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White Paper Content Elements and Formulas: What You’ll Actually Be Writing

Now that you know who uses white papers and how much you can earn writing them, we’re going to dig into the anatomy of a white paper.

They look long and complicated, but they’re really just put together using a formula … no math involved!

By the end of this lesson, you’ll understand the key elements that make them effective, the classic formulas people expect, and how you put one together.

Key Elements of Every White Paper, Regardless of Type

  1. Research ─ this is the linchpin of every good white paper. It’s so important, we’re going to spend a whole lesson just on research. So, while we won’t talk about it anymore here in Lesson 3, remember that everything you say in a white paper should be supported by facts.
  2. Graphics and Charts ─ most people don’t read white papers cover to cover, especially if your target market is management, leadership, or busy professionals like doctors, salespeople, etc. Breaking up the text in a white paper with charts and graphics helps pull the reader through the main take-aways and to the summary. When done well, it can convey just the right message to keep them interested.
  3. About the Company page or “Pitch” page ─ this is the last page of a white paper, distinctly separate from the rest of the white paper. The key thing to remember about these is that the more salesy this page is, the more questionable the objectivity of the content is. So, try to keep the hype out of this page. We cover this in more detail coming up.
  4. Call-to-Action ─ as with any piece of copy, you don’t want to leave your reader dead-ended. Give them somewhere to go next. It could be to call for a consultation with a salesperson … or “read more” about some specific element of the white paper either in a blog post, another white paper, or a customer success story also known as a case study. Or it could be to “take these next steps,” especially in a Problem/Solution format paper. Work with your client on the buyer’s journey — where the prospect is in that journey when they read your paper — and where it makes sense to send them next.

The Title Page and Table of Contents/Copyright

Here’s an example title page from one of Pam Foster’s white papers, LifeLearn Special Report on Veterinary Mobile Wellness. [NOTE: it isn’t standard practice for white papers to have the copywriter’s name on them.]

Based on this title page, what do you think this white paper is going to be about?

Who does it look like its target audience is?

When you’re writing for clients, you’ll come up with the title of the paper, but you won’t generally need to do any of the design, unless you also offer that in your services, so don’t worry about that part.

Your title should make it clear who the paper’s for and what it’s about. Don’t get fancy and try to inject too much curiosity or cleverness … clarity and usefulness are the key elements you’re looking for in a white paper title.

Make sure you’ve packed enough benefits for the prospect into the title so they know they’ll get value.

If it’s a long enough paper, you may also have a table of contents (TOC). And somewhere on the title page or TOC, you’ll need to indicate this is copyrighted content. The client will often have a boilerplate copyright paragraph that protects the work. But if not, they should get advice from their legal counsel.

Here’s a sample copyright paragraph you might see in a typical white paper:

The Beginning and the End: Your White Paper Content “Bookends”

The Overview, Executive Summary, or Introduction

The first section of a typical white paper can be called many things (overview, executive summary, introduction), but its purpose is to provide a unique and informative overview that interests the reader and sets the stage for digging into the details that come next.

In this section that follows the title page, TOC, and copyright block — you’ll write a half to a full page (for white papers eight pages or less; more like a full page to a page and a half for longer papers) that introduces or previews the valuable information contained in the paper. You’re likely to call out exactly what this white paper is about and who it’s for.

If it’s a Problem/Solution paper, you’ll introduce the problem being discussed — a common problem the reader struggles with.

Staying with the LifeLearn paper, here’s a portion of the Introduction:

Recently we asked this question to our LifeLearn Update email newsletter readers, who are veterinarians, practice managers and other practice team members:

How often you use your phone to find and contact local services in your community?

The results? 72% reported that they use their phones to find a local service “often” or “occasionally” — just like the new clients you want to attract so you can grow your practice.

Yes, smartphones and other mobile devices are taking over as primary tools for finding local resources.

This means mobile-friendly websites for browsing and search are becoming especially important for veterinary practices and other pet-care businesses.

So, back when we asked you to identify who the paper’s target audience was from reading the title page — did you guess veterinarians, practice managers, and other practice team members? Were you close?

You probably had an idea from the headline. But the Introduction makes it clear to the target audience that this is for them and why they should read it.

The rest of the above paragraph presents the “problem” by hitting hard on a trend their customers (and they themselves) are seeing, implying if you’re not on board, you’re going to miss out.

If you’re a veterinarian or owning a vet practice, you’re taking notice. You’ve been given a reason to read this.

Then Pam provides statistics and data to back up the claim part of the identified problem.

So far in this Introduction, you’ve found out who it’s for, and you’ve seen strong data around a growing problem vets have: if their website isn’t mobile-friendly, they’re missing out on new clients.

There’s a trend going on and if they’re not on board, they’re going to get left behind.

Then, around the bottom of the first page, you get this:

So, what exactly IS a mobile-ready website, and how can you make sure your practice isn’t missing golden chances to reach pet owners on ALL their devices?

That’s what this report is all about.

And here’s the promise:

Simply put, if your website is mobile-ready for any device …

You’ll be the local practice that invites smartphone and tablet users to call YOU for an appointment, instead of another local resource.

This is a “problem” presented as an opportunity. The positive tone of the paper, from start to finish, encourages veterinary professionals to consider the solution presented in the paper.

Here’s the end of the Introduction, which goes onto page 3 of the white paper, making the Introduction about a page and a half. For an 11-page white paper, which this one is, that’s a perfect length. The reader is promised a solution to either the problem they’re now aware of or the opportunity they now see.

Inside these pages, you’ll discover:

  • The importance of mobile-ready website design (responsive design)
  • The difference between a poor mobile experience and a great experience
  • Why this matters so much to your practice, right now
  • How to determine if your website is mobile friendly or if it needs help
  • Steps to make your site fully mobilized so it attracts more business

If you want local pet owners/mobile users to find your practice, like what they see, and call your team right away for assistance — it’s time to MOBILIZE your veterinary website.

The Final/Other Bookend Section: About the Company

This section is usually one page, separate from the rest of the paper, at the very end. It’s where you talk about the company, regardless of which kind of white paper you’re writing.

The screenshot below is from the last page of the Mimecast white paper featured in Lesson 1. It can be this simple and straightforward ─ just information about the company ─ or it can be a little more salesy, but you need to be careful that it does not negate the objectivity of your white paper, especially the Problem/Solution paper, with too much hype and sales focus. This one is a little too boring and probably not as effective as it could be.

Here’s one that’s got more sales content but doesn’t go over the line and hurt the credibility of the white paper. Try to keep your About the Company page somewhere between these two.

Formatting the Meat of the Paper

Between the Introduction and the About sections, the three types of white papers outlined in Lesson 2 follow different formulas. That’s why it’s important to know what kind of paper you’re writing before you start writing it.

As a reminder, the three most common white paper types are Backgrounder, Numbered List, and Problem/Solution.

We’ll spend a bit of time on the Backgrounder and Numbered List formats, so you know how to write them. But we’ll spend most of our time in this Lesson on the Problem/Solution format, because it’s more complex and usually requires more time and effort.

The Backgrounder Format

Backgrounders will have Introductions, just like all white papers do.

But then, they’ll go straight into the product.

To see an example of this type of paper, read through the Cisco UCS Infrastructure for AI and Machine Learning paper in the Bonuses section on your Member Page.

Each section of a Backgrounder will usually call out a product feature and then talk about the benefits of that feature.

You’ll do this for as many features as the product has or as it makes sense to cover for that paper’s purpose.

In the Cisco paper, Cisco is promoting the use of their USC Solution for certain IT work.

You’ll notice there are some Problem/Solution pieces in this white paper, but mainly Cisco promotes their product’s solution to help developers do their jobs better.

Here are a couple feature/benefit sections of this white paper, including a graphic with a benefit-laden title.

After the features and benefits sections, most Backgrounders will have a Conclusion and a Call-to-Action (CTA).

The Conclusion, usually a half to one full page, simply summarizes the benefits of using the product or service.

In general, because white papers are about complex or expensive products, the CTA is usually to contact the sales team for more information. It would not be common to ask the reader to make a purchase at this point. But this is a bottom of the funnel (remember that from Lesson 2?) copy piece, so the prospect is pretty far along the buyer’s journey.

We’ll dig more into the Backgrounder again in Lesson 4 when you dive into research. Until then, let’s move on to the next format.

The Numbered List Format

After the Introduction in a Numbered List, you’ll get right into the list. Makes sense, right?

Most numbered lists include items or topics that cause concern or discussion in the industry. For instance, get their attention by giving them “9 Things to Avoid When You …” or “5 Reasons You Must X Before You Y.”

Maybe your client wants to punch some holes in the balloon of the market leader in that space. You might show where the current solution or technology doesn’t work in every case. And how your client’s new product or service closes that gap.

Or maybe your client wants something to send to prospects who are still trying to decide which product or service to purchase. You could create a list of 10 trends in small business accounting software, and add a little “Backgrounder” mixed in here to call out how your client’s software is the most obvious cutting-edge solution.

In the Hewlett-Packard white paper you studied in Lesson 2, Four EHR Change Management Mistakes, HP provides the best ways for medical practices and hospitals to convert their paper records to electronic documents.

Here are a couple of the points in their numbered list:

The four points they cover could completely derail or significantly delay digitizing records. This actually makes converting records seem like a risky prospect. Yet, the paper focuses almost entirely on how a medical practice can avoid these mistakes … and offers to hold their hand through the process with the service they provide.

After you cover however many points needed to fulfill the purpose of the paper, you’ll write a Conclusion.

Just like an Introduction can also be called an Executive Summary, the Conclusion section can have other names too … what’s important when you’re looking at samples (or writing your own) is to focus on the purpose of that section.

In the HP paper, the title of the section representing the conclusion (or summary) is called “The Four Key Areas of EHR Change.” A clever way to wrap things up.

HP follows with a call-to-action to hire their professional services to help prospects navigate their change to electronic records. Remember, you don’t always have to have an explicit sales call-to-action, but you should give your prospect something to do “next.”

Regardless, these Numbered List papers are usually pretty short, easily scannable, and make great pieces to share with prospects.

Let’s move on to the “king” of white papers …

The Problem/Solution Format

These formats start just like any white paper type: title page and introduction. But then, you’ll go into detail on the industry problem introduced in the introduction.

The first part of your paper’s “meat” should cover the problem and identify existing solutions.

This should be a problem your reader is well aware of or at least a significant business threat or opportunity.

To talk about the problem, you’ll use any of these copy techniques.

Then, here’s where your great research is used for a more effective paper.

Talk about how this problem affects several different aspects of the industry. Or outline how most of industry solutions only address part of the problem.

You might also talk about how some companies may have solved that problem but created other problems as a result.

Spend as much time on the problem as you need to get your reader engaged and interested in where you’re going with this: what solution do you have to address every issue you’re raising?

Most problems with existing solution sections are two to four pages, but they may be longer, depending on the nature of the problem.

The HSBC white paper in your swipe file is a Problem/Solution format paper, 12 pages. The problem and existing solutions sections (Voting Machines and Weighing Machines and Simple Equity Ratios are Poor Valuations Measures) are three pages.

The authors talk about how three different valuation approaches would assess whether or not stocks are overvalued today. Then they go into why they think the valuation problem is not as simple as those historic models can predict. Next, they talk about why they think the classic valuation models don’t apply today.

This sets up the problem (how to assess equity valuations) and the problems with the current solutions.

Next? You’ll introduce the better solution and expected better outcomes or results.

This is the trickiest part of the Problem/Solution white paper. You’ll describe your client’s product or service features and benefits that solve the problems outlined in the Problem section.

But you’re not talking at all about your client’s product or service. You’re not selling here.

Again, this is where your research is going to come in handy.

  • You can talk about cutting edge research showing the solution must have “A” in it.
  • And maybe some other research saying any solution needs to have “B” in it.

    You’re staying “third-party neutral” and using your research into the elements needed to solve this industry problem. Let’s look at the HSBC example from above. In the section Measuring the Market Discount Rate (the Better Solution), the authors provide what they say is a better way to value equities. This two-page solution solves the gaps identified in the problem part of the white paper.

  • You may even say to the reader “to solve this problem, you should ensure the service you use has “A”, “B”, etc. Gordon Graham calls this a buyer’s guide: telling your reader what features and functions they should look for in the solution they purchase.

    Here’s an example from our Mimecast white paper of what a buyer’s guide might look like:

This whole section outlining the better solution and a buyer’s guide may be a page, maybe two. It’s as long as it needs to be to ensure you’re providing a complete solution to the reader.

You also have the option to include a case study, if you feel like it would add to your claim. You probably already know how powerful a proof point like a testimonial or case study can be to help prospects see the potential value to them of using your client’s product or service.

If you’re going to use a case study in a Problem/Solution paper, format it so it looks like it’s an “extra” bonus part of the white paper. Or, some papers put a short paragraph within the paper (like in a shaded box) that talks about how a real client has solved the problem outlined in the paper by using your client’s product or service.

Here’s a case study from the Cresta example white paper. It’s a separate page, all by itself.

Lastly, you’ll include your Conclusion and CTA.

Here, you’ll recap the industry problem, maybe highlight why the current solutions aren’t adequate, and point out a terrific solution and what it contains.

Only at the end can you say your client’s product or service meets all those requirements or criteria and how it does that. This still should not be salesy or hype.

The CTA should be what makes sense as a next step for your client’s prospect. This is usually top of the funnel. The prospect is looking for solutions to problems but isn’t sold on your client’s solution yet.

If that’s the case, your CTA may be to check out more (client) material on how they solve the problem featured in the white paper. Or you may want to offer a beneficial demo or free sample … . or entice them to contact a salesperson.

And then, of course, you’ll end with your client’s About page.

Exercise #3

Find One White Paper of Each Type in Your Swipe File

Keeping the three white paper types in mind: Backgrounder, Numbered List, and Problem/Solution — see what you can find on Google for at least one example of each type. Then, follow these steps to get more familiar with the elements and formats of each.

  • Can you tell which type each paper is by the formatting that’s used?
  • Does each one include the main sections covered in this Lesson?
  • Do one or more of them violate any of the rules you discovered above, maybe using language that’s too salesy? Or being dry and boring? Giving opinions instead of focusing on facts?
  • For each white paper, note one thing they could have done better or that could have made it stronger.

In Conclusion

All white paper types typically include these elements and sections:

  • Title page
  • Table of Contents
  • Copyright
  • Introduction or executive summary
  • The “meat” of the white paper
  • Conclusion or summary
  • About the Company page with a call-to-action (CTA)

However, since each white paper type has a different function and format, the middle part or the “meat” is different.

  • The Backgrounder focuses on the features and benefits of your client’s product or service.
  • The Number List focuses on the content of the list itself (mistakes to avoid, reasons why, etc.)
  • The Problem/Solution outlines a common problem faced in the industry, the gaps in current solutions, a better solution (at last!), and how your client’s product or service meets every point in that solution.

If you’re confused at this point, it’s okay. These long-form marketing documents can seem intimidating from a distance. But the more you examine different white paper examples, the easier it will be to spot the format and understand the formula behind each section.

Then, you just follow the formula … and voila, you have an effective and impactful white paper!

See you in Lesson 4.