The art of creating a valuable white paper is about understanding your customers

Looking to effectively market your communications collateral is an art. Even what may seem like the most inscrutable of decisions can make a huge impact on your results.

Like the inclusion of a single space for instance. According to Google’s data, 49,500 searches per month were conducted for the words “white paper” compared with 9,900 searches for the word “whitepaper.” So adding just one space to that word in your headline potentially opens it up to 10 times the search volume.

Knowing how to drive valuable content to an omni-channel market is tough. White papers are no exception. Good white papers hold relevant points along a buyer’s journey. An excellent white paper must solve a problem for the intended reader or audience. A white paper, if done correctly demonstrates thought leadership and starts the right conversations. It also helps more prospects through your sales funnel.

A bad white paper ignores the above points. It puts out a highly polished product brochure listing specs and proclaiming benefits. Even the most polished graphics won’t change how it will be perceived by the reader. This type of document, though touted as a white paper, will be seen a sales tool that has been injected too soon into the buyer’s journey.

Statistics over the past six years show a five per cent decline in white paper effectiveness year-over-year, according to SiriusDecisions. It’s no surprise, considering that buyers now receive 32 percent more marketing content than just a few years ago.

Yet many white papers fail to have any impact at all. So how do you make sure your white paper is one of the good ones?

Start by asking some hard questions. According to, “17 per cent of 600 white paper writers surveyed claimed four pages as the average length.” 83 per cent of authors surveyed believe that when writers are highly proficient in the subject matter, often longer white papers are produced.

Industry Brains, a company providing advertising and monetization services to publishers and advertisers, believe too many white paper authors have not created a needs assessment. Ask questions about the target audience (primary and secondary) as well as a paper’s objectives. Goals can range from differentiating your expertise to informing as well as introducing your product, your voice, your knowledge.

Gartner and Forrester have the reputation in being top purveyors of written white papers. Both companies show expertise in explaining very complex technologies to the line of business executives, as well as technical practitioners. It is, therefore, important to note that self-styled academic research used to substantiate a company’s value proposition should have some different marketing measurements than the standard activity-based reports covering clicks and downloads. A white paper that truly holds insights should track how many new relationships are being formed by highlighting such thought leadership.

There is a difference between people downloading a paper or pressing “like” on their social button, to becoming a tangible connection because they want to hear more from you. When a white paper is written well, when one can read its intellectual capital, that is when the reader will want to do business with you, even where before you were not on the consideration list. A well-written paper providing answers to questions empowers customers to draw their conclusions.

White papers have always been a marketing tool to help clarify the buyer’s decision-making journey. As many content houses and publishers claim, it begins with “Early Discovery” – the search for new ideas and potential solutions. The decision journey then moves to “Middle Consideration” – is this issue or problem a priority, and if so, who do we call? And finally, it ends with “Final Determination” – a solution is selected with a strong rationale by the buyer.

For myself, as a Publisher and CMO, the lessons are clear.

  • Identify the persona whom the author is writing the white paper for at the beginning of the process. Is it the strategy leader, the technical leader, or the end-user?
  • Remember to identify the subject-matter against the buyer’s journey cycle
  • Hire or use your subject-matter expert to best articulate complex solutions. You can hire a competent writer if the knowledge available is harnessable into the white paper.
  • Identify the problem and give credible options
  • Use rigorous research to back up your argument (cite surveys, credible authors, focus group results, case studies).
    Don’t be afraid to be creative in your presentation. There is a lot of clutter to cut through.
  • Follow-up and nurture an engaged reader.

Look for my own upcoming white paper that will break down the good, the bad and the ugly of white paper creation.

Fawn Annan
Fawn Annan
Fawn Annan is the President and Group Publisher of IT World Canada/IDG Canada, the largest global IT media company located in 87 countries. Its global brands such as CanadianCIO and Computing Canada are written with local views for global IT issues.

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