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So you’ve heard of white papers. Maybe you’ve wondering how to write a white paper or perhaps you’ve even written some. But you’re not sure if you’re “doing it right,” and you’re really not sure how to get work writing white papers.
I’ve been there.
In 2011, I got an email with the subject line: “Interested in a white paper project?”
It was from a project manager at the content marketing agency we both worked at. “Yes!” I sent back.
And then I googled “how to write a white paper.”
I’ve learned a lot since then. In this article, we’ll look at what white papers are, how to write a white paper, and how to break into the white paper business.
What is a white paper?
First things first: what the heck is a white paper?
White papers are long-form, in-depth, educational content that tackles a specific problem. They’re a way for a company to establish itself as the clear, trusted authority in their industry.
They’re best suited for the awareness and consideration stages of the buyer’s journey, but can also support the decision stage.
Traditionally, white papers are PDFs–they’re often gated, meaning you’d have to trade your contact information in exchange for the download.
But they can also be published online and ungated, like extra-long blog posts. And they’re used in B2B (Business to Business) marketing, to support the B2B buying journey (more on this shortly).
Because B2C (Business to Consumer) buying decisions tend to be more straightforward, white papers aren’t commonly used for B2C.
Who publishes white papers and why?
Companies that publish white papers have a few things in common:
- They offer expensive solutions…that solve even more expensive problems.
- They typically work with clients on long-term engagements (or recurring subscriptions).
- They support their clients through a complex, multi-step, multi-stakeholder buying process.
You’ll find white papers in nearly any industry, but especially in B2B Software-as-a-Service (SaaS): medical technology (medtech), educational technology (edtech), financial technology (fintech)…you get the idea.
And why do they publish white papers? Because their customers do a ton of research before they decide who to work with. According to the DemandGen Content Preferences Survey Report 2022:
- 62% of B2B buyers interact with three to seven pieces of content before connecting with a salesperson.
- 52% of B2B buyers say they’ve read a white paper in the past year.
For example, imagine you’re a marketing manager at a medtech company. You make software that makes it easy for multiple healthcare providers–doctors, specialists, physios–to get a single view of each patient.
You invest in content marketing to get your message out there: blog posts, newsletter, videos, guest podcast appearances.
At the cornerstone of your marketing mix? White papers.
For example, within a year, you might engage a freelance writer to create:
- A white paper about why it’s so important to have a single view of each patient, referencing original research showing that a single patient view leads to better health outcomes and lower cost of care.
- A white paper looking at the problem the company solves: what happens when multiple healthcare providers don’t get a single view of their patient.
- A white paper outlining five steps to help hospitals shift to a single patient view.
Remember, white papers are in-depth, helpful content that digs into a specific topic. Each white paper helps the medtech company to educate its prospects and in the process, is positioning itself as an expert, trusted authority. It’s a win-win.
What’s the difference between a white paper and an ebook, guide or research paper?
In general, white papers and research papers are more formal and analytical, while ebooks and guides are more casual and visually interesting.
But! I’ve also seen these labels completely flipped around. Key point: notice what your target company calls them and use the same words they do.
The different types of white papers
Here are the most common types:
- Original research analyses and explains the results of a custom research study. For example, a cybersecurity company might interview 500 heads of IT and data security in a certain industry to learn about their main challenges and how they’re dealing with them, then publish “State of Cybersecurity in [industry]. For a real-life example, check out Orbit Media’s blogging study. Notice that it’s published as a blog post (how meta!).
- How-to walks through a process to solve a specific problem. For example, a cloud services company might publish “Five steps to get your data ready for cloud migration,” highlighting best practices or common mistakes along the way. For a real-life example, check out this guide from SaaS company 15Five (gated).
- Numbered list highlights factors to consider on a topic–similar to how-to but not organised around a stepwise process. For example, an automation company might publish “A Beginner’s Guide to Automation” that highlights six common workflows to automate. For a real-life example, check out this ebook from HRTech company Betterworks (gated).
- Problem-solution highlights a common industry problem and ways to solve it, which almost always aligns with a product you can buy. For example, an email marketing platform might talk about challenges with email deliverability and how their platform addresses those issues. For a real-life example, check out this example from Xero, focused on the problems with payroll management and how Xero can solve them (gated).
- Trends report connects the dots between today’s industry trends and what it means for tomorrow. For example, a workplace collaboration platform might look at current trends in the workplace, what they mean for companies in 3 to 5 years, and actions to take today. For a real-life example, check out the annual trends report from Accenture.
How to write white papers pro tip: Several of the real-life examples are gated, meaning you’ll need to trade your contact details to get the report. If you’re willing to make the trade, there’s a lot to learn from simply downloading a lot of white papers.
Plus, you get a front-row view of a company’s marketing mix. Do you get added to a newsletter? Funneled into an email campaign? Emailed by a sales rep? Or, erm, nothing?
What’s the structure of a white paper?
Most white papers follow the same general structure.
- The Executive Summary hooks the reader and summarises the main points. Very short white papers (5 pages or fewer) may skip this section.
- The introduction sets up the problem you’re trying to solve, as well as the bigger industry context around it. Don’t rush through this–if you don’t set up the problem, the solution (your client’s solution!) doesn’t land with the same impact.
- The body is, you guessed it, the core of the white paper and the longest section. Use your writerly judgment here to structure the story that the content needs.
- The conclusion can reiterate the key points but it doesn’t have to. Ensure you connect the white paper’s big-picture thinking with your reader’s day-to-day–for example, with a checklist of next steps or questions to think about.
Pro tip: Many white papers include a brief mention of company products or services that solve the problem. Keep it short, directly related to the discussion, and in service of helping your reader.
How to write a white paper
There are five main stages to writing a white paper:
- Write and edit
Step 1 – Strategy
White papers start as big, blobby ideas, so good questions help everyone get clarity. Make sure you ask your marketing lead:
- Objective: What are you trying to achieve?
- Audience: Who are you talking to?
- Pain point: What specific pain point are you solving?
- Perspective: What fresh perspectives do you bring to the topic?
- Alignment: Do the audience, pain point, and perspective all align with the company’s expertise?
- Promotion: How will you promote and repurpose the white paper?
Next, you’ll need to agree with your contact on the tactical details. Be sure to discuss:
- Type of white paper
- Review process and timeline
Pro tip: Want to expand into advisory services? White paper strategy is a good entry point. Another is content strategy for promotion–and with it, the opportunity to package the promotional pieces into a bigger quote.
Step 2 – Research
Here’s how I work: I start with desk research to get up to speed, conduct subject-matter expert (SME) interviews, and then fill in the gaps with desk research as needed.
SME interviews are crucial to getting the unique point of view that makes a white paper worth writing at all.
Dig into the audience, pain point, and solution, making sure to note specific language you can bring into the white paper.
Desk research sources will depend on your industry and topic. Good places to start:
- Top-tier newspapers (New York Times, The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald)
- Business magazines or websites (Harvard Business Review, Business Insider)
- Trade or industry publications (for example, in insurance: Insurance Journal, Risk & Insurance Magazine)
- Research firms (Forrester, Gartner, YouGov)
- Management consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain)
- Leading companies in an industry (for example, in CRMs: Salesforce, Hubspot)
Your marketing lead and SMEs probably have favourite sources too, so ask them.
Pro tip: When it comes to desk research, work backwards. Start with the story you’d like to tell and figure out the data you’d need to support that story. Then look for those stats, not alllll the stats.
Step 3 – Outline
Outlines are essential for white papers. There’s just too much to wrangle at once–data, unique perspectives and brand messaging, for example. Without an outline, it’s hard to develop the structure and logic that will guide your reader.
More important, a solid outline is your chance to make sure you and your client have the same understanding. Bonus: it’s much easier to edit an outline than it is a draft.
Pro tip: Ridiculously detailed outlines help me incorporate all the things into a logical structure: desk research, SME interviews, brand and marketing resources, you name it.
My outlines are almost like first drafts, but in raggedly-worded bullet points. In my experience, time spent on the outline is well worth it–because solid structure makes it faster to write.
Step 4 – Draft and edit
Writing’s personal, so I’m not going to tell you how to do this. However you turn an outline into a draft, do it. More than other types of content, white papers benefit from downtime–so factor that in.
When you’re happy with the draft, it’s time to optimise.
Here’s the truth: very few readers will read a white paper from start to finish. So your job is to make the white paper as skimmable as possible:
- Make the Executive Summary thorough and compelling.
- Optimise headers and titles so they’re meaningful and descriptive.
- If you’re publishing the white paper as a webpage, optimise for SEO.
- Break up long sections of text with suggested sidebars, pull quotes, or graphics.
Pro tip: Typically, writers aren’t expected to source or format graphics for a white paper. That said, I like to include suggestions for visual elements, especially for dense or data-heavy white papers. I sketch things longhand, take a photo, and embed it in the draft. Messy but effective.
Step 5 – Layout
Most of the time, clients manage the design process, and for many white paper writers, this is where their involvement ends.
However, I always ask to be part of design because I know the content in a way the designer doesn’t. Most marketing leads are happy to oblige because it’s one less thing for them to worry about, but do discuss this at the project’s start.
Pro tip: Insist that the white paper is professionally proofread before it’s published. Do this yourself, subcontract and manage it, or let the client handle it, but don’t skip it. There’s a big difference between public health policy and pubic health policy.
How to break into white paper writing
White papers aren’t inherently more difficult to write than other types of content, but their length, depth, and complexity means it’s handy to have certain skills.
What skills does a white paper writer need to have?
- Structure. Can you thread multiple types of information into a logical, cohesive, and long narrative?
- Interview skills. Can you nail down the brief with your marketing lead and capture your SMEs’ unique perspectives?
- Research. Can you find credible, relevant sources and explain them clearly?
- Storytelling. Can you balance the brainy part of a white paper with a compelling narrative?
- Data. Can you have productive conversations about data and statistics?
How long does it take to write a white paper?
It depends on the project. I tend to work on technical, data-heavy white papers, anywhere from 10 to 30 pages long. These types of projects typically take 25 to 80 hours of work.
This is a typical timeline outlining the steps in the process of writing a white paper:
Obviously, this will vary by the white paper’s length, type, and complexity. Client review times are also a big factor, so plan accordingly.
Pro tip: How many revisions to include? Most white papers need one to two revisions–not including hoops like corporate comms, legal, or compliance review.
How much do white paper writers get paid?
The American Writers & Artists Institute (AWAI) 2023 pricing guide gives a range of $2-10k US for a white paper and $2-7k for an ebook.
That’s a big range and it depends on a few factors:
- Company and industry. Bigger company = bigger budget. Boring or technical industry = bigger budget. There are always exceptions, but they’re decent shortcuts.
- The project. The longer and more technical the report, the higher the fee. The more data-intensive, the higher the fee.
- Your positioning. Your ability to charge higher fees has more to do with your positioning–what you do, for whom, and why someone should choose you–than it does your actual ability. Perception really does matter.
Wherever you are in your career, “what’s your rate?” is still one of the trickier questions to answer. Practice in the mirror with these tips.
Pro tip: White papers are a big lift and you don’t want a penny-pinching client. Your ideal client is one who recognises one white paper can land them a client worth 6 or 7 figures–and pays you accordingly.
How to find white paper clients
Sorry generalists, niches are very helpful here. Start where you already have experience (example: education) and expand into B2B by adding -tech to the end (example: edtech).
Relationships matter. Your existing network is the best place to start prospecting for white paper work. Check in with:
- Previous and existing clients. If they already produce white papers, great! If not, find out why. There are many reasons companies don’t produce white papers–it’s not always for lack of the right writer.
- Agency contacts. If they already know and trust your work, they may be open to giving you white paper work.
- Fellow writers. The more people who know and trust you, the more people who can refer you for projects.
Also update your socials, your LinkedIn profile (keywords!), and your website. Anxious that you don’t have any white paper samples to share with prospects? Check out this DIY exercise.
Pro tip: For cold prospecting, look for signals that white papers are a regular part of the marketing mix–for example, 4 to 6 white papers per year. If there’s just one report, like an annual State of the Industry report, they probably have a go-to writer already or handle it in-house.
How to become a white paper writer
So there you go. White papers get a bad rap for being boring, long-winded, and irrelevant. And let’s be honest, they can be.
But they don’t have to be.
Done well, white papers dig into a customer problem, look at it from a fresh angle, and propose a solution that genuinely solves that customer’s problem.
For the solution or service provider, it’s a way to get their unique take into the marketplace, and to connect with the customers they best serve. (It also fuels a smart content strategy, but that’s another story for another time.)
For white paper writers, it’s a chance to use all the skills you’ve honed over the years: interviewing, researching, structuring, storytelling, all while keeping a specific audience in mind.
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as wrapping up a white paper–knowing you started with a mass of Excel spreadsheets and coaxed it into a cohesive, coherent story.
It’s not for everyone and that’s okay. But if that sounds like fun: go get it!
Eagranie Yuh (ee-grah-nee yoo) creates white papers and case studies, and develops branded podcasts. To do this, she draws from her experience as a chemist, journalist, and marketer. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, she now lives in Hobart, Australia where she runs, reads, and obsesses over music. Connect with her on LinkedIn or learn more at eagranie.com
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