How to structure white papers that get attention
Updated: Aug 30
Not all white papers have to be a dry conspectus of drolling data fields. When Googling “How to write a B2B white paper,” you’ll find so many examples that drone on in that very tone. It’s easy to stumble into the quicksand and think you must write in monotonous robot-speak. Not every company has to adopt this style of writing, and in most industries, it’s likely to put you and your ideal customer to sleep.
So, you’ve awakened from your slumber, induced by the most boring of the bunch. Dust off your jammies, hang up the floppy nightcap, and if you haven’t yet, thoroughly digest “How to write white papers that don’t send your customers to snoozeville.”
If you’ve already read it, then you’ve established a few topics that hit hard with your target market. You’ve dropped the robot-speak and selected a topic that will resonate not only with the ideal reader, but with the rationale for why you are in business in the first place. Your topic is one that your unique expert perspective can shed light on. Let’s dive into how to piece it all together.
The one thing that turns a good white paper into a very bad one
In crafting a compelling B2B white paper, one of the hardest parts is keeping the information focused on your chosen objective. Ideas swarm your imagination. In larger companies, colleagues from all departments emerge from the woodwork wanting a spotlight on their visions and contributions. Fernando adds a dash of basil, and Delilah sneaks in a bit of cayenne. Here and there, you off-handedly agree to add in a “few more things," and little by little, every “just one more thing” destroys the taste of your white paper stew.
By the time you complete a draft, the one golden bullet that shatters all white paper dreams has completely vanquished your message:
The assumption that your reader’s expertise is equal to yours.
When your day is jam-packed with business meetings focused on the nuances of your industry and overloaded by conversations with other internal experts, it is easy to forget that your customer is not 24/7 immersed in your subject matter. They aren’t deep in the detailed trenches. Plunging them into the same exhaustive and painstaking intricacies you’ve become accustomed to is a perilous miscalculation. Your reader just won’t get it.
Structuring your white paper correctly from the outset prevents little things from creeping in. If you stick to the plan, you can easily say “no” to details and arguments that muddy the message. (Pro tip: Don’t toss them all in the trash: always save any extra bits for another white paper topic or blog post.)
Your white paper should be jam-packed with powerhouse statistics and well-researched reasoning as to why your topic is so compelling.
For instance, if you’re in the small business cybersecurity game, it might be important to point out that 62% of businesses experienced phishing and social engineering attacks in 2018.
Include meaningful statistics like this one to help bolster your message. Don’t stick with the war chest of stats and figures stored away by employees before you. Readers will see right through a white paper with lazy figures or discombobulated data. Head to the web, into that book store, podcast app or Libby account to get fresh, irresistible research that delivers a loud and clear message. Only include what really supports your message and leave out the rest.
Trumpets, fanfare...how to open with the perfect introduction!
Ah, the introduction. The leader of the pack. This is where you put asses in the seats. The introduction is where you establish WHY this topic is so important - and why it deserves a captive audience.
This is where you set up the stakes of the problem - how an understanding of your chosen topic will elucidate a hot industry trend or alleviate a "pain point" or business challenge experienced by your reader. Your introduction should include:
An emphasis of the pain point. You want to start with what I call the introduction's special sauce…a visualization-packed “setting of the stage.”
Secondly, explain what questions your white paper will answer.
Continue with a brief summary of how your insight into this topic will help the reader WIN. Here’s where you define why the meat of this white paper is so valuable.
Finally, use your introduction to establish urgency. Specify the consequences your reader will experience if they ignore this critical pain point: Will they fall behind the competition that’s readily nipping at their heels? Remain stuck with a remedial understanding of a hot business trend? Continue to struggle in onboarding new customers?
So, what exactly is that "special sauce" you should open your introduction with?
The introduction’s special sauce: Setting the stage
Just like it is dangerous to assume your reader is intimately familiar with the intricacies of your specialty, it is equally perilous to assume that a reader is primed and ready to soak in your information. Even the most seasoned experts have other things tugging at their focus throughout the day: what’s for dinner, what time they have to leave to pick up little Jim-Jim from school, an off-putting comment made by a colleague in the break room. So, your introduction has to overcome these attention-detractors to provide context and “set the stage” for the topic you’re preparing to address.
Take a few lines to help the reader settle in. You want them to visualize themselves in the context where your target problem occurs.
You want them to viscerally remember the issues they are experiencing in the laboratory, underground tunnel, or in the cubicle - wherever it is they are when they experience your pain point. Using a few sentences to set the stage really brings the problem to life and primes the reader to pursue a solution.
Divide your vast knowledge pie into Insight Chunks
The body of your white paper should split into specific Insight Chunks (that's what I call them). Each section, or Insight Chunk, focuses on one single aspect of the trend or pain point. Each chunk should be laser-focused and deliver clear, concise insight into one facet of the topic at hand.
Start with at least three Insight Chunks. For example, if you’re sharing knowledge on how GPS equipment tracking can improve productivity in remote worksites, your Insight Chunks could focus on these problems:
Loss and theft prevention. After all, a single tire on a vehicle used in oil and gas fields has a price tag of nearly a hundred thousand dollars.
The high cost of deploying maintenance personnel. Once they discover an issue, equipment requires extremely expensive repairs that degrade overall site productivity.
Unmonitored personnel accidentally travel into hazardous or off-limits areas...and accidents happen.
Within each section, you will dive deeper into how the issue drains productivity. You will familiarize them with well-researched facts and figures that support your case and it's a great place to remind the reader how these festering issues can dramatically drain their bottom line.
Using our example, each Insight Chunk will then cover how GPS technology is a strong contender for eliminating these pain points:
Receive instantaneous alerts the moment an item departs the worksite. By pinpointing the precise location of a missing piece of equipment, you won’t have to waste a day’s time sending a team member on a wild goose chase to find it.
Preventative maintenance alerts inform you of small issues before they snowball into uber-expensive, time-consuming repairs or replacements. Taking a critical piece of equipment offline for an hour is far less costly than having to bench it for a complex overhaul that last days.
Improve worksite safety by monitoring personnel movement. Quickly identify when team members enter dangerous areas.
You want to use your Insight Chunks to establish your expertise as the gold standard for tackling this business challenge or industry trend. As soon as you start cramming in technical specs and gloaty claims, your head should ring with alarm bells and air traffic controllers waving “no-go” flags at your keyboard.
A white paper is not a long-form version of your product brochure. Keep it focused on the subject at hand and use it as a vehicle to share your unique perspective. Establish yourself as a real expert, not a walking, talking pamphlet of SKUs.
This report by Uber, “Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation” essentially explores the coming possibility of flying cars.
Uber doesn’t pepper the paper with self-aggrandizing proclamations of the technical specs behind their vehicle advances. Instead, they provide solid insight and overview into the topic, positioning themselves as a key industry leader in the future of transport.
zoovu solves some of the serious issues plaguing e-commerce sites - like cart abandonment. Their technologies pare down ridiculously long lists of product options and serve customers the best preference for their precise set of needs. Although their white paper “Are you doing everything to help shoppers choose?” touches on many of their technology’s features, they share them via crafty storytelling.
Their white paper breaks down each benefit of their technology without even claiming it as their own. Their expert demonstrations show how they solve the critical widespread problems plaguing the e-commerce industry.
The conclusion: Go out with a bang
Here is where you wrap up your message with a big pretty bow. Conclusions don’t have to be the length of a most ponderous Game of Thrones tome. Keep it short and keep it sweet. Include a few lines that restate the crux of the topic and reiterate the questions your insight helped answer.
Light a fire under your reader
Yes, I've said it loud - a white paper is not an advertisement.
However, the last page should include a bit of background on your company, and most importantly, what action the reader should take next.
A successful white paper leaves readers wanting more and you want to let them know where to get it. Whether it’s to schedule a free consultation, click through to read additional blog posts and resources, or follow your LinkedIn or YouTube page for more provocative insights, you want to tell your reader what it is they should do next. A satisfied, intrigued reader will happily take the bait.
It’s hard to filter your vast knowledge - and that’s what makes white papers feel hard to tackle. It’s difficult to know what to include, what to cut, and how to keep a brain that bumbles with activity organized on paper. But once you find your flow and plug it into an outline that works for your organization, you can become a white paper machine in no time!
What are some of your favorite white papers? Share them in the comments!
The last thing we want for your rockstar white paper is to become another business antiquity that someone in the future unearths from the files of employees past.
Check out the rest of this B2B content writing series: