Whether you want a white paper designed to generate leads for your business or simply to spark a conversation in your industry, there are certain steps you have to go through to write and publish the white paper. This post was written to remove the mystique of writing white papers and to provide you with some food for thought regarding how they are produced. For the purpose of this discussion, the term “white paper” is used interchangeably with “special report.”
First, let me ask a question: Do you know how many different types of white papers there are?
Without getting too detailed, I’ll describe three basic types of white papers/special reports:
- Backgrounders – A backgrounder is simply a white paper that details the technical aspects of a product or service. It’s a great content product for prospects who are getting close to making a buying decision. The idea is to present an in-depth look into the features and benefits of your product or service without making an outright sales pitch.
- Numbered Lists – A numbered list can be a one-page report or it can be a longer document on the upper range of white paper sizes. The point is to present a set of talking points for anyone interested in your topic. The talking points could be a list of questions and answers, tips on how to do something or do it better, or simply a discussion on an important or controversial matter. It’s a great way to make a big splash if you are doing something different or unique in your niche.
- Problem/Solution – The problem/solution white paper is an in-depth essay meant to persuade your audience to some course of action. You present a common problem and follow it up with an unheard of solution. The problem/solution white paper rises or falls on its ability to use facts and logic to make its argument. It’s a great content product for anyone just beginning their research on the problem, but it can also be marketed toward journalists, bloggers, industry analysts, and your channel partners.
So, how do you go about writing a white paper? I’ll tell you how in six steps.
Step 1: Make an Outline
The outline is designed to give you direction from the outset. If you are writing a backgrounder, your outline will be focused on the features and benefits of the product or service you are discussing. If you are writing a numbered list, the outline is the best time to make your list. In fact, your outline should be your list, or at least closely resemble it.
A problem/solution outline can be simple or complex, depending on how deep in the weeds you want to plan the white paper. You might know, in the beginning, everything you want to say about the problem, or you might not. If so, go ahead and plan the white paper with a detailed outline. If you have no idea how your white paper will come together until you do some research, then simply outline your white paper around two main topics — the problem and the solution. You may add an introduction and a conclusion to that. This type of outline gives you flexibility so that you can fill in the blanks as you make discoveries during the research process.
Step 2: Conduct Research
Research is the most important part of the white paper writing process. This is when you’ll gather most of the information for your white paper. With a backgrounder, you may need to gather up all the specs for the product or service you are writing about. You certainly need a list of features and benefits.
When writing a numbered list white paper, your research will be spent gathering up the details for your list. If you started with a complete list of your talking points, then you just need to research what you are planning to say about them. If your numbered list was incomplete during the outline stage, then you may need to flesh your list out a little more. This type of white paper can be enhanced by knowing what other industry professionals have to say about the points you plan to discuss, so a fair amount of your research should be reading other white papers and blogs about the topic to see what other professionals in your niche are saying.
The research stage for a problem/solution white paper can be tricky. If you started not knowing much about the problem, or if the problem you want to solve is fairly new, then there may not be much information for you to research. You may find it helpful to research other problems businesses in your industry have and the different ways that business leaders have gone about solving those problems. This process could give you some insight into how to go about solving the problem you want to present in your white paper. Besides that, you’ll need to gather up as many facts and statistics as you can, but be selective. You want only those facts/statistics that are going to be helpful to you in writing about the problem and the solution to the problem.
Step 3: Revise the Outline
In step three of the process, you need to review the information you gathered in the research phase and revise your outline as necessary based on any changes you made in your thinking as a result. Research can often make us re-think an issue. Was your original hypothesis correct or was it off a little bit? Maybe it was off a whole lot. Review your material and determine whether or not you need to make any changes to your outline.
Step 4: Write the White Paper
Actually, you’re just writing the first draft. You’ll come back and revise the white paper in the next step, but for now, kick out the first draft of the white paper.
For the backgrounder, it should be fairly simple. You are trying to educate your audience on why a particular product or service is important to them. Your research should have uncovered everything you need to know about that. Your first draft is simply an information dump to get it on the page.
When writing your numbered list, you need to make sure the list items are in logical order, especially if you are writing about a process that involves a sequence. For instance, your numbered list white paper might be a how-to guide. In that case, the list items are going to be the steps you take to do something. In other cases, a list might just be a collection of unrelated facts or talking points. If order is not important, get it on the page as fast as you can.
Step 5: Revise the White Paper
Now that you’ve written the first draft, you’ll need to review and revise the white paper. It might be helpful to pass your white paper around in your office and have as many people look at it as possible. Ask them to make comments on the white paper. What stands out? What is clear in the writing and what is unclear? Is there any information missing? Can certain sections of the white paper be made more concise or fleshed out a little more? The idea is to improve the white paper, so have your subject matter experts look it over and make suggestions.
After reviewing the white paper, take all the notes you’ve gained and rewrite the white paper. You’ll have to make some tough editing decisions in this stage of the process because white paper reviewers can sometimes add details or include feedback that isn’t relevant or helpful. That’s okay; the feedback is still valuable. But the goal of the revision process is to improve the white paper and get it to a near state of perfection. That means sticking with the original goal of the white paper and not including superfluous information just because it boosts somebody’s ego. You’re not writing the paper for your staff but for your prospects. Keep it on target.
Step 6: Design the White Paper
The final stage of the white paper writing process is designing and publishing. Add some graphics to the material to make it more appealing. This can be photos, graphs, charts, illustrations, and other graphics that enhance the material. Remember, graphics are there to enhance the content, not the other way around. Never add a graphic to a white paper just because you want that graphic to be seen by someone. If it doesn’t fit the white paper, don’t include it.
At this stage, you’ll also create the cover for the white paper. That means handing it over to a professional artist who can create a great book cover image for the white paper.
You may also decide to change the title of the white paper at this point. If your original title doesn’t accurately tell your audience what the white paper is about, or it isn’t quite compelling enough, then you can change it. Your white paper title has to tell your audience what the white paper is about, but it must also be so compelling that it entices people to download and read the white paper.
Finally, you’ll add information about your company at the end of the white paper. Keep in mind that the white paper is a sales tool, but it’s not a sales pitch. You want the white paper itself to be objective. At the end of the white paper, you should include an About section where you give the reader details about your company, and that includes contact information for the person you want to capture the leads. It can be a sales manager, an operations officer, or whoever you want to interact with prospects after they read the white paper.
After you’ve done all of that, publish the white paper.
I hope this little guide gives you some idea about the white paper writing process. If you need help with a white paper, give me a call at 717-253-2306 to discuss your white paper project.
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