Don’t Write White Papers That Make You Cringe: How To Create A Winning Report Every Time

Bob Gale co-wrote Back To The Future

He appeared on a podcast recently and explained the one thing he regrets about that movie to this day. It has to do with the special effects they used when Marty McFly sang Johnny B Goode on stage. 

Marty starts to fade out of existence. And there’s a hole in his hand which doesn’t gel with the rest of the effects. It just looks weird. Gale said they didn’t have time to fix it, and it still makes him cringe every time he watches the movie. Great Scott!


Don’t let that happen to your next white paper

You don’t want to cringe every time you think about it. Instead, you want to be able to create a winning white paper every time you sit down to write. Yep, every time. Want a sure way to do that? You need to plan the thing first. And this starts with asking (and answering) the right questions.


These questions can make or break your white paper

No joke. Unless you take the time to plan your white paper and think about it strategically (by asking these questions), you’re doomed from the start. 

White papers are one of the toughest marketing pieces to create. One of the reasons why is that there are usually several stakeholders in the project – people who have to review and sign off on it. And unless these individuals all agree on the content and direction of the project, you can look forward to costly, time-consuming, and unnecessary revisions. 


Yes, they can be tough, but…

By answering the following questions, you’ll ensure you’re in the best possible position to create a great white paper from the get-go. 

And make no mistake, these questions are critical. So let’s start with Question #1.


What’s your objective for the white paper?

This is the first question you need to ask yourself and your marketing team: what’s the objective? What are you trying to achieve?

The most important thing to remember is that a white paper can do one thing, maybe two things… but it can’t do everything. One of the easiest ways to make sure your white paper bombs is to try and write it for many different purposes.


Here are some common objectives a white paper can be used for:

-To support a product launch

-To use as a technical evaluation guide

-To nurture prospects through the sales process by keeping them engaged

-To get attention using a provocative approach to some issue

-To generate leads

-To build recognition 

-To educate your market

So figure out what you want to use your white paper for. Remember, try and narrow this down to a single objective.

Right… onto Question #2.


Who is the target audience?

Probably the most important decision you need to make for any marketing communications piece (not just white papers) is the target audience. Who will be reading your white paper?

Obviously this is easy if you only market to one specific target audience. But if you have several different audiences in mind, you need to narrow this down to one. We’ve already mentioned that it’s critical to decide on a single objective for a white paper. This holds true for the audience too.


A white paper with a single objective, written for ONE audience works best

Knowing this critical piece of information is necessary to get the style and language of the paper right. It’ll also help you determine how easily you’ll be able to understand the audience.

For instance, if you assume the white paper you’re writing is for electron microscopy facility managers, but it’s actually meant for (and going to be read by) end-user scientists, then the language, style and content is going to be off. 

Which leads us on to Question #3…


What is the topic?

The topic of the white paper will depend on the objective. And it’ll determine the specific content of the piece. For example if you want to write a white paper to generate leads, your topic might be about a new and better solution to a specific problem in your industry. 

But if your objective is to support a product launch, then your white paper will cover the features and benefits of a specific product. And depending on the topic, your white paper may be longer or shorter.

And speaking of length…


How long does the paper need to be?

This is Question #4… and it’s the easiest question to answer. The length of your white paper will largely depend on who you are writing to (which is another reason why deciding on the target audience is so important).

The sweet spot for most white papers is around 6-8 pages. This is typical if you’re writing to a business audience like C-level executives – people who want the high-level overview of how a technology solves a specific problem.

If you’re writing to a technical audience (like engineers or scientists) looking to evaluate a product at the bottom of the sales funnel, then a longer white paper might be needed (maybe 10-12 pages). 


What happens if we have multiple audiences?

Do you need to write a separate white paper for each? This is a common objection… and ideally, you would want a separate paper for each audience. 

But it’s possible to write for two audiences in a single white paper. Simply include sections that specifically address the needs of the second audience. You can do this using side-bars, boxes, or leave a section at the end of the paper for this second group. The main body of the piece should still speak to just one audience though. And while it’s probably OK to include content for two different kinds of reader, I wouldn’t include three or four. Two is enough.


To summarise…

Taking the time to plan your white paper and going through these questions will pay off in the long run. A well-written white paper will continue to give back for many months and sometimes even years after it was written. 

Incorporating these questions into your planning process will help set your white paper apart from all the so-so examples out there in the wild. So you won’t have to cringe the way Bob Gale cringes every time he watches Back to the Future :). 


Your next step…

Want more tips for creating white papers and other long-form communications that become valuable marketing assets? Enter your email address in the box below and subscribe to Selling Science.