There’s more than one difference between a white paper and a case study, even though they’re remarkably similar strategies. If you’ve heard terms like “white papers” and “case studies” tossed around by colleagues and not been sure you knew what they were describing, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. There’s a lot of jargon used in today’s business world and much of it isn’t as well-known as its users believe.

What are white papers and case studies?

Both case studies and white papers share facts instead of promotional messages about a particular product or service. In simple terms, a case study is a matter of telling the world what you did for someone, how you did it, why you did it that way, and what the results were. A white paper is an informational document that explores a particular topic or issue. White papers often contain case studies that illustrate the matter being discussed.

For example, if the goal of your white paper is to convince potential customers to choose your veeblefetzer instead of the competition’s, you’ll probably focus on why the cross-cutting technology your veeblefetzers use is better than the industry-standard spiral cutting method. To illustrate the benefits, you include a case study in which Joe Schmoe at Perky Produce describes how your veeblefetzers helped his company core 42 percent more radishes per hour with a 16 percent lower labor cost.

So what is a white paper?

A white paper is a serious report that explores a complex issue to educate an audience. In a marketing or policymaking setting, a white paper provides enough facts and arguments to convince people that your product, service, or strategy offers the best solution for the situation, educating them while helping them reach the decision you want them to make. White papers can:

  • explain what it is that makes your solution better than competing alternatives,
  • summarize key information about a particular issue or problem to help the reader develop a stronger understanding,
  • describe common problems your audience faces, and
  • offer a detailed explanation as to how your approach provides the best solution.

White papers work well these days because everyone is struggling to do more in less time. Like you, your customers and prospects are hungry for good information, but they’re also busy. With limited time, they appreciate helpful content practical guidance that’s focused on their specific needs. They’re suspicious of advertising or other obviously sales-focused approaches, but white papers are different. They’re an authoritative document and based on facts, even when they’re about a company’s product.

And what is a case study?

As noted earlier, a case study is a way to tell the world what you did for someone, how you did it, why you did it that way, and what the results were. Often written in a format similar to a magazine article, case studies are a form of business story.  A case study is interesting to us because we learn from it and can apply it to our world.

Let’s say I’m a radish producer. Everyone I know in the entire industry looks up to Joe Schmoe. Not only is Joe a great guy, but he knows his radish coring. And he says your product lets him core 42 percent more radishes per hour. That could boost my profitability over the roof. That means more to me than 200 ads ever could.

What else can I do with a case study? You can use a case study in advertising, mailings, in email newsletters, on your website, on social media, as articles in trade magazines, in brochures — no matter how you communicate key features with your audiences, there are ways to incorporate case studies, many of which generate leads. Video case studies are a natural for your web and social feeds.

Is a white paper like a research paper?

Not like the kind of research paper you wrote in school. A white paper may present or explain research, but it shouldn’t be written in that stiff, formal academic style. It should be more like a conversation with you.

You see, we read white papers (and case studies) because we need to know something. Maybe we want to better understand new technical information we’ve heard about. Perhaps we’re desperately seeking a solution for a client’s problem that’s hurting their business. Or it could be that we want support for a marketing campaign recommendation we’re making to our bosses. Whatever the reason, white papers provide trustworthy information (and can be a source of inbound leads).

Is there special grammar for white papers and case studies?

White papers and case studies are very different from what you did in school, and the style of writing is nothing like the stuffy approach taught in high school English and college Composition classes. Most students quickly learn to use a lot of big words and complex sentences in the hopes of impressing the professor.

But writing white papers or a case study isn’t about trying to impress strict English teachers or jaded Composition instructions. Writing white papers is about selling. Telling. Convincing. Entertaining. Emphasizing. Doing that effectively demands copy that’s individual and personal. In fact, the more copy sounds like conversation, the more effective it tends to be.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore basic rules of grammar and syntax. The degree of grammatical correctness should reflect the situation and the audience. If the primary audience for your white paper is a group of university professors, you’ll want to make it more formal. But if you’re writing to industrial purchasing agents, your white paper should use the kind of language they use every day.

For example, when writing a white paper or case study, it’s okay to use contractions (like “can’t” or “won’t”) because they keep copy talky and friendly. It’s also okay to start sentences with conjunctions like “and” or “but,” and to end them with prepositions. And while you learned not to use “you” when writing for school, using it in a white paper will make it seem more like a conversation you’re having with the reader.