What is a White Paper?
Often used as a marketing and sales tool, a white paper is a persuasive, informative report that presents a problem, educates the audience, and provides a solution.
A white paper is a marketing tool usually commissioned by a company or non-profit organization. It’s an authoritative report, typically 3,000 to 5,000 words long, that presents a problem and advocates a particular position or solution. White papers often include statistics, facts, and logic to support the main argument. The ultimate goal is to promote the organization’s products, services, or worldview. Although companies often publish white papers to drive sales, they are not blatant pitches or ads. Instead, they aim to educate readers, provide practical information, and establish a brand as a thought leader in a particular field.
In June 2019, Facebook released a white paper titled “An Introduction to Libra.” (A revised version appeared that October.) It opens with a “Problem Statement” that immediately identifies a global challenge: 1.7B adults don’t have access to a traditional bank, even though 1B have a mobile phone and almost half a billion have internet access. The 12-page white paper goes on to discuss a solution – how Libra, Facebook’s cryptocurrency, can provide a global currency and unified financial ecosystem. The argument is buffered by research, but it clearly promotes Facebook’s technology.
A white paper is like a road sign...
A white paper provides drivers with information, but the eventual goal is to direct them to a specific destination. White papers inform an audience about a company’s products, services, or technology without overtly selling. Instead, they give consumers information to help them make informed buying decisions and reach the destination on their own.
A white paper is a report designed to advocate for a solution to a particular problem, often supported by facts and logic. Effective white papers provide useful and educational content to readers.
Although a white paper is not a sales pitch, the content is generally skewed in favor of the business or organization that sponsored the white paper. Ultimately, a white paper serves to build a company’s credibility and demonstrate the brand’s authority in a particular niche. Businesses commonly publish white papers as part of their marketing strategy. White papers are often used by B2B companies (those that sell products to other businesses), particularly those offering technology products or services. But white papers are not an explicit sales document or advertisement.
A research or academic paper is a report that generally argues a point. The author backs up his or her perspective by citing articles, books, interviews, and other authoritative sources. In some cases, research papers are published in academic journals and are peer-reviewed (evaluated by impartial experts in the same field).
The goal of research papers is typically to contribute to a field of study and build on previous work. Ultimately, an academic paper or journal article is not published for financial profit. Instead, the authors, who are typically are lead investigators in the study, publish research papers to add to the academic conversation.
A white paper is not academic writing. Governments, companies, and non-profit organizations publish white papers to present information in a way that directs the reader to make a specific decision or support a certain position. White papers may cite facts and data, but the goal is to guide the reader to a particular conclusion and present the organization as an authority on the subject. At the same time, white papers usually present the organization’s product, service, or viewpoint in a positive light. For companies, white papers are a marketing and sales tool.
For example, a business might publish a white paper examining a problem its customers face and explaining why the type of technology it offers is the best solution. An environmental non-profit might sponsor a white paper advocating for a specific approach to addressing climate change. Or a government agency might publish a white paper to present a policy proposal.
The term “white paper” originates in the UK, where government papers were color-coded. A “white book” was an official government report bound in white and intended for public distribution.
Some government agencies still publish white papers today. For example, UK white papers are policy documents that contain proposals for future legislation. The European Commission publishes white papers on various policy areas to spur public debate. The US Office of Naval Research requests white papers from researchers who hope to secure funding for projects.
Around the 1980s and 1990s, businesses began publishing “white papers” as a marketing tool. One 2019 survey of B2B buyers found that nearly half were willing to exchange personal information for a white paper, makes them a useful way to generate sales leads.
There are three main types of white papers businesses use in marketing, which can be combined:
The backgrounder is a straightforward overview of a product or service. It explains the features and benefits of a business’s new or updated offering, as well as how it trumps the competition. The target reader is generally familiar with the brand and is at the bottom of the sales funnel (or close to purchasing). For instance, Facebook’s white paper “An Introduction to Libra” is a backgrounder that introduces the Libra cryptocurrency.
The numbered list is a series of digestible facts, examples, or tips addressing an issue. This format usually aggregates points for potential customers in the middle of the sales pipeline. They are already familiar with the brand, but not yet ready to buy.
An example of a numbered list is Google’s 2016 white paper called “Best Practices for DDoS Protection and Mitigation on Google Cloud Platform.” It lists 10 features of the Google Cloud Platform that defend against Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks (cyber-attacks that tries to paralyze a computer network).
Although all white papers try to educate the reader, the problem/solution white paper generally presents the company as a hero with a new solution to an industry-wide problem. The reader is likely at the top of the sales funnel — just doing research and unfamiliar with the business. This persuasive report aims to build brand awareness, generate leads, and hopefully turn that reader from a stranger into a customer.
An example of a problem and solution white paper is Uber’s 2016 “Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation.” It points out that millions of hours are wasted traveling by road, including sitting in traffic. It then presents Uber’s solution: on-demand air travel.
There are no minimum length or formatting requirements for white papers. In general, white papers should be longer than a blog post or case study, but shorter than an ebook or print book.
There’s no fixed word length for white papers, but most range between 3,000 and 5,000 words. White papers are usually published in a PDF format and may include illustrations, infographics, and references.
A good white paper format typically includes:
Here are a few examples of white papers published in 2018 and 2019:
Deutsche Bank’s published this 28-page white paper to discuss the future of real-time cash management. It combines case studies, interviews, and surveys to show how current technology already supports real-time foreign exchange (forex) currency conversion and real-time cash-flow forecasting. The white paper argues that real-time treasury, where you can send and receive cash instantly, is becoming a reality.
This white paper also mentions that Deutsche Bank already offers 24/7 forex payments and that its foreign exchange platform provides customized risk management solutions in real-time.
In this white paper, Vanson Bourne, a UK-based market research firm, identifies what small- and medium-sized businesses need from a business banking partner. It cites a May 2018 survey of 300 small business owners, executives, and managers to show the importance of having digital onboarding options.
The focus of the paper is to argue that banks need to do better when it comes to delivering the digital onboarding options that small business customers want. It lists six steps that banks must take to improve the process, including allowing for digital signatures and digital uploads of documents. It’s not surprising that the final page is about Avoka, a digital customer acquisition and onboarding company for the financial services sector, which teamed up with Vanson Bourne to produce this white paper.
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