The Secret to Writing a Great White Paper


By Robert W. Bly



            The use of white papers as a marketing tool has skyrocketed in recent years – not only for selling information technology (IT), but also to promote a wide range of products and services beyond hardware and software.

            When a professional writer or editor is hired to produce the text for a white paper, he or she is typically not an expert in the subject, which is more often than not both technical and arcane. For instance, I’ve written white papers on everything from measuring return on investment (ROI) from content management systems, to promoting bone healing with an implantable electromagnetic generator.

            Pre-Internet, the greatest challenge for the writer tasked with producing a white paper was lack of information. Research was often the bottleneck in putting together a white paper.  The local public library contained little usable information on the highly specialized topics most white papers covered. And subject matter experts (SMEs) were often uncooperative in sharing information with writers.

            In the Internet era, we have the opposite problem: too much information. For instance, let’s say you are writing a white paper on COBRA administration.

            A Google search on COBRA will bring you 29.2 million Web pages mentioning COBRA. I kid you not. After going to just the top ten or twenty, and printing out the relevant information, you can end up with literally hundreds of pages of background information on COBRA.

            Therefore, the writer’s challenge is not finding sufficient content for writing the white paper, but in selection. How do you know what content to include? Or what to leave out?

            All you have to do is ask and answer one critical question: “What is the marketing objective of this white paper?” Importantly, topic and marketing objective are not the same thing.

            For a white paper titled “Administering COBRA,” the topic is how to administer COBRA benefits. But if you are selling software to automate COBRA administration, your marketing objective might be something like: “Get human resources managers who need help in administering COBRA benefits to call us and ask for a demo of our system.”

            Once you have defined the marketing objective, then it’s much easier to select the appropriate content from your vast library of source material for inclusion in your white paper, as well as ruthlessly prune research materials that sound interesting but do not help achieve the white paper’s marketing objective.

            There are three categories of content you should include in your white paper. The first is content that directly enhances the effectiveness of your white paper in achieving your marketing objective.

            For instance, I recently wrote for a client a white paper on how to comply with a particular federal regulation concerning data privacy; let’s call it “Regulation X.” One of the white paper’s marketing objectives is to convince readers that they should in fact make Regulation X compliance a priority (many do not).

            So quite logically, I went on the Internet and researched whether any organization or their employees had suffered negative consequences from not achieving full Regulation X compliance. Many of them had, and I added some of that material to the white paper to drive home the point that you can’t ignore Regulation X, and doing so would be harmful to both your company and your career.

            The second type of information you can add to a white paper is useful tips or how-to information. On the Regulation X white paper, the client provided me with a list the federal government publishes on “9 simple steps to achieving Regulation X compliance.”

            The list is short and sweet, and so I included it in the white paper as a sidebar. The purpose of the white paper is not to serve as an actual how-to manual on Regulation X compliance; that’s beyond the scope of any document limited to white paper length. But the reader feels he is getting some useful, actionable ideas from the sidebar, and so is more inclined to read and keep the white paper.

            The third type of information your white paper should contain is content that compares the various options for solving the problem and steers the reader towards yours.

            In the Regulation X white paper, there were two types of options. Most software companies sold one specific tool to enable compliance in each of the different rules covered by Regulation X.

            My client, by comparison, sold a single comprehensive tool that covered all areas. In the white paper, we gave a seemingly objective analysis of the two options, which of course indicated that the advantages of the single-source approach outweighed those of the rule-specific tool approach – a belief which would naturally lead the reader to pick our software over competitors.

            Now, when you are writing a white paper and there is a ton of information readily available on that topic, the temptation is to take the attitude “the more content we can cram into our white paper, the better.”

            But that’s wrong. Why? Because your reader is busy. If your white paper has the heft of, say, Moby Dick, the reader will put it aside. The reader has limited time, and the writer’s task is one of selectivity: knowing what to leave out is almost as important as knowing what to put in.

            So what do you leave out? To begin with, leave out information that the reader could just as easily get elsewhere but does not help forward the white paper’s marketing objective.

            In the Regulation X white paper, for instance, the client had initially wanted to put several pages outlining the various sections and subsections of Regulation X. I asked him where he had gotten this detailed write-up. He replied that he had lifted it from a government Web site almost word for word. I recommended just summarizing Regulation X, its purpose, and its importance in a paragraph or two, and then including a link to the site for readers who wanted the complete description.

            Next, leave out extraneous detail. I also asked the client, “Does knowing the full Regulation X requirements line by line help the reader decide which tool to use?” No, the client admitted, it does not. Then it’s extraneous detail, I replied, and should not be included because it adds length without adding value.

            The third type of information you should leave out of your white paper is material that is interesting but irrelevant. I read a white paper on fuel cells that went into detail on the history of batteries, and included the invention of the voltaic cell and galvanic pile. It was fascinating but totally irrelevant to the auto maker deciding which fuel cell technology to put into his electric car.

            Is there an ideal length for white papers? Yes and no. Of course the text of a white paper should be as long as it takes to achieve the marketing objective.

            But as a rule of thumb, I find the most effective white papers to be between 3,000 and 4,000 words. If yours is 2,000 words or less, it doesn’t seem substantial enough, and perhaps is best suited to an article instead of a white paper. Once you go much beyond 5,000 words, the bulk becomes ponderous enough to scare off busy prospects who would at least skim the document if it seemed less imposing.


            About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 60 books including The Copywriter’s Handbook (Henry Holt & Co.). His e-mail address is and his Web site address is