How to write white papers that showcase your thought leadership

How to write white papers that showcase your thought leadership

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
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‘A whitepaper is a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution. Marketers create whitepapers to educate their audience about a particular issue, or explain and promote a particular methodology. They're advanced problem-solving guides.’


It’s not a product pitch, but it is meant to present the unique angle your business has on a topic, on which you have some opinion and authority.

For example, we help B2B businesses develop effective marketing strategies and materials. We write white papers on that basis. And, having written hundreds of white papers for our clients over the years, we’ve collated our best advice on how to create effective thought leadership white papers for marketing.

This content is based on one of our webinars. You can watch the video and download the slides below:thought leadership white papers webinar videoDownload slide deck

How you can use white papers for marketing

Here are just a few examples of white papers we’ve written for clients:

How to write white papers that showcase your thought leadership - examples of our work

As you can see, they cover a variety of topics. They were used for very different marketing campaigns with very different goals.

But, they have three goals in common:

1. Help readers solve their problems

A white paper is useful and informative; it can also be a platform for you to convey your opinion or philosophy on the topic in question. You’re not selling your products or services, but you can position yourself as an authoritative source of information. Sales collateral like case studies and product literature are for closing a deal; white papers are for helping people.

2. Get leads into your contact database

In most cases, but not always, a white paper sits behind a landing page with a form on it. The recipient has to fill in some information, like their email address, in exchange for access to the valuable information you’ve promised in your white paper. This is a powerful lead magnet — as long is your content is suitably valuable.

For more on landing pages and how they work, see our guide on writing awesome B2B landing pages.

3. Inspire progress through the buyer’s journey

With a white paper, the intention is to elicit a striking illumination — an epiphany — for the reader. This should inspire them to take the next step towards engaging your company’s services. You therefore need to align the subject matter and format of your white paper to suit the stages of the buyer’s journey, like so:

Buyers journey with white paper titles for each step - How to write white papers that showcase your thought leadership

Choose a format for your white paper

So, you have the expertise to help your reader understand and solve their problem. You’ve decided a white paper is the right method to deliver that thought leadership. What you have to say is valuable enough to motivate readers to become leads and make progress through the buyer’s journey.

The next step is to choose the format of your white paper. This will dictate a lot of your choices for what to write and how to write it.

1. Tour d'horizon

In other words, a tour of the landscape. Years ago, we would write Symantec's Annual Internet Security Threat Report. They had the expertise to talk about the security landscape from their perspective, which helped to position them in that industry even without talking about their products or services.

Health warning: you need to have in-depth industry knowledge and authority to elevate this above an overview anyone could get from Google.

2. Inverted pyramid

This format is useful for persuading someone of a particular point using a logical argument. It’s based on ‘The Pyramid Principle’, a book by Barbara Minto. Read the book, but it basically boils down to:

  • Situation - describe the current situation
  • Complications - describe the tension / issue in the situation
  • Question - describe the question in response to the tension / issue
  • Answer - suggest an answer to mitigate or solve the tension / issue

There’s also SCIPAB (Situation, Complication, Implication, Position, Action, Benefit), which is a similar idea.

3. Problem. Recommendation. Solution.

This is a simpler version of the inverted pyramid. Define the problem, make a recommendation in a general sense and then present your product in that context. Keep the reference to your products (or services) to less that 20 percent of the paper.

4. Listicle (and listicle sandwich)

If in doubt, write a listicle, which is something like ‘10 reasons to migrate to the Cloud’. They have a very high perceived value.

Or, write a listicle sandwich. Start with a slightly more editorial approach, a little tour d'horizon or problem statement. We wrote one of these for a client where the problem was ‘Excel is incredibly powerful but it has limitations’. We then used a listicle format to outline power-user tricks for Excel. That’s the meat (or veg) of the sandwich. Then, on the other side of the sandwich, we talked about the client’s product: a zero calculation engine that can do Excel calculations in the Cloud.

5. Benchmark yourself

To use this format, you need to do some research yourself, such as surveys or some kind of analysis. Then you can offer readers the chance to compare their business against this data. It’s something like a personality quiz in a magazine, but the data has to be more robust than that. Remember, you aren’t talking to teenagers here, you’re talking to experts in their own right. Respect that.

You can also have other forms of lead capture, such as templates, checklists and playbooks. While these are not strictly white papers, they serve a similar purpose.

Top tips for writing great white papers

At this point we’re making a few assumptions:

  • You’ve done your due diligence and researched your audience (your personas)
  • You have a clearly developed tone of voice as a business
  • You’re speaking from a defined brand position
  • You have an idea of the key messages you’re trying to get across

If we’re assuming too much here, then sign up for our free marketing strategy foundations course, which covers all of this. Or, talk to us about our strategic workshops.

Once you have all of that in place, and you’ve chosen your subject matter and format, then follow these tips for writing truly impactful thought leadership white papers.

  • Be helpful and informative. We’ve said this already, but it can’t be said enough. Your attention and your contact details are the two most valuable commodities any of us have online. So your white paper needs to be valuable. So valuable, in fact, that someone might actually pay for it, even though you’re giving it away for ‘free’ (though a person’s contact information is, of course, valuable in itself).
  • Employ credible sources. Your business will be seen as a credible source if you use well-researched evidence to back up any arguments in your white paper. You might know what you’re talking about, but if you can’t prove it, then people won’t give your words much weight.
  • Be aware of alternatives. You can’t cherry pick your information to create a false world where only your services will save the day. Be truthful about the options out there. Give the reader the best chance to make an informed choice.
  • Highlight perspective. Use the design structure of the white paper to clarify where the objective information ends and the opinions begin. Differentiate visually between editorial and advertorial, between church and state.
  • Use a clear structure. This isn’t a PhD thesis. You want copy that people can scan in two seconds flat. Put an executive summary or introduction (a ‘stand first’ in copywriter lingo) at the start. Build a structure using titles, subtitles, sidebars, pull quotes. Signpost everything.
  • Try tables. Tables are your friend. Tables make compelling, credible content. They offer an easily parsed structure, whether that’s for connecting different data points or visualising a thought process.

Table from an example whitepaper

  • Images. Illustrate what you are writing about with screenshots, diagrams, charts, infographics or other supporting visual elements. If that’s too difficult to pull together, at least you can use illustration elements for icons and some stock imagery. A little bit of design goes a long way.
  • Make it look like a ‘real’ document. Make your white paper seem like something someone could pick up and read. Make it tangible. Use little tricks, like a 3D-style image of the front cover, a table of contents, page numbers and a back page with a bit of boilerplate copy about your business. This makes the whole thing all the more ‘official.’

Or, get someone else to do it

Everybody can write. Not everyone is a writer. Not only can we help you with white papers, but we can build SEO-driven marketing campaigns to support your journey to being known as a thought leader in your industry. Click here for details on our copywriting services.

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