Man reading white paper

What Are White Papers in Business and How to Use Them

Does your business sell to other businesses? Is the product or service you offer new, complex, or expensive?

If so, white papers should be part of your content marketing strategy. Useful, practical, and educational, they are one of the most sought-out content types by B2B buyers

Unlike company brochures or other sales materials, which focus on companies and what they’re selling, white papers focus on customers’ need for trustworthy information from reliable sources. 

They expand B2B buyers’ understanding of the problem they are trying to solve and available solutions. They provide them with facts and figures they can use to make informed purchase recommendations or decisions.

What are white papers in business?

In White Papers for Dummies, copywriter and white paper expert Gordon Graham, aka “that white paper guy,” defines the white paper as “a persuasive essay that uses facts and knowledge to promote a certain product, service, or solution to a problem.”

It’s an essay, he explains, because it’s lengthy—at least 5 pages long—and somewhat formal.

It’s persuasive because its intent is to sell—albeit indirectly since it’s an educational document, not a sales pitch.

It uses facts and knowledge, i.e., information backed by research, as opposed to opinions or unsubstantiated claims.

A standard marketing tool for B2B vendors, white papers are an example of inbound marketing, a business methodology for attracting customers through valuable content.

They also go hand in hand with the idea, popularized by StoryBrand CEO Donald Miller, of customers as heroes and companies as guides.

When we position our customer as the hero and ourselves as the guide, we will be recognized as a trusted resource to help them overcome their challenges. Positioning the customer as the hero in the story is more than just good manners; it’s also good business.

Donald Miller, Building a StoryBrand

The value of white papers

In the last decade, business buyer behavior significantly changed. Whereas in 2008 a B2B buyer would typically reach out to the salesperson when they identified a need for new software or tools, today, they’re more likely to do extensive research on their own before engaging with a sales representative.

That’s where white papers come in handy. Gordon calls the white paper the “king of content” because it’s one of the content formats B2B buyers trust the most when gathering information about enterprise solutions. 

According to a Demand Gen survey, 71% of B2B buyers turned to white papers in 2018 to gain in-depth insight about a product or service.

By making white papers available to customers at different stages of the buyer’s journey, companies can build consumer awareness, or mind share, and position themselves as experts.

“When I was a marketing executive, my team tried everything in the playbook (…). The two tactics that topped everything for generating leads and building mindshare were case studies and white papers.”

Gordon Graham, White Papers for Dummies

Type of white papers online

According to Gordon, you’ll find three types of white papers online today:

  • “Backgrounder” white paper
    The most traditional type of white paper, a backgrounder describes the features, functions, and benefits of a service or product. It’s essentially an in-depth analysis of a solution.
  • “Numbered list” white paper 
    This popular style of white paper presents useful information in the form of a list of questions, points, issues, or tips. It’s easy to skim and to digest and can be incorporated into other styles of white paper.
  • Problem/solution white paper
    A problem/solution white paper is the most information-dense of all white papers. It analyzes a problem, provides an overview of the existing solutions, and introduces a new or improved solution.

Although all formats are useful, Gordon believes that some are more suitable for specific stages in the buyer’s journey. We’ll look at this in more detail below, in How to use white papers for marketing

But first, let’s explore some of the common problems of white papers online.

Common problems with white papers online

Although white papers are an exciting opportunity for vendors, they don’t generate results unless they are engaging and persuasive. When they are not, it’s usually due to one of the following reasons:

  • They are actually sales pitches in disguise 
    Heavily focused on selling, these so-called white papers often have misleading titles. They frustrate buyers looking to expand their knowledge of a problem.
  • They make too many unsubstantiated claims
    “Too much hype, not enough proof” is common in so-called white papers put together hastily for lead generation.  They frustrate buyers looking for objective, trustworthy information from credible sources.
  • They focus too much on the vendor
    Me, me, me. When vendors use the precious real estate in white papers to talk about themselves — their company history, the awards they’ve received, and how amazing they are — they bore B2B buyers and lose their business.

To prevent these mistakes, Gordon advises companies and writers to keep this in mind when creating white papers: “An effective white paper helps prospective B2B buyers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.”

How to use white papers for marketing

White papers can be used at all stages of the buying process or sales funnel.

Top of the sales funnel

At the top of the sales funnel, white papers can be used to:

  • Generate leads
  • Educate salespeople and partners
  • Expand into neighboring markets
  • Build awareness of a company, product, or service

Style recommended for this stage: Problem/solution; numbered list

Tip: If the goal is to generate leads, you’ll want to design a landing page with a registration form. If the goal is to build awareness around your company, brand, or product, however, eliminating the need for entering information in exchange for your white paper will result in more downloads and increased mind share.

Middle of the funnel

Throughout the sales funnel, white papers can be used to:

  • Cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) over competitors.

Style recommended for this stage: Problem/solution; numbered list

Bottom of the funnel

At the bottom of the sales funnel, white papers can be used to:

  • Equip buyers with essential information about a solution.
  • Help close a sale.

Style recommended for this stage: Backgrounder

Steps to creating a white paper

Below is the process for creating a white paper, as outlined by Gordon in White Papers for Dummies:

  1. Assemble the team
    The team is usually made up of a writer, a designer, an illustrator, one or more subject matter experts, and reviewers
  2. Set up a kickoff meeting
    Schedule a conference call to get everyone on the same page about the goal and audience of your white paper.
  3. Research
    Start collecting information from web research, interviews with experts, and company materials.
  4. Prepare an executive summary
    Write a one-page summary of the white paper. Circulate and approve.
  5. Create the first draft and graphics
    Complete the first version of the white paper, illustrations included.
  6. Get first round of feedback
    Circulate your first version. Resolve comments and clarify any unclear or contradictory feedback.
  7. Create second draft
    Incorporate feedback to create the second version of the white paper.
  8. Get second round of feedback
    Circulate the second version. Resolve comments and clarify any unclear or contradictory feedback.
  9. Collect and check sources
    Double-check sources and compile them for easy reference. 
  10.  Create final copy of white paper
    Generate a final PDF. 
  11.  Wrap up the project
    Make payments, negotiate permissions, and conduct a post-mortem of the project.

Tip: Optimizing your white papers for search engines is crucial to their success. Learn how to make your white paper SEO-friendly in 10 Essential Steps to Optimizing your PDFs for Search Engines.

Interested in exploring white papers as a marketing tool?

This was our introduction to white papers. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be covering more aspects related to white papers, including the different white paper styles and how to choose the best for your needs and how to plan, produce, and promote business white papers.

If you’re looking for a way to make editing or enhancing white papers easier, check out PDFpenPro. With PDFpenPro, you can create a table of contents, add links, headers, and page numbers to a white paper in seconds. Download a free trial.