So many times when you click on a link after a search on Google or Twitter, searching for information or an answer to a problem, you are directed to a white paper. A white paper has many different names and forms, but one thing in common: it provides useful information.
One of the things I love about social media the most is the access to tons of free, pertinent information. What I hate the most is having a fake problem proposed by a company, then reading a white paper with only one solution to the fake problem, that (of course) is only solvable by buying that company's product. And they want you to pay for it! (Horrors)
Don't they know that I am out here to find CHEAP, FREE!!! INFORMATION?
There are different categories of white papers. Unfortunately, some companies (cough Marketing Profs, cough cough) confuse the types and try to lure people in to read their paid content, often under the guise of a white paper. Let's first list the types, so we can be clear and precise in describing what they entail.
- Pure free informative white paper: You have a simple problem, say, how to hack a photo on Facebook. The beautiful, free white paper lists different ways to modify Facebook photos. It's sort of like a round-up blog post. The author of the white paper is simplying finding the best information out there on the subject and putting all in one place. The motivation? Probably not monetary, I'm thinking they just want search engine traffic.
- "Expert" white paper: Expert white papers take on a slightly more complex issue, with multiple solutions, some free and some not. The author is an expert on the subject and wants to demonstrate his or her authority on the subject. Yes, the author would probably love to find new clients, but mostly they are trying to establish themselves as a thought leader on the subject. They might get quoted as an expert on the subject, they might just be a really nice person. Amber Naslund of Radian6 is one of those really nice people who compile tons of great information and then just give it away. So do the folks at HubSpot. The solutions will likely include some free and some paid services, that may or may not be for the company of the white paper author.
- The slimy, make-you-pay-$29.95-for-the-meat-of-the-answer-white-paper: The search engine lures you in with a well-written excerpt that promises to answer your question. And then you get shut down when you're asked to pay a fee to get it. Always a bummer when that happens. Don't fall for the trap. You most likely can find it free elsewhere.
- "Technical" or "research results" white paper: This white paper will be protected with an abstract that draws you in from a search engine, but is probably more aptly described as a dissertation, not a white paper. If you had the $700 to read the rest of it, you'd probably not be Googling for free information, now, would you? This material will surely answer all of your questions, but it's not worth paying all that money. This should not be called a white paper, but perhaps a position paper or just a research findings report.
- Sales-y white paper: This white paper is free, but typically recommends buying a particular company's service to solve your problem. It also name-drops it's own name several times during the paper in case you forgot it from the previous paragraph. (Vocus!)
Obviously, when you just need a quick answer on a small budget, the expert or the "pure, free and informative" white paper types are what you're looking for. Now, let's discuss what to include and how to get started writing one:
- First and foremost, as with any written piece, knowing your audience is the first step. This will affect the tone and tenor of your white paper from the very beginning.
- Know the topic: Don't pretend to be an expert on a subject that you're not well-versed in.
- Present the problem or problems in a straightforward and pragmatic way. This will make people feel like you're in this together.
- Research the problem: Is there already a solution out there that is cheaper and better than the one you are suggesting?
- Mention weak spots and unanswered quandries. No one knows everything. Don't try to gloss over things like regulatory issues or pending court decisions.
- Offer direct solutions to the problems you identified earlier in the white paper
- Sum it up: Make it easy for people to skim the white paper.
- Be brief: A true white paper should never be more than 5-6 pages long. Make use of white space and keep the style and font choices simple.