Whitepapers: What they are and why your business needs them

Here, we take a look at the long-form marketing tool, the whitepaper. Used more and more across various sectors, it has become a key method of communicating brand and message. We start by exploring the whitepaper’s history before examining the types that exist, whether you should be publishing them, and if so, where you go to get them.


The concept of content marketing has grown in popularity amongst businesses in recent years, to the point now where it has arguably become the dominant marketing tool. Within a comprehensive content marketing strategy, one will find various devices. There are blogs, videos, infographics, case studies, and thought leadership pieces. There’s also something else, a content marketing device that when issued by an organisation exudes authority, knowledge, experience, and professionalism like no other; the whitepaper.


The history of the ‘whitepaper’?

To fully understand what a whitepaper actually is, it’s helpful to look at its origins. It’s generally accepted that the term ‘whitepaper’ was first coined by the British government during the late 19th Century. At this time, legislative documents were delivered by Government for discussion in Parliament. The covers of the documents were blue, and as such, were often referred to as ‘Blue Papers’. Documents that contained material deemed less formal than the bulky, word-heavy ‘Blue Papers’ were printed with a white cover and became known as ‘White Papers’.

Perhaps the earliest best-known example of a ‘White Paper’ is the Churchill White Paper 1922. It clarified how Britain viewed the Balfour Declaration, 1917 and announced the British intent to aid the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Around the 1990s, businesses began to see the potential of whitepapers as a marketing tool. As we entered the 21st Century and the age of the internet, the use of whitepapers became a staple amongst organisations across the globe.


What is the purpose of a business whitepaper?

The overall purpose of a business whitepaper is to act as a marketing tool for the company publishing it. But to leave the definition there is to not tell the full story.

Broadly speaking, whitepapers can be separated into three categories, each with a distinct purpose.

  1. Backgrounder – The backgrounder is generally used towards the end of buying/launching cycle. They tend to be aimed at buyers, journalists, channel partners and analysts. They are also used to influence key decision-makers on policy changes. In tone, they are persuasive and seek to consolidate confidence in a product, service or change in strategic direction.


  1. Numbered List – These are used more as an overview of a particular issue, or to promote highlights of a service or product. Often, they are also deployed to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt with regards to competing organisations.


  1. Problem/solution whitepapers – Intended for use at the start of a buying cycle. Whether disseminated online or offline, these whitepapers address persistent complaints users might be experiencing with a product or service and seek to offer an alternative.


Though whitepapers are categorised in this way, their purpose is twofold; to generate leads and/or to forge a position for the publishing company as a leader in their market.

At this point, it’s worth looking at what sort of companies produce (or should produce) whitepapers.


Should my business be producing whitepapers?

This depends very much on the type of company you own and the type of commodity you provide. It’s generally the case that whitepapers are published where the commodity is technical, not easily understood, and/or comes at significant expense and potential risk.

For these reasons, the majority of whitepapers are produced by B2B companies. They are widely used in the technology sector but are also prevalent amongst organisations providing scientific or technical services, computer software and user interfaces, medical or communication equipment, and consulting.

As mentioned above, whitepapers are a great way of sharing knowledge, showcasing expertise and engendering confidence. If your company plans to invest heavily in designing and building a new product or service, a budget for an accompanying whitepaper is highly advisable.

It’s rarely the case that whitepapers are produced by B2C companies. Though consumers appreciate advice before making a purchase, for the most part they don’t want to thumb through a 20-page document. Exceptions to this rule exist where a commodity comes at significant expense or requires a wholesale changes to health or property. Examples might include switching to solar energy or new medical provisions.


I want to publish a whitepaper, but what sort should I produce?

As content for your business goes, whitepapers – depending on their depth of detail – sit at the more expensive end. It’s worth then, making sure you produce the right type that does what you need it to do. This can be achieved by providing answers to three questions:

  1. What is the goal of this whitepaper? Is it for lead generation? To maintain confidence amongst stakeholders through a complex sales process? To influence key decision-makers on policy change? To position your organisation as superior to your competitors? The answers to these questions will determine whether you should produce a backgrounder, numbered list or problem/solution whitepaper as described earlier.


  1. At what point will this whitepaper be published? This matters because it determines the level of detail you should go into. If the intention is to release the whitepaper earlier in the sales process, it is better to go for a more general approach to the finer points. However, if the whitepaper is to be published later in the sales process, readers will expect you to cover the specifics and so more research and time to write will be needed.


  1. Who is the intended audience for the whitepaper? The look and feel of your whitepaper, for instance, should be very different depending on whether it’s to be distributed amongst executives or technical engineers. The latter prefer technical detail and have little interest in glossy production value. Conversely, executives like to hear about ROI in terms of cost-efficiency, sales opportunities, and enhanced customer service, and they like it all be packaged in a whitepaper high on production value with easy to understand graphs and charts.


Where do I go to get a whitepaper produced?

First of all, be wary of attempting to produce one yourself. If you have the luxury of having copywriting professionals within your business that’s different, otherwise you’re going to need to outsource. Whitepapers can act as critical documents in the pursuit of your goal, if they are poorly written and/or are amateurish in design, it is off-putting to readers and could even become counter-productive.

You need to look for copywriting and content agencies which have a proven track-record in delivering whitepapers, and ideally have experience within your sector. You can either provide them with the research and key content for the whitepaper or commission them to do this for you. The second option may cost you a little more though. Aside from that, the agency should take full ownership of the whitepaper from the planning, writing and art-working, and if hard copies are required, the printing.


Final thought

Whitepapers have the potential to be a powerful tool in the pursuit of your goal. They are worth producing and they are worth producing well. If outsourcing to an agency, research the agency first. Check their website and see if they have examples you can look at. If you find the right agency, you’ll find they will be able to help you with all kinds of content requirements, and you can establish a mutually beneficial partnership.

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