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  The White Paper FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions)

by Gordon Graham, That White Paper Guy

When I first started writing white papers more than 10 years ago, I looked all over for a FAQ.

big question mark for FAQ about white papersBut I couldn't find one.

So eventually I decided to make one myself.

I hope these 30+ Q&As are helpful to anyone just getting started with white papers, or anyone who wants to understand them better.

If you have any questions about white papers that aren't answered here, or you find any answer that isn't clear, please e-mail Gordon@ThatWhitePaperGuy.com


Overall Topics (click or scoll down)

White Paper Definitions

White Papers and Other Documents

White Paper Readers

White Paper Sponsors

White Paper Writers

White Papers Past, Present and Future


White Paper Definitions


White Papers and Other Documents


White Paper Readers


White Paper Sponsors


White Paper Writers


Past, Present and Future

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What exactly is a white paper?

Ask any 10 people this question, and you'll likely get 12 different answers.

Here is the best short definition I've ever found, after years of looking: A white paper is a persuasive essay sponsored as a piece of marketing content by an organization.

question mark on a blank white paperBeyond that, I've heard a white paper described as:

Clearly none of these exotic definitions quite do the trick.

The content of a problem/solution white paper provides useful information for readers seeking to understand an issue, solve a problem, or do their jobs better. This can include explaining a certain product, service, technology or methodology.

The format of a problem/solution white paper is somewhere between a technical manual and a glossy brochure... somewhere between a dry-as-dust academic paper and an annual report.

To sum up, a problem/solution white paper is a persuasive essay, sponsored by a certain organization to provide helpful information about overcoming a certain problem, formatted to look something like an annual report.

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Are there any industry standards for these documents?

In a word, no. Anyone can call anything a white paper. And they do.

Today's "typical" white paper is 6 to 8 pages long, shorter than in past years. But I've seen everything from a two-page flyer to a 100-page book called a "white paper."

The typical white paper looks better than a technical manual, but not as slick as a brochure or advertisement. But some white papers are as colorful as a cereal box.

The typical white paper is distributed as a PDF on the web. But many are still printed out for sales calls, press kits and trade shows.

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If not standards, aren't there at least some conventions?

Well, perhaps.

White paper expert Jonathan Kantor and myself, Gordon Graham, have identified the following key characteristics for a modern white paper:

If a document has all these characteristics, it fits within the conventions of a problem/solution white paper.

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What types of white papers exist?

White papers come in many different types, with no accepted system for labeling them precisely.

Given this, the majority of white papers fall into one of these three main flavors:

#1. Backgrounders describe the technical features and benefits of a product or service

#2. Numbered lists provide a light and lively roundup of highlights about some issue

#3. Problem/solution white papers recommend a new, improved solution for a nagging business or technical problem.

You can effectively combine a numbered list with a backgrounder or problem/solution white paper, which yields five main flavors of white papers.

For more on these three flavors and how to use them effectively, see my special report "How to Pick the Perfect Flavor for Your Next White Paper."

Beyond these, many other terms are commonly used to describe white papers:

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When is each type of white paper useful?

Each different type is most appropriate for delivering certain information to a certain audience, as shown below.

For shorthand, I've used "offering" to represent any product, service, technology or methodology described in the white paper.

For the three main flavors of white papers listed above:

#1. Backgrounder: for prospects near the end of the buying cycle or to support a product launch for journalists, analysts and channel partners

#2. Numbered list: for anyone interested in a light and lively roundup of highlights about some issue or to spread FUD on competitors

#3. Problem/solution white paper: for prospects near the start of the buying cycle who are using the Web to research a nagging business or technical problem

For the other types of white papers listed above:

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What's NOT a white paper?

Remember that there are no "rules" or universal standards for what makes a white paper... so many people use this label very carelessly.

By my definition, a problem/solution white paper contains useful information to help people understand some relatively new, complex or expensive offering they are considering buying for their business.

There are many other types of useful information, but I don't consider them white papers.

the letter X on a blank white paperFor example, Internet marketing guru Perry Marshall names 40+ documents that he considers to be white papers, including:

But notice how many of these items are actually documentation used after a purchase when installing, learning or troubleshooting a system.

Those may be useful, but they're not white papers.

To my thinking, a white paper is strictly a pre-sales document used before a purchase. It's not documentation or support, it's sales and marketing.

For a longer discussion, see my article "When is a white paper NOT a white paper."

But no matter what you call it, remember that an overt "sales pitch" will destroy the effectiveness of any white paper.

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What are today's hot topics?

The hot topics for white papers tend to follow industry trends. So when a lot of people are talking about a certain technology, you can be sure a lot of white papers are being written about it.

The white paper syndicates want you to know what's hot, so they make it easy to get an instant snapshot of their most popular white paper downloads.

Here are three easy ways to check...

1. Go to www.knowledgestorm.com and notice the list of Top Requested Categories.

2. Go to www.bitpipe.com and notice the similar list of Popular Topics. Then click Most Popular Reports to see the 50 most downloaded white papers for the day.

3. Go to www.itpapers.com and see the tab for "Most Popular."

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White papers and brochures:
what's the difference?

White papers and brochures are almost complete opposites.

Brochures are sales documents intended to create interest and desire.

Brochures push "emotional buttons" such as fear, greed, envy or vanity. They are generally colorful, flashy and filled with promises. They use the techniques of copywriting and advertising.

White papers, on the other hand, are persuasive essays about a certain product, service, technology or methodology.

White papers appeal more to logic through irrefutable facts, iron-clad logic, impeccable statistics and quotes from industry opinion-makers. They are generally plain-looking, not flashy and filled with facts. They use the techniques of rhetoric and plain English.

Some companies simply reformat a brochure and call the result a "white paper." This is a dangerous waste of effort. Most readers become irritated when they discover that a vendor has done this.

I have heard people urge vendors to make their white papers as flashy as brochures. This is not correct.

A white paper should be much more dignified, substantial and informative than a brochure. Making it look like a sales piece is the kiss of death for a white paper.

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White papers and case studies:
what's the difference?

White papers sometimes mention case studies for evidence of a vendor's claims. But the two are quite different in form and content.

Case studies are extended testimonials on how a product or service helped someone in the real world. They are typically between 500 and 1,500 words long, written in a journalistic style with many quotes from the actual customer.

The classic format for a case study is Before/After, Then/Now, Problem/Solution: Before we had this terrible problem, then we found this fantastic product, and After we started using it, everything was sweetness and light.

White papers, on the other hand, are persuasive essays about a certain product, service, technology or methodology.

They are generally 2,500 words or more, written in a somewhat academic style, with no direct quotes from the vendor's representatives. A white paper may be told in the Problem/Solution format, but rarely in the Before/After format.

White papers tend to be used earlier in the sales cycle, to help prospects visualize a possible solution to a nagging problem.

Case studies tend to be used later in the sales cycle to reassure a prospect that other buyers benefited from the same approach they are considering.

For a longer discussion, see my article "What's the diff between a white paper and a case study?"

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White papers and press releases:
what's the difference?

Press releases are short, factual announcements of interest to a certain audience. This format has existed for perhaps 100 years.

Until recently, press releases were used to influence media "gatekeepers" and gain publicity for their sponsor. The most effective press releases were recycled by journalists into printed articles.

Today, press releases are available to anyone on the Web, without the need for any gatekeeper.

A contemporary press release must be highly factual. In fact, there are rules about what a public company can say in a press release.

White papers, on the other hand, are persuasive essays about a certain product, service, technology or methodology.

Problem/solution white papers have existed for perhaps 50 years and the format has evolved quickly since the turn of the century.

While a white paper is sponsored by a company—the same as a press release —white papers are generally much longer than press releases, with more room to present facts and develop arguments.

White papers are sometimes packaged with press releases as a "press kit." And they are sometimes republished in trade magazines as articles.

On the Web, white papers are available to almost everyone. There are no legal limits on what a company can say in a white paper.

But it's best to take a journalistic approach, backing up every assertion with statistics, facts and quotes from respected source.

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Who reads white papers?

White papers are read by almost anyone contemplating the purchase of a relatively new, relatively complex, or relatively high-priced product or service for their business.

White paper readers can play a number of different roles in business, such as:

In larger companies, all these people may sit together on a selection committee that makes a collective decision.

In smaller firms, some people may wear several of these hats and meet informally to discuss their purchase.

White papers are especially well-read by IT managers.

One survey showed that they read a median of 30 white papers a year, with some reading more than 50 a year... that's one a week!

As well, business people routinely passes good white papers up and down the chain of command, to both their managers and their staff.

photo of many hands in the air

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Why do people read white papers?

White paper readers are seeking useful information to help them understand an issue or solve a problem.

This often involves learning about the business benefits or technical details of a product or service they are considering buying.

A survey of IT managers by Forbes.com and Bitpipe (now TechTarget) showed that they read white papers for the following reasons:

White papers used to be aimed strictly at IT professionals.

Today, many less technical people are involved in big buying decisions. These people are seeking plain-language explanations with clear business benefits, backed up by convincing facts and arguments.

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When do people read white papers?

People tend to read white papers when they:

Executives at the IT portal KnowledgeStorm encourage clients to think of a technology sale in four phases.

1. Vision: a business person is imagining how to solve a problem. At that point, a high-level white paper focused on business benefits can help them visualize the possibilities of using a certain offering.

2. Planning: a prospect is trying to map a set of functional requirements to a certain product. That's when a more detailed, technical white paper can help them understand how a given solution would work in their environment.

3. Evaluation: a prospect is actively looking at a set of products from a short list of vendors. The need for white papers has pretty much passed.

An Evaluator's Guide for a complex product might be helpful at this point. But more often, prospects want the reassurance of seeing case studies from other customers.

4. Acquisition: a customer is actually purchasing and installing a product. They may need added information to help them do so, but it's more accurate to call this "documentation" rather than a white paper.

After all, the white paper has already played its role and the sale has already been made. Everything from this point on is after-sales support.

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How do people read white papers?

Almost everyone working today has more to read, more to remember and more to do than they can possibly get to.

For example, one study showed that the typical manager has more than 50 hours of work sitting on their desk at any point. They're not exactly waiting for another document to add to the pile?!

No one reads white papers for fun; they read them for work.

So most people who read white papers do not read the same way they might read a novel, paying attention to every sentence.

Instead, they tend to skim, scan and skip... especially if they're reading off the screen. Don't you?

This means that white papers must be carefully written and designed for business readers with limited time and attention. A wall of gray text is not likely to engage today's white paper reader.

White papers need to use visual breakers like sidebars, callouts, headings, lines, boxes, bullets and graphics to direct the attention of scanners and skimmers.

book cover for Crafting White Paper 2.0These visuals need to point out the key messages of the document in a way that's easy for today's busy readers to follow.

Good news: There's an entire book devoted to this subject.

Jonathan Kantor has written an excellent guide called "Crafting White Paper 2.0: Designing Information for Today's Time and Attention Challenged Business Reader."

Here is my mini-review of this book.

Here's where to find more details or order your own copy. Highly recommended.

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Who publishes white papers?

White papers abound in the technology sector, where they are commonly used to explain software and hardware products.

But there's no reason why white papers can't be written about many other B2B offerings.

Any B2B vendor selling anything relatively new, relatively complex or relatively expensive could likely benefit from a white paper.

This includes companies in sectors like these:

This adds up to perhaps half a million potential vendors in the English-speaking world that could benefit from white papers.

Vendors of any relatively familiar, simple and inexpensive B2C products don't often publish white papers, since there is little need for them.

After all, most consumers don't want to read a 10-page document before they buy something.

There may be exceptions—especially in energy and health care—where consumers may have to make significant decisions.

For a longer discussion, see my article "Who needs a white paper?"

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Why do companies do white papers?

In general, vendors publish white papers for two main reasons: either to gather leads, or to stake out a position as a leader in their market space.

According to one study, vendors publish white papers for all these reasons:

On a strategic level, white papers fit into the widespread trend of "marketing with content."

This model acknowledges that skeptical prospects are hungry for a vendor who will serve as a trusted advisor, not just a peddler of their wares.

A white paper can serve this purpose remarkably well.

Remember, the most effective white papers provide useful information to help a reader understand an issue or solve a problem... not just background about a product.

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In the sales cycle, where do these fit?

The longer the sales cycle, the more likely white papers are part of it.

White papers are used early in the sales cycle, before the prospect makes a purchase.

These can be called the "Vision" or "Planning" stages of the buying process, or the "Research" or "Selection" tasks of the Universal Tasks.

After making a purchase, the buyer has little need for white papers.

At this point, the customer needs documentation, training and technical support, not white papers.

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Which type of white paper should your firm create?

If you are creating a white paper, but aren't sure which flavor is best, you can narrow down the list with three straightforward questions.

#1: What is the purpose of this paper?

#2: When will this white paper be used?

Early in the sales cycle, your white paper can be more high-level and general. Later on, your white paper should be more detailed and specific.

#3: Who is my audience? What do they want?

IT people generally want to see technical details. They will tolerate longer papers with modest production values. In fact, a slick and colorful format tends to make them suspicious.

Executives want to see bottom-line benefits summed up in a page or two. They want to hear about lower costs, better sales, higher profits or improved customer service. Executives expect polished production, with clear graphics they can understand at a glance.

Managers want to hear about streamlined workflow and labor savings. They are keen to see how a new system would affect their area and their people.

User reps want to hear about ease-of-use, training and support. They can be more or less technical, but they will likely be detail-oriented. Users are not often a significant audience for white papers. But if a user rep is involved in a selection committee, you need to address their concerns at some point.

A mixed audience or selection committee may want to hear everything touched on above. In this case, you may need several white papers, each with a different flavor and each with content geared to a somewhat different audience.

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How much does a white paper cost?

There are several costs related to producing a white paper:

Each of these costs can be outsourced, or handled in-house.

In 2005, executives from the white paper syndicates told me that medium-sized technology firms can expect to spend $3,000 to $5,000 to have a white paper written and illustrated.

Five years later, that still sounds close to the ballpark.

photo of hand holding many $20 billsA recent survey of 600+ white paper authors showed three tiers:

The more experience a white paper writer has, the more they charge.

Illustration, design, translation and printing are likely less than the writing.

But publishing, promoting and syndicating a white paper on other websites can easily cost more than the rest of the budget put together.

And there are "soft costs" in terms of the time it takes your subject matter experts to answer interview questions and e-mails and to review drafts.

All this to say, a white paper is a significant project in anyone's book. Trying to do a white paper on a tiny budget will not yield effective results.

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How long does a white paper take?

In my experience, after working on more than 100 white papers, it takes 6 to 8 weeks to get from the first interview to an approved white paper draft.

photo of pushpin stuck into calendarAnd it can easily take longer if people travel a lot or take their time with reviews.

Illustration and design can take additional weeks.

Translations, if required, take more time.

And then the promotions can begin and run for many months.

The good news is that a vendor can often continue to use the same white paper for years. This long life helps to achieve a very positive return on the investment in a white paper.

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How do you promote a white paper?

Simply writing a good white paper is not enough.

Simply tucking it away on a website is not enough.

To earn an acceptable ROI, a vendor must actively promote a white paper in every known way.

The most popular ways to promote a white paper include:

In fact, the best way to promote a white paper is to handle it as a mini-product launch.

Do everything you would do to launch a new product, and your white paper will be on the road to success.

The more effort you invest in promoting a white paper, the more likely it will succeed.

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What companies need white papers?

Remember, a white paper is a pre-sales document intended to attract prospects or explain an offering.

Any B2B vendor selling anything relatively new, relatively complex or relatively costly could likely benefit from a white paper.

This includes companies in sectors like:

This adds up to perhaps half a million potential vendors in the English-speaking world that could benefit from white papers.

Vendors of any relatively familiar, simple and inexpensive B2C products don't often publish white papers, since there is little need for them.

After all, most consumers don't want to read a 10-page document before they buy something.

There may be exceptions—especially in energy and health care—where consumers may have to make significant decisions.

For a longer discussion, see my article "Who needs a white paper?"

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How hard is it to write one?

Writing your very first white paper for a company you don't know well, in an industry you've never written about, can be quite a challenge.

Writing your fifth white paper for a long-term client in an industry you know is not so difficult.

Most writers feel that the first white paper they ever wrote was quite difficult.

And many writers who have done fewer than 10 white papers still find it difficult.

If you understand the material and work well with others, writing a white paper can be smooth and enjoyable. If not... quite the reverse.

All in all, writing a white paper is no harder than writing a major magazine article of several thousand words.

But if you've never done that before, it may be very difficult indeed.

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How long does it take to write one?

According to the White Paper Writer Industry Report which surveyed 600+ writers in 2007, the typical white paper takes between 24 and 50 hours to complete.

That means one to two weeks full-time should be enough to complete a white paper... if everything falls into place.

Like any corporate writing project, you must allow time for interviews, research, outlining, drafting and perhaps coming up with diagrams.

A client will expect a few progress reports. And you will have to incorporate their comments into your drafts.

photo of hands of a clockIf you manage this process well, writing a white paper can be smooth and efficient.

If not, it can turn into a never-ending project that drags on and on and on and on and on and on and on...

The more experience a white paper writer has, the faster they tend to work.

And freelancers tend to produce faster than in-house or non-professional writers.

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How much can you charge to write one?

In 2005, executives from the white paper syndicates estimated that medium-sized technology firms spend $3,000 to $5,000 to have a white paper written and illustrated.

Five years later, that is still the ballpark for most writers.

The White Paper Writer Industry Report surveyed 600+ writers in 2007 and showed three tiers of pricing:

Obviously, if you have specialized knowledge of a small market space, you can charge more than a generalist who will take time and ask more questions to get up to speed.

And the more white papers you have written, the more you can generally charge.

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What problems do white paper writers encounter?

Among other problems, white paper writers often report difficulties with:

And an inexperienced designer can destroy the readability of an otherwise strong white paper.

Successful white paper writers sooner or later devise ways to deal with these issues.

The most effective strategy is to head off these problems before they happen, by planning and managing a white paper to yield the best possible results.

Here are some quick tips:

1. Round up approvals from all stakeholders early on.

2. Submit short deliverables for discussion, like a creative brief or a one-page outline, before you start writing a 10-page document.

3. Get your client or company to make a tangible commitment to completing a white paper.

For example, freelance writers can get a partial payment in advance; in-house writers can get an okay to forego other duties writing the document.

4. Work closely with the designer and make sure they understand the white paper format.

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How can you learn more about writing these?

You're in the right place; this White Paper FAQ is an excellent place to start.

This website has several dozen further articles on various aspects of writing white papers. You're welcome to explore them all.

After that, to take part in a forum where writers post and answer related questions, visit White Paper Source.

Sponsored by Mike Stelzner, this forum is an excellent place to share notes with other white paper writers.

Ready to spend a few dollars on your education?

Check out the hand-picked resources available through the Products section of this website.

Everything there has my personal recommendation.

And if you'd like to have me, That White Paper Guy, as your own personal coach to help you step-by-step through your next white paper project, see my Coaching services.

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Where did white papers come from?

This term "white paper" arose early in the 20th century in Great Britain.

It was used to distinguish shorter government briefs and position papers with white covers from longer reports and policy books with blue covers.

photo of Winston ChurchillOne of the earliest white papers on record is the so-called Churchill White Paper from 1922.

More background at www.palestinefacts.org.

A few months after this was published, Britain apparently broke every promise in this document.

Just like today, not all white papers speak the truth?!

White papers were often used in science and medicine during WWII, the 1950s and 60s.

With the rise of the PC in the 80s, white papers started to become extremely popular in the IT industry.

And in the 90s, the Web provided an inexpensive distribution channel that sparked today's ongoing explosion of white papers.

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Where are white papers today?

One thing's for sure: The number of white papers is growing exponentially.

In the summer of 2001, a Google search for the phrase "white papers" yielded 1.4 million hits. Nine years later, the same phrase yielded 19.6 million hits.

The Web is awash in documents called "white papers."

And these have been become a standard part of the marketing toolkit in some sectors.

That's because truly effective white papers are highly read and passed on from person to person. They have a major impact on buying decisions for billions of dollars worth of products and services every year.

Yet this label is applied indiscriminately to many documents that are not problem/solution white papers.

Too many are nothing but thinly veiled sales pitches.

For this reason, the term "white paper" is becoming devalued.

It may be better to find a more specific name for some audiences, such as:

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Where are white papers going in the future?

For the near future, white papers will continue to be very popular with marketers and prospects.

Over the longer term, many new formats for delivering information are being explored.

For the kind of content usually included in a white paper, these new formats include presentations, audio (podcasts) and video (recorded webinars or vlogs).

Others mediums on the horizon, including 3D immersive experiences and virtual trade shows.

These will require different production methods and offer a more engaging experience for certain audiences.

But it's not useful to call these "white papers" since they are not delivered as text on paper.

Those who call some other medium a "white paper" are likely trying to trade off the popularity and impact of these documents.

For a longer discussion, see my article "When is a white paper NOT a white paper?"'

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If you have any questions about white papers that are not answered here, or you find any answer that isn't clear, please e-mail Gordon@ThatWhitePaperGuy.com 

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