Effective white papers may be written about any number of topics, but they all share a single trait: solid proof for the messages they want to convey. Sometimes, a company will decide to develop a white paper to promote a product, service, or other concept, but instead of providing factual proof, they’ll fill the white paper with the kind of hype that’s normally associated with advertising. White papers based on hype rarely succeed.

Effective white papers match expectations

People have become so familiar with white papers that they’ve developed certain expectations about them, and a key expectation about effective white papers is that they are a reliable and trustworthy source for information. That’s why people take the time to read white papers. When they start to read a white paper and realize that instead of providing a fact-based explanation of the issue at hand the paper is actually a promotional piece filled with empty hype, they’ll stop reading. Even more important, they’ll decide the company that developed the white paper cannot be trusted.

Effective white papers are like essays

I’m going to bring you back to your high school English classes or that Composition class you probably took shortly after beginning your college-level studies. Whether it’s still fresh in your mind, you were taught to write essays using an approach that was based on fact. If the assignment was to write an essay about capital punishment, you couldn’t just state, “I disagree with capital punishment because I think it’s a bad thing.” Your instructor expected you to gather data and quotes from recognized authorities and use them to inform your argument.

Hype leaves readers hungry

If your white paper simply says your product or service is the best on the planet, but fails to deliver evidence to support that claim, it’s basically little more than a balloon full of hot air. You may be convinced that your organization’s superiority is clearly evident, but people outside your organization need to be brought along through the use of facts that will make your claims convincing.

People read for information

People don’t read effective white papers for entertainment. They read them because they need trustworthy information about something affecting their company. Perhaps you work for a radish processor that wants to improve its throughput of radishes by investing in new veeblefetzers. You know there are different types on the market, but you don’t know which will provide the most efficient performance for your operations. Seeking out effective white papers that address radish production will help you make that decision. When you pick up those effective white papers, you want to see cold, hard facts instead of puffy claims with nothing to back them up.

Where can you find the facts you need?

If you want to develop effective white papers, you need a solid understanding of the best sources for information. There are many that are closer than you think, and they can be grouped into four categories:

  • Your team. People in your company have a deep understanding of the issue you’re planning to write about and why your solution is the best. You may be able to turn to product engineers, people on the production line, and top management. Sales teams can also be a great source of the challenges customers and prospects are facing. You may not want to use their comments verbatim — as examples, engineers frequently use complex language that may confuse non-engineers, and salespeople often oversimplify concepts worthy of a deeper discussion — but interviews can give you a great starting point.
  • Your materials. Most companies produce a variety of promotional materials, including websites, blogs, brochures, sales sheets, instruction manuals, and more that can provide good reference not only for what needs to be said, but how your company prefers to say it.
  • Competitors. I’m not suggesting you copy what your competitors say, but the more you know about them, the better you’ll be at identifying your own competitive strengths and opportunities for compelling messages. Compare their language and processes with what your company uses. Discuss their approaches with your team to understand what makes yours better.
  • Outside sources. Trade publications and internet sites may be helpful. You can enter the same search terms that prospective customers may use to find information about your products or services. Be certain to verify that the information you’re reading is correct, and don’t copy someone’s article or site word-for-word.