White papers are still the gold standard

by | Content Strategy, Content Writing and Copywriting, Sales enablement

White papers, once the shining stars of tech content marketing, have gotten overshadowed in our current TikTok era — but they’re still a powerful tool in your marketing and sales enablement arsenal.

Some history: I spent a significant stretch between 2014 and 2018 immersed in crafting white papers for clients, and I became a recognized authority in the field.

As the years rolled by, the tide shifted. Today, when companies approach me, they’re more often interested in email copy. And don’t get me wrong … I love writing emails! But I can’t help but ponder the dimming spotlight on white papers.

While the digital age has brought a plethora of other content types to the forefront, white papers, when executed correctly, still generate incredible results across the marketing, sales and PR spectrum.

In fact, I’m still so confident in the lasting power of white papers, I couldn’t help but gush about them to Sarah Panus on the Marketing With Empathy podcast recently.

Let’s take a deep dive into what white papers are and why you might want to think about including one (or more!) in your content strategy. Then I’ll give you my best tips for making sure you turn your white paper into one of your best-performing sales and marketing assets.

What are white papers?

A white paper is a high-authority content asset that’s often presented as a PDF, but could also be published on a web page or on an interactive platform that lets readers flip through pages like a magazine. They’re highly versatile — you can use them as opt-in downloadable assets, too.

So when should you create a white paper? The perfect situation for a white paper is when you have a solution that is highly technical or complex, or commands a high price tag.

In those situations, your white paper positions you as an authority and communicates competence. It conveys the message, “We understand your problem thoroughly. We know what’s keeping you up at night. You can trust us to guide you to the solution to solve that problem.”

How long should a white paper be?

It depends! I’ve written white papers that are as short as 1500 words (about 3-4 pages) and then I’ve created some that are over 10,000 words. The length is determined by how much you need to say to solve a particular problem for the customer — and you always want to include enough research to make it count.

What’s the difference between a white paper and an e-book?

White papers are research-heavy documents, often requiring in-depth interviews and extensive data compilation. The aim is to be authoritative, and a white paper should address technical and high-level issues. If your audience is executives, technicians, engineers, or developers, white papers can work like gangbusters. I’ve seen it over and over again.

On the other hand, e-books tend to be simpler and more visual. They’re more accessible to a broad audience, and often use a more casual tone.

Your content choice will depend on your target audience and the depth of information you need to convey.

How to write an outstanding white paper

Writing a compelling white paper isn’t just about presenting facts or information — it’s about sharing a story and leading your reader through a journey.

That said, you’ve got to start with a robust foundation of research. Your white paper must be a reservoir of information that underscores and validates the point or argument you’re making.

A stellar white paper also has a strong narrative element. The narrative answers the “why” questions: Why should the reader care? Why is this topic or solution relevant?

Every white paper should also have a defined beginning, middle and end. Your job is to lead the reader from their initial understanding at the beginning of the paper to some newfound knowledge or perspective by its conclusion.

A well-crafted white paper isn’t a passive read. It engages, intrigues and holds the reader’s attention from the first word to the last. By intertwining narrative with informative content, you can ensure your reader remains absorbed and continues reading right up to your closing line.

A note about timing your content creation

Which came first: the white paper or the blog posts (and other content)?

When companies ask me how they should prioritize their content, I always recommend they start with the white paper. This process will involve in-depth research, expert interviews and detailed graphics.

Once you have a solid white paper, you can repurpose it into blog posts, create infographics, or even adapt a chapter into an e-book. Then you can ensure you’ve got high-quality content across multiple channels.

Listen to the podcast episode with Sarah Panus to hear how she was able to squeeze value out of one white paper for two whole years!

Many companies try to do it the opposite way — they want to take a collection of blog posts and stitch them together into a white paper. That approach inevitably leads to an incohesive mess . It’s better to lead with a strong white paper, then use that content as a springboard to create other assets.

The timeless power of white papers in modern marketing

White papers are less in the limelight today, but they still have an unmatched potency for conveying in-depth knowledge and building trust. They’ve stood the test of time as invaluable tools in marketing and sales.

I’ve written countless white papers for clients, and I’ve literally never seen one fail. They always generate incredible results.

Talk to Jessica about your white paper project.