How to write white papers that don’t send your customers to snoozeville
Updated: Feb 14, 2020
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White papers don’t have to read like textbooks or peer-reviewed laboratory findings. Traditionally taking on a more formal tone, white papers have recently re-emerged as a conversational tool. Imagine during a spirited conversation, someone says, “wow, that’s interesting - please elaborate a little more on that” - and you immediately took off your human hat to reveal a droning, jargon-spewing robot. Sadly, that is what most white papers are.
News flash: white papers don’t have to be boring! The most successful ones often read like the natural extension of a conversation. Let’s review how you can adopt a more relatable, conversational tone in your business and use white papers to build an authentic rapport with your customers.
What is a white paper?
Pause to think of the olden days when we’d visit stores to buy things 🤔.
In high school, I worked at a specialty running shop where we would have customers run on a treadmill to analyze their gait and run style to recommend the optimal running shoe.
In the face-to-face environment of retail, you have the opportunity to ask things like:
So, what kind of running do you do?
How long have you been running?
Have any big running goals for the year?
How many days per week are you running?
Our store dealt with everyone from weekend walkers to looney toons like my father looking to suit up for 50-mile running races. Our staff would get into conversations that would spin off into all kinds of different directions. While beginners might want to know more about how quickly they can safely add mileage each week, newly minted marathoners-to-be would likely start asking more in-depth questions about training nutrition.
Face-to-face, you don’t have to assume where a conversation is headed. There’s an opportunity to follow an individual customer’s train of thought into details you wouldn’t necessarily offer up to everyone.
You can picture your website as the store. People come to browse, learn more, and hopefully to contact you. But on the web, we miss out on that key opportunity to follow a customer down their rabbit hole of related topics. While a marathoner clamors for information on the carb-to-protein ratio in each energy gel - hopping right into a detailed conversation about macros with somebody running 2-5 miles a week would be overwhelming.
White papers are longer, more in-depth resources that let us elaborate on important themes without scaring everyone else out of the store.
Not a sales pitch. Not a sales pitch. Louder for the people in the back: A white paper is not a sales pitch.
The expertise we shared with runners positioned our shop as a genuine source of information. We were bursting with valuable recommendations and guidance that ran the full gambit of endurance expertise.
At the store, we didn’t have those extra conversations to pitch extra services like nutrition classes. It was to position ourselves as authentic experts that were there to help a runner’s journey - even the steps along the way that didn’t have a SKU. It was this hallmark that brought customers back to us time and time again.
The goal of a conversational white paper is exactly the same. To position yourself as an industry expert by supporting your ideal customer in the problems they experience - and demonstrating viable solutions.
The difference between white papers that attract customers and the ones entombed in your hard drive
The two most dangerous pitfalls in writing blogs and white papers:
The desire to show off
To assume your audience knows just as much about the topic as you
Get sucked in by either of those and you’re shaking hands with a death-trap: JARGON.
People tend to think jargon makes them sound smart. But think about some of the “smartest” people you know. Many people pick one of their favorite teachers, professors or business mentors. When that person first introduced you to a subject, did they use high-brow, jargon-laced language? They likely broke things down into more conversational chunks, helping you relate to the subject matter. They used refreshing, easy-to-relate examples: ones that gave you the freedom to connect your learnings to the other knowledge nuggets percolating in your brain that make a new concept stick.
So why is it once we learn something, many of us start spouting jargon and tech speak at an alarming rate?
When we are fully invested in a topic, we take different words, theories, and examples for granted. We forget that more often than not, we are interacting with potential customers that know a lot less about the topic than we do.
We forget that we actually have to teach customers about our given subject matter, same as those teachers and mentors taught us about it.
We think anything less than mumbo-jumbo is “dumbing down” or cheapening our knowledge.
Proving what you know and helping others understand it are two different motives. Do not use white papers as a tool for your business to show off. They’re a stimulating resource for meant to align your business’s solution with a popular real-world problem.
Everyone’s feet, arches, and ankles wiggle and wobble to varying degrees every time your foot hits the ground. It’s your body’s unique protective mechanism to support the outrageous shock just one footstrike sends right up your legs and spine - one that is nearly five times your weight.
The various degrees our feet adjust to support our weight are on a spectrum called “pronation.” A white paper entitled “How Model Alpha from ABC Running Shoe Makes Running Better” is simply a vehicle to show-off. Brooks, a popular running shoe model, expounds on the implications of pronation in a white paper entitled “An Individual’s Unique Running Form Defined by the Body’s Habitual Motion Path.”
Although the title is a little wordy, it’s written as more of an education resource focused on teaching customers about the importance of individual biomechanics - it’s not a long-form catalog begging for business. Even though this resource touches on some scientific studies, the cadence and tone remains conversational. It gradually builds up to each argument, taking pit stops along the way to explain certain terms and ensure the audience is still along the ride.
So how do I pick (and stick to!) a good subject?
I’ve never encountered a business that wasn’t jam packed with white paper subjects - even if they couldn’t see for themselves. Start asking around. Here’s some great places to start:
Back to basics. Why are you in business in the first place? What problem does your product or service solve? Make a list of different aspects of that problem your ideal customer is experiencing.
Quake Global is a company armed with a myriad of tracking technologies that help businesses see precisely how their equipment and facilities operate down to very minute details. They can equip vast hospitals with sensors that monitor the movement of patients, pinpoint the precise location of mobile equipment, and accurately track test tubes to eliminate the need for costly re-tests. Their white paper, “How To Track The 4 Invisible Details Draining Your Hospital’s Profitability” defines the problems managers of enormous medical facilities face and outlines how RFID can improve their operations.
Your customer service team or FAQ inbox. What are the most popular questions you’re asked about your product or service? Many questions can easily turn into a full-blown white paper.
Your sales team. Start asking about objections your sales staff encounters when pitching to new customers. What hurdles do they often have to overcome? Does your sales staff spend a significant amount of time defining the problem to the customer before they even have time to discuss the solution? White papers are a great way to “set the table” for sales conversations by helping define and highlight problems customers are encountering in the field.
If you’ve read a single other page of this blog, you’ve come to realize how much I love websites that go out of their way to par down enormous product lines into curated lists based on a user’s preferences. zoovu is a company swimming in awesome technologies to do just that.
Their white paper, “Are you doing everything to help shoppers choose?” opens by setting the table. They define just how much of a clusterf*ck of a taxing task it is for customers to sort through a massive list of product choices. The problem is so bad, that customers choose to abandon the cart instead of going through it. Without begging for the sale, they highlight how their technologies ease this plague on the e-commerce bottom line.
Check your web analytics. Is there a page web visitors obviously spend more time on? Take the topic of this page and expand on it.
Please note: Relying simply on what the VP thinks is a good idea, or a bunch of “yes-people” who nod their heads to get out of a meeting and onto a sandwich are not always the best topics. In fact, they can muddy your ultimate message.
French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (among others) is credited with saying “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It doesn’t take that much time or energy to blather on about the nuances of a given subject matter. But the ability to stick to one dilemma or topic of inquiry is the cornerstone of a rockstar white paper. A white paper that has dozens of different offshoots or “too many cooks in the kitchen” not only confuses the customer, but murks and dilutes any connection to your business.
So, you can write a white paper!
All you need to write a successful white paper is something everyone should have - a solid understanding of why you are in business. Don’t stress out thinking you now have to translate it into stuffy jargon-speak.
Take out that pad and paper and jot down the first few ideas that come to mind. Start writing a few words on how you would expound on the topic within the bounds of a normal conversation. Pretend you’re in a face-to-face conversation and someone is asking follow-up questions. How would the conversation naturally flow?
Still not sure about your topic? Shoot us an email and we’ll help give it a quick fine-tune.
Check out the rest of this B2B content writing series:
🚨 Ready to start writing? Check out the next post where we share a few sure-fire templates on how to best structure your white paper. 🚨
Also, we hate D.O.A. marketing content that ends up entombed in your server or hard drive - we want to help you get it out in the world to do what it does best - attract customers: B2B content that attracts customers: How to promote case studies, articles, and white papers