how to write white paper

How to Write an Effective, Engaging White Paper

White papers can be extremely effective selling tools. They can also backfire. Here’s how to avoid that.

White papers are popular marketing tools, particularly for companies selling complex products or solutions. In my experience, they are one of the most effective content marketing tools a company can invest in.

What is a White Paper?

Good question. Search the Internet for the definition and origin of a white paper and you’ll find a range of answers. There is no standard definition – it’s a nebulous term and its meaning can be interpreted in many different ways.

  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary says a white paper is “1) a government report on any subject; especially: a British publication that is usually less extensive than a blue book or 2) a detailed or authoritative report.”
  • Investopedia defines a white paper as “an informational document issued by a company to promote or highlight the features of a solution, product or service.”
  • defines a white paper as “a marketing tool in the form of information on the technology underlying a complex product or system and on how it will benefit the customer.”

The best definition I’ve found, based on the kinds of white papers I’m asked to write, is expert Michael Stelzner’s: “A white paper is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a certain product, service, or viewpoint. The content of a white paper provides useful information for business people seeking to understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.”¹

A Great Way to Build Long-Term Relationships or Brand

Savvy companies create white papers to build long-term relationships with their clients. One company I work with, for example, has built up an extensive library of white papers by reporting on business trends for its customers’ areas of focus. This company sells a financial technology platform and writes plenty of content about the value of the kind of technology it has pioneered for its customers.

But beyond that, the company also wanted to become a “go to” source for its customers to catch up on trends in the financial industry, so it publishes a series of educational white papers that summarizes trends, survey results and other topics beyond the technology platform it provides.

This has proven to be extremely effective in convincing prospective customers that the company is an expert in the financial industry so they can trust its technology platform. This has also worked well to build an ongoing relationship with its existing clients and keep the brand in front of them for future purchases.

Elements of a White Paper

Many white papers are structured around a problem/solution formula. They may include an executive summary, an introduction, the body of the paper which describes the business case in greater detail and the solution to the problem. You can also add many other elementwrite white paperss to the paper to make it more engaging for the reader, such as:

  • Checklists of key elements to look for in identifying a solution to the problem
  • Examples/case studies of successes or failures
  • History or background that has led to the current situation you’re solving
  • Market trends and expert predictions
  • Statistics and charts to build your case

The best white papers, in my opinion, also provide other nonpromotional information that helps give the reader a perspective of the issue it is trying to solve. For example, I’ve written many papers that follow these formats:

  • Best Practices: A white paper featuring “X Best Practices to Develop an Effective Multilingual Online Retail Website” may include background information about the size and growth of the global e-commerce world. It may also cite some examples of failures by companies that failed because they did not follow these practices and a checklist of “must-do” website planning steps.
  • How to Choose: A paper featuring practical advice on how to choose the right accounting software system may include basic tips, common assumptions and gaps in the process that result in a less-than-ideal decision. Again, this isn’t promotional content, but the “war stories” of actual buyers. Some of this material can come from other articles (properly referenced). If you’re the software company writing it, some of it can come from learned experiences from your customers.
  • Emerging Trends: White papers discussing emerging trends and how readers can position their businesses to be prepared for them are also popular. For example, many companies are grappling with the “Bring Your Own Device” world and how to address it in their own workplace. You can research this topic by industry, by statistics and by technology recommendations on the Internet and provide your readers with invaluable background information that will build your company’s credibility.

What White Papers Are NOT

Although it’s true that there is no standard definition of what a white paper is or how it should be constructed, there are some characteristics of what it should not be if your goal is to establish trust with your reader. Following are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Don’t be overly promotional. The best white papers inform and persuade an audience by presenting a solid business case based on facts. It can include about yuyour company, product or service but in an unobtrusive manner. For example, you could provide a company summary with links to your website on the back page of the paper.
  • Don’t try to use a white paper for a sales brochure or vice versa.  You need both, but they play different roles in the buyer’s educational journey. Don’t be too promotional, or your strategy will backfire. If you attract a reader to your white paper and they find that it’s really a sales brochure, you’ll run the very real risk of offending and losing them.
  • Choose the right voice. White papers are often read by executives or senior management members who use them to help to make a well-balanced decision. Don’t write in a too familiar or theoretical style. Write in a direct, concise style that conveys the issues and facts in a straightforward manner.

Well-written white papers are some of the best content marketing tools a company can invest in. They have a long shelf life and the content within them can be used as teasers in multiple e-campaigns to capture readers’ attention and their email addresses.

Try writing a white paper yourself. Think about what you’d like to find in a good one and construct it accordingly.  The good news is, if you’ve never written a one white paper before, you get to be more efficient with every paper you write.


¹ Michael A. Stelzner, Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged, WhitePaperSource Publishing, 2006.


Paula Heikell is a professional content writer and author of marketing book, Mastering Content Generation: How to Write Quickly and Build a Rich Marketing Content Library. To read more of her blogs visit:

  • Rochelle

    October 13, 2016 at 6:13 pm Reply

    This is a really great article – thank you for sharing.

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