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6 Best Practices for Your Most Effective White Paper

At this point, you know way more than most freelance writers do when it comes to white papers!

You now know the different kinds of white papers that exist, who you’re writing for and to, and why your clients want the white paper. And you’ve got your arms around all the sections of a white paper.

You even know to conduct research that really makes prospects trust your client’s guidance.

In this Lesson, you’ll polish that white paper to a fine shine and wow your clients, using these six best practices.

Best Practice #1 ─ Match The Paper Type to the Client’s Use

In Lesson 2, you learned the three main types and two sub-types of white papers:

  • The Problem/Solution [and sometimes the Problem/Solution-Numbered List] is used early in the buyer’s journey (top of the funnel or ToFu) to attract prospects looking for a solution to a problem but may not know your client has a solution … they may not even know about your client at all.
  • The Numbered List is used in the middle of the funnel (MoFu) to help prospects nearly ready to buy but looking for more information before they make a purchase decision.
  • The Backgrounde r [and sometimes a Backgrounder-Numbered List] is used late in the buyer’s journey (bottom of the funnel or BoFu) to bring together the information needed for that final, confident purchase decision.

Now comes the question: how do you know which type of paper to write for your client?

They’re not likely to know unless they use a lot of white papers. So, you’ll need to help them decide in your role as a savvy white paper consultant.

You’ll ask them questions such as:

  • What will the reader know before they read this white paper … where are they in their search for a solution? Remember where in the funnel each of the types of paper falls (ToFu, MoFu, or BoFu) – that’s your clue to what kind of paper to write.
  • What do you want the reader to take away from the white paper? This can help you decide whether to include a Numbered List or not, or whether to make it just a Numbered List paper.
  • What do you want the reader to do next? This answer also gives you clues to where in the funnel this paper falls. Further research by the reader means it’s probably either a Problem/Solution or Numbered List kind of paper. “Contact the sales team” or “make a purchase” means it’s probably closer to the bottom of the funnel.

Based on these answers, you can match the paper type to the client’s needs.

Here’s an example of how the answers to those questions help you figure out what kind of paper to write.

Below is a white paper from Dale Carnegie, a professional training and personal development company.

Employee Engagement White Paper - Creating Cultures that Engage and Retain Millennials & Generation Z - cover image

Here are the questions you’d ask your client (Dale Carnegie) and the clues to how they answered (assuming the writer gave them what they wanted).

What did the reader (likely a company or organizational manager) of this paper know before reading it … where were they in their search for a solution? We can assume they had a problem with disengaged employees, especially in their younger employees, and maybe even high turnover. And they were just starting to search for possible solutions; maybe not even sure how to find them at this point. That’s a strong indicator for a top of funnel Problem/Solution paper.

What did Dale Carnegie want them to take away from the paper? After talking about how their research indicated that younger workers needed to feel more engaged at work, this white paper gives advice to readers on how to meet the emotional drivers of engagement for Millennials and Gen Zers. One of those pieces of advice, shown by the red circled paragraph below, is for companies to offer the kind of training and opportunities younger workers prefer.

Dale Carnegie & Associates offers such services. It’s clear from analyzing this paper, Dale Carnegie positioned this paper for lead generation … bringing in potential leads for their leadership, public speaking, and communications programs. Again, lead generation is a strong indicator that a Problem/Solution paper is the right choice here.

What do you want the reader to do next? Dale Carnegie wants the reader to research companies who offer the kind of training Millennials and Gen Zers need to feel more connected to their employers, because they know their services meet the need. That, combined with the strength of their brand, will hopefully entice the reader to look into Dale Carnegie programs.

Based on the answers to the above questions, the copywriter who created the Dale Carnegie paper created a paper that:

  • Discussed how workers’ interests change over time as they progress through their careers (background)
  • Shared research data and characteristics of Millennials and Gen Zers (background)
  • Reported on the key drivers of engagement for employees at all stages of their careers (problem)
  • Then discussed how supervisors can engage individual employees (solution) empowering them, giving them access to valuable training, and connecting them to the company through cascading goals
  • Summarizing that though stereotypes can be helpful to understand what motivates employees at an overall level, it’s still critical to get to know each employee’s personal motivations and have systems and processes in place to support them

Ask your client questions until you’re sure you understand what your client wants their white paper to do. It’s a substantial investment for your client, so this upfront work is critical to the success of the project.

Best Practice #2 ─ Prove Your Point

You learned in Lesson 4 how to conduct research and how to track it. And you learned that because white papers rely on your research for their credibility, you’ll need to include citations in your paper.

You can get that research into your paper in different ways.

You can use footnotes showing the original source information at the bottom of each page.

You can use endnotes or bibliographies, where the original source information is collected in one list at the end of the white paper.

Or you can just cite the source within the paper.

All three methods are used. All three methods are acceptable. But there are consequences to each choice.

When you use footnotes or endnotes/bibliographies, your reader will see the superscript, like it is here.1. For most readers, this is less distracting. They can tell there’s a supporting resource, which they can check out if they want. But they’ll probably keep reading either the whole page, until they get to the footnotes or the whole paper, before they get to the endnotes.

But if your target audience are detailed readers, you may want to consider in-text citations. Otherwise, you risk them flipping back and forth between the paper and the footnotes or endnotes. Detailed readers, especially technical readers, will check out your sources to make sure what they’re reading is giving them credible information.

You know, as a copywriter, that you don’t want anything to stop or distract your reader, because it’s in those instances where you’re most likely to lose them. You want them pulled through your writing from beginning to end.

So, a more user-friendly way to include your citations is to put them right into your writing.

Here’s an example from our Cresta white paper on how to close the sales performance gap:

Instead of citing the CEB Challenge Sale data as a footnote, they include it right into the text “According to research published by the CEB in “The Challenger Sale” …

Your client might have a preference or a standard they use, and you’ll need to abide by their standard. And sometimes it will be better to use footnotes or endnotes, but where you can, in-text citations help you keep your reader where you want them, reading your paper.

Where might it be better to use footnotes or endnotes? If your sources are pages from academic papers or more “complex” citations, it wouldn’t make sense to include it within the text.

The citation above from the Cresta paper flows nicely within the text, sounding natural.

But let’s take this list of sources, endnotes, from the HP paper about EHR Change Management …

Not only are many of these sources long and complex, they’re pretty boring. In-text citations like these would detract from the flow of the paper. So footnoting, or even better, endnoting them, was probably a better choice to keep the reader engaged.

Best Practice #3 ─ Write Perfectly Targeted Headlines

Your headline is the first thing your readers will see ─ and the first thing that’ll make them want to read the paper.

So, use these best practices to make sure every white paper headline you write has the biggest impact.

If you’re not familiar with AWAI’s The 4 U’s™ of Headlines, they’re:

  • Useful – does the headline tell the reader the content will be useful to them?
  • Unique – is the headline something everyone seems to be promising, but rarely delivers? In other words, have they “seen” this before?
  • Urgent – does the headline give them a reason to read the paper right now?
  • Ultra-specific – is the headline specific enough so the reader knows the content will answer a question they have or be of value to them in solving a problem?

To grab attention and generate immediate interest in your white paper, you should always try to incorporate as many of these elements into your headline as possible.

First, the most important thing to think about when you’re coming up with a headline is: who’s your target reader?

For instance …

If it’s an IT professional, your headline can be more “techie” speak, so it’s relevant and helps them feel comfortable that the paper will be worth reading.

If it’s a busy operational manager, it should make a promise that helps the manager solve a problem or improve an outcome.

Let’s look at a headline from our white paper swipe file and analyze it against our best-practice guidance.

“Four EHR Change Management Mistakes and How Your Medical Practice Can Avoid Them”

This is the title of the white paper HP published to help sell their software, hardware, and services healthcare platform to managers.

First, how do you think it did against AWAI’s The 4U’s criteria?

Is it useful? Yes, it definitely is. It promises to provide medical practice managers with useful insights on how to avoid business mistakes.

Is it unique? Yes, it’s not a promise or claim people in the industry see all the time (and have learned to ignore).

Is it ultra-specific? Definitely. There are four change-management mistakes medical practices can make and HP can help those practices avoid them.

Is it urgent? That will depend on the reader in this case. If they’re about to go through a change-management process, this will be “required reading” for them. If they’re not, there’s really no reason for them to read this paper at this time. But they’re also not HP’s target reader anyway. The target is someone who needs a solution NOW. So, although it doesn’t say “Hurry” or “Buy Now before they’re all gone” … the nature of the promise has inherent urgency for the target market.

This looks like a solid 3 or 4 out of 4 … a well-written headline.

What about the other part of our best practice guidance? Is it clear who the target reader is?

No question: right in the headline, the target reader (medical practice personnel) is called out.

This is an extremely effective headline. And what else do you notice about this?

No hype. No overpromising. No tricky or clever wording.

It makes a straightforward promise to solve a problem or worry the reader has, and it’s very clear about the problem and who the reader should be.

Exercise #7

Analyze These Headlines

For these headlines from our swipe file … how do they rate against AWAI’s The 4U’s? And is it clear who the target audience is in each case? If you think there’s anything missing or if the headline could be stronger, practice re-writing it.

  1. Good Salesperson, Bad Salesperson: Closing the Performance Gap – from the Cresta white paper
  2. Creating Cultures That Engage and Retain Millennials and Gen Z – from the Dale Carnegie white paper
  3. Global Dietary Supplement Market Trends: Insights and Market Analysis from Around the World – from the Wellmune white paper
  4. Reach Local Pet Parents on the Go with Veterinary Mobile Website Wellness – from the LifeLearn white paper
  5. PCB Design for Smarties: Four Strategies for Becoming Your Own, Best PCB Designer – from the Sunstone white paper

What about your own swipe file? How effective are the headlines on those papers? Can you do better?

Best Practice #4 ─ Who Are You Talking To? Are You Talking to ME?

Are you now picturing Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver (if you’re too young to know it, look it up on YouTube – great scene)?

If you want the reader to read past your headline, they need to believe you’re talking to them. White papers aren’t two sentence Facebook posts. They’re long copy. They take work on the part of the reader to hang in there and get through them … even to open and read them.

Which means the tone and voice you use in your white paper matter … a lot.

Remember Pam Foster’s LifeLearn white paper you looked at several lessons ago? It’s targeted to veterinarians, vet practices, office managers … it’s a technology solution, but the target audience is not a technical target audience.

So note the language. Although this follows white paper ‘standards’ of being fact-based, it’s not dry and stilted. It’s very reader-friendly language. That’s what you want to aim for.

Even the section of the Introduction where it lists facts and statistics is written in a very human way. Because the stats aren’t just dropped on the reader … they’re put in context and told what that stat means to the vet’s business.

Take this example from the LifeLearn paper:

Here are just a few eye-opening facts about mobile-friendly websites and local search.

  • Nearly 50% of U.S. mobile users accessed LOCAL content on their devices in December 2012.1 This is up 42% over the previous year according to a new report … and it means more and more local pet parents are using their smartphones and other devices to find veterinary care, grooming, boarding, training, and other pet services.
  • Google found that 92% of smartphone owners in the US seek local information via their devices, and 89% of those people took action after such a lookup.2In other words, when local pet owners find an easy-to-use veterinary website on their phones, they’re likely to call, email or visit that practice for an appointment or other services.
  • Mobile web browsing/searching will surpass desktop/laptop computer browsing/ searching in 2014 (just a few months away). Therefore, it’s critical to have a mobile-ready website, right now.

Pam clearly knows her audience … vets are much more inclined to read heavy medical papers on how to treat diseases in their patients than to worry about whether or not their websites are mobile-friendly.

So, this paper had to be written in a way that makes the choice look clear and easy for them to implement. And so far, so good. The Introduction clearly does its job.

Now, how about the Sunstone white paper, written for engineers who either design or use custom-designed PCBs? Computer-aided design software can be quite expensive. So, engineers don’t want to recommend that their company buy software that’s more expensive than it needs to be or worse, doesn’t do what they need it to do. In this section below, Sunstone is speaking to those worries and reassuring the reader by using industry language and making a promise to help.

Now, for the Cisco paper, where their target audience is a very technical, detailed IT professional, the language and tone is very different. Look at this Solution Overview section below. It’s highly technical but perfectly focused on the language its intended reader would use and expect from Cisco. The focus of the paper is also a very technical solution to a specific IT problem, so the tone and voice are appropriate to both the white paper subject and its intended audience.

By the way, this applies to more than just white papers … you always want to meet your audience where they are and talk to them in a relatable, solution-focused way.

Best Practice #5 ─ Edit Until It’s Super Focused and Clean

You’re going to do A LOT of research, and you may not want to waste any of it. So, you may find yourself writing a mini-novel instead of a white paper, just to get it all in.

That’s okay … as long as you go back and edit out anything that isn’t necessary to prove your point.

It’s much easier to over-write and then cut than not have enough and have to figure out why your paper isn’t coming together like you’d hoped it would.

Over time, you’ll develop your own method of editing. But here’s an effective way to start.

First, don’t try to edit for everything the first time through. Edit in phases.

Phase 1: Edit for content.

  • Every sentence and proof element is necessary to make your point. If not, cut it. Worried you may need it later? Create a sister document for your white paper, like “Four Reasons to Use Our PCB Software – Unused Copy.” And just cut and paste everything you remove from the white paper into this sister paper, so you don’t worry you’ve cut something you may need to add back in. That includes not giving your reader facts they already know. They’re reading your paper to learn new things. Deliver that.
  • You’ve made your point. Your logic flows throughout the paper and the reader can easily see how you got from one statement to the next. The best way to do this is to have someone else read it. But if you can’t do that, at least put it aside for a couple days after you finish the first draft to get emotional separation from the paper … then take it out, read it out loud, and make sure it makes sense all the way through.
  • You have all the key sections of the paper. Based on the type of paper you’re writing, those sections won’t all be the same, but the majority of white papers are between five and 12 pages long and you’ve learned which sections to include in each type of paper. That length typically includes graphics and other visual elements, though, so your text may only fill four to nine pages.

Phase 2: Edit for brand-appropriate lingo, voice, and tone.

Read other marketing content from your client targeted to the same audience. Then re-read your white paper.

Does it sound like it’s from the same company? Does it sound like it’s written for the same target audience?

If not, adjust the formality of the language, any industry language you used that might be different, the level of humor (or lack of humor), and anything else you can pick up from your client’s other materials that helps your paper get closer to the correct voice.

Phase 3: Edit for good copy practices.

  • Use a tool like Grammarly or even the Word editor to find and fix any grammar and spelling problem.
  • Find and fix passive voice – like, instead of using “there is a way to fix this,” change to “Fix your problem by …” Words like there, that, is, are … they’re often indicators of passive (boring) voice.
  • Use power words – similar to fixing passive voice, using power words pumps up the impact of your copy by using words that inherently have a feeling of action in them (like the words “pumps up”), creating more energy in your copy.
  • Make your sentences shorter – long sentences can be confusing and detract from a clear message. If you have a lot to say, say it in several shorter sentences.
  • Remove excessive exclamation points, ellipses, bolding, all caps, etc. When you overuse these writing elements, it’s usually because you haven’t spent enough time using power words and creating clean, clear copy with all the fluff cut out.

Best Practice #6 ─ Guide the Next Step in Your Pitch Page

Your pitch page will often be the only call-to-action in the white paper. The best practice on pitch pages is to offer a solution to the reader without detracting from the value of the white paper.

It can be helpful to think of the pitch page as a separate document entirely.

Sometimes, that means simply listing the name of your client and a way to contact them.

Here’s an example of that type of pitch page from Sunstone, where it’s not even a page … it’s simply a line at the bottom of the last page of the white paper.

But most of the time, the Pitch page will offer an easy approach to getting whatever solution you shared with the reader in the white paper. Here are several examples of this more common pitch page approach. By the way, many of these are not on separate pages … even though the best practice says they should be, so they don’t detract from the objectivity of the white paper. For those not on separate pages, see for yourself: does it feel like it detracts, even just a little, from the value of the information in the white paper? Maybe so, maybe not.

From the Drupal Problem/Solution paper – this is part of the Conclusion page, but it’s set separately from the text of the white paper:

From the Cresta report, this is at the bottom of the Conclusion page as well, in a callout box, in a way separating it from the rest of the paper:

Here’s a pitch page from a new addition to your swipe file from Propel Media. This white paper is a special report on best practices in the PR (public relations) field. Then Propel offers the following separate pitch page at the end of the white paper:

And finally, this is the last page of the Liongard white paper. It’s a separate page at the end of the white paper, explicitly offering the reader “Next Steps.”

In Conclusion

If you want to make your white paper as effective as it can be, follow these best practices.

  • Know what your client is using the paper for. That tells you what kind of paper you’re writing and ensures you’ll deliver a paper that meets the client’s needs.
  • Prove your point by including your original sources, but carefully choose how you include that information so as not to distract your reader from the message in your paper.
  • Create an effective headline telling your reader that this paper is for them and that they’ll get value from giving you their time.
  • Know who you’re talking to and use the language your reader will resonate with and understand. Use non-technical language, for instance, when speaking to non-technical readers.
  • Edit in phases helps you find all the areas of your white paper where you can improve it and make it more effective.
  • Make sure the Pitch page helps your reader … inviting them to take your client’s desired next step without detracting from the validity of the information in the white paper.

When you keep your target audience in mind, you automatically write a more effective white paper. Next up? You’ll do one more round of edits to give your white paper all the power it needs to deliver major value to readers … and major results for your clients.

Move on to Lesson 7!