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What White Papers Look Like: Different Types For Your Toolbox

In the previous lesson, you discovered what a white paper is and what’s included in it.

And, now you know about the kinds of companies that might use white papers and how much you can charge for them.

This Lesson, we’re going to talk about:

  • Different types of white papers
  • When and how you’ll use each type
  • How to help your client decide on an e-book versus a white paper in certain situations where either might be appropriate

What Are the Different Types of White Papers?

According to Gordon Graham (That White Paper Guy), there are really only three main types of white papers. There are two models that combine two of the main types together as well.

And given Gordon’s industry leadership and expertise … most other experts now agree with him.

So, what are those three types of white papers you’ll be writing for your clients?

  • The Backgrounder ─ this is all about your client’s product, solution, technology, or service. When you’re writing one of these for a new product or service, think of these as the “click here to learn more” piece from a press release about a new company offering. Press releases have short captions about the new product or service, but don’t go into much detail. The Backgrounder digs in and outlines the why and the benefits of your client’s new “thing,” especially if that new thing is complex or expensive.

    It could also be to prove your client’s product or service is superior … or it could be to prove a technical capability.

    This one is all about your client’s product or service.

    Look at this example from Cresta, who offers an AI (artificial intelligence) solution in real time to help salespeople close more deals. The entire white paper is devoted to how Cresta’s solution helps sales teams improve their results, from Page 1 through Page 13.

  • The Numbered List – this is a much lighter form of white paper, closer to a numbered list (“Listicle”) blog post, and in fact, it can be repurposed into blogs. It helps dig into questions and look at perspectives that help the reader understand a relevant topic in more depth.

    You could use this type to throw shade on your client’s competition (through comparisons) or you could use it to help prospects get to know your client’s product better.

    In this example2, Hewlett-Packard has an IT solution for EHRs (electronic health records) and they’re sharing a numbered list of mistakes a hospital or medical office would want to avoid as they convert their records from paper to electronic.

    Here are some sample pages from the white paper: you can see the cover, table of contents, one of the numbered list pages, and the back page with HP’s contact information. Their purpose in sharing this white paper is to help healthcare IT departments avoid costly mistakes when uploading their records to a new IT system.

  • The Problem/Solution – this is just what it sounds like. You write about a problem in the industry and offer possible solutions through your client’s product. White papers got their start as just this kind of white paper: legislative documents persuading readers to embrace a specific political solution. That’s why this type of white paper is called the “king of content.”

    And these are what you probably picture when you think about white papers … they’re the longest, most heavily researched, and arguably the most valuable because of the depth of content they deliver.

    Here’s an example3 of a Problem/Solution paper written by Liongard. When you read the back page, you find that Liongard is a company that makes an IT platform to help managed service providers (MSPs) figure out how to compete in a crowded marketplace. You can see the amount of research and fact-heavy nature of this white paper, which is 12 pages.

    Below are screen shots of the cover, the introduction page, one of the solution pages, and the back page, which is Liongard’s ‘soft pitch’ sales page. (A ‘soft pitch is a mention of your client’s product or service, but as a separate last page or in a very non-marketing, non-sales way.)

    It presents the problem MSPs have in standing out in a very crowded field, details what they need to do to stand out, and then, at the end, tells them how Liongard can help them accomplish these goals in an efficient, effective way — the best way possible.

The Two Models

One of two models that combine white paper types blends a backgrounder and numbered list. We’ll talk about why you might want to write one of these.

The other “combo model” blends a problem/solution and a numbered list. Sometimes the nature of convincing a reader there’s a solution to their problem is to use numbered lists to outline either a list of the problems or a list of problems with the current solutions on the market.

Before you decide which type is ideal for your client … let’s talk about why your client is hiring you to write a white paper.

White papers are expensive for clients. They not only have to pay your fee, which will be in the thousands of dollars. They also have a pay a designer and a printer and maybe a translator. And that doesn’t even count the cost to promote the white paper to prospects. A white paper could cost your clients 10s of thousands of dollars.

White papers also can become obsolete fairly quickly, depending on which kind you write for them.

So why? Why would a client hire you to write one?

White Papers Are a Critical Part of Lead-Generation Funnels

If you’ve done any B2B copywriting in the past, you know there’s one unique thing about many B2B sales … the length of the buying process.

B2B buyers aren’t buying toothpaste or socks (generally speaking).

They’re buying what’s called a “considered purchase.”

As a B2C buyer, you’ve probably made some considered purchases too. Like when you consider your options in buying a car, a house, even a dishwasher … you’re not going to hop online, put one in your shopping cart, and click the buy button.

You’re going to shop around. You’re going to look up reviews. You may go see it, touch it, test it out. You’ll compare different options and think about the features and benefits against what you need.

A B2B buyer is going to do that for many kinds of purchases. In fact, often a company will have several different people assessing the purchase against what each of them needs, and they won’t buy something until it meets everyone’s needs.

This process often takes time and involves many different communication pieces.

Different white papers, offered at different points in the buyer’s journey, help those decision-makers find and buy your client’s solution.

Those different points in the journey are what marketers refer to when they talk about the funnel.

Graphic showing an updside down triangle with the Top of Funnel in blue that says, Prospects not really prospects yet.  They're at the beginning of the buyer's journey looking for a solution. The middle section is orange and says, Middle of the Funnel. They've probably found your client's solution, but need to know why they should buy from you.  The Bottom of the funnel says, now they're asking, why should I buy from you right now?

  • Top of the Funnel (ToFu): Your prospects aren’t really prospects yet. They’re at the beginning of that buyer’s journey. They’re looking for a solution, but they may not be looking for your client’s solution … yet. They’re in the “What do I need” phase of the buying process.

    They’ve got a problem they need to solve. They start googling how to solve that problem … and the white paper you wrote for your client shows up. Happy dance! You just brought in a lead for your client at the top of the funnel.

    Here, you’ll probably use a Problem/Solution white paper. You may use a Problem/Solution-Numbered List combo paper here too.

    It’ll take a little more work on your client’s part (and some more copy pieces from you, which we’ll talk about in Lesson 9) to close the deal, but you got the ball rolling for them.

  • Middle of the Funnel (MoFu): This is where the prospect has found some possible solutions. They’ve probably found your client. But they still need to know “Why should I buy from you?”

    Here’s where one of those Numbered List white papers or maybe even a Backgrounder/Numbered List could work for your client.

    Your white paper and maybe other pieces of content you write for your client are going to help them get to know your client better. And they’ll help them understand why they’d want to solve their problem by buying your client’s solution.

  • Bottom of the Funnel (BoFu): Here’s where the B2B buyer is asking “Why should I buy right now?”

    This is the ideal time to use Backgrounders or Backgrounders with Numbered Lists to talk explicitly about your client’s solution. For example, these may be used by salespeople to send to prospects to help them make their purchase decision.

Now you can see why it’s important to ask your client questions before you ever start a white paper project for them.

You need to know:

  • Who’s going to read it?
  • Where in the buying process are they? (ToFu, MoFu, or BoFu)
  • What has the prospect seen before this (if anything) and what will the next steps be?
  • What do they want the prospect to take away from reading this white paper … and what action do they want to drive as a result, such as schedule a demo, watch a webinar, etc.?

What’s the Difference Between a White Paper and an E-Book?

In Lesson 1, we said that sometimes your client will ask you to write an e-book, but it’s really a white paper. Or the opposite: you could be asked to write a white paper, but it’s really an e-book.

How can you tell?

Well, when you search for examples, you can’t tell by what the marketing department called them. Because you’ll find lots of “e-books” that really are white papers. And probably some white papers that are really e-books.

The key difference is the purpose of the document.

Are you collecting research and data to “prove” an argument that a product, service, technology, or process is the solution to a particular problem? Or providing a better solution than has existed in the past?

Then you’re probably writing a white paper.

Are you educating the reader about how something works?

Like maybe you get a request from your client, AT&T, and they want you to write a document about how all the pieces of the 5G network work together. It’s a very useful document and shows their expertise in that niche. But they’re not trying to persuade the reader to purchase anything specific.

Then you’re probably writing an e-book.

You’ll become more familiar with these differences through the formats and templates we cover in this class — which are for white papers only. If the document your client asks you to write sounds more like an e-book, you would not use the information in this class to write or format them.

Exercise #2

Update Your White Paper Tracking Document

In Lesson 1, you started collecting white paper samples for your own swipe file.

And, we’re assuming you created a tracking document so you could make note of the key features of each white paper in your swipe file.

For this exercise, go back to those white papers — and using what you now know about each type of white paper, fill in what type each one is.

That will help you immediately find the format for a Backgrounder, for example, if you need it for a client request.

Using templates, formats, and examples ─ swiping the structure of what works ─ isn’t plagiarism as long as you’re not using the content. It’s simply a smart approach that cuts your decision, outline, and writing time when you’re about to put a client’s white paper together.

This seems like a small exercise, but it will help you in several ways as you get started as a go-to white paper copywriter:

  • You’ll have confidence from your first white paper assignment that you know what you’re supposed to deliver to your client.
  • You’ll be able to instill confidence in your client by showing you understand what they want their white paper to do for them.
  • You’ll be able to quickly find the right type for your purpose and have a template you can use to guide your work if you’re ever unsure what goes in which section or how to pull it together.

In Conclusion

There are generally three different kinds of white papers and two blended models that you might need to write for your clients.

  • The Backgrounder is all about how your client’s product or service solves the reader’s problems or benefits the reader’s business. It’s used at the BoFu to help the reader decide to buy your client’s product now.
  • The Number List is a lighter, easier white paper that helps readers get to know your client’s product or service, maybe by showing, for example, the 10 mistakes other accounting software makes that your client’s doesn’t. It is used at the MoFu to help the reader understand your client’s solution a bit better and nurture that relationship.
  • The Problem/Solution white paper is the daddy of them all ─ it’s written using heavier, deeper research, focused on a problem facing companies in the industry and what solution or solutions are available. Your client’s product or service will be mentioned here, but as a separate last page or in a very non-marketing, non-sales way. The credibility of this white paper depends on the objective nature of how you present the information. These are mostly used at the ToFu, as prospects are searching for solutions to problems they’re looking for more information on.
  • White papers and e-books use different formats, so it’s important to understand the purpose of the document before you start trying to fit what should be an e-book into a white paper format.
  • By building up your swipe paper file and tracking key features of your swipe file documents, you can quickly figure out how to format the type your client needs and follow a structure that works.

Are you ready to dig in and start learning how to write them?

See you in Lesson 3!