Content writing 101: White papers – Saying what you need to say

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These few white paper marketing tips can help any content writer succeed.

Attention spans have grown pretty short with the rise of the internet. We’ve seen a steady progression from blogs to Facebook posts to Twitter, and now just a Pin of a funny image with a few witty words. But sometimes content marketing strategies need an outlet for a more nuanced consideration of a topic to grab consumers’ attention and convince them to sit down and read it front to back.

Sit down and write custom contentFor those instances where it’s impossible to convey a message through cat photos or social interactions, marketers can craft detailed white papers. Even in an age where consumers increasingly expect 140-character conversations with brands, white papers hold a unique and valuable place in content marketing campaigns. Sixty-one percent of B2B brands are publishing white papers to reach and influence prospects, and more than one-quarter of consumer-facing brands produce white papers and ebooks. The majority cite them as effective marketing tools.

Making these kinds of materials engaging enough to keep people reading is rarely easy, but as a content writer, you have to start with understanding what you’re trying to accomplish. The process of writing a white paper depends on the brand you’re writing for and your audience. Governments and advocacy groups are usually putting out papers outlining policy positions, but businesses produce copy on everything from trend reports predicting what will be most important in an industry to how-to’s on using their products. Before you write, know why you’re writing.

Knowing where to go

It’s tempting to start working on a white paper by immersing yourself in a topic, learning as much as you can. But before you can get to that, you have to understand what principles should inform every decision you make while writing – know what you are trying to accomplish. This doesn’t just mean picking a topic like tips on product development or a thorough report on oil exploration. Both of those topics are vehicles for an idea that you’re trying to impress upon your prospects. Maybe a recruiting agency is explaining the importance of highly skilled product developers, or an oil investment firm wants to provide transparency into their production processes.

A narrow focus is what makes it possible to write thorough, coherent and authoritative white papers.

It can sound limiting to try to write an in-depth paper based upon such a tightly focused idea. But to a large extent, a narrow focus is what makes it possible to write thorough, coherent and authoritative white papers.

If you’re that oil investment firm releasing a paper on drilling practices, trying to write a comprehensive manual on the subject, with graphics and first-hand experience, doesn’t help you convert leads, and it probably doesn’t help prospective customers answer their biggest questions, either. Readers might appreciate resources that explain the ecological impact of oil exploration, but they’re probably not going to read an 800-page book you put out detailing the process.

Figuring out how to get there

Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish with your white paper, you can dive into the subject matter. And there’s good reason to truly dive deep.

Dive Into Content MarketingGood white papers will have a narrow focus, but it’s a major mistake to think a carefully scripted argument will be engaging, credible or effective. Someone coming to you for guidance or edification wants a well-rounded report, and you should strive to make sure you’re limited by space more than by research or expertise.

No matter what level of expertise you feel you already have on the subject of your white paper, it’s worth the time to read around the topic you want to address to better understand relevant ideas, even if you don’t plan to address them directly. Oftentimes, papers can evolve as you write them, and researching your topic extensively helps you develop a dynamic and flexible creative process to accommodate facts you may discover along the way.

The first key to broad research is identifying the most reliable sources within your topic. Finding survey material on your paper’s topic provides you with a touchstone that guides further research without necessarily influencing the specific topic of your paper.

From here, you can begin to research your central focus, being certain to look at sources that both agree with and disagree with your arguments. You can reflect the current conversations, as this enables you to proactively address different viewpoints.

This is where white papers can truly strive to raise the level of discussion. Even as white papers align with brand philosophy, they can distill existing arguments in their key components to provide a perspective that is bigger than a brand.

Writing so people want to read

Pulling your research together into a coherent piece can be the easiest or the hardest part of the process, depending on how much material there is for you to cover. Sometimes writers feel strained to do broad topics justice, and other times it can feel daunting to get started on a piece that requires a certain amount of word space.

To a large extent, how you write your paper will depend on the topics you are addressing. The more background and detailed information that must be included, the more chapter-like the product will be, while a paper making a few key points might realistically be positioned as a highly digestible list series.

But the biggest focus, of course, is keeping the reader engaged. There are two primary ways of going about that – structure and content.

If you can structure the paper in such a way to make it easy to glance through and find interesting materials, then you’ll give readers that much more incentive to dive into the rest of the piece. Ideally, a reader will interact with the entire paper cover to cover, but highlighting titles of specific chapters or subheadings gives audiences the promise of sections most relevant to them.

If you can’t compartmentalize an interconnected idea into micro sections, focus on breaking down the subject as if you were having a conversation.

If you can’t compartmentalize an interconnected idea into micro sections, focus on breaking down the subject as if you were having a conversation. Pull out the essential information that matters most to your points to start, then imagine an intended reader has asked some follow up questions to help clarify.

Perhaps the most important part of white paper marketing is reviewing the final product to ensure every paragraph, section and idea offers value. If something isn’t being accomplished at each stage, you’re bound to lose people to an internet meme along the way.

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Travis Whalen is a Boston-based writer and the Head Energy Writer at Brafton. He holds both bachelor's and master's degrees in political science and public policy, but still has a soft spot for all things science, and space in particular.
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