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11 ways to grab attention with a white paper

What are some tips and tricks for grabbing a reader’s attention with a white paper?

I recently answered that question on Quora. 

There are many things you can do to help get a white paper noticed, ranging from the cover to the structure to how you write the content.

Here’s a more detailed answer, expanded from my original notes on Quora.

Let’s start with your cover. Always choose a strong visual so that your cover works as an thumbnail you can show anywhere you promote the white paper.

Now on to some more specifics…

Tip #1: Touch on a problem in the title

This is classic content marketing advice: Start with a problem your prospects are grappling with.

[Tweet “Show your prospective white paper audience a way to solve a problem and you’ll have their attention.”]

If you can show them a good way to solve a business problem, you will have their attention.

Not sure what that problem might be?

Ask anyone who interacts directly with customers: sales people, customer support teams, channel partners. They will likely give you an earful.

Then offer practical, tactical tips and advice for how to solve it. That’s what business people really want.

Warning: Never resort to clickbait—a flashy title with nothing useful behind it. In B2B marketing, that  can misfire badly.

Tip #2: Offer a benefit in the title

Business people have no time to waste. Publishing a 10-page white paper is like asking them to give you  30 minutes of their day.

Why should they do that?

You must tell busy business people what they will gain in return for the time they spend with your paper.

Ideally, try to work some attractive benefits right into the title. Here are a few examples:

  • How to Cut Your Business Phone Bills
  • Best Practices for 360-Degree Reviews in MBA Programs
  • 6 Ways Your Restaurant Can Profit from the New Generation Of POS Software

See how each title promises a specific benefit?

(I’ve actually written white papers with those titles.)

Try tinkering with your white paper title until you spell out a valuable benefit.

Tip #3: Name the ideal role in the subtitle

You don’t have to limit yourself to just a title.

There’s room on the cover for a subtitle that can help  attract your ideal readers.

One effective way to use a subtitle is to name the job title or role of your ideal reader.

In fact, you can name both a title and sector in one short line:

  • A special report for CIOs of e-commerce firms
  • An overview for SaaS marketing executives
  • A technology backgrounder for global supply chain managers

Tip #4: Show your key persona on the cover

white paper cover showing professional woman at computer

You can also attract ideal readers with a well-chosen cover photo. For example, consider the covers from two white papers I worked on.

In the first cover, the persona is a middle-aged executive in a hospital or HMO who’s concerned about extracting more value from her electronic health records.

She’s clearly computer-literate but older than a Millennial, making her more likely to be a decision-maker.


white paper cover showing financial sector

For the second cover, I found this stock photo, which I think perfectly captures the persona of a serious CFO watching every expense like a hawk.

Nothing spells “finance” better than a blue shirt and tie, a pile of business reports, and a grim expression on the face of a middle-aged white guy.

Also notice how the color scheme of this photo echoes the blue in the sponsor’s logo. This was really an ideal photo for this white paper’s cover.


Tip #5: Show the reader’s industry

Another way to attract attention is to show the ideal reader’s industry or work environment on the cover.

white paper cover showing hospital OR

Here are two examples from white papers I worked on recently.

In the first example, the sector is clearly healthcare. More specifically, the setting is a hospital operating room (OR).

That’s perfect for this product, aimed at helping head nurses schedule operating room procedures more efficiently.




white paper cover for construction engineering


And in this second example, the sector is industrial construction.

The background and hard hat suggest  “construction” while the laptop hints at an engineer working on-site.

In fact, the product helps to manage documents for large engineering projects, and this photo shows a typical intended user.


Tip #6: Make every page easy on the eyes

Once a reader downloads your white paper, they will most likely flip through it on the screen. So please don’t hit them with a “wall of grey.”

Many white papers get abandoned at this point because they look like too much work to read.

Make yours easy on the eyes, with good editorial design on all inside pages:

  • Leave lots of white space around the text block
  • Break up the text with headings, subheads, bullets, tables, and graphics
  • Make sure every page has at least one visual element for eye relief

graphic of a pull-quote breaking up columns of text in a white paper


At least use a pull-quote or a snippet of text set in a bigger size, as shown here. Pull-quotes are easy to scan and can sum up a lot in a short phrase.


Tip #7: At all costs, avoid grey text

Using grey text is idiotic. Why’s that?

Decision-makers tend to be older. And people’s eyes start to change at around 40, so they need larger type and more contrast to read easily.

Check out these samples:

Why would you deliberately make your carefully crafted words harder for your ideal readers to decipher? (100% black)

Why would you deliberately make your carefully crafted words harder for your ideal readers to decipher? (WordPress grey)

Why would you deliberately make your carefully crafted words harder for your ideal readers to decipher? (WordPress medium grey)

Notice how your eyes have to work harder to read the greyer versions?

New rules for website accessibility are coming into play around the world. One rule covers the contrast between the text and background on a webpage. When in doubt, use this contrast checker (or equivalent.)

If your ideal reader has to squint to decipher your text, you’re making them work too hard. And you can likely kiss them goodbye.

The simple solution: Always use 100% black text on a white or light pastel background to make it crisp and easy to read.

P.S. I just read something on a WordPress blog that made me sputter in my coffee:

“You seem to prefer black on white, but others (including me) find it too crude. Like many designers, I would never use pure black on pure white for the main text: you soften the contrast…” blah blah

This is exactly what the accessibility rules say NOT to do: Discriminate against anyone who’s visually challenged, including every 40+ year-old on earth.

I certainly won’t be asking this naif to design any white papers for me.

Tip #8: Provide clear, crisp writing with no wasted words

As Strunk & White say beautifully in Principle 17:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

book cover The Elements of Style

Busy business people have no time to waste, remember?

So don’t waste words that slow down their scanning and gum up their reading.

But how can you avoid unnecessary words?

Here’s three simple things you can do.

Eliminate throat-clearing. These are rambling introductions that tell readers something they already know. It’s okay to draft these as you get warmed up, but make sure cut them on your first revision.

Stick to the main point. Don’t go off on any side tangents. Don’t let reviewers add irrelevant details or minor issues that don’t matter.

Always ask yourself, “Do my readers absolutely have to know this?” Often they don’t.

Use one word instead of two. Do you ever see passages like this?

To avoid and mitigate the risks and downside of choosing or using multiple or synonymous terms or phrases, it’s always best and advisable to focus on or specify a single or chosen or ideal word or item.
(37 words, 18 synonyms)

What good are all those double terms linked by “or”?Pick one or the other and get on with it.

To avoid the downside of using multiple, synonymous phrases, it’s best to specify a single word. (16 words, 2 synonyms)

See what I mean? Be decisive. Pick the word that’s closer to what you mean, and drop the others.

Tip #9: Use tables to replace words

A well-designed table can replace hundreds of words. It’s accessible and simple to scan.

I could write a whole book about tables!

But for now, remember to try using a table whenever you need to:

  • Compare two or more items
  • List measures that can be expressed in numbers
  • List qualities that can be expressed in parallel

I try to include a table in every white paper I write. And sometimes I manage to work in three or four.

Most people flipping through a white paper will stop at a table to give it a once-over. If you design it well, a table can communicate lots of information very quickly.

Tip #10: Include summaries

At the start, include a half-page Executive Summary that sums up the rest of the paper.

This tells readers what you’re going to tell them, and helps a busy person decide whether they need to read the full document.

At the end, include some Conclusions with the key takeaway messages and the call to action. This tells readers what you told them, and helps a busy person remember the highlights of your argument.

These summaries are indispensable for white papers. Some people say they’re repetitive. Yes, they are.

But just ask any school teacher: Repetition helps the lesson sink in.

And not everyone reads a white paper the same as a novel by their favorite author: Straight through from front to back.

Many people scan the start, where they will find your Executive Summary. Some flip to the back to see the “bottom line” where they find your Conclusions.

These sections help readers to scan, evaluate, and ultimately decide what to do with your white paper.

They’re easy to write, so don’t forget them.

And if anyone complains they’re repetitive, remember how teachers teach and how people learn. How many times did you sing “ABCD, EFGee…” to help learn the alphabet?

Tip#11: Don’t publish a first draft

Sometimes I see white papers that make me cringe.

Their creators obviously rushed through research and writing, skipped any polishing or editing, slapped the text into a prefab design, and then plopped the results on a company website.

Is that any way to impress prospects with the quality of your products? Or your attention to detail in your services?

Rewrite, rewrite and rewrite again. I routinely polish every draft 5 or 6 times. The goal of any rewrite is to make a white paper more clear and concise.

And I try to reduce the word count by 5% or 10% in each draft. That’s not so hard. Try it and see.

Use Word’s built-in readability metrics. Not every writer uses this, but everyone should.

Word contains a free readability checker that will tell you how easy your text is to read.

For your reference, I shoot for a Grade 10 Level or lower, and a Reading Ease score of 50 or higher. If your draft doesn’t hit those levels, keep rewriting.

The word conclusion inside a black border depicts the end of 11 11 ways to grab attention with a white paper

So there are my 11 tips for how to grab attention with a white paper.

This article doesn’t say anything about how to promote a white paper effectively using social media, e-mail, channel partners, or any other methods. You can see those related tips in this article: 18 must-do’s to promote a white paper.


How do you make your white papers more attractive? How do you help the, get noticed better? Please leave your comment below.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  1. Sarah Greesonbach on November 16, 2017 at 10:08 am

    As always, useful to an outrageous extent!

    Can I push back on #7? I still may be wrong, but I’ve found that sometimes using a hard-to-read color (very selectively) can make a phrase pop out *because* of the effort it takes to read it. It slows down the scanning process and requires the brain to slow down/back up to catch it.

    (I use lime green on my freelance writing website).

    Obviously there are a lot of caveats: there’s a risk they just won’t stop to read it and will dismiss it as too hard to read, it should be intentional and for specific call outs and not the whole blog, etc. Also, I know my audience skews under 40, so I wouldn’t recommend that on a site that writes for a more experienced audience, either!

  2. Sarah Greesonbach on November 16, 2017 at 10:09 am

    My example of lime green text is at… Couldn’t edit the link in my original post!

    • Angie Gallop on November 17, 2017 at 1:20 pm

      The lime green text is fun Sarah! (And so is the article. Well done.) Thanks for pushing back. I think that in your example, the lime green is a great accent, while the bulk of the text is in a very clear font, black on white. It gives the piece a younger, lighter feel. I see that Gordon is advocating to avoid this “at all costs”. I think you are right — perhaps we’ve been a bit too fundamentalist here.

  3. Jim on November 16, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Excellent article, Graham. I’m beginning to focus on white paper writing for my B2B copywriting business, and this article is exceptionally useful to me. Thank you for your sharing!

  4. Hania on October 26, 2018 at 2:24 am

    Thanks for sharing your tips Gordon. They will definitely come in handy during my next white paper writing process.

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