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Does your company need a white paper?

Here are three simple questions that can tell you whether a company needs a white paper:

  • Are you selling something new?
  • Something complex?
  • Something expensive?

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

Whether you’re selling a product, a service, a technology, or a methodology, you still need one.

Whether you use that paper to generate leads, stand out from the competition, nurture a prospect through a long sales cycle, support a product launch, or whatever, you still need one.

Here’s why.

photo of spokes connecting balls in intricate shape

Question #1: Are you selling something new?

When an offering is brand new, your prospects need help getting the concept. But it’s not easy for them to research.

There are no articles in trade magazines and no books about it. There are no forums or websites to visit; no trade associations to promote it.

Once those exist and the offering becomes well-known, if that happens, the need for white papers is diminished.

For example, when ERP came on the scene and started to replace the older MRP in the early 1990s, it was considered the cutting edge of technology.

Many white papers were written to explain how the new-fangled Enterprise Resource Planning extended automation into areas such as engineering, finance, and HR.

Today, nobody even bothers defining ERP.

There are lots of resources on it: articles, books, websites, and forums.

Nobody publishes white papers explaining ERP anymore; now they talk about how their offerings go beyond ERP.


photo of toy robot dinosaur for kids

Question #2: Are you selling something complex?

When an offering is complex, prospects need help to understand it.

The product, service, technology, or methodology is not self-evident just from looking at it.

Over time, if that offering becomes commoditized and repackaged into consumer-level products, the need for white papers about it disappears.

For example, the first industrial robot went online at a GM plant in New Jersey in 1961. It took a huge team of experts to install, program, tweak and maintain.

You can bet it was complex and took a lot of explaining.

No doubt every company selling industrial robots used many technical papers to help explain the first robots.

Today, you can buy the toy dinosaur RoboRaptor in any Future Shop.

This is robotic technology repackaged as a B2C product for kids.

Sure, it comes with an instruction manual.

But no parent ever reads a white paper about any kid’s toy. They just watch their kid’s eyes light up when they see it.


pile of money with blue sky in background

Question #3: Are you selling something expensive?

When something is expensive, your prospects need to justify the cost.

And a group of B2B executives must agree to buy it.

This decision probably involves upper management and maybe a selection committee drawn from various departments.

Everyone has questions.

So a white paper is a great way to deliver a vendor’s “best answers” right into the boardroom.

Over time, if the price for that offering drops to the point that any small business can afford it, the need for white papers is greatly reduced.

Consider cell phones, which have dropped in price dramatically over the years.

The oldest mobile phones were actually military radio-telephones that civilians couldn’t buy for any price.

In the early 1980s, Motorola pioneered a bulky commercial cellphone that sold for $4,000. The phone itself was 11 inches long and weighed 2.5 pounds.

You can imagine the size of the manual—and the vast number of white papers that were written about it.

Over the years, the technology improved, the telecos adapted, and the prices dropped.

Today you can pick up an older iPhone on eBay for $50.

In fact, smartphones are so affordable that about 80% of people in the developed world have one, including the kids using hand-me-downs.

No white papers today would be written to justify the high cost of acquiring a smartphone.


James Bond menaced by a laser in 1964 film Goldfinger

A practical example: the laser

One memorable scene in the James Bond movie Goldfinger is when 007 is menaced by a laser

In 1964, lasers were so new that the villain had to explain them.

“You are looking at an industrial laser which emits an extraordinary light, not to be found in nature. It can project a spot on the moon… or at closer range, cut through solid metal,” he said. “I will show you.”

The first commercial laser was not actually used until five years later in 1969. At that point, buying an industrial laser was a big deal.

In fact, at that point the laser scored “yes” on all three questions: It was new, complex, and expensive.

That was a perfect time for vendors to create white papers on this new B2B tool.

By today, 60 years later, you can buy a laser pointer at any dollar store.

So does anyone need a white paper to explain a laser today?

Lasers are no longer new or especially complex.

Any white paper about a laser today will likely be for some industrial or medical system that is still quite expensive.

Is it new? Is it complex? Is it expensive?

If your company can answer “Yes” to two or three of these questions, you probably need a white paper.

Your competitors probably have them. And your prospects likely expect them.

So your company should produce one or more white papers to meet those expectations.


What do you think? Do you have any other way to tell when your company needs a white paper? Please leave your comments 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. Penni L. Smith on August 9, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Hey, I’m a little confused. In another article, you listed 3 strikes against thought leadership as a white paper goal. Yet here, you mention it as one of the uses of a white paper. Contradiction? Evolution in thought? What’s up?

  2. Gordon Graham on August 10, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for pointing that out, Penni! As you suggest, that’s an evolution in my thinking. I wrote this article seven or eight years ago, and the one about thought leadership two or three years ago. I removed the offending term from this post to be consistent.

    “Thought leadership” is a term often tossed around by marketers, but I do believe that it’s rather meaningless. Thanks again for noticing the contradiction.

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