“No one reads white papers for fun; they read them for work.” So says the man who calls himself That White Paper Guy, Gordon Graham. White papers generally fit into a category of communication called content marketing. Some people have referred to it as “gray literature” because there is usually a slant toward the company that produces it. They are generally used early in a sales process, long before the potential customer makes a purchase. Crafted properly, a white paper can be an effective tool in any content marketing strategy.

History of White Papers

The first white papers were written for government use. One of the earliest of these was the Churchill White Paper of 1922. The purpose of the document was to state the British government’s political position regarding the situation in the Middle East. Later white papers addressed issues in science and medicine. Eventually the white paper became a powerful tool in the IT industry.

White papers have become extremely popular on the web, and their number is growing every day. IT professionals and others have used them to assess their own needs and to make buying decisions. Today they are used in many industries, but they are especially prevalent with makers of computer equipment or peripherals, medical equipment manufacturers, communications and test equipment vendors, technical service providers and consulting companies. (For another popular method of providing information, check out Is It Time for You to Start That Tech Blog?)

Use of White Papers

In the context of IT, as defined by Techopedia, a white paper is “an authoritative guide or report that explains the benefits of a particular technology, product or policy.” They continue to be used in other fields, but they have become especially common in the IT industry.

In an informative white paper FAQ, Graham quotes a survey from Forbes/TechTarget. People read white papers to:

  • Stay on top of new trends (76%)
  • Get information about products and vendors (69%)
  • Compare products (50%)
  • Help justify buying decisions (42%)
  • Develop a short list of qualified vendors (33%)

Roanne Neuwirth tells us more in her article Why White Papers Still Matter: Their Role in Effective Content Marketing. Using white papers is still an effective way to communicate “rich, substantive content,” present new ideas and provoke thought, clearly communicate a point of view, and offer the results of sound research. It is a way to connect to your audience and reach out to your clients. In short, white papers can be significant tools for communicating with high-level influencers and decision-makers across technology sectors. While they may not make for fun reading, white papers can be very useful for your business.

Content Marketing Tool

Where do white papers fit in business-to-business (B2B) marketing? Often running fewer than ten pages, white papers have become a way for a company to demonstrate authority on a particular subject and address an industry need. They can be helpful to establish authors or companies as “thought leaders” in their field. While they are most effective for generating leads, white papers can also be a part of closing sales by providing more technical details about a service or solution.

As Graham explains in great detail, white papers should be distinguished from blog posts, brochures, case studies, e-books and press releases. They are usually provided as PDF downloads, often in exchange for a reader’s name and email address. “A white paper is a persuasive essay,” writes Graham, “that uses facts and logic to promote a certain product, service or viewpoint.”

Providing content to curious readers has proven to be a great way for businesses to get the attention of prospective customers. Content is king, and good writing is preferred to clever SEO tricks. (For more on this subject, see Build Your Business with Content Marketing.)

The Writing Process

There is no shortage of “how-to” articles on the web, and a simple web search about white papers will produce millions of results that will help you learn how to write them. Graham says that producing a good white paper could cost $3,000 to $5,000 for a job that may take weeks or months to finish. While you may want to try this in-house, it is common to bring in freelance writers to handle this work.

Guest blogger Mitt Ray writes on the website Make a Living Writing: “A white paper is a cross between a magazine article and a corporate brochure.” A white paper may be 3000–5000 words long and contain helpful diagrams or illustrations. It should be based on well-established facts and arguments like a well-researched journal article. And white papers should last; when done well they should cover material that can be used for a couple of years. White papers that are interesting and informative will point people to your business.

Conclusion

Just as IT professionals use a variety of tools in their work, marketing and public relations personnel have more than one way to communicate. Disseminating white papers is a common practice for technology companies to reach a particular audience. This targeted approach to technology buyers and technical managers has become a streamlined method in the broad field of content marketing. The continued use and broad presence of white papers gives credence to the idea that they remain a powerful way to grow your business in a competitive environment.