How to Write Strategic White Papers

If I were to ask you, “What’s the most important part in writing white papers? You’d say…

Recently, I’ve been working with clients who’ve written very good white papers – in the traditional sense – but haven’t seen the returns they expected.

Do they need to change the language, the tone, length or something else?

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Writing White Papers: Mistakes To Avoid

The margin between success and failure is often very thin. When I work with small businesses on their white papers, we usually start by reviewing what they’ve done so far and see:

  • What worked?
  • Why it worked?
  • What had the most impact?
  • Where was it read (and found) most?
  • What did the reader do next?

There’s an element of Sherlock Holmes in trying to work backwards and figure out why the white paper failed to hit the target.

Remember to have a baseline before starting; otherwise, it’s hard to determine your success rate.

Here’s three ways to evaluate your white papers. See if any of these apply to your documents.

White Papers: Failure to Educate

Why do you think decision-makers refer to white papers rather than brochures or case studies, for example?

One reason is that white papers help educate the prospect.

Your reader looks for white papers that will give her in-depth information that shape the decision-making process and reduces anxiety, for example, when purchasing expensive items.

In other words, the value of the white paper is in proportion to how much you can ‘educate’ the prospect.

Of course, not all prospects turn into leads or sales. But, by establishing yourself as a trusted source of information, you position your business as a thought leader, which will lead to recognition within the industry.

White Papers: Failure to Entertain

The word Entertain may seem out of place in a white paper but think about it. David Ogilvy, the advertising legend, warned that, ‘you can’t bore people into buying your product.’

Look at Apple’s products. As well as the slick design, the packaging and user guides are just as wonderful.

Now, look at your white papers. Would you look forward to reading it? If not, why would your customers.

Part of the problem is ‘expectations’. When I started writing white papers in the 90s, they were dry, academic, and long-winded. It was a bit like listening to a lecture. You had to endure it.

Today, ‘expectations’ have changed.

Customers expect a shorter document, written in natural language, with rich media. Recently, we embedded videos into white papers.

White Papers: Failure to Engage

The third point is engagement.

How do you persuade readers to connect with you after they’ve read the document? I’m not sure ‘persuasion’ is the best tactic. Instead, think of creating ‘engagement opportunities.’

Look for ways to sprinkle contact forms, email addresses, and telephone numbers across the document.

Give them different ways to contact you – even if it’s to ask a quick question. Offer a chance to listen to a free webinar; without having to give their email.

Tactics like these disarm the customer and get them, by degrees, into your sales network.


Remember, white papers are developed for high-end products, for example, choosing a content management system, an IT infrastructure, or mobile security equipment.

The sales cycle is slow, rigorous, and often involves several decision-makers. When you see it like this, you realize that you’re not after a quick sale.

Instead, cultivate a relationship.

Develop white papers that educate potential customers, establish your credibility, and enable them to engage with you – when and where it suits them.

What else would you add? What mistakes do you see writers making when developing white papers? Is it the language, tone, length or something else?