The Winning White Paper: Five Questions to Ask Before You Start

About Author:

Hugh Taylor is President of Taylor Communications.  A twenty-year veteran of marketing communications, Taylor writes marketing copy for technology companies. Check out Hugh’s new white paper, Getting to Yes with Business Decision Makers.

White Paper Writing 101

In Brief – A guide to thinking through the process of writing a white paper to ensure the best marketing outcomes:

  • Establishing the purpose of the paper
  • Determining the right theme
  • Getting the length and depth of detail right
  • Understanding the intended audience

I’ve been writing white papers for B2B technology marketers for many years.  It’s a variegated format, one that serves different purposes in the marketing process.  That variety is both a strength and a weakness for marketers, however.   It’s versatile, which is great.  At the same time, the size of the blank canvas can be intimidating.  Without good planning and direction, the white paper can become a costly document that does not achieve its desired marketing objectives.  To help my clients avoid this trap, I’ve developed a white paper discovery process that consists of five questions. It pays to go through this discovery process before commencing the work itself.  It’s not overly elaborate.  Rather, these five questions comprise a simple concept and positioning exercise that sets the project on course for best results with the paper’s intended audience.

  •  What is the topic of the paper?  I like to ask this question first, but I know that the answer will change as we discuss the next four questions on the list. A white paper’s subject is determined in an iterative process.  The topic evolves through the discovery process as you refine the purpose of the paper.
  • What is the primary purpose of this paper?   What are you trying to accomplish with this paper?  A white paper needs a reason to exist.  Is it for lead generation? Will it be a paper that is placed behind a “Registration Wall” to induce potential readers to part with their contact info for a chance to see it?  Is it intended to be a piece of sales support “air cover” that helps bolster a pending deal?  Are you trying to assert thought leadership or showcase expertise in a particular subject area?  Are you trying to offer in-depth technical education on a specific topic of interest to your clients?   Each purpose requires a somewhat different approach and execution.  Your answer can of course be “All of the Above.” It is possible to combine these goals, but the best papers are written for a specific primary purpose, with secondary agendas taken into consideration but not emphasized about all else.  A related question is, “How will you promote this paper?”   A paper intended for lead generation needs to be sexier than a paper designed to show off technical expertise.    A lead generation paper should engender some intrigue and mystery.
  • What length do you have in mind for the paper? This is simple question that requires a simple answer.   Beneath the surface, though, length is a proxy for many different issues that need to be thought through for a winning white paper.  How deeply do you want to delve into your topic?   The answer should also relate to the previous question. What are you trying to accomplish? If you want to show off in-depth technical expertise, you won’t do very well with a three page paper. Conversely, a 32 page doorstop won’t do your sales team much good unless they are in a highly technical sales discussion with engineers.  Then, there’s budget.  Length and budget go together. What level of investment do you want to make in the paper?
  • Who is the intended audience for this paper?   An effective white paper should be understandable to a range of different readers.   You won’t manage to get every single reader to comprehend every nuance of the paper, but the paper should still be created for a specific customer persona.  I have found the following buckets to be useful in thinking through intended audience types:  Technical Decision Maker (TDM), Business Decision Maker (BDM), Senior Business Manager (C-Level), or specialized reader, such as developer, architect, network operations person, information security manager, and so forth.  Some marketers like to use a common hundred-level shorthand to communicate the intended reader.  A 200-level paper is relatively non-technical while a 400-level is for engineers.

These five white paper discovery questions run together.  If you do the process right, you’ll answer each one more than once, learning and reshaping your answers as you hone in on the mix of topic, depth, audience and theme that will give your paper the most impact.  Ultimately, the process is designed to give you the best results for your investment in a paper, landing your most important messages with the right people.


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