How to Write a White Paper Your Customers Will Actually Read (Actual Examples Included)

When we were students, thousand-word essay assignments used to strike fear in our hearts.

Now, imagine needing to craft and publish a 3,000-word, beautifully designed digital document that your bosses expect to bring in actual revenue.

Like, real money. In the real world.

Feeling the stress? Well, savvy marketers certainly don’t.

When it comes to lead generation, long-form content like ebooks and white papers – two different sides of the long-form coin – are often their first port of call. It might be the same for you, too.

White papers, in particular, can be frustrating for marketers.

As a specialised tool to be used deeper down in the marketing funnel, not many marketers know how to use white papers properly.

If you’re reading this blog post, you’ve probably wasted time, effort, and budget on poorly executed white papers that landed with a wet thud.

Fortunately, “thud” isn’t a foregone conclusion – you just have to understand the white paper’s real purpose.

What is a white paper?

First, let’s understand the role of a white paper as part of your marketing mix. We can start by defining what it is.

A white paper is a substantial, information-heavy document that:

  • demonstrates expertise,
  • highlights a problem, and
  • offers a specific solution.

By “substantial,” we mean content that can run into multiple pages and upwards of 3,000 words – often more.

Instead of a sales-forward approach, white papers tend to be more solutions-focused, with the goal of nurturing valuable leads for a marketing campaign.

That’s a lot of space to explain a concept, using both text and visuals: many companies use white papers to explain a concept or product in expert detail, with ample support from charts and graphic data visualisations.

To explain the benefits of shifting mainframes to the cloud, this white paper we developed for a client uses 4,000 words and a series of well-placed visuals.

Consider the white paper above on Making the Leap from Mainframe to Cloud. It’s a complicated topic, with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line for each IT decision-maker considering making the switch.

These readers will also likely be very well-informed on the topic, influencing its placement and use in the marketing pipeline. White papers are best placed in the middle to the bottom of the funnel: they show up after an initial pitch has been received positively, and the prospect has said, “I’m interested; tell me more.”

Instead of a sales-forward approach, white papers tend to be more solutions-focused, with the goal of nurturing valuable leads for a marketing campaign.

A quick note on white papers vs. ebooks

Ebooks and white papers tend to be used interchangeably, but they are quite different in their presentation and purpose.

Ebooks are often chosen for their compelling visual presentation, particularly for topics where graphs and visuals can best explain the central concept.

On the other hand, white papers are called in when the concept calls for a wealth of well-researched data and information to drive a certain use case home to the reader.

For this blog post, we’ll be focusing on white papers only.

When white papers go off the rails

Before we move on, let’s take a quick look at the common problems marketers face when developing white papers.

Being able to position a white paper on your marketing strategy is one thing; executing it successfully is another thing altogether.

A good white paper can clearly explain a complicated concept, using its length and breadth of detail to convince its readers of the solution’s benefits. Engaging copy and relevant visual cues keep prospects glued from start to finish.

When white papers fail to accomplish their goals, it’s usually due to one or more of the following factors:

  • Information overload: White papers’ abundance of information can obscure a marketing message, and overwhelm potential leads looking for more easily digestible content.
  • Lack of engagement: Written without proper attention to style and layout, a white paper can end up less engaging compared to other types of content – failing to capture leads’ extended interest.
  • Time and talent gap: Writing an effective white paper takes time, research, and skill. Many marketing professionals don’t have the time or the expertise to write a white paper that will resonate with their target audience.

These may lead to mediocre content that fails to communicate the product’s value proposition, obscures its benefits, and results in missed lead conversion opportunities.

Even worse, this fiasco might induce potential leads to question the reliability of your information and brand – a serious blow to your credibility that may hinder future sales and marketing efforts.

How to attract readers – and keep them reading

To avoid these pitfalls, you need to lay the groundwork for success right at the beginning of the white paper writing process.

Let’s imagine you’re working on a white paper idea – Protecting Connected Medical Devices from Cybersecurity Threats – and you want the resulting paper to be the best read on the topic right out of the gate.

Here’s what you can do.

1. Understand the key concept you’re writing about – and make it your single-minded focus

Start with a key idea and build your white paper around it.

For instance, if you’re writing about cybersecurity for connected medical devices, what single compelling idea can you use as a central concept?

Some examples might include:

  • Rise in cybersecurity threats to medical devices
  • Risk to patients in an insecure medical device environment
  • Top 10 threats to connected medical device technologies

It might take longer to zero in on the key concept than writing the white paper altogether, but it’s time well spent.

Here are some things you can do to help the process along:

  • Try phrasing your message as a single question. “How can you derive benefits from connected medical devices without increasing your exposure to cyber risk?”
  • Look for a content gap to fill. What story about cybersecurity in medical devices hasn’t yet been told? What unique angles can you explore?

You might try “trendjacking”, or riding on a trending news development. The US FDA recently firmed up requirements for medical device cybersecurity, for example: can you be the first to write a white paper that explains the regulatory pitfalls of unsecured medical devices?

  • Envision your target reader. Imagine what they want to know about the product or service you’re covering in the white paper. Consider what you can say to them that will compel them to ask for more information, or finally make the sale – in short, act.

Consider an appeal to fear or guilt as a motivating lever. For this topic, you might say, “You’re on the hook if your patients’ confidential medical information is stolen.”

That doesn’t mean the whole piece will be a 3,000-word guilt trip – but this warning can be a kernel from which the rest of your logical, well-sourced argument can build on!

2. Add contextual and visual interest

It’s almost superhumanly difficult to sustain interest in a 3,000-word piece of content.

That’s why the white paper properly belongs in the latter half of the marketing pipeline, where disinterested audiences have been weeded out, and potential readers are already interested in your topic.

Even then, you should repay their interest (as fleeting as it is) with reasons to stick to the page.

Start with your intro. Try to make it as impactful as possible, without straying from the topic at hand:

  • Ask a provocative question
  • State a provocative fact
  • Have a “hook” in the intro that will keep the reader turning the page

This white paper we developed for employment consultancy Randstad, for example, begins with a two-sentence introduction that sets the stage for the rest of the content.

An example of an impactful introduction. We kick off this Randstad white paper with a hook that sets the stage for the rest of the white paper’s argument.

Now that you’ve got them turning the pages, make the content skimmable. Ensure that the layout highlights key takeaways, in the form of descriptive headlines, and chapter intros with brief summaries.

Work with your layout artist or art director to find text callouts to highlight, or create artwork that can support your data, and remove the monotony of long material:

  • Do you have tables that can be better illustrated in a graph?
  • Are there interview quotes you can highlight as text callouts?
  • Can you generate chapter headings that can communicate the content at a glance?

We used graphics and typography in this white paper for AMD to help sustain the narrative and retain reader interest.

Consider how this white paper on educational technology we developed for AMD (pictured above) deploys graphics to retain interest.

Beyond the illustrative stock photos, the artist deploys tables, text callouts, and different typeface weights to highlight important data and break the content into skimmable chapters.

3. Use empathy to increase your persuasion power

When you write a white paper, you are promising a solution to your readers’ problem.

You aren’t just writing a plain catalog of product benefits – you are actively persuading your reader that you have an answer to a business issue, with the product benefits serving as your “reason why”.

The bulk of the writing work lies in creating a persuasive argument, not in listing the features of your product or service. This requires writing that:

  • connects on an emotional level,
  • shows your understanding of their perspectives and needs, and
  • eventually drives them to act.

To strengthen your white paper’s persuasive power, try structuring your white paper content according to one of the following techniques.


This method takes two contradictory viewpoints, taking each side in turn, and using reason and logic to reach a reasonable conclusion.

This comes in the form of a three-step process:

  1. the starting premise to be proven (thesis)
  2. the counter-argument (antithesis)
  3. a resolution of the conflict between the two (synthesis)

Feel, felt, found

Salespeople use this psychological technique to show their client they understand the latter’s objections, and have already considered how their product offers solutions to those problems.

The name comes from how those objections are addressed:

“I understand how you feel about (state objection)”
“Many of my clients have felt the same way”
“What we have found is (overcome objection)”

Five Whys

This interrogative technique was developed at Japanese carmaker Toyota, and uses repeated questions to get to the root cause of a problem.

The root cause should be apparent by the answer to the fifth “why”.

In the context of a white paper, you can use this technique to drill down to a customer problem and decisively arrive at the root cause they need to fix.

For example, a certain production line is experiencing frequent breakdowns, and the Five Whys investigation can go like this:

Why are there frequent breakdowns on the production line? Because the machines are overheating and shutting down.
Why are the machines overheating? Because the cooling system is not functioning properly.
Why is the cooling system not functioning properly? Because the coolant level is consistently low.
Why is the coolant level consistently low? Because there is a leak in the coolant pipes.
Why are there leaks in the coolant pipes? Because the pipes have corroded over time due to exposure to a corrosive chemical in the production process.

4. Weave a human touch into the material

Until Skynet takes over, white papers are (and will continue to be) read by humans, who strongly relate to content credibly communicated by fellow human beings.

This can be a tall order for white papers dealing with technical subjects. Still, a human angle is never impossible to find: focus on the reader’s needs as it relates to the featured product or service, and how it affects them.

Another way to create human interest: tell your story from the point of view of a subject-matter expert, or an experienced user, who can explain the topic based on their own first-hand impressions.

This white paper we developed for Crestron brings the concept of unified communications “down to earth” by showing the product being used by ordinary people.

Visually, you can also use human-centered photographs or imagery that shows the product in use, or shows the human face of the service in the spotlight (you might show advisors, for instance, performing the service shown in the paper).

5. Put a premium on credibility

No matter how interesting a spin you think you’ve put on the white paper material, you must ensure the material is empirically “bulletproof” throughout, with no opening for eagle-eyed readers to recognise a falsehood or stretched truth.

Once you’ve blown your credibility, there’s no getting it back.

That’s why you should only choose credible sources, or credible expert testimonials. That’s what we did in this white paper on the future of payments for DBS, which supplements its findings with insights from its own management team, effectively explaining particular financial concepts at work.

If you must cite from external sources, use recent scientific papers or other white papers from credible sources (consulting firms like McKinsey and E&Y regularly come out with their own takes on substantive business matters).

Do note that age matters – try to source materials that are less than three years old, but you can make exceptions for older yet still authoritative material.

Make it count

You have 3,000 words and a lot of pages to play with in a white paper, but that’s no excuse for being unfocused or uninteresting.

A visually interesting white paper with a singular message and a human touch may take a little longer to create, but the time you spend crafting the white paper will be outweighed by the positive impact you’ll make on your marketing pipeline and your audience at the mid-part of the funnel.

These tips can help you zero in on the key message, and expand it into a white paper that educates, sticks, and moves your readers to action.

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