Writing Effective White Papers

The white paper is a very popular marketing tool for companies wishing to promote a new product or service. An effective white paper gets your company and product noticed. But writing a successful and interesting white paper isn’t particularly simple. There is a certain accepted structure that it is generally wise to follow. Also, the language must strike the right cord with your intended readership.

By Ivan Walsh

In the IT industry, the white paper has become a popular tool to promote a product or service and is frequently used in tandem with case studies and other sales material.

In this article, I'll show you how to write an effective white paper that gets your company noticed, as well as the pitfalls to avoid if you're new to this area. Like other types of publications, such as case studies, the white paper has an accepted format that is recognised by its readers. Stick to this approach. Readers are familiar with this style and will expect it from you. Only very experienced writers should try more adventurous and radical formats.

Before You Start
Define your target audience. Once you have defined your audience, you can begin to tailor your material to reflect their needs. It's very important to stress this point. Many novice writers - especially those with a technical background - will focus on the low-level aspects of the software or technology. Avoid getting stuck in the details. Though this has its place, it's probably not here. Executives, and those in the management layer, are your target readers. So, write with them in mind.

Determine Your Topic
Next, determine the main topic for your white paper. This may sound obvious but many writers overlook this and ramble from one vaguely related subject to the next. Keep to one topic per paper. Avoid the temptation to discuss other features, functionality and innovations. Stay focused.

Setting Objectives
Write your white paper so that it achieves several objectives. For example:

  • Establish yourself as the definitive authority on the subject in question, that is, that you stand head-and-shoulders above the competition in this area.
  • Create awareness of a new market trend and/or product offering.
  • Demonstrate how you are uniquely qualified to achieve this objective.

Ensure that decision makers select you over competitors by providing them with persuasive arguments backed up with trustworthy references.

How to Structure Your White Paper
Every white paper has the following sections:

  1. Introduction: This opening section covers the high-level issues and trends in the industry that you are involved in. It may also include recommendations or conclusions you have made about the topic.
  2. High-level solution: This describes the relevant technologies at a high-level, especially those you have designed and intend to promote. Support your arguments with tables, charts, and graphics. All of these add weight to your argument and provide a contrast to the main text.
  3. Solution details: This explains how the service, technology or business model works. This is the heart of the white paper. It provides very detailed descriptions of the proposed solution. You can also use tables, charts and graphics for this section, with cross-references to external supporting documents if required.
  4. Business benefits: This discusses the return on investments, usability and adherence to standards. Customer quotes are always very helpful. It demonstrates that you are an authority in your field and can back it up with these endorsements. Don't take references for granted - not all your competitors will be able to supply such endorsements.
  5. Summary: Close the paper with a concise summary of your main points. As many readers will skip the entire document and read this section only, summarise the main selling points about your solution here.

Here's a suggestion: write the summary as if it were an entirely standalone document. Distil it into one page and conclude with the single most important point that you want the reader to remember. If this section is compelling enough, you might persuade them to go back and read the entire document.

Finally, remember that your white paper is a sales document; it's not a technical guide. Once you have finished it, leave it aside for a few days. Then go back and read it. Now ask yourself, "Would I buy this solution?" Hopefully the answer is "Yes."

If not, don't be too hard on yourself as it takes time to write a persuasive white paper. Instead, identify the areas you feel are weak and go about strengthening them. Soon, you'll have a nice, sharp document that you can proudly stand over.

Ivan Walsh helps people create winning proposals, write corporate blogs and sell digital products online. His website is http://www.ivanwalsh.com.

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