White papers are weird.
Simultaneously seen as magical cure-alls in the business world and boring formalities by everyone else, white papers seem to lack any formal definition in the world of content marketing.
Traditionally, white papers were used to present market research in a way that supports a specific position.
But, with the explosion of digital content, white papers have evolved into several forms. And each form is designed to accomplish a specific business objective.
Do you want to generate top-of-the-funnel leads? Or do you want to give qualified leads the information they need to make a purchase decision? Perhaps you need to establish credibility and authority in a field with major players? If you have no idea, see our article about content marketing funnels for white papers.
Regardless of your objective, there’s a white paper that will help you do it. Perhaps that’s why whitepapers remain the most popular type of B2B content among both providers and prospects.
Yet, weirdly, there’s not a lot of information about all the different types of white papers.
In this article, we will look at all ten types of white papers that dominate the current digital landscape. At Magnnetic, we’ve encountered many different kinds of white papers, but they all fall under these fundamental ten:
We will also explain how each white paper fits into the standard marketing funnel. The below image gives a quick look at where they fall (WP = White Paper):
So, let’s get started.
The market research white paper is all about data.
But data by itself isn’t very compelling. What that data means, however, can be incredibly impactful. The market research white paper excels at presenting data in a way that could be newsworthy.
But their real power lies in predictions. People and businesses are constantly analyzing their current situation, comparing it to prior experiences, and then predicting what will happen.
These predictions help us act as we parse through the causes and effects in daily life. A good market research white paper will illuminate the cause and effects of the data, so that the audience can predict what will happen next and make a decision.
The market research white paper is used at the highest level of the “awareness” stage in the marketing funnel. It can have wide appeal, making it exceptional at general awareness, but doesn’t directly promote your business aside from being the sponsor of the research and the creator of the white paper.
Here is one such white paper from Adobe:
The state of the industry white paper presents an objective overview and summary of the current state of a specific field or industry.
This type of white paper uses statistics and information from various sources. They commonly make use of quotes from industry experts and analysts.
The purpose of this kind of white paper is to show an audience what is currently the most popular/viable options, common problems, and the best solutions.
The state of the industry white paper should be used only in the “awareness” stage of the marketing funnel. Of the ten kinds of white papers, these are especially useful at reaching new audiences within an industry. As such, this kind of white paper will only use a soft sell. Any promotion of your company or products/services must take place within the context of the entire market.
Here is an example of a state of the industry white paper from SEMrush:
The thought leadership white paper is the trickiest to execute and the hardest to outsource, but is by far the most effective way to establish authority in your industry.
It usually involves bringing a fresh perspective to a hotly debated topic within your niche. You could even start a completely new debate.
This type of white paper is effective because content that can change the world view of your audience, even a tiny bit, has a massive impact on how they perceive you. It positions you as an expert with insights that no one else has. Your business goes from being just another vendor to a sage guide that has the answer to their problem.
But actually deciding on what topic to focus on is what makes this kind of white paper so tricky.
To figure that out, you’ll need to deep dive into your industry and consider common misconceptions and false beliefs your target audience may hold. Also, consider if you already have a means to challenge the status quo or a unique approach to doing things in your industry.
The thought leadership white paper is often used in the “awareness” stage of marketing where building authority is a common priority. However, they can be effectively used in the “interest” stage as well.
Here is an example from TechTarget:
When most people think of a white paper, this is the one they have in mind. It is the standard, original white paper.
The solution-based white paper uses thorough research and cited sources to educate its audience about a particular problem. It then positions your product/service as a perfect solution that’s superior to any other option.
Because these white papers tend to be the most complex and lengthy, we created a step-by-step guide on how to create a white paper of this type.
Solution-based white papers are effective because they take on the role of being a trusted advisor instead of mere marketing collateral. This allows you to subtly exercise a lot of influence over what product/service your audience considers without being salesy.
This white paper type is most effectively used in the “awareness” or “interest” stage of the marketing funnel and can feature a soft or hard sell.
This is how NetSuite does it:
As its name suggests, a reference guide white paper is designed to be a resource to which your audience can repeatedly refer.
Your audience uses it to become better at their trade and, ultimately, more qualified to work with your business.
For example, imagine your business sells cleaning equipment to restaurants. You could create a reference guide white paper that provides inspection and maintenance details for commercial kitchens. It would include tons of documentation and legal requirements that would ordinarily bore an audience to tears. However, it would become incredibly useful to those who need to prepare their kitchens to pass inspection or maintain it afterwards.
Once the restauranteurs are educated about what’s required of them, they’ll be prepared to buy products like yours and inclined to purchase from you since they view you as a credible source.
This white paper type is the best at transitioning a lead from the “interest” stage of the marketing funnel to the “consideration” stage.
While extremely powerful for keeping you top of mind with your audience, the crux of the reference guide white paper is that it has to actually be useful, or else it will fall flat.
Here is a reference guide white paper from mindmatrix:
Listicle white papers use a list-based format to deliver information.
This type of white paper uses humans’ pychological preference for information broken up into discrete categories. They are especially effective because they lure prospects with the promise of good, research-backed information that’s easy to read and digest.
They can be used to nurture prospects and leads throughout your marketing funnel. Here are three examples of listicle white papers you might use at various stages of the marketing funnel:
Awareness Stage: 10 Ways to Keep [specific industry] Clients Coming Back
Interest Stage: 8 Reasons to Outsource Your [specific process]
Consideration/Intent Stage: The 5 Hidden Dangers of [specific product/service]
Here is how Avalara uses the listicle approach:
The product overview white paper educates a non-technical audience on the key features and benefits of a particular product or service.
They are especially powerful for companies looking to disrupt an industry with an innovative offering. It can be extremely difficult to introduce people to the unfamiliar. And it’s nearly impossible to get them to spend money on something they don’t really understand.
That’s where a product overview white paper shines.
When done properly, they not only explain how an offering works, but make clear why it’s a game changer.
But product overview white papers aren’t only good for game-changing innovations, they are effective anytime a prospect needs to evaluate a solution for the purpose of purchasing.
As such, and due to being focused on a single product/service, product overview white papers are effective in the “consideration” or “intent” stages of the marketing funnel. They help decision makers who intend to purchase.
Here is such a white paper from NetSuite partner Protelo:
The technical white paper is a lot like the product overview white paper, but it’s written for a far more technically-inclined audience.
These white papers are usually aimed at end users, such as engineers, who will frequently make use of or come in contact with a product/service.
The purpose of a technical white paper is to give end users the thorough information they need to confidently recommend your offering to management. Like product overviews, they can be used in the “consideration” or “intent” stages of your marketing funnel.
Here’s how Forescout executes the technical white paper:
Case study white papers provide a real-world examination of how a product/service has solved a specific problem for a company.
Unlike a standard case study, the white paper variant must thoroughly establish the problem and its background, like a solution-based white paper would. But the problem must be explained within the context of a specific company.
So, you’ll need all relevant measured metrics and supporting research that can help explain both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the company involved in your case study.
When done well, this kind of white paper is extremely convincing because it is not only backed by hard numbers, but it allows your target prospects to see themselves as the client in your case study white paper.
This white paper type should be used in the “consideration” or “intent” stages of the marketing funnel.
Here is an example from Amplexor:
A product comparison white paper simply compares products/services from competing vendors.
It helps readers weigh the pros and cons of each and ultimately positions your offering as the obvious choice.
Of all the white paper types, this one is most often used the furthest down the marketing funnel: in the “intent” and “evaluation” stages.
They are effective when your audience is already convinced of a solution, but isn’t sure which vendor to choose. Here’s an example from Protelo:
We have covered all ten types of white papers. While there are plenty more variations out there, you’ll notice they are all some version of the above ten, or even a combination.
Still, your choices can seem daunting, especially while trying to incorporate the best practices for white papers. And writing your white paper is only half the battle. You’ll still need to have it designed, perhaps by a professional white paper design service.
But as you create your white paper, the important thing to remember is that each of the white paper types has it’s own specific role in your marketing funnel. Once you determine your goal, you can target any part of the funnel with an effective white paper that can educate, build authority, generate leads and sales, or all of the above.