White Papers (Aren’t) for Dummies

White papers are kind of a “new frontier” for me.  I’m used to writing business web page content, blog posts and ad copy.   Not a ton of research involved in any of that —  mainly because, (a), their length (200-500 words) doesn’t require it, and, (b), their subject matter, price range and ‘sales objectives’ don’t require it.

Paul Ramirez Writes White PapersMost of us have probably never read an actual, honest-to-goodness “white paper” before (or if we did, we didn’t know it because it didn’t have white paper in the title–and it wasn’t printed on WHITE PAPER!). And, frankly, unless you work in government procurement, legislative research or the type of business-to-business marketing that involves the purchase and deployment of new, expensive or complicated products and services, you probably NEVER will!

They’re not like landing pages and sales letters for B2C products and services, the kind that virtually floods the Internet as well as our e-mail inboxes and postal mailboxes.  They are an entirely different species of marketing communication.

Whereas sales letters and landing pages are all about connecting emotional appeals with rational-logical appeals to give you compelling reasons to buy a particular product or service — selling the steak as well as the sizzle — white papers give you a comprehensive, nutritional breakdown of that steak, telling you why their steak is better than the competition, and offering you a detailed analysis of how their steak has in the past helped some of their clients solve their most immediate and ongoing meat-eating and protein-digesting dietary challenges, compared with other “traditional” (or unorthodox) solutions they have tried.

White papers, unlike long-copy sales pages, are not primarily meant to be read online–although nowadays they most certainly are published for both viewing online and downloading, printing and reading offline.  (The next generation of white papers will be all electronic and even interactive, but I digress.)  They are designed to be, sooner or later, printed out in hardcopy format with nice photos and graphics and a well-chosen type-face and layout, picked up with both hands and read by your prospects just like an interesting and informative (and illustrated) short story.  Because that is exactly what they are (or should be).

They’re meant to be informative.  They ought to be interesting.

And they ought to be intelligently and intentionally crafted with the right purpose in mind.

For those of us who write white papers for business clients (more common now than white papers for government and public-sector, which is where white papers originated), the challenge of making them informative, interesting and compelling is only surpassed by the challenge of determining which type of white paper is needed for a given project.

Thankfully, this involves less guesswork now that a certain wise and knowledgeable business-writing guru named Gordon Graham has devised a deliciously easy way to figure out what kind of white paper you need to achieve which type of result.

Gordon Graham calls himself, “The White Paper Guy.”  And he offers a very unique way of determining what “flavor” of white paper is best.

Chocolate, Strawberry or Vanilla?

Pure genius!

From his years of trial and error and experience, Gordon has managed to boil down what used to be a daunting list of 10-15 different categories of white paper to choose from, into a very short and memorable list of just three.

“Chocolate,” “Strawberry,” and “Vanilla.”

If you are wondering what kind of white paper you might be needing for your next strategic product launch or targeted B2B marketing effort, here is a brief description of the three basic types.


If you’re already a well-established, well-known company in your field, and you just want a nicely-detailed background description of a particular product or service — not for lead generation or getting your prospect moving through the sales funnel, exactly, but just a good “backgrounder” that highlights the main features and benefits in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner — then a plain vanilla white paper is probably what you need.


If, on the other hand, you need more of a “problem/solution” approach, one that digs a little deeper with a more challenging, research-based appeal to the client offering “richer” and more satisfying content that can potentially provide longer-lasting value to him and to you (which makes this the best approach for generating new leads), then a chocolate-flavored white paper is the way to go.


Sometimes a more “light and lively” approach is called for.  One that is more popularly written and easier to read, geared towards simply “making noise” and garnering attention for your product or service — “5 Ways to Improve Your XYZ Manufacturing Processes”, “7 Things Your Should Know about Replacing Your ABC Components Before They Fail” — because it focuses on why the competition’s product or service — without naming names! — is either “bad” or just okay (and clearly inferior to yours), and why yours is the obvious choice for your prospect.  This somewhat tart and tangy document presents your client with information in a neatly-organized, bulleted or numbered format that makes it easy to “digest.”  If that’s just what the doctor ordered, then “strawberry” is the best flavor of white paper.

Now, this is an extremely brief boil-down of what Graham explains, and I’m certainly not doing any justice to the sheer brilliance and intuitive value of this very tasty approach to white paper classification made simple, but I think you get the idea.

White papers are quite research intensive and more educational/instructional pieces of marketing than most, and more logical/rational rather than emotional/sensational (or motivational) in tone and content.  When I write a white paper for a client, I keep in mind that, ultimately, my reader is likely to be either a corporate executive or a harried business person with a very BIG buying decision to make.  I don’t want to spend my time or waste his on content that is thin, light and under-researched, and might be perceived as mere sales fluff and “puffery.”

Thanks to this handy-dandy little guideline, when it comes to determining which kind of white paper to write, I’m no longer faced with a bewildering choice of 31 flavors!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s