White papers are neither purely technical nor marketing. As a deep dive into the "what" of your product, they gently frame and persuade in a truthful yet convincing way. In this video, get an overview of the format of white papers, what goes into them, and what to expect when putting together your first one.
- The term white paper has described many types of documents throughout the years. The format originated in government documents, gained credibility over the years and then was adopted by business communicators. The Wikipedia article on white paper asserts that this is the first document with that name. The so-called Churchill White Paper of 1922 is 32 pages without illustrations, side bars or footnotes. It's just a wall of text. The format stayed the same as other governments used white papers to propose policies.
Similar formats such as green papers and blue papers came later but distinctions among them are mostly historical and they aren't really important to us now. Business marketers started adopting the white paper format and name in the '90s hoping to get some of the credibility that governments had built up over the years. Somewhat later, people started calling certain technical documents white papers as well. The paper that created Bitcoin in 2008 is a good example. Even though its author simply called it a paper, it's now universally known as the Bitcoin White Paper.
Nowadays the marketing value of the term white paper comes from this history because we've learned to associate the term and the text-rich appearance of white papers with a kind of thoughtful trustworthiness. But you can't just take out the graphics and call it a white paper to gain trust. People will still recognize a sales pitch, so here are some things to watch out for to safeguard your white paper's credibility. white papers have points of view but they require facts to back them up, so don't just say that something is true, show that it is with contrast, comparison and history.
Don't exaggerate your importance, product benefits or really anything else. In white papers, such puffery weakens your position. Don't pretend that your solution is the only one that works or the one that'll work in all situations. Assume that readers are familiar with your competitors and build trust by speaking of their benefits honestly. The job of the white paper is to provide the context where your solution emerges as the obvious one. Finally, don't dress up the page too much.
It's fine to include relevant charts and tables and illustrations but too much and it'll look like a sales brochure. In short, there's a lot of leeway in how you can structure your white paper. As long as it's thoughtful, authoritative and credible, it will do its job.
- Describe the benefits of studying examples of white papers in your field before writing one.
- Cite the rules for using graphics in a white paper.
- Explain the different parts of a white paper.
- Cite how to incorporate outside materials into a white paper.
- Recall the protocol for quoting someone in a white paper.