White paper planning

3 questions to nail before you kick off your next white paper

Louise sits, glazing at her screen.

The cursor blinks. Reproachfully.

How can she describe what this darned white paper should have in it?

She racks her brain. Her mind aches with the heavy lifting. She’s frazzled.

There are just too many possibilities to cover with one hard-pressed budget.


She replays her conversation with Tom, one of her senior product managers. Tom enthused about creating a white paper to display dazzling ‘thought leadership’.

Then Trish, her head of sales, collared her to grumble that marketing should be sending over better qualified leads. And hustled for more credibility-building collateral to help her team close sales.

How could one white paper satisfy these different demands?

Louise worries she’ll end up wasting her budget lashing together a Frankenstein’s monster. A mishmash of ill-fitting parts no-one loves.

But putting together a brief for a white paper doesn’t have to be so hard.

The trick is to get 3 things clear from the start.

Tie these down and you can easily craft a tight, focused brief. And make sure your white paper performs like a dream.

Shall we get started?

1st question: What’s your shining destination?

Louise decides to go for a run to clear her head. She pulls on her running kit. She ties the laces on her new Brooks trainers and ponders what run she'll do.

She wants to run faster. Who doesn't? But she's also building up to longer distances. And she knows that no single run can help her with both these goals. Different runs target different energy systems.

She remembers she needs to let her body recover from yesterday's hard speed session. It's going to be an easy run today.

Her thoughts about choosing a run help solve her white paper dilemma. Different flavours of white paper target different marketing goals.


White papers come in many different shapes and sizes. But it's helpful to group them in three categories, as suggested by  white paper expert Gordon Graham in his book White Papers For Dummies.

Each type is suited to a different stage of the sales funnel.

Type 1: Lead generation – the problem/solution white paper

Bill's a business intelligence manager at an insurance company. He knows his current analytics software isn't detecting new kinds of fraud fast enough. He'll have to upgrade it fairly soon. So he hops online to do a quick bit of research.

This is where a problem/solution white paper is just the ticket.

Bill is:

  • Starting to research a problem.
  • Looking for a birds-eye view of a landscape he has to navigate.
  • Seeking a glimpse of the attractions and dangers of different routes to his destination.

According to Graham:

[a] problem/solution white paper is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to present a new solution to a serious problem that afflicts many companies in a given industry... [it] provides useful information that helps intended readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.

A problem/solution white paper pulls leads in to the top of your funnel. It shows the product or service offered by your company to advantage. But it doesn't engage in a hard sell.

Example problem/solution white papers:

  • Website Testing 101: Understand the Differences Between A/B and Multivariate (Webtrends)
  • Public Safety over LTE: Developing Advanced Mission Critical Communication (Spirent)

Type 2: Lead nurturing – the numbered list

Some while later, Bill's flagging. He feels overwhelmed by all the different analytics systems. He struggles to define his key requirements, and he might even abandon this project.

A numbered list white paper is the perfect energy booster for a flagging prospect, like Bill. It helps him re-orient himself. And it keeps him moving forward.

Graham describes the numbered list white paper as:

a set of tips, questions, answers, or points about some issue... along with the welcome promise of an easy read.

The numbered list white paper nurtures your prospects. Offers them a helping hand. Pulls them gently forward.

Example numbered list white papers:

  • 5 Must-Ask Questions when Choosing a Business Communications Vendor (Mitel)
  • The Top 5 Tasks to Automate for Privileged Account Management and Security (Thycotic)
  • 10 Things Your Next Firewall Must Do (Palo Alto Networks)

Type 3: Close sales (or promote a launch) – the backgrounder

Bill has finally drawn up a shortlist. 5 different vendors tout the product he seeks. Each offers him a trial. How can you shift the odds so he picks yours?

This is where a backgrounder white paper shines. It helps your prospect get the most out of his test drive of your product.

The backgrounder is the most technical of the three white paper types. And it's the only one mainly focused on the benefits of your product.

Graham notes that a backgrounder:

focuses on the features, functions, benefits, and payback of a product or service from one vendor.

The backgrounder works its magic at the bottom of the sales funnel. When a prospect is getting ready to buy. It bolsters technical evaluations and product demonstrations by providing helpful guidance. It's not a glossy brochure engaging in a hard sell. It informs and explains.

Written for a different audience, a backgrounder can also introduce a new product to analysts, channel partners or the trade press.

Example backgrounder white papers:

  • Foglight® for Cross-Platform Database Performance Management (Quest)
  • Advancing Your Analytics with Webtrends Infinity (Webtrends)

Remember how Louise felt frazzled by her white paper dilemma? The first question she needs to ask is: what's the goal for her white paper?

And then it’s time for her to revisit her buyer personas.

Shall I explain?

2nd question: Who are you trying to seduce?

Imagine Louise goes to a running coach to get a training plan. How would she feel if the coach simply handed her a plan? Without finding anything out about her?

She could want a training plan to help her ease back into running after a calf tear. Or she could want a training plan so she can PB on a 5k race in a couple of months. If the coach hands her a three-month marathon training plan, will she be happy?

So it is with her white paper plan.

Louise has to hone in on who her target prospects are. What their pain points are. What problems they're looking to solve. Otherwise she's going to waste a lot of energy.

She'll end up producing a document that doesn't help her prospects meet their goals. And it won't help her hit her own.

As Michael Stelzner notes in his book Writing White Papers:

For white papers it is essential to distinguish the target reader... When your reader is clearly identified, you will always have a beacon to navigate by.

What Louise really needs is to fit her runs into her lunch hour. Because that will keep her boss happy. It's no use her coach suggesting runs that last over 45 minutes. With warming up, showering and stretching, she just won't have time.

Likewise with her white paper, she needs to think about secondary readers. Who are the other influencers in the buying process?

Her primary reader is the head of IT. Does she also need to cover the concerns of the finance director? A procurement manager?

There's just one more thing she needs to nail down.

Want to find out?

3rd question: What do your prospects crave to know?

Do you remember your favourite teacher?

When I think of great teaching I often think back to Ian, one of my A-level teachers.

Ian loved maths. But he also loved teaching. He thought about how to explain new concepts to us in language we'd understand. He didn’t stand with his back to us, scrawling differential equations across the board. Instead, he talked with us. Engaged with the problems we had. Checked we’d understood.

And he loved to answer our questions. He’d patiently stand in front of the class and reach for another new analogy or image to explain a thorny concept.

After maths classes I’d feel inspired. I could see the world just a little differently. I had acquired new tools.

White papers should be like Ian. Expert. But focused on educating. They should show prospects how to solve a problem. Empower them to take the next step. And leave them remembering your firm with warmth for years after.

As Steve Slaunwhite notes:

A white paper is essentially a “how to” booklet. It shows the reader how to do something, why they should do it, what technology to use, how to evaluate it, what new methodology to incorporate, how to handle critical issues, and how to solve key problems.

Given the stage of the buying process you're targeting:

  • Brainstorm what issues your target readers are wrestling with.
  • Identify what they need to know to take the next step.
  • Ensure the white paper answers their questions.

Then it will move them a step forward towards buying from your firm.

Plan without pain

Crafting a brief for a kick-ass white paper needn't hurt.

Like pulling together a training plan for a race, the first step is simple. Pick your distance.

Narrow your focus. Visualise your goal. Imagine the roar of the crowd on race day.

Your running shoes sit patiently by the front door.


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