It’s no secret that white papers are very effective.
But that doesn’t make them easy to write. In fact, the thing that makes white papers effective is what makes them hard to create: they’re lengthy, detailed, and full of convincing research.
And with all the noise online, it’s hard to know what a good white paper is even supposed to look like.
But we’ve got your back.
In our time designing white papers here at Magnnetic, we’ve picked up a thing or two from the dozens we’ve worked on across all industries. Using our experience, we’ve identified the 14 most important white paper best practices:
Use these best practices for white papers to delight your audience, get more leads, and blow away the competition.
Why are you creating a white a paper?
The answer for most businesses is: “to get more leads.”
But what they really want are particular kinds of leads, which implies a particular audience segment, which requires particular messaging. And to achieve that, you need to think hard about who your audience is.
Every segment of your audience has their own agenda. CFOs care about different things than engineers. Sales managers care about different things than CIOs.
Your white paper needs to address a specific segment’s agenda, or it will be ignored by everyone. Trying to talk to too many segments at once means you’ll be ignored by the people you really want.
However, when a white paper is tailored to the needs, objectives, and motivations of a certain segment, you’ll find them magnetically drawn to your offering.
So, the more targeted your white paper, the better. A good rule of thumb is to be so specific that you can name the job title for whom your white paper is written.
White papers have taken on many forms in the current online content marketing landscape.
We’ve seen everything from guides to product manuals and tutorials be referred to as “white papers.”
However, so many of those things are only useful after the purchase. At bare minimum, a white paper must be useful before a purchase is made.
The presale stage is where you educate and persuade your audience. It’s where things like white papers do a lot of the heavy lifting to convince your prospects to buy from you in the first place.
This is one of those crucial white paper tips that has a far bigger impact than you’d guess.
Including the name of your company or product in the title of your white paper makes your white paper seem all about you.
It makes readers assume it’s really just a sales piece in disguise and won’t provide the helpful information they need.
We’ve seen this mistake slash downloads by half.
A simple, easily overlooked mistake like that can cost you one out of every two potential leads!
White papers can be quite lengthy.
And since your target audience is likely strapped for time, you need to make it easy for them to quickly scan the document and find the most relevant or important content to them.
The best way to make your content scannable is to break up your text with plenty of clear, informative headlines.
While each chapter must have its own title, each chapter should also be broken down into different sections, with each section having its own headline.
A reader should be able to get the gist of the entire white paper simply by reading the titles and headlines.
Not only does this make your content easy to scan, it makes it easier to navigate and consume.
For longer white papers, you should also include a table of contents. For more complex papers, you could even include short summary sections in the table of contents.
As part of making things easier for readers, make sure your table of contents is interactive.
Of all the white paper best practices, this one is unique to digital documents.
An interactive table of contents means that each title and headline are linked to its respective part of the paper. So, readers simply need to click on a title or headline to be instantly taken to that section.
This allows readers to easily navigate through your white paper and read the parts most important to them.
White papers are formal documents used in a professional business context.
So, it’s expected that you use the standard third person viewpoint typically used in professional business writing.
While you may think first person such as “I” and “we”, or second person such as “you” and “your”, is endearing, it’s more likely to alienate your readers.
Readers expect a certain formality from credible sources of information, so a casual tone will give them pause.
This is one of those white paper writing tips that can fly under the radar. It feels so natural to use first/second person that they can easily slip into whatever you’re writing.
A white paper should have some kind of abstract or executive summary to introduce itself.
The introduction should act as an overview of the white paper’s main points and entice people to read further.
Without a proper introduction, you risk readers not being compelled to read through the main document.
As far as white paper writing tips go, this one is about as important as having a first sentence.
White papers are designed to provide unbiased, useful information.
They should not be thinly veiled sales pitches.
Instead, position your white paper to help your audience understand an issue and make an informed decision. Educating your audience gives you the most influence with them. They come to see you as a credible authority worth listening to.
When this approach is executed properly, your audience naturally becomes more receptive to your products and is more likely to go along with what you recommend.
By educating early, you have a chance to sell later.
However, if you adopt a sales-pitch tone more fit for a flyer or brochure, your white paper loses its objectivity, thereby (ironically) interfering with your ability to generate sales.
Though white papers are a form of content marketing, it’s best not to think of them as marketing collateral. Instead, they should complement the rest of your sales process.
Among the best practices for white papers, this is perhaps the only one that’s mandatory. It’s non-negotiable.
Strong research is what separates white papers from all other forms of content. It’s the crux of a good white paper.
As such, your research must come from credible sources. There are a huge variety of sources nowadays with varying levels of credibility.
The most credible sources tend to include:
While the least credible are usually:
There are plenty of others that fall between these two categories. Just remember, the more credible a source, the more effective and persuasive it is.
And when you use credible information, you need to be able to prove it by telling your readers where you sourced your information.
Referenced facts, statistics, and quotes in a white paper must be cited in one of three ways:
By necessity, a white paper requires a certain amount space to present an in-depth educational discussion.
A real white paper should be a minimum of about 2,000 words. This translates to around 3-8 pages of real content, not counting additional pages like the cover, table of contents, and references.
While smaller pieces of content can certainly be educational and helpful, it’s a disservice to call them white papers. Such pieces are simply too short to provide much research or reasoned arguments.
On the other hand, white papers shouldn’t rival the Bible in length.
Since white papers have multiple purposes and different audiences, there’s no one-size-fits-all maximum you should look out for.
Instead, try to tighten the focus of your white paper to only a specific topic. Tangents or ideas that don’t directly contribute to your arguments should be separated out into their own white papers.
Also, keep your audience in mind. Busy executives will appreciate brevity whereas a software architect may appreciate a longer technical document.
White papers have a reputation for being dense documents.
But that doesn’t mean that only research scientists should be able to read them (unless that’s your target audience).
Over the last few decades, formulas like the Flesch–Kincaid score have emerged to help measure the readability of text.
These formulas can’t tell if what you write actually makes sense or will be effective with your audience. But they can help you understand how easy your white paper is to read.
There are three basic rules to follow to maximize readability when writing:
Once you have a draft, you can run it through a tool like Hemingway to evaluate and improve readability.
Among all the white paper tips, this one relies the most on your judgment. Readability is a delicate balance between maximizing ease and clarity while retaining integrity and intent.
Editorial styling establishes consistent guidelines for a variety of elements throughout your white paper, such as:
Spelling Style: American or British spellings; e-mail or email or eMail; do you capitalize ‘Bitcoin’?
Acronyms: Does DOA mean Department of Aging or Dead On Arrival?
Lists: arranged alphabetically, chronologically, or random?
Punctuation: do bullet points have capitalization and periods; how are em dashes used; serial or Oxford comma?
It’s impossible to predict all the editorial style rules you’ll need beforehand, so it’s best to create this document on the fly.
As you write, when you encounter an inconsistency or something questionable, decide what makes the most sense for your context and make note of it. Then, each time you encounter something similar, follow the rule you established earlier.
Some issues are so tricky that a professional reference guide may come in handy. We recommend Microsoft’s online style guide.
If you intend to outsource the writing of your white paper, it’s a good idea to check if your writer follows some kind of editorial styling guide. For more tips, see our post about finding the perfect white paper writer.
A white paper should be part of a bigger marketing funnel that drives your audience towards becoming customers.
A call to action (CTA) prompts readers to take the next step that brings them closer buying. For example, perhaps you want them to book a free consultation, try a demo, request a free trial, or simply visit a landing page.
Whatever is the next logical step in your sales process is where your white paper should move them.
But don’t push your audience.
A CTA isn’t a giant “Buy Now” button you can sprinkle throughout your white paper. It should be used once near the end of the white paper. The goal isn’t to make a hard sell, but to encourage readers to take what would naturally be the next logical step.
It’s not the 1920s anymore.
Long gone are the days when white papers were nothing more than huge blocks of text. Today, beautiful design that helps tell the story is required of a good white paper.
You must provide visual relief in the form of several white paper design best practices: bullets, pull quotes, sidebars, charts, graphs, illustrations, and assorted imagery.
It’s a lot to juggle, but these visual elements make it far easier to draw readers in, engage them, and help them consume your content. After all, no one wants to wade through a sea of text.
Due to the complexity of effectively designing a white paper, you might want to bring in a professional.
While we specialize in designing white papers with on-brand charts, graphics, and photos that move and enhance your narrative, you could also hire an independent designer to help you bring polish to your white paper.
And there you have it!
Implement each of these 14 best practices to create incredibly effective white papers that grow your business.
Unlike most “best practices,” we’ve designed this list so that it’s actionable and able to be implemented without the rules conflicting or contradicting each other.
Keep in mind, however, that while each rule is important, they are tactics meant to provide high-level guidance. For a full, step-by-step breakdown of actually writing and creating your white paper, check out our complete guide to creating a white paper.