub-heads. Meaning those strapped for time or maybe with a very specific content need, will skim to get the idea or find just what parts are relevant to them. Ultimately making the content easier to consume. So don’t leave them behind.
#5 – Digital First
It may sound strange for a content type with “paper” in its name, but in this day and age you must put the digital experience first. It’s always best to assume that a reader’s first interaction with your content will be on a computer, tablet or phone. I mean, what content isn’t nowadays? And I know what you are thinking. Anyone who’s read a blog or any standard content delivery website, you know just how difficult it can be to create a unique online experience. We’re tied down with page restraints everywhere we look. H1 styles, block quote styles, UL/OL styles, size restriction on images, etc. — the list goes on. It’s why some of things we discussed above are so important to create an experience that really grabs the reader. And if the content is long, like over 5,000 words long, we would suggest you use a sticky table of contents that allows the user to easily navigate through your content. It’s just a simple way to get to what matters most to you as a user. Given all that, I would be remiss if I also didn’t recommend providing a printable PDF as a secondary companion piece. After all, your clients will be looking for things to read on that next cross-country flight.
So now that you’ve got all the building blocks, go out there and create some long-form content that doesn’t bore half the population to sleep. Remember, you’re not writing the original Winston Churchill White Paper of 1922, so go write something exciting. All you need is a compelling introduction/cover, an insightful topic, a story-like narrative and intriguing graphics/design all wrapped in a box with a shiny digital bow.