What is a White Paper?

Updated: February 07, 2011

I define a white paper as "a document between six and ten pages whose purpose is to educate, inform, and convince a reader through the accurate identification of existing problems and the presentation of beneficial solutions that solve those challenges." There are several aspects that make the modern commercial white paper unique from other forms of business communications. These include the following:

1. A Condensed Size — Today, the length of a commercial white paper is typically between six to ten pages, with the majority under eight pages. While early white papers were much longer, often encompassing tens if not hundreds of pages, the amount of time and attention that most of today's business executives have set aside for reading large volumes of complex information has made these large versions virtually obsolete. Marketers must realize that any white paper that is greater than ten pages will probably not be read in its entirety given the business commitments and amount of time that today's business reader can devote to reading complex information.

2. Fact Orientation — One of the primary attractions with a white paper is its ability to provide educationally related content that leverages facts to validate claims and build reader credibility. This is a very unique approach as compared to other, more traditional business communication vehicles such as articles, brochures, advertising, web sites, and blogs whose main purpose is to promote a company, brand, philosophy, or approach by making a connection through a visual or emotional appeal. With a white paper, any subsequent call-to-action, such as visiting a Web site or contacting the sponsor, takes place once the viability of an advocated solution has been established through the presentation of fact-based information.

3. Cross Positioning — The white paper is the only medium that occupies the middle ground between diametrically opposed sides of business communications. On one side, there are highly technical documents, such as user manuals, technical primers, or research documents, whose primary intent is to educate by providing pure, unbiased facts. These documents present information without a personal opinion or conjecture. Most are absent visual enhancements such as layout or design that could be used to evoke an emotional appeal. Any graphics in these documents are often very simple and are used as a means of reinforcing the factual data presented in the white paper. On the other side are highly impressionable documents such as brochures, Web sites, flash animation, digital audio and video, broadcast commercials, and interactive multimedia. The primary purpose with these mediums is to appeal to audience emotion, elicit a positive impression, and build brand affinity that will ultimately result in an additional action or response, such as contacting the sponsor or purchasing a solution. White papers occupy the space between these two polar opposites and borrow certain attributes from both sides. From the technical side, white papers educate and inform their readers through the logical presentation of factual data and information. On the emotional side, white papers use visual enhancements such as charts, graphs, and illustrative design to build affinity and create a positive appeal whose purpose is to elicit a call to action.

4. Unique Appeal — The term white paper creates the perception of a premium document of highly valuable information with a unique appeal. When the label white paper is used on the cover of a document, it is understood that the context, format, and presentation of the information contained within it will be of a higher value than other mainstream business information sources. With this in mind, many marketers often leverage the term white paper as part of a product launch, new business strategy, Web site campaign, or other critical strategic initiative to attract new customers. Other mainstream communication vehicles such as brochures, articles, annual reports, 10K statements, case studies, PR announcements, Web sites, or technical primers do not hold a similar premium image or value in the eyes of a business reader.

5. Logical Flow — A good white paper will walk a reader through the logical flow of information, starting from broad industry issues, proceeding to background information and statistics, and ending with more specific problems and business challenges associated with the topic. Once these issues have been identified, a well-written white paper will then present specific solution-oriented information that discusses how the previously identified challenges and problems can be resolved by the implementation of the advocated solution.

6. Broad Audience — The methodical flow of information equally appeals to both the uninformed and the well-informed reader alike. Using a step-by-step approach that presents background information, problem assessments, and solution advantages, any type of professional reader should be able to read a white paper and walk away with a similar level of knowledge on the topic. This unique approach, which is similar to presenting a legal case in a court of law, allows business marketers to use a single white paper to reach a broader audience for their solutions than if they had written two different documents for separate customer segments.

7. Unique Presentation — The unique manner in which both text and graphic information is applied to the presentation of business information allows the reader to fully comprehend the key issues surrounding the white paper topic. For example, most white papers will often use the following elements to aid in the information delivery process: summaries (both executive and concluding), callouts (also known as pull quotes), bullet lists, graphics (business, concept, and descriptive illustrations), tables, shaded text boxes, and a host of additional formatting options. No other business communication vehicle offers its readers such a wide variety of information formats and techniques.

8. Wide Use — There is no other single business communication medium that is as multi-faceted and has as many uses as a white paper. The development of a single white paper can be used for both online and offline marketing tactics that include a Web site lead generator, printed collateral, direct mail campaigns, e-mail marketing campaigns, trade show distribution, a sales call leave-behind piece, a supplement for a live or online presentation, or an attachment for a single e-mail message. By regularly updating the information contained in a white paper, the investment made in its development can continue to provide a significant return on investment year after year as marketing plans and requirements change over time.

9. Greater Measurability — In comparison to other traditional marketing mediums, like print and broadcast advertising, that use arbitrary measures of effectiveness such as cost-per-thousand or estimated viewership, white papers provide a more accurate measurement of effectiveness. Because the majority of white papers are distributed online, white papers can be offered via a corporate Web site, public forum, or paid content syndication provider. It can also be "ReTweeted" (RT) or forwarded from one user to many others via social media sites such as Twitter. This enables marketers to count the number of clicks, downloads, or ReTweets (RTs), especially if a Web site landing page is referenced as a call to action in a concluding summary. White papers can also be offered via search engines, where the number of visitors that click on advertisements for the white paper can be measured and compared over time. As a result of these unique attributes, white papers provide as much value to their marketing hosts as they do for their target business audience, a key attribute that is quite rare in today's business marketplace.

10. An Evolutionary Medium — Due to its use of the Internet as a primary means of distribution, white papers are continuously evolving to accommodate new technologies, approaches, and designs that improve reading and comprehension. As new online communication techniques become popular, white papers are often quick to incorporate them. When commercial Web sites became popular in the mid- 1990s, white papers were shared online. As the Adobe Acrobat PDF file format was released, white paper marketers quickly accepted the new standard, and it became an easy way to format and distribute white papers for online viewing. When audio podcasts became popular, marketers developed audio versions of printed white papers. As social media sites have become popular, marketers are quickly moving to adopt the white paper medium as an integral part of business message delivery. This process will continue to evolve the white paper medium as new online technologies are released.

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