How to pick the perfect flavor for your next white paper

Do you know how many flavors of white papers there are?

Most “white paper experts” list 8 or 10 types of white papers.

When I first started in white papers, I used to agree.

But after working on 273 of these documents, I’ve made a startling discovery: There are really only three main flavors of white papers. That’s right: three.

If you understand these three flavors—and when to use each for optimum result — you can quickly get on with the business of building mindshare and generating leads.

Here are the three main flavors I see:

1. A product backgrounder details the features and benefits of a specific product or service

2. A numbered list provides a numbered set of tips, questions, answers or points about a certain topic

3. A problem/solution white paper is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to present a new solution to a widespread problem

What’s more, I believe these are as easy to tell apart as vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream.


cover of special report called How to Pick the Perfect Flavor for Your Next White PaperA white paper is like an ice cream cone!

Find out how in this free special report for B2B marketing executives.

This 15-page guide explains when and how to use each flavor of white paper for best results.

(Click on the cover to get it)


a scoop of vanilla ice cream, representing a product backgrounder flavor of white paperA product backgrounder
is like vanilla ice cream

You don’t get any surprises when you order vanilla.

This flavor of white paper pitches the technical or business benefits of a product or service, using a hard-sell that’s best for prospects at the end of the buying process.

A plain-vanilla backgrounder is fairly easy to prepare, but it won’t generate as many leads as other flavors.

It’s a good flavor for a well-known company that doesn’t need to work hard to attract prospects… but not recommended for a smaller firm fighting for recognition.

The reason: The people who most likely encounter a product backgrounder already have your company or your product in mind. That leaves out a huge number of prospects.

Many more will search for the problem they’re struggling with. It’s the difference between searching for “Acme ScanOMatic 3000” and “paperburden at work.”

A product backgrounder is great to support a product launch, like when you unveil the Acme ScanOMatic 4000. You can send it to journalists and bloggers while a new product is still news.

a scoop of strawberry ice cream, representing a numbered list flavor of white paperA numbered list is like strawberry ice cream

A numbered list is a light and lively treat that’s easy to digest.

This flavor of white paper consists of a roundup or list of points that highlight an issue. It’s the easiest to create, and great for quick content to include online or in an e-newsletter.

You can use the flavor to grab attention with a provocative take on some issue.

For instance, Acme Scanning might issue a document called something like “16 Ways to Generate Less Paper, Starting Today.”

But while a numbered list is fairly easy to write and quick to read, these tend to lack the depth and staying power of the other flavors.

It’s not easy to delve deeply into any topic with a numbered list.

a scoop of chocolate ice cream, representing a problem/solution flavor of white paperA problem/solution white paper is like chocolate ice cream

A problem/solution white paper is a rich and satisfying experience.

Problem/solution white papers usually take a soft-sell approach that educates readers about an issue and positions your company as a trusted advisor, not just a vendor.

These are best for prospects at the start of the buying process.

The typical problem/solution white paper describes a widespread problem, and how every attempt to solve it has been unsatisfactory. Then it recommends a new, improved solution in generic terms. Finally, it shows how your product truly solves the problem best.

For instance, Acme Scanning might release a problem/solution white paper called, “How to Streamline Your Accounts Payable Processing by 50%.”

This is the toughest flavor of white paper to create, since it demands a mountain of proof. And it requires your sales and marketing team to stop pushing your product so hard.

The upside is that more people will encounter a problem/solution white paper and value its contents. A problem/solution white paper usually generates the most leads for the longest time.

I have a client still getting results from a problem/solution white paper I wrote nearly five years ago!

To find out more about each flavor of white paper and how to use it for best results, click the thumbnail above.

About Gordon Graham

Author of 275 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients everywhere from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, for everyone from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. Reviewers call it "a must-read... fantastic... outstanding... terrific... phenomenal... the best book of its kind."

1 Comment

  1. What Type of White Paper Do I Need? – Content Loves Copy on December 9, 2016 at 9:08 am

    […] The most important thing to remember when commissioning any white paper is that, although a superb  marketing tool, they are not a paid advertisement for your company. Nobody picks up a white paper hoping for a commercial in print. These documents are meant to be heavily researched intellectual pieces that briefly showcase your company, usually at the end of the work,  after you have gained their interest and trust. To read Gordon Graham’s original blog post about the different “flavors” of white papers, click here. […]

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