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White papers: A step-by-step guide to writing them with examples

White Paper
Topics
What is a white paper and how can it help sales?
How to write a white paper that converts leads
3 examples of white papers to inspire you
Final thoughts

Publishing a white paper builds trust in your company and establishes you as an expert in your field.

White papers are a powerful sales and marketing tool because they provide valuable insights to your target market.

In this article, we’ll share the purpose of a white paper, how to write one that resonates and some great examples of B2B white papers.


What is a white paper and how can it help sales?

A white paper is a sales and marketing tool designed to give the reader a thorough understanding of a specific topic or solve a pressing problem.

There’s no agreed industry standard on what exactly defines a white paper, so it’s common to see some crossover between white papers and other forms of content marketing. What one company calls a white paper, another might position as a special report, a product briefing or an ebook.

Despite this, there are a few criteria that the majority of white papers have in common, including:

  • Long-form content. Most white papers are over 2,500 words and can have a page count in the double digits.

  • Polished format. Readers expect both the content and design to be at the highest standard possible.

  • Factual basis. Rather than relying on opinions and hypotheticals, white papers use solid facts and expert insights to add value.

  • Pre-sale usage. Marketers and salespeople use white papers to help prospects make a purchasing decision, rather than to support existing customers.

Check out our white paper on building an email list as an example of what a numbered list white paper looks like (more on numbered lists below).

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Benefits of white papers

Businesses use white papers to sell new, complex or expensive products, where prospects need an extra hand to make a decision. This makes them particularly popular with B2B startups and technology companies. Prospects download a white paper to ensure they’re up to date on the latest tech, trends and solutions.

Producing a great white paper that explains complex problems in an easy-to-understand way requires significant time and expertise. Companies that are willing to make the investment in producing a white paper position themselves as thought leaders and an authority on the subject.

Downloading a white paper is usually a good signal of buying intent, making them ideal for lead generation. With a gated white paper, businesses can collect prospects’ contact information and any additional details needed to qualify them as a lead. Similarly, you can use white papers as part of an email marketing campaign to nurture existing prospects through the sales funnel.

You can also use white papers internally as part of sales enablement to educate and support the sales team, keeping them up to date on the latest issues and problems that prospects might face.

Types of white papers

Gordon Graham, the author of White Papers For Dummies, breaks down white papers into three categories:

  • Problem/solution. After addressing a recognized industry-wide problem, this type of white paper uses facts and logic to present a new solution. This makes it suitable for prospects at the top of the sales funnel who are problem-aware and are exploring potential ways to overcome that challenge. It may also contain case studies that illustrate the solution’s effectiveness.

  • Numbered list. These white papers provide the prospect with a helpful list of information – whether that’s tips, tricks, benefits, recommendations or any other numbered list of points. The simple format makes a numbered list easy to plan, but it still requires research and fresh insights to stand out from similarly-titled blog posts.

  • Backgrounder. This offers an in-depth look at the features and benefits of a specific product, service or methodology. By sticking to the facts, prospective customers at the bottom of the sales funnel can use this information to evaluate potential solutions and explain the benefits to other stakeholders on the purchasing team.

You can tailor white papers to any part of the sales funnel, but they’re more popular for bottom-of-funnel content. A report from Newline found that prospects were 4.8x more likely to download an ebook than a white paper, but white papers were more commonly associated with prospects ready to make a purchase.

Content formats more likely associated with immediate buying decision

Content formats less likely associated with immediate buying decision

White paper

Tips and tricks guide

Survey report

eKit
ToolCourse
Research ReportNewsletters
Analyst Reportebook
On-demand webinarBook summary
Live webcastCheat sheet


If you’re looking to attract top-of-funnel leads, it might make more sense to position your problem/solver white paper as an ebook instead. For prospects who are further along in the customer journey, the specific and detail-focused information associated with white papers is ideal.

You can download one of our ebooks below, about aligning your sales and marketing strategies, to see the difference.

Download Your Sales and Marketing Strategy Guide

Grow your business with our step-by-step guide (and template) for a combined sales and marketing strategy.


How to write a white paper that converts leads

Prospects downloading a white paper expect something more in-depth and valuable than a typical blog post. Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started.

Step 1: Research

Even if you’re an expert in your field, you’ll still need to do some research before you start writing to ensure you’ve chosen the right topic for the right audience.

Talk with your existing customers to find out their biggest concerns.

  • What challenges keep them awake at night?

  • What technology do they currently use?

  • What questions are they asking?

  • Where are they looking for answers?

Ask questions relating to different stages of the funnel. For example, asking “What was going on in your business when you decided to start exploring new solutions?” will be ideal for coming up with top-of-funnel topics.

Likewise, asking what convinced a customer to choose you over your competitors helps with bottom-of-funnel content.

Once you know your audience and the topics they’re interested in, look for areas where you have a high level of expertise and there isn’t a great deal of readily available information.

Step 2: Break up the topic into manageable chunks

In an effort to create the ultimate white paper and show off your thought leadership, you could inadvertently end up overwhelming your audience with too much information in one go. Start by creating a list of the points you want to cover, then create an outline that presents that information in a logical way.

For example, here’s what the template for a problem/solution white paper might look like:

  • Executive summary

  • Introduction

  • Summarize the problem

  • Explore existing solutions

  • Introduce new solution

  • Conclusion

  • Call to action (CTA)

By breaking down the topic into smaller pieces, it’ll be easier for you to write and for readers to follow.

Step 3: Start writing

Work your way through the outline and flesh out each section with your knowledge and insights. Each section should have a clear purpose and use facts to help the reader achieve their desired goal.

If you do hit a block and feel you don’t have the necessary expertise to cover a specific aspect, don’t hesitate to bring in outside help. Referencing external sources and quoting other experts adds credibility to your white paper, creating a truly comprehensive resource for your reader.

Step 4: Use design and formatting to improve readability

Even the most interested prospect will struggle to read your white paper if it’s one big wall of text. Adding relevant images makes it more likely that the prospect will read your white paper, share it with colleagues and want to learn more.

For example, your white paper could benefit from:

  • A visually appealing cover

  • Photos and images that illustrate key points

  • Product screenshots showing different solutions in action

  • Infographics and graphs to convey complex data

For example, in their “How to hire employees” guide, Xero uses a colorful image to illustrate their top five tips and grab the reader’s attention.


You can also optimize readability by properly formatting the text. Breaking up text with headings and subheadings makes it easier for readers to skim through and get a taste of what they’ll learn, while bullets, tables and checklists can aid comprehension.

Step 5: Distribution and promotion

Rather than only publishing the white paper on your site and hoping your ideal customer finds it, use every possible channel to promote it.

  • Your website. Make your white paper easy to find, such as highlighting it on your home page or using pop-ups to notify high-intent visitors.

  • Social media. Regularly mention your white paper and share highlights with your followers and connections.

  • Email marketing. Use your regular newsletter or an email autoresponder sequence to share your white paper with people on your email list.

  • Sales enablement. Make sure all of your sales team are aware of the white paper, its content and the target audience, so they can use it in their sales process and send it to potential customers who fit the criteria.

  • Landing pages. Create a landing page so that anyone interested can learn more about the white paper and the benefits before downloading it.

Should you gate your white paper and require readers to complete a web form before they can download it? It depends on your objective.

Additional effort (like needing to fill out a form) causes friction, which will likely reduce the number of people who download and read your white paper. An openly available white paper will be seen by more people and can also be indexed by search engines, improving brand awareness and search engine optimization (SEO).

However, if your objective is to generate new leads, requesting contact details is standard practice. As long as your white paper marketing is properly aligned with your business and your customers’ goals, this will be a win-win for both parties.

Common white paper mistakes

Don’t let mistakes derail your entire white paper project. Here’s a brief list of common pitfalls to look out for:

Lack of depth

While other content formats can vary in length and depth, white papers must provide tons of value. Readers expect to learn something new and helpful that they couldn’t find anywhere else. This is even more important if you’ve gated the content. When readers have handed over something of value (i.e. their contact information), they expect value in return.

This starts with adopting the right mindset. Rather than deciding to use white paper marketing on a whim and expecting the project to wrap in the next day or two, take the necessary time to get it right.

Make your white papers as in-depth and value-packed as possible. After you’ve finished your first draft, ask your existing customers to read it and see if they have any additional questions that weren’t answered.

If done correctly, your white paper will be a document that readers regularly return to, rather than another PDF that sits in the download folder and is soon forgotten.

Lack of teamwork

Due to their depth, white papers often require input from multiple in-house sources as well as external expertise. Dealing with these different stakeholders is a skill in itself.

Out of a sample of 300 projects, one study found that one in six white papers were abandoned before completion. Of these failed white paper projects, 26% were down to internal conflict, while 22% were due to the lack of an executive sponsor driving the project.

Simply having someone in place to manage the project and resolve disagreements would have saved nearly half of these abandoned white papers.


Before you write a word, ensure someone has been assigned to take responsibility for the project and that everyone is invested in making it a success.

Sounding like a sales pitch

White papers are a great sales tool. Depending on the type of white paper, they can even focus on a specific product or service offered by your company. Despite this, a white paper should never feel like a sales pitch.

While you can use your conclusion and call to action (CTA) to encourage prospects to learn more about the service or product, 99% of your white paper should be focused on providing valuable insights and information.

By the end of your white paper, the reader should feel like they’ve learned something valuable. This can be difficult to get right, especially if you’re used to creating traditional sales collateral, so get a second opinion. Test the white paper out on existing customers and ask for their honest feedback.


3 examples of white papers to inspire you

If you’re planning a white paper, it’s good to see what others are doing and what’s effective. Here are some examples of white papers that offer great value.

ActiveDEMAND


In its white paper, “Advanced Call Tracking Tips from Best-in-Class Marketing Agencies”, ActiveDEMAND uses a numbered list style white paper to share advanced tips for their target audience (marketing agencies).

This white paper doesn’t rely on fancy graphics, sticking to a couple of simple screenshots to demonstrate some of the tips. By using different colors and font sizes for the text (along with plenty of white space), the content is easy to skim through and absorb. There are also plenty of highlighted examples to help the reader grasp how these tips work in practice.

Although each page has the company branding, the content focuses on best practices without pitching the platform. In fact, the company isn’t even mentioned in the main text until the last paragraph of the conclusion.

By the end of the white paper, readers will have clear ideas of how they can implement advanced call tracking. At the same time, ActiveDEMAND positions itself as both an expert in the field and a potential supplier of the necessary services.

Leadfeeder


Leadfeeder has positioned its white paper, “Selling with Video in 2021: The Ultimate Guide”, as an eBook and ultimate guide on their website (likely because the subject matter is more suited to top-of-funnel customers), but it meets the definition of a white paper. Readers get a thorough understanding of sales video letters and can learn how to do that in their organization.

The landing page explains why the topic is so important and uses relevant statistics to build anticipation for the content.

While 60 pages long, the information is broken down into smaller sections that are easier to digest. These follow a logical narrative, starting with using videos in cold email to scaling up your video prospecting and creating follow-up video demos.

Leadfeeder has teamed up with three other video experts to create this white paper, showing that you can produce a white paper without having to do it all yourself.

Intercom


Intercom’s white paper, “How to Build an Expert Onboarding Strategy”, helps readers solve a pressing problem.

This is the shortest example, coming in at eight pages, but it’s also the most visually exciting. As well as being fun and colorful, the white paper design helps readers understand the framework and highlights goals for each stage.

While they have previously covered the same framework on their blog, Intercom uses this guide to go more in-depth to produce a problem/solution style guide that their target market can actively use as they implement what they learn.

Similarly, if you’re struggling to come up with content for your white paper, look to see what existing content you have and see how you can build it up to be more valuable.


Final thoughts

White papers are a versatile tool for both marketing and sales. They can generate new leads for your business, qualify them and move them through the sales pipeline.

They require a significant investment of time and effort, usually from multiple sources, but can also get great results by providing deeper insights and more value than other forms of content.

For marketers and salespeople willing to put in the work, white papers can be an asset that brings in new leads and increased conversions for years to come.

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