With content marketing, there’s no surer way to lose your audience than by leading with a product pitch. This is especially true for white papers. After all, a white paper is a big reading commitment — and who wants to stick around for 3,000 words if your first sentence reads like a sales pitch?
Industry white papers are a hard thing to get right. That’s because there’s a dual – and seemingly contradictory – purpose behind them: on the one hand, yes, you want to sell a product or service, but on the other, you want to demonstrate objective authority.
How can you be both an expert and a salesperson with a white paper?
I’ve written white papers for industries as varied as banking, oil pipeline monitoring, printing solutions and computer security. But across these vastly different sectors, the same principle holds: Achieve a fine balance between selling and reporting. If you’re too salesy, you’ll lose your subject matter credibility. But if you’re overly reporting-focused, then the marketing function of the paper will be lost. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot.
Based on my white paper writing experiences, I’ve developed some methods for reaching this balance. Here are my top three tips.
Tip 1: Write for a more general reader
One afternoon last spring, a white paper assignment landed on my desk for a company that offers monitoring technology for heavy equipment. The prompt from the client was short and sweet: “Write a white paper that reveals the benefits of equipment monitoring for industries like mining and oil sands.”
Now, I have no background whatsoever in equipment monitoring technology for mines. So when I got the prompt, I didn’t begin by questioning what nuanced angle I’d take. Instead, I began with a more basic question: “What is mine monitoring?”
At first, I thought my lack of familiarity with the subject matter would prevent me from creating a great paper. In fact, it turned out to be my greatest asset.
Whereas an equipment monitoring professional would have begun the white paper drawing from personal expertise, I had to acquire that knowledge as a layperson, starting with the industry rudiments and progressing toward an argument. In this way, I naturally ended up writing for a more general reader – because I was one.
With white papers, companies often try to approximate the likely readership before publishing the paper. “This paper will be read by IT execs at cybersecurity companies with 250-500 employees.” This isn’t a misguided approach. After all, it is important to know your audience, as Gordon Graham – a writer who’s authored 216 white papers – points out. I haven’t authored 216 white papers, and I’m in no position to argue against a man who’s been called “the reigning guru of white papers.” But I’ll add my own qualification to Graham’s assertion: Yes, it’s important to know your audience, but it’s also important to acknowledge that you can’t know your entire audience.
Consider the hypothetical example of a white paper targeting a cybersecurity company IT executive. What if someone stumbles on that white paper who isn’t an IT leader at a mid-size cybersecurity company, but who would still benefit from the service being promoted? If the tone of the paper only caters to a highly niche demographic, it will alienate readers who don’t fit that profile and potentially cost you business.
So while it’s important to have an audience in mind, it’s just as important to not shut out the more general reader. This reader needs to know the stakes before taking the plunge, so lead broad before diving into specifics. If, for instance, you’re writing a white paper tied to an anti-virus software packages for small businesses, avoid a lead like this:
– and instead go for something like this:
This second lead doesn’t presume knowledge. Instead, it makes the stakes of the paper immediately apparent to the more general reader. Taking this broader approach is pivotal to maintaining an optimal sales/research balance. At the sales end, it engages a wider readership who may purchase your product. And on the research side, it provides quality reporting, which is what readers want.
Tip 2: Tie the paper to something topical
OK, mine monitoring … As I learned the fundamentals of this process, I considered how I’d take the client’s prompt – “a white paper that reveals the benefits of equipment monitoring for industries like mining and oil sands” – and turn it into 3,000 words. My first thought was that I could enumerate the benefits of equipment monitoring for mining in a long-form “Top 10” list. Many white papers I’ve read do exactly that.
But midway through my research on mining operations monitoring, I ran across a story that was familiar to me: The saga of the 33 Chilean miners who survived for 69 days after a copper mine collapse at 2,300 feet underground. It was a story I’d followed with rapt attention when it happened in 2010. Now, several years later, I found myself looking at the same story, but with a new set of eyes: As it turns out, monitoring technology had a place in the narrative.
The reason the story was back in the headlines was because The New Yorker had published an in-depth account of the disaster. Using that story as my base, I began learning everything I could about this specific mine collapse. I learned about Chile’s status as a huge exporter of copper, responsible for one third of the world’s output. I read about how copper mining in the country had often come at the expense of miner safety, leading to many underground accidents over the years. And finally, I learned about the company behind the 2010 mine collapse — how, despite a history of preventable accidents in its mines, it had failed to install monitoring equipment that would have tracked underground conditions.
This was the link that tied the story of the 69 miners to the focus of my client. From there, I produced a white paper that used the narrative of the mine collapse to concretely illustrate the indispensable value of equipment monitoring in the practice of mining. Topical coverage like is perfect for the reporting/marketing balance, catering to the interests of the more general reader while also highlighting timely application for a product or service.
Tip 3: Keep it brief
Consistent with the tip, I’m going to keep this description brief. What’s important to keep in mind here is that although a white paper is categorically longer than other content marketing material, it’s also not an invitation to publish a massive tome. From both a marketing and reporting standpoint, keeping things short and sweet is the way to go.
Use your word count to tell a story that make people care
Between keeping the general reader in mind, tying the paper to relevant events, and maintaining clarity and concision throughout, you’ll be able to produce a document that will work as a marketing asset and an education tool. When you pull both of these threads through your writing, you’ll create something that people actually want to read, not just because it has stats or product specs, but because it tells a story they’ll care about. That’s how you produce effective white papers, and that’s how you generate leads with content.