Quick Guide to Writing White Papers that Convert

B2B content marketing expert Stephanie Tilton provides quick and easy tips for writing white papers that make an impact in this latest how-to guide in OpenView’s Content Snapshot series.

For years, white papers have been a staple in the content libraries of companies selling complex products and services. And with good reason: white papers offer the perfect venue for exploring an issue in depth.

We all know that today’s self-empowered buyers are seeking out more and more information online. In a world where inbound marketing plays a critical role in business success, white papers help companies generate awareness, demand, and leads. This 8-step guide will provide you with the tips you need to produce a top-notch white paper quickly and effectively.

Getting Started

Before getting started on a white paper, you need to consider what you want it to achieve:

Lead Generation

Because the ultimate goal of most white papers is to generate new leads, your white papers must:

  • Explore problems and issues that are top of mind with the target audience
  • Reflect the language used by prospects and customers as they seek information on these topics
  • Incent readers to want to take the next step, whatever that may be

Thought Leadership

In order to qualify as thought leadership, a white paper must accomplish one of two goals:

  • Reflect truly innovative thinking on an existing big issue
  • Address a new issue that stands to have a major impact on organizations or the marketplace, at large

In other words, it needs to be visionary.

Once you have ironed out your goals, you could simply choose a topic and start writing. However, that’s not exactly the most strategic way to go about producing an outstanding white paper.

To be truly effective, you need to research your topic, recruit subject matter experts who are willing to contribute, and draft an executable plan.

Following the step-by-step instructions below will put you in much better position to create a highly effective white paper that educates, resonates, and motivates your buyers.

Step 1: Understand Your Audience

Unfortunately, many companies define their audience in generic, high-level terms, such as “the CIO” or “enterprise architect” at a small or medium business, or the “business decision maker at large insurance firms.”

It’s not enough to aim a paper at someone simply based on their title. Doing that doesn’t tell you enough about the reader and it can easily lead you to wrong assumptions about where the audience’s interests lie.

That’s where buyer personas come into play. A buyer persona is an archetype of the ideal customer. The beauty of a persona is that it enables you to get inside the head of your prospects and walk in their shoes. By changing your perception of the reader from a vague, faceless entity to one you can actually envision and relate to, you can produce papers that resonate with your prospects.

You can develop buyer personas through one or more of the following:

  • Conduct interviews and/or surveys with customers and customer-facing employees and partners
  • Consume research into buyer behaviors and preferences from the likes of TechTarget, IDG, Eccolo Media, and UBM TechWeb, to name a few
  • Analyze keyword trends using tools like Google Insights for Search
  • Hire an expert focused on developing buyer personas

Step 2: Conduct research

Once you understand who you’re trying to reach and what’s top of mind, you can research the chosen topic. Start by reviewing existing materials and conducting online research. Any information is fair game, from internal memos, email messages, and meeting minutes to presentations, blog posts, webinars, and conference speeches, to name a few.

As you review the information, keep an eye out for varying perspectives and opportunities to fill the gap with an interesting angle. Jot down questions as they arise. If they aren’t answered in any of the materials, you may have uncovered an opportunity to provide a unique perspective that dovetails with your company’s expertise.

Step 3: Interview Subject Matter Experts

3 Companies Publishing Great White Papers

Marketing automation software company Eloqua, whose Grande Guides have contributed an estimated $2.5 million in annual contract value.

Scense, a user workplace management company that syndicates its white papers via social content network Papershare.

Supply chain management company Kinaxis, which does an excellent job of aligning its white papers with its customers buying cycles.

Next, you should interview subject matter experts to round out your understanding of the issue and to help flesh out key messages and talking points. It’s a good idea to send the interviewees a list of questions ahead of time so they can think through the topic before you engage them. Make sure you address any gaps you identified after reviewing the background information.

As you conduct the interview, probe on salient issues and points that you uncovered during your research. Remember to delve deeply enough to gather information that will make a difference to the reader. For example, instead of saying to the interviewee, “tell me about topic X,” ask:

  • “Why should the business decision maker at a large insurance firm care about topic X?”
  • “What will happen if this person doesn’t address the issue or seize this opportunity?”
  • “How have other large insurance firms benefitted by tackling this issue?”

The idea is to cover all the questions you anticipate the reader would pose.

Step 4: Develop an Outline for Review

Once the interviews are wrapped up, distill all the ideas you’ve gathered from both internal and external resources to create an outline. A well-written outline serves four main purposes:

  1. Ensures you have a firm grasp of the topic
  2. Gives you a chance to confirm you have background information needed to develop the draft
  3. Provides an opportunity to get up-front agreement from all key participants about the points to be covered
  4. Accelerates development of the first draft

Make sure the outline is comprehensive. If it’s thin on details, your reviewers won’t be able to determine whether or not you’ll be hitting all the right points. It’s also dangerous to assume that everyone knows precisely what details will be covered on any given issue — you need to spell everything out.

As you’re writing the outline, think back on your ideal reader and remind yourself constantly about that person’s issues and concerns. Also, do yourself and the reader a favor by focusing on one theme. Otherwise, your paper will end up muddled. If you have a lot to cover, consider writing a series of white papers.

Lastly, circulate the outline to the people who will be reviewing the white paper draft. That way you can get up-front agreement from key stakeholders before you invest the time to write that first draft.

Step 5: Create a Project Plan

Next, develop a project plan to keep all stakeholders on track. The schedule should lay out each milestone — when the first draft will be delivered, when feedback is due, when the second draft will be delivered, and so on.

If you need to finish your paper in support of a marketing campaign or event, draw up the schedule with that in mind. Many white paper projects get derailed when reviewers aren’t available to provide feedback and because of that, projects drag on.

Share the schedule with reviewers ahead of time and remind them of due dates when you distribute drafts for review. Don’t forget to account for the time needed to get your paper laid out and printed. And hold all participants — yourself, all reviewers, and the designer — to these dates.

Step 6: Write the Copy

Because of short attention spans and busy schedules, a good length for white papers is generally 5 to 8 pages, so aim for that range.

Now let’s talk about key elements:

  • Executive summary: According to MarketingSherpa,“The abstract page (or exec summary) is often indexed by search engines,” and it’s also the thing that will likely entice the reader to consume your paper. By focusing on the paper’s salient points, you should be able to convey the essence of the paper in a few paragraphs. Be sure to embed keyword terms and phrases that your prospects are searching on so that your paper rises to the top of search engine results.
  • Headings and subheads: Use these to succinctly describe each section – and convey the key message.
  • Call-out boxes, quotes, bullets, tables, and graphics: Pepper the paper with these to showcase important points and highlight key messages. Drawings, charts, or photos can also help explain critical information.
  • Footnotes: Include comprehensive footnotes for every third-party quote or stat to add credibility to your argument.
  • Conclusion: While your executive summary gives readers an opportunity to figure out whether or not to read your paper, your concluding summary pulls the paper together for them. In essence, this section summarizes the top points in the paper and ends with a key takeaway, or the most important message. Highlight the takeaway as a callout so skimmers don’t miss it.
  • Call to action: End your paper with a call to action that guides the reader to the next logical step. The intended audience for the paper — including where readers are in the buying cycle — will determine your recommendation. For example, if the readers are business decision makers at the beginning of the buying cycle, you may want to encourage them to sign up for a webinar or to download a customer case study. Whatever you suggest, spell out how the prospect will benefit by responding to the call to action.
  • Title: It may seem counterintuitive, but you should only title the paper once it’s been completed. After all, the process of writing the paper and immersing yourself in the topic should spark ideas for how to best encapsulate the theme.Think about your title as providing insight into what the prospect will get by investing the time to read your paper. And you can make sure your title stands out from the crowd by including keywords that prospects are likely to include in their online searches.

Step 7: Circulate, Review, and Revise

Send the completed draft out for review along with instructions for providing feedback (e.g., “Turn on Track Changes in Word before making any edits and respond to questions in the margins”) and a due date. Tell reviewers to spend sufficient time reviewing the first draft to catch any significant issues. Reviews of subsequent drafts should be focused on fine-tuning the wording, not making major changes to content.

Gather feedback from all stakeholders before revising your draft so you can make all changes in one fell swoop. Be sure to clarify any vague comments and get agreement when two or more reviewers provide conflicting guidance.

Once you’ve incorporated all feedback, repeat the process. If your outline was on target, you should only need to produce two or three drafts before finalizing the copy.

Step 8: Publish and Promote

You’ll get more bang for your buck if you start promoting the paper before it’s developed. Seed the topic ahead of time in blog posts and relevant discussion forums, such as LinkedIn groups or wherever your prospects spend time online.

By jump-starting a conversation around the topic, you may unearth points to cover in the paper. Plus, the audience will be more receptive to the final paper if they know it’s coming and have been following the discussion.

Once the paper has been laid out and published as a PDF, promote it through various channels:

  • Create a landing page
  • Issue a press release
  • Write blog posts/articles based on different sections of the paper
  • Syndicate the white paper (for syndication options for B2B technology marketers, download this free report)
  • Tweet details from the paper (e.g., “Did you know for each message transferred between two systems, over 1,000 pieces of data are exchanged?”) with a link to download it
  • Post it to the online communities where your prospects and customers spend time
  • Run a pay-per-click ad
  • Send links to the paper via email, email signatures, and your newsletter
  • Ask relevant partners to promote the paper via their channels

If you’re a good social-media citizen and have already established relationships with influential bloggers who typically cover your paper’s topic, you might consider sending those people a preview copy.

Additional Resources

Don’t Miss the Other Guides in our Content Snapshot Series

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What is the most compelling white paper you’ve come across? Please share your examples below!

Photo by: tiz

Stephanie Tilton
Stephanie Tilton
B2B Content Marketing Consultant

Stephanie Tilton is the principal consultant of Ten Ton Marketing. Stephanie has been immersed in the world of marketing for over 20 years, in roles as diverse as competitive analyst, marketing communications, and product marketing. Harnessing her unique blend of technical knowledge, marketing savvy, and writing skills, she has crafted winning communications for leading brands such as Akamai Technologies, Compuware, EMC, Novell, SAP, SAS, and Symantec.
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