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The Key to The Most Effective White Papers ─ Research

Sometimes copywriters decide not to offer white paper services because they’re afraid they’ll be asked to write about something they don’t know about.

Just ask Gordon Graham. He’s written tons of cryptocurrency white papers at this point in his career. But when he was first asked to write one, he knew nothing about crypto.

How did he do such an excellent job on those papers? He researched until he understood.

This is a step you cannot skip for a white paper! After all, the value of a white paper is the research behind it.

Let’s move on to learn about different types of research, some standard places to find great facts, data, and more, and how to tell reliable sources from bad.

What Types of Research Will You Do?

  1. Company-provided information ─ Your client will have a lot of information to hand over to you, including:

    • customer avatar information
    • company background and history
    • company purpose
    • details from the product team on the product or service you’re promoting in your white paper

    The marketing team should also give you other white papers (for background, if they have any), plus brochures, case studies, sell sheets, PowerPoint presentations, press releases, videos, and other marketing or technical material — anything they use for communications. You can also review the company’s website.

  2. Interviews with experts ─ You’ll be interviewing SMEs (subject matter experts) within your client’s company, usually technical managers, marketing leaders, product managers, and maybe scientists. Sometimes you’ll also interview industry SMEs or other third-party experts … or even customers for certain aspects or topics in your paper.
  3. Internet research ─ For this kind of research, you may research competitor sites, primary research studies and sources, basically anything the company or industry experts don’t provide.

Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these research methods!

Where to Get Company-Provided Information

This is where you start every white paper.

You want to know everything from who the company is (their mission, history, background, what they’re known for, what made them launch this product or service, etc.) to who the prospect is (who’s reading this paper ─ their job title, responsibilities, interests, main pain points and problems, what they’re looking for, and what do they need to solve).

You’ll also ask for any and all relevant documents they have. You want to get copies of any other marketing materials produced either for this target audience or for this product or service, like other white papers, case studies, emails, and brochures. With these materials, you can learn a lot. You’ll learn the company’s voice. You’ll learn how they speak to their prospects. And you’ll learn more about the target audience based on other copy that’s been written for them.

How to Conduct Interviews

Interviewing experts is critical to your white paper. Company experts can tell you why the product or service was created, what problem they were trying to solve, how they arrived at this solution, and why they think it’s better than the current solution on the market, for example.

Based on what they tell you, you’ll get tons of great ideas for what kind of further research you’ll need to do.

And with industry experts, you’ll get great insight into the industry and the problems companies in the industry currently face. Again, giving you great ideas for what further research will help you make your case in the white paper.

Most of the time, you’ll be interviewing company experts to start with, such as:

  • Product managers
  • Technical experts
  • Marketing managers

Then, where appropriate, industry experts:

  • Technical experts
  • Business experts
  • Process experts
  • Professors conducting research on the topic or subject

Here’s B2B copywriter Laurie Garrison on Conducting Interviews1

Conducting interviews with subject matter experts will be a key component of your research process. To make the best use of your and your SME’s time and to get the most out of the interview, follow these tips:

  • Limit the number of SMEs you interview. You should be able to get the information you need with one to two interviews. If the client wants more, make sure it’s because the SMEs have specialized information that’s different from the other SMEs on your schedule.
  • Try to limit the interview to one SME at a time (no more than two on the same call). This will help limit cross talk and repetitive answers.
  • It may be helpful to have your client’s rep on the call to keep the interview on track.
  • Record the interview. This will enable you to stay engaged in the process and ask follow-up questions as you won’t have to worry about taking notes. However, be sure to get the SME’s permission first.
  • Schedule 30-60 minutes for each interview. Often, you can get the information you need within 45 minutes, but with the inevitable small talk at the beginning of the call, it’s better to schedule a 60-minute time slot so you don’t go over the SME’s time limit and have to cut the interview short.
  • Conduct some research before scheduling an interview. You need to have a basis of knowledge so you know what questions to ask.
  • Prepare your questions in advance and send them to the SME prior to the interview so they have a chance to think about their answers.
  • If the SME gets off-track, gently remind them of the purpose of the interview to bring the conversation back to the focus of the white paper.

You may also do one other type of interview for your white paper … a Happy Customer Interview.

In Lesson 3, you learned that an optional element of white papers is a customer testimonial or success story or case study.

Your client should be able to give you a few contacts for happy customers you can interview. You’ll set up time with them, usually 30 to 45 minutes, to get their answers to your questions.

You should plan for these just like you plan for SME interviews and client interviews ─ do your homework, understand what their problem was and how your client’s product or service solved it. You can ask more effective and interesting questions by preparing ahead of time.

There is some disagreement among experts on whether to just email the questions, but Steve Slaunwhite’s advice is: don’t.

You get so much more from talking to the happy customer, for one. And you’ll end up wanting to dig deeper into some answer they give, or you may skip over a question if it no longer seems appropriate. Doing a live interview is usually much more effective in getting valuable information you can use in your testimonial or case study within the white paper.

For this type of interview, you’ll find a separate questionnaire in the Bonus section on your Member Page specifically for Happy Customer Interviews.

Where to Look ─ Internet Research

Finally, you’ll search the Internet for information about industry problems, current solutions, trends, data, statistics, and more.

You’re looking for third-party, independent information that can back up a claim made by the company. Or you’re digging more deeply into industry problems your client’s product or service solves. You may just be looking for information to help you understand the industry itself, how it works, and why your client’s product or service is needed.

Here are some ideas for places to find reliable information:

Research websites such as scholar.google.com, prweb.com, helpareporter.com, and Wikipedia source links (NOT the Wikipedia information itself) at the bottom of Wikipedia pages.

Industry websites ─ such as trade organization websites, non-profit organizations interested in improving the industry, educational organizations, industry conferences, etc.

Look at this screenshot from the bibliography of the EHR Management paper in your swipe file.

Screenshot of EHR Mananement Paper citing industry resources

All of this research is from industry sources.

The first one is a magazine. The second, a research paper. You can see many pieces of research are from government or non-profit organizations. The last citation, number 8, is from the Healthcare Financial Management Association, which is an industry association, https://www.hfma.org/.

Published books ─ try to use recognized industry experts and recent books, unless they’re classics. If you’re talking about economics and you use Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations or John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, you’re okay.

But if you’re writing a paper about cutting edge technology in medicine, and you’re using a book published even four or five years ago, you’re probably going to get a lot of outdated content.

Academic reports ─ since these should be peer-reviewed, you want credible sources.2
Here are several: COREScienceOpenDirectory of Open Access JournalsEducation Resources Information CenterSocial Science Research NetworkPublic Library of Science, and Scribendi has a list of over a dozen more.

You can see several citations, including one from Harvard Business Review, on this page from the Global Dietary Supplement Market Trends report:

Report from Global Dietary Supplement Market Trends emphasizing the importance of branding

In this paper, instead of putting the bibliography at the end of the paper, they chose to use footnotes on each page showing the research behind their claims.

Government research and statistics ─ depending on the kind of data or research you’re looking for; you can usually find a government site with credible research and sources. Just a handful of examples:

Industry newspapers and trade magazines ─ though these can have skewed articles because they’re often written by companies in the industry, you can find good, reliable information here. Just make sure you’re using content that’s less than three years old.

You’ve got a client whose product, in the pharma industry, includes specialty chemicals. You’re trying to understand the industry a little better, so you do some industry-level research.

You come across Specialty Chemicals Magazine, and you start reading some of the recent digital issues.After going through a few magazines, you have a much better idea of the pain points, problems, trends, and major players in that industry.

Magazine covers for Specialty Chemicals

White papers from other vendors — you don’t want to use these as sources for your information. But you can use them to see what’s being said about common industry problems and then do your own research based on those ideas!

How to Use (and Not Use) Less Credible Sources

Remember to keep this in mind while doing your research: not all sources are created equal.

Sources that are more suspect and probably not the highest quality:

  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Wikipedia pages themselves
  • Company and business websites
  • Internal company white papers

You can look in all those places to find ideas, see what people are talking about, learn about industry problems, and even learn about industry solutions that currently exist.

But don’t use them as credible sources to prove a claim or statement you’re making.

You can tell if something in a blog or forum is a credible source by noticing if the statements being made cite proof themselves.

If they’re just someone’s opinion without proof, they shouldn’t be used as a source for your white paper.

And if they’re citing proof, go find the source they’re quoting and use that to make your point. It’ll probably be from an industry report, research study, academic paper, or industry expert.

You may be wondering how long you should spend on research. It’s a fair question. And it’s going to vary based on the type of paper you’re writing and how familiar you are with the industry (meaning you already have a lot of bookmarks and sources you can draw from).

A good rule of thumb is at least 25% of the time you estimate the paper will take should be spent on research. So, if your white paper project is about 40 hours, you should be researching no less than 10 hours.


But research is not “on the clock.” You can hit gold with a couple good expert interviews and a few very relevant research papers. Or you can search and dig for the right proof.

What To Do with Your Research

When you do thorough research, you’ll end up with a lot of information.

What will you do with all that information?

In Lesson 6, you’ll learn how to create an outline and put together the bones of your paper. With an outline, you can set up an organization system or structure to keep all your research tied to whatever section it falls under.

To get you started, follow these key tips for organizing your research:

  • Print it out or create a pdf of the pages ─ especially when you find research online. There’s no guarantee it will be there the next time you go looking for it.
  • Create a separate folder for a set of bookmarks containing all the URLs you used or even looked at while researching.
  • Code the research findings in a way that helps you keep them tied to the outline. Let’s say your outline has Part I, Section I, etc. You find a piece of research that supports a claim you want to make in Part III, Section II – so you’ll mark that research with P3S2 or something, just to help you keep it clear. Or you can keep a spreadsheet. Or create a three-ring notebook with tabs for each section of the paper and just print and put the research into the appropriate section. This is YOUR organizational system so there’s no right or wrong way to do it … unless you don’t do it at all.
  • As you write your paper, cite each research source in the paper (in either footnotes or endnotes). This is important. Your client may remove some or many of the citations before they create the final version of your white paper, but they’ll have the research there if they need to access it for any reason at a later date.
  • And to ensure that you don’t plagiarize ─ if you need to use something verbatim, quote it and attribute it to the source. Even if you re-write something, but it’s a direct idea from research you’ve done ─ cite it. A link is usually fine but be specific. Which part of that link, for example.


Exercise #4

Practice Researching

Let’s say you have a client, an agricultural technology company (AgTech). It offers the most effective software for farmers who want to use regenerative farming techniques to plan their cattle movements and crop rotations.

It’s easy-to-use and inexpensive, but it creates much better outcomes than other technologies currently on the market.

Now, spend 30 minutes exploring some of the research links above and see what information you can find for your hypothetical AgTech client white paper.

How much information were you able to find in just 30 minutes?

Do you have a better understanding of regenerative farming technology solutions than you did before this exercise?

In Conclusion

You’ll usually embark on three distinct types of research to write white papers:

  • Company-provided information helps you understand who you’re writing to, what the company is about, the promises of the product or service, and how the company typically talks to its prospects and customers.
  • Interviews give you third-party and expert input on the problems and solutions available in the industry today. They also can help you see, by talking to happy customers, how your client’s product or service benefits users.
  • Internet Research gives you the data, proof points, industry research, independent studies and other trends and information you need to ensure your white paper is objective, fact-based, and credible.

Because your research “pile” can get pretty high, you’ll want to find your own way to organize it, track it, and cite it.

We’ve given you a template to help you get started, but try different methods to find the one that keeps you and your research organized.

See you in Lesson 5!