8 Rules for Powerful and Effective White Papers

By Stephen Dupont, vice president, Pocket Hercules

White papers are one of the most powerful and effective tools to attract new customers, and engage existing customers in a deeper dialogue with your brand.

A white paper is long-form content that enables your organization to share technical expertise on a particular subject, insights about a new trend, or a point-of-view about a specific issue, question or cause.

Organizations use white papers to engage current and prospective customers and influencers with the intent of persuading them to buy a product or service, donate to a cause, or vote in a manner favorable to the interests of the organization.

For example, a technology company may use a white paper to persuade other companies to adopt a particular type of technology standard to simplify choices for the customer. A nonprofit might use white papers to share a point-of-view about an issue or cause to engage existing or new donors. Or, a public policy organization may use a series of white papers to influence legislators about legislation on an economic or social policy.

What ever the intended purpose of the white paper may be, if used effectively, it can influence the decision making process of the customer, donor, voter or influencer who reads it. Likewise, white papers can help educate an organization’s sales force, increasing their effectiveness in delivering service and, ultimately, closing more sales sooner.

shutterstock_304582661White papers have gained an almost “trendy” reputation as a form of content marketing. A growing number of marketers and communicators are plugging them into their annual marketing plans, but often with less than satisfying results. The big problem is the focus on the tactic without a clear strategy to provide guidance as to “why” a white paper should be part of the overall content or marketing strategy. That’s a clear oversight, especially since the average white paper requires about 40 hours of work.

“Many organizations create white papers and other content without a strategy that provides the framework for getting the right content, to the right people, at the right times, for the right reasons,” says content strategist Meghan Casey, author of The Content Strategy Toolkit. “’For the right reasons’ is the most important part of that equation, because without clarity about the ‘why,’ it’s almost impossible to meet a user’s needs or achieve the desired business goal.”

So how can you create more effective white papers that enhance your organization’s reputation and deliver more leads? Here are eight rules to consider:

  1. Not “one and done.” Developing long-form content requires a big investment of time. When done right, a white paper involves a lot of research, writing, editing and design. So it always surprises me that after an organization makes all of that effort, issues the white paper and moves on to other projects. Often overlooked, the beauty of a white paper is that it provides an organization with a content platform that can be modified to meet the information needs of multiple stakeholders. In other words, after you do the hard work of writing a white paper, it can be chopped and diced into more “snackable” forms of content (e.g., infographic), or it can be turned into other forms of content, such as a video, a podcast, a webinar, a slideshow, or a presentation at an industry conference.
  1. shutterstock_270479384Write for the reader. White papers should look at a problem or issue, first and foremost, from the customer’s standpoint. In other words, you must demonstrate clear value for the time that a customer or influencer is willing to invest in reading your white paper, just as you would in demonstrating the value of your product or service. Start by asking this question: What is my customer’s greatest challenge? Build white papers to address your customer’s most critical needs and highlight, ever so subtly, how your organization, its people, and your product and service can help meet those needs.


  1. Market the content. We know it’s important to market a product or service, so why not apply the same principle to your white papers? The intent of a white paper is to build deeper dialogue with an existing or potential customer. If the content adds value to a customer’s decision, then it should be marketed like a product or service. Consider appropriating a percentage of your marketing or communications budget to promote your white papers, through such means as bylined articles in industry trade journals, Google Adwords, LinkedIn ads, Facebook ads, email blasts, banner ads on consumer or B2B websites, or print ads.
  1. Seek outside experts. When you’re developing a white paper, don’t rely solely on the internal experts within your organization. Including quotes from experts outside your organization is important for two reasons: 1.) It adds more credibility to the white paper, and 2.) It allows your brand to tap into the fan base of your experts, potentially exposing the white paper’s content (and your expertise) to new audiences. Don’t forget: sometimes, it’s helpful to interview a group of outside experts as part of preliminary research to understand if a white paper is even needed.
  1. Provide practical, actionable steps. White papers can certainly address theory or unique points of- view, but many readers want specific information they can act upon. And they want it now. In addition to actionable steps, include a call to action. Spell out what you’d like the user to do next in terms of his or her relationship with your brand, cause or candidate (e.g., call me, email me, download this, etc.).
  1. Longer may be better. I’m often asked, “How long should a white paper be?” My answer is that it should be as long as it needs to be to deliver the value a customer expects. Sometimes that means it’s five pages and other times it might be 20. Like any piece of content, it must engage the reader within the first 30 seconds (think awesome headline) and continue to engage throughout. Contrary to popular thought, research indicates that white papers, along with other types of long-form content, such as detailed articles and video presentations (e.g., a TED Talk), are often shared at a rate far higher than shorter forms of content.
  1. Make it “sticky.” White papers should be intellectually challenging, but they shouldn’t be a workout that leaves the reader sore and unsatisfied. In a world where many of us scan first and read second, be cautious about relying on technical jargon and acronyms that can shut a reader down quickly. Instead, focus on making the white paper an enjoyable reading experience. This doesn’t mean dumbing down your content. Use headlines and language that invites the reader to go deeper into the document – just as you would when you start to read a book. If it doesn’t grab you right from the start, and continue to do so throughout, then why do it?
  1. Think change. What is the one thing that all CEOs must grapple with? It’s change. Change in regulations. Changing technology. Change in how products are packaged or distributed. It’s important to think in the present, but it’s equally important to position the information in your white paper in the context of where things will be.

The bottom line here is to go back to the basics. Think back to the Five Ws and How when you start your white paper to create on that is most effective. Spend more time at the start to clearly articulate why your customers need a white paper, how it will advance the dialogue between your organization and your customers (or other stakeholders), and how it reflects your organization’s brand. Consider how your white paper will make your organization and its people more likeable and trustworthy. After all, people do business with those whom they know, like and trust. Your white paper should be an extension of who you are and what you want to be.

Stephen Dupont is vice president of public relations and branded content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a Minneapolis advertising, PR and digital marketing firm. To reach him, visit www.LinkedIn.com/in/stephendupont or stephendupont.co.

© 2015 Stephen Dupont

Written by Stephen Dupont

Stephen Dupont, APR, Fellow PRSA, is vice president of public relations and branded content at Pocket Hercules, a Minneapolis branding and creative firm. He blogs at www.stephendupont.co.