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So you’re writing a white paper…

and it’s time to cite an expert, define a term or introduce a proof point. Where do you turn?

If you’re like most people, you run a few quick queries on Google and get a list of search results.

But how do you choose the most effective sources for your white paper?

First things first: Who’s your audience?

The first thing to do is make sure you understand your target readers. Are they IT managers, HR professionals, C-level executives or what?

Knowing that, you can look for sources that score highly for that ideal reader. Then evaluate each possible source for these four factors:

  • Proximity
  • Authority
  • Timeliness
  • Relevance

Factor 1. Proximity: How close does the source feel to the reader?

Proximity means “closeness.” This comes from being in the same industry or doing the same job as the reader.

For example, a CFO in consumer electronics will relate to sources from his same industry, from a CFO in another company about the same size, or from elsewhere in the world of finance.

On the other hand, a quote from a COO from an airline won’t have nearly as much proximity.

When evaluating a source for proximity, ask yourself if your target reader has anything in common with the author. Do they even know about that publication, website, or organization?


photo of lawyer handling documents with authority

Factor 2. Authority: How much weight does the source have?

Authority means how much “weight” or “gravitas” a source has for a particular audience.

See if you can find out which trade publications and websites your white paper audience reads. If you can pull quotes from a familiar source, those points carry more authority with readers.

Even if you find research that supports your argument, if it comes from an obscure or untrustworthy source, you might want to keep searching for something with more authority.


photo of calendar turning over from 2018 to 2019 to show timeliness

Factor 3. Timeliness: How recent is the source?

Everyone likes to keep up-to-date. So the more recent a source, the better.

Let’s face it: Quoting something from 1990 sounds like it’s 100 years ago.

If you are trying to establish current industry trends, try to find sources from the past one or two years. Financial stats from before the meltdown in 2008 are not always relevant.

In fast-moving fields like software or biotech, anything more than five years old doesn’t hold much water.

In other sectors, you may be able to go back a decade to the year 2000.

Factor 4. Relevance: How on-target is the source?

You want to find powerful proof points that are right on target to back up your point.

Think about the source from an SEO view. Are the keywords in your title right in the quote you found? If the reader looks at the article titles in your citations, will the connection to your white paper be obvious?

You also want sources to be brief and punchy.

If it takes three sentences to incorporate a single source, it might not be relevant enough.

Wikipedia: Threat or menace?

Wikipedia logo

I think Wikipedia is an amazing cooperative project. But remember, it’s only a secondary source.

And yes, some articles contain factual errors and biased viewpoints.

It’s fine to use Wikipedia for background research, to get a quick understanding of a new term or concept.

You can also use it to track down the original sources you should be citing.

That only takes a few moments.

But actually quoting Wikipedia in a white paper won’t impress anyone. That can even make your research look sloppy and amateurish.

The bottom line on white paper sources

Good sources are vital for any effective white paper.

The right sources can establish an affinity with the reader, back up your points, and show that your document is more than just one vendor’s opinion.

To find the best supporting material for your white papers, always keep proximity, authority, timeliness, and relevance in mind.


Are there any other factors you like to keep in mind when you evaluate white paper sources? Please leave us your comment below. 


About Gordon Graham

Author of close to 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. And recently named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI.

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  1. […] And as explained in this article, the best evidence meets all four tests for proximity, authority, timeliness, and relevance. […]

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