What a white paper is… and isn’t

iStock_000003498229Small.jpgWhite paper downloads are a popular and effective way to generate leads: by offering a potentially valuable piece of content in exchange for readers’ contact information, you get a self-selected group of prospects who are interested in the topic you’re covering. But not all “whitepapers” are equally valuable — and the wrong kind of download can actually turn potential customers off.

Here are some of the key attributes that define a successful white paper.


For prospects to feel like it was worth sharing their contact information, a white paper has to be a serious document. This isn’t a school assignment — there’s no official word count that makes a document a white paper — but if the paper is only 500 words, your readers are going to be disappointed.

Good white papers have breadth and depth: they cover many aspects of a business challenge or technology, and they go into good detail about some of the issues. You don’t have to go into detail about every aspect of your topic, but you should demonstrate an understanding of the entire scope of the problem.

Charts, graphs, and images also go a long way towards making a white paper feel more substantial. Charts and graphs are not only great at conveying large amounts of information — they’re also good takeaways for readers to use to communicate with other decision-makers in their organizations.


Beyond the sheer quantity of information, a white paper has to offer real value to readers to be successful. If your white paper is full of fluff or covers old ground that your customers already understand, they’re going to feel like you’re wasting their time, which is not a good start to any business relationship.

Help readers understand how new technologies will impact their businesses, provide new insights or research, or address specific problems your target audience faces — anything that leaves readers feeling like they’ve learned something that will help them do their job.

Not just self-focused

One of the most common ways companies screw up white paper marketing is to write white papers that are little more than glorified sales pitches. Providing a detailed explanation of a key technology your product uses is fine — hyping your product isn’t.

You don’t have to pretend to be completely unbiased: don’t try to pass a white paper off as neutral research. But separate the discussion of the business problem or technology from coverage of your own products or services.

Avoiding self-hype starts with picking a topic. If you’re trying to write a white paper about how your product is the best for solving problem X, it’s going to be next to impossible – in fact, you’re writing a sales document, not a white paper. Change the focus to talk about how problem X is changing your industry and what steps can be taken to address it, and how your product is one option, and you’ll be able to keep the focus on the reader and their problems instead of your own sales goals.

Original research?

Not every white paper has to contain original research — but it certainly helps. Conduct a survey, study your own sales data, or interview some customers to gather unique data and you’ll be on your way to creating a white paper that prospects really want to read.

If you can’t come up with original research, you can still create a successful white paper by drawing on research and studies from industry organizations and media sources – but be careful. Simply rehashing existing knowledge is going to fall short of the “valuable” test unless you draw new conclusions from it.

Getting started

Of course, just because your white paper meets these requirements doesn’t mean it’ll be an overwhelming success. Check out how to write a white paper or the first key to white paper success and start brainstorming what knowledge you have or research you could do to create a substantial, valuable, externally-focused white paper.

What do you think about white papers for lead gen – played out? Great tactic? Let us know.

Get future posts delivered to your inbox or RSS reader by subscribing now, and follow us on Twitter @BuyerZone.


2 Responses to What a white paper is… and isn’t

  1. Jeff Ogden December 10, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    Good post, Jeremy, but as an experienced white paper author, I believe a good white paper walks the reader from Problem to Solution in an engaging and entertaining manner, using devices such as graphic treatment and expert quotes.

    We also believe that well-respected outsiders command credibility that one could never do in-house.

    Jeff Ogden, President
    Find New Customers
    Host of Mad Marketing TV

  2. Jeremy Sacco December 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Hi Jeff – Thanks for chiming in – I think we’re mostly in agreement here. You describe a specific approach to hit most of the points we covered: a good problem to solution walkthrough would be valuable and not too internally focused and graphic treatments and expert quotes make it more substantial.

    I guess I could see a valuable white paper that was more of an exploration of market conditions, or investigation of a new technology, that might not be a pure problem to solution white paper. But I suppose it’d be easier to write something less compelling that way, if someone didn’t have your experience in white paper creation.

Leave a Reply