If you’re looking for tips for successful white papers, you’ve come to the right place. White papers are documents that explore complex issues to educate audiences. They provide enough facts and arguments to convince people that your product, service, or strategy offers the best solution for the situation, educating them about the issue and making a case for your position or advice.

White papers are an excellent way to explain what makes your solution better than competing alternatives. They can summarize key information about a particular issue or problem to help the reader develop a stronger understanding. They can also describe common problems your audience faces and provide detailed explanations as to how your approach provides the best solution. But they can only do those things if you create them carefully. That’s where these five tips come in handy.

1. Think like your audience

Too many companies start creating white papers by focusing on what they think is important and what they feel the world should know. The problem is that the outside world doesn’t have the same knowledge and preconceptions as people within the companies, nor do they share the company’s biases and opinions. You may be convinced your company’s approach toward radish coring is the most sensible, but your customers may be more familiar with your competitors’ approaches.

Professional white paper writers generally take a different approach. They start the process of developing white papers by developing an understanding of what the audience needs to know and what’s important to them. Because they don’t have the same knowledge as the company’s employees, they’ll have to ask a lot of questions, including questions the company’s team may not have considered. Those are likely to be many of the same questions prospective customers might ask, so the writer can address those issues in the white paper. They can also challenge internal biases and opinions.

Approaching white papers through the eyes of customers or other ideas nearly always makes ideas and arguments more compelling and meaningful to the people you’re trying to reach and convince. That makes your white papers far more effective.

2. Avoid promotional copy

Effective white papers are generally not promotional. Because the audiences that white papers target — such as engineers, CFOs, and CEOs — tend to distrust materials that appear to be more “salesy” than informative, most are simply set up to look like trade magazine articles with fewer pictures.

Crafting a white paper is very different from other kinds of marketing-related writing such as websites, brochures, and blog posts, primarily because they’re more factual and educational than promotional. That’s why even experienced marketing writers will turn white paper projects over to professional white paper writers.

3. Start with a goal

A great way to start is by identifying what the goal of your white paper should be. Is the primary purpose to generate leads for your company? Is it to educate prospective customers who have been using a competitor’s product or service? Is it simply a mater of making sure others know something you see as critically important?

No matter what your goal may be, if you don’t know what it is in the first place, you’re not likely to achieve it. You may have multiple goals, but you should identify the one that’s most important. So before you start gathering information and drafting your thoughts, know what your primary objective is.

4. Have a solid plan

The next steps as you prepare to write a great white paper are to do two kinds of planning. The first of these is plan for all the activities associated with the white paper. For example, you may need to perform research, conduct interviews with internal subject matter experts, or find people in your industry who can contribute valuable information. You’ll want to set a target date for beginning to write the paper and think through the process of who will review it and how long it will take.

The second type of planning is for the concept itself. You don’t need to develop the kind of formal outline your high school English teacher made you prepare, but it’s a good idea to determine how the white paper will flow and what it will address, so you can make sure you gather all the information you need. For example, an outline for a white paper about the advantages of a certain formulation for car wash detergent might be like this:

  •             Introduction
  •             Challenge: Smaller margins for car washes
  •             Information: How detergents work with water
  •             Information: What is “hard” water and how does it affect detergent performance?
  •             Information: Strategies for softening water
  •             Information: The benefits of using softer water
  •             Product: Sudzo Detergent includes chemicals to soften water
  •             Benefits: Car washes can wash more cars using less water and detergent
  •             Information: Brief description of Amalgamated Industries, maker of Sudzo

5. It’s not a brochure

A white paper is a serious, non-promotional document, and most white papers are designed to reflect that. Most effective white papers are simply set up to look like trade magazine articles with fewer pictures. If your product or service lends itself to charts or graphs, they can strengthen your message. It’s okay to include photographs if they support and add value to your message, but simply adding those stock images of happy people in business meetings isn’t necessary.

To make it easier for readers to navigate your white paper, break the sections into easy-to-read chunks. Use straightforward headlines and paragraph headings to guide readers to the information they need. You can use subheads and bold or underscored lead-ins to make it easy for people who are skimming through the white paper to find the information they’re after.

Some white papers include a short abstract at the beginning of the paper to summarize the key messages and conclusion. You can also place a list of other references and sources that the reader may find informative at the end of the paper.