How to Determine When You Need a White Paper

A white paper is a great way to share your company’s insights and expertise on an important topic or technology. But, a white paper isn’t always the right content choice. 

For maximum return on your white paper investment, you need to publish the right paper, on the right topic, at the right time. Here are a few tips to help ensure you develop the white paper you need, when you need it.

Take a Close Look at Your Target Audience

White papers don’t make sense for every target audience. Some people are too busy to read paragraphs of text. Others are only interested in high-level information, or just want to see the tech specs. To help with readability, we typically recommend that white papers are a maximum of 3,000 words, but that’s still too long for some audiences, and too short for others.

Try to detach yourself from the content you want to create and consider the content your audience wants to read. Ask yourself:

  • Are you speaking to C-level executives, technical decision-makers, financial decision-makers, engineers and software developers, industry analysts and media, all of these people, or someone else?

  • Are there other types of content that would be better suited to the role and focus of your target audience? Go beyond text-oriented content to consider videos, podcasts, and webinars.

Review Your Goals

Don’t just write a white paper to tick a box on a list of campaign content. Think about what you want the paper to achieve and how you want people to feel after they’ve read it.

After writing and editing hundreds of white papers for technology companies, we find they typically fall into one of three categories:

  • Strategic white papers provide thought leadership and insight into a new or evolving business trend, industry movement, or market opportunity. These white papers work well when you’re trying to establish credibility in a particular area, or show that your thinking is ahead of the competitions’ and maybe even your customers’. The goal is to let your target audience know you’re already thinking about the big picture so they’re confident they can come to you for guidance, support, and solutions when they’re ready.

  • Technology white papers provide thought leadership and insight into a new or evolving technology area. The goal is to make it clear you understand what the technology is, how it’s used, the challenges that must be overcome, and the benefits it delivers without getting into the technical details. This insight lets your target audience know you understand the strategic, technical, and operational sides of the technology, and are in an excellent position to fully support them with solutions and services.

  • Technical white papers provide deeper insight into how a particular technology or architecture works, and why it’s the optimal solution to a problem. These white papers demonstrate the depth of your technical expertise and leadership.

    The key is to share enough technical detail so readers clearly recognize your expertise and the advantages of your approach without giving away your “secret sauce” – how you achieved the innovations that make your approach truly unique and superior.

If none of these white paper types will help achieve your goals, it’s time to take a closer look at other content types. Maybe an application note is more appropriate, or a video, or an e-book.

Check the Timing

If you release a white paper at the wrong time, it can become lost in a barrage of campaign content, or overlooked because the industry conversation is focused in a different direction.

Here are a few of the factors that can help determine when it’s the right time to release a white paper:

  • You need to clearly state your position and show thought leadership on a current or hotly anticipated trend or technology.

  • You need to counter a competitor’s positioning or approach to a technology or an opportunity.

  • You’re looking to take prospective customers to the next level of engagement on a particular approach or technology.

  • There’s an upcoming industry event, analyst meeting, or media interview that’s a good opportunity to present and promote the white paper and its content.

Decide How Much Information You're Willing to Share

To develop an effective white paper, you must be willing to share your insights, back them up with data and other proof points, analyze the pros and cons of alternate approaches, and take a stance on industry or technology issues. If you’re unable, unwilling, or uncomfortable doing these things, then a white paper probably isn’t the right content type for you.

To help determine whether you’re really ready to write a white paper, ask yourself:

  • Why will people want to take the time to read the paper?

  • What information is in the paper that people can’t easily get elsewhere?

  • What are the top three things I want people to remember after reading the paper?

Consider Your Overall Storyline and Content Strategy

A white paper isn’t a standalone document. It has to fit with the other pieces you’re developing for your campaign.

Think about where people are coming from and the related content they may have read before they get to the white paper. Also think about what you would like readers to do after they’ve read the paper. If the right “before and after” content isn’t available, the white paper investment may not pay off.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • If you’ve just issued a press release stating you’ve set a new speed record for data transmissions, it may make sense to link to a technical white paper that provides more insight into the innovations that enabled your achievement. Or, maybe a strategic white paper that explains the new business opportunities the high speeds enable. These papers emphasize your industry leadership, and will help readers become more invested in your achievement and your company.

  • However, if you’ve just issued a press release announcing your latest product, linking to a white paper likely doesn’t make sense because readers won’t have enough context for that level of information. They need to start with higher level content before delving into a white paper on a related strategy or technology.

Verify You’ve Got Internal Buy-In

None of the guidance here has any value if your internal subject matter experts aren’t able to put time and effort into developing the white paper. They don’t necessarily need to write the paper, but they do need to participate in interviews, review outlines, and comment on drafts.

As your richest piece of campaign content, a white paper is an excellent vehicle to showcase your thought leadership and technical expertise. By asking yourself a few questions before getting started, you’ll be in a better position to extract maximum value from the paper.

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