Structuring a White Paper

white paper is meant to be an objective presentation of information. It may address a problem your readers or potential customers have, and then present a solution for them. Or the white paper may be designed to help your readers become better informed about your industry, so they can make intelligent decisions in the future.

Whatever the purpose of the paper, these goals mean you’d better produce something that looks absolutely professional. A white paper is not supposed to be an outright sales pitch. The criteria it conforms to are much closer to academic standards than to marketing standards. So let’s have a look at the recommended sections to include in a professional white paper.

1) Title Page

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A title perhaps less ...obscure? (Photo Yale Law Library, via Flickr)

Make sure the white paper has an interesting title that indicates your topic. And if you can work a benefit into the title, readers may be more likely to read the paper than they would otherwise. For example, you may be trying to promote the merits of a certain type of engine to run a customer’s processes. You could title your paper, The XYZ Engine, or you could add interest with a title like, Lowering One’s Carbon Footprint with the XYZ Engine. Readers interested in greener production processes will suddenly sit up and take notice.

Some white paper experts recommend that you don’t write a title until after you’ve written the paper itself and drawn your conclusions. As with any writing, you’ll find that the content or even the emphasis of your paper can change as you research and write it. A title written after the paper is done is completely fresh, and will reflect the true contents of the white paper.

2) Abstract or Introduction (optional)

The abstract or introduction may or may not be needed. This section is both a brief introduction to the problem you’re addressing and a summary of your main points and conclusion. You don’t need to go into a lot of detail about those points (that’s what the rest of the paper does), but a reader who doesn’t have time to read the entire white paper can still get your main thrust from scanning an introduction like this. Consider including one, especially if the white paper is long.

If you’re planning to put your white paper in an online repository, these generally require abstracts. People will first see the title and the abstract, and that’s what will be the basis of their decision to buy/read the paper or not. So while having an abstract is optional, it really isn’t, if you’re going to use an online repository.

3) Statement of the Need or Problem

This is where you really get down to work. This statement should probably be about one page in length, or less. It gives a general background for the problem or issue the white paper addresses, and also shows how this issue may be holding back the readers or their work. It also begins to show that you know what you’re talking about, and have some idea of how to solve the problem.

Remember that a white paper doesn’t simply have to address a marketing or sales issue. If you have customers who deal with border crossing (either as people who travel back and forth or those who ship over borders a lot), you could write about laws and requirements. Whatever problem or complex process your readers face, if you know how to help them fix it, you can write a white paper for them.

4) Details About the Problem

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Details, Stats, Data, etc. (Photo courtesy Flickr user Cuito Cuanavale)

In this section, you bring in your test results, statistics, facts, and figures. You are not only demonstrating what the problem is, but you’re showing that it really does exist. And you’re showing what impact it really has, and even demonstrating some secondary problems that come up if the primary issue is not dealt with.

Your readers may not even have realized they had this particular problem. Or they might not have felt it had much of an impact on them. But what they read in this section can be very educational, making them want to read more and find out what the solution is.

Notice that you’re not doing any outright marketing. If you’ve got good evidence, you won’t need to. Your readers will be eager and waiting to hear your answers.

5) The General Type of Solution

The word “general” is very important here. You still aren’t marketing yourself at this point, but instead you describe the types of solutions available to help your readers. Again, you are trying to educate and inform, and not just sell. This paper has to be useful to the reader to have any value.

That’s more and more the trend right now: providing value of some sort to people, earning their respect because of it, and having them come to you. It isn’t as necessary as it once was, to yell “Buy mine! Buy mine!” at people. In fact, that strategy turns more and more people off, after they’ve spent years living with that kind of assault. This means that your white paper can not just be one big advertisement, or your potential customers are likely to run the other way in a hurry.

6) Your Own Solution

All right — now you can talk about your own product or other solution that will help your readers address their important issue. 🙂 Up to this point, you’ve been demonstrating “good faith” by giving the readers some useful information. If they’ve read this far, they are probably feeling pretty mellow toward you, and will be more likely to read about your version of the general solution from the previous section.

So yes, write about your product or service. Point out the benefits the customer would receive, and how your solution will address the problems you talked about in Section 4, above. You still don’t want to yell and create pressure, and undo all that good will. But you certainly can give a one-page summary of how you can help, and then issue a Call to Action by directing them to your website or calling or emailing.

7) Summary/Conclusion

This can be similar to the introduction. Here is where you summarize the problem, and then the general solution. Restate your main points. And again, though perhaps in a milder way than in the previous section, issue a Call to Action.

There are other things you can include in a white paper, but we’ll look at them next time: Spicing Up Your White Paper